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Analyst: Express AM-4 Loss a “Nightmare” Scenario for Russian Space Industry

By | August 19, 2011
      [Satellite TODAY Insider 08-19-11] The Russian Space Agency’s (Roscosmos) loss of communications with the Express AM-4 satellite could be a “nightmare” for the country’s space industry, according to Russian space analyst Igor Lissov, who 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 space officials confirmed Aug. 18 that the $265 million Express AM-4 satellite failed to communicate with its ground station shortly after its launch Wednesday on a Khrunichev Proton-M rocket from Kazakhstan. A failure that occurred on the rocket’s Briz-M upper stage has been blamed for the loss, despite the first stages of the launch running smoothly. “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.
      While Russian Space Agency and Khrunichev experts said they were confident that they would be able to reestablish contact with the craft and that a commission will likely review the cause of the anomaly, Lissov said that recovery is far from guaranteed. “Judging by early efforts, officials have a roughly 75 percent chance of linking back to the satellite and maneuvering it into the correct orbit.”
                  Express AM-4, designed and built by EADS Astrium and the Khrunichev State Research and Production Center, has been hailed as the biggest communications satellite built in Europe. The satellite carries 12 antennas and 63 transponders to provide digital TV, Internet and telecoms services for Russia through 2026. The spacecraft is fully insured with Russian Ingosstrakh insurance company for approximately $264.5 million in case of a loss.
         The anomaly represents Russia’s second flawed satellite launch out of a total 16 launches in 2011. In May, Russian Space Forces announced that they reestablished control of the Geo-IK-2 military satellite after losing contact with the spacecraft in February. Geo-IK-2 was designed to help the Russian military draw 3-D maps of the Earth in order to locate the positions of various targets. The satellite’s launch on a Rokot SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missile-based rocket, which was delayed from December due to technical malfunctions, placed Geo-IK-2 in a different orbit than the one planned for the mission. Russian military officials said ground control located the orbit the satellite entered and established contact shortly after.
         In December, Russia’s Glonass navigation system took a hit when three of its satellites fell into the Pacific Ocean shortly after a Proton-M rocket carrying the spacecraft failed to reach its planned orbit. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev issued a statement following the incident that his office ordered state prosecutor Yury Chaika to investigate how money was spent on the Glonass project after reports surfaced that the program’s cost skyrocketed to more than $500 million. As a result of the incident, former Russian Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Popovkin replaced Anatoly Perminov as chief of the Russian Space Agency.
         Lissov estimated that the string of incidents and setbacks cost Russia about $160 million and would delay the Kremlin’s plans to launch six more satellites by 2013.
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