[Satellite News 08-23-11]The Russian Federal Space Agency (Roskosmos) decided to ground its Proton-M rocket after an Aug. 18 Khrunichev launch failure placed the $265 million Express AM-4 satellite into a bad orbit and caused the satellite to lose connection with its ground station. The incident, Russia’s fifth in a period of nine months, also prompted Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to cancel this week’s government meeting on space issues and a military satellite launch scheduled for Aug. 31.
A failure that occurred on the rocket’s Briz-M upper stage has been blamed for the loss of Express AM-4, despite the first stages of the launch running smoothly. Russia uses the same upper booster for a number of its military satellite missions. Russian officials confirmed Aug. 19 that a commission would likely review the cause of the anomaly. “The first four engine burns by the Proton-M carrier rocket worked properly during the launch but problems occurred before the fifth burn due to a malfunction in communications with the space vehicle,” Roscosmos said in a statement. “The preparation of Proton-M carrier and Briz-M upper stage rocket launches is temporarily suspended until the reasons for the Express-AM4 satellite's aborted ascent are learned.”
Roscosmos officials said that the grounding would not affect the planned Aug. 26 launch of a Glonass communications satellite from Russia's northern Plesetsk space center on a Soyuz rocket.
While Russian Space Agency and Khrunichev experts said they would continue efforts to reestablish contact with the Express-AM4 craft, Russian space analyst Igor Lissov warned that a complete loss of the spacecraft could result in embarrassing three- to four-year delays on the country’s critical commercial projects.
Russian government officials also expressed pessimism regarding the satellite’s future in an Aug. 23 statement. “If this type of satellite does not come to life in the first 24-hours and fails to deploy its solar batteries, then it turns into a lump of frozen metal,” the statement read.
The Express-AM4 Proton launch failure may have other consequences for the rocket’s international customers, Raymond James Analyst Chris Quilty recently told Satellite News. “[The failure] will almost assuredly trigger a further launch delay for [ViaSat’s] ViaSat-1 satellite, which was most recently scheduled to launch on Sept. 29. Delays of this nature are not uncommon in the satellite industry, but the ViaSat-1 program has suffered an unusual number of delays since the program was first announced in January 2008 with a targeted launch date in early 2011.”
In December 2010, a Proton rocket using a different upper-stage engine, failed after engineers over-filled the fuel tank, which caused the total loss of three Russian Glonass navigation satellites. The investigation was concluded quickly, causing only a three-week delay in the Proton launch manifest.
Russia has been upgrading its Proton launch vehicles for the past 30 years in order to expand and extend the rocket’s use. A recent upgrade saw the Proton’s Briz-M upper stage optimized to launch payloads into more distant orbits used by newer satellites.
In June, the Kremlin appointed Russian military veteran Vladimir Popovkin to head Roskosmos after it ousted former chief Anatoly Perminov, who served in his role since 2004. Perminov was the third high-ranking Russian space official to leave the organization after the country’s December Glonass launch failure. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev wasted little time in wielding the axe after the Proton-M carrier rocket veered off course and sunk in the Pacific Ocean. The rocket was equipped with a DM-3 booster, designed and manufactured by Energia. Energia's chief designer of rocket and space systems Vyacheslav Filin and deputy head of Roskosmos Viktor Remishevsky lost their jobs based on a report prepared by a State Investigation Commission.
At the time, Perminov was only reprimanded for “not enforcing all the necessary pre-launch safety procedures and failing to spot a mistake in calculations that led to the carrier rocket veering off course and crashing into the Pacific Ocean, destroying the additional satellites needed for the Glosnass network,” according to the report.