Proton launch investigation underway

Russia’s important Express-AM4 satellite has seemingly been found. There’s also a full investigation into what went wrong with the launch.

International Launch Services (ILS), which markets the Proton rocket-launch system to international customers, says that the Proton-M rocket “operated nominally” which is a coded phrase for everything going according to plan. It was the Briz-M upper stage, which should have fired up its engines four times in total, and at some point after the fourth burn something went wrong “with the Briz-M and spacecraft lost”. ILS was not responsible for this launch.

One theory is that the rocket’s computers were incorrectly programmed.

“A Russian State Commission of inquiry has been established and has begun the process of determining the reasons for the anomaly. ILS will release details when data become available. In parallel with the State Commission, ILS will form its own Failure Review Oversight Board (FROB).  The FROB will review the commission’s final report and corrective action plan, in accordance with US and Russian government export control regulations,” says ILS.

ILS says it remains committed to providing reliable, timely launch services for all its customers. To this end, ILS will work diligently with its partner Khrunichev to return Proton to flight as soon as possible. However, this is likely to mean weeks of delay for the ILS/Proton launches.

The satellite was found late on Friday (London time) by the USA’s Space Surveillance Network, where it is in an extremely elliptical orbit around the Earth, some 20,300 km at its most extreme and closing in to barely 1,000 km at its closest (perigee), and not orbiting the Equator but at an inclination of some 51.3 degrees. At these extremes, it is likely that the mission will be declared a total loss. There is a chance that the satellites on-board station-keeping motors and fuel could –over time – be used to raise itself to an operational orbit, but how much fuel would remain after this sort of exercise would question whether the effort was worthwhile.

The mission, including the satellite, was insured for more than $270 million.

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