Problems with Proton launch rocket system

There have been three failures in the past 16 months of the Proton rocket when fitted with the Briz-M upper stage booster, needed to loft satellites into geostationary orbit. A review board is currently engaged into funding out what went wrong with a December 9th failure which did not correctly orbit its hugely valuable cargo.

Russian engineers are now said to be conducting a system-by-system investigation of the rocket’s upper stage design and manufacture, and this could take 6-12 months to conclude.

However, according to a report in trade mag Space News, this latest problem seems to be unrelated to other previous problems which saw the Briz-M craft explode prior to the propellant tank being jettisoned. One explosion, following an August launch left more than 500 pieces of dangerous ‘space junk’ in orbit, and posing very real headaches for future launches. Officially, international guidelines require that rocket builders allow for dangerous pressurised fuel to be vented safely into space to limit the threat from catastrophic explosions. In the past the Briz-M upper stage has carried out these tasks routinely.

The December 9th failure left the Gazprom-owned satellite some 4,000 kilometres lower than intended, and satellite builder Thales Alena had to use some of the satellite’s precious on-board fuel to raise it to its correct orbit. This will reduce the satellite’s life in orbit. This was all carried out last week and the craft will enter service around January 9th when engineers will be able to estimate how damaging the exercise was in terms of fuel used.

But perhaps the biggest worry is the impact these delays will have on International Launch Services (ILS), which has a long line of satellites waiting to be launched. First in line is Mexico’s Satmex-8 craft which has been at the Baikonure launch site since November in preparation for a scheduled December 28th launch. It is not known yet whether Russia’s space authorities will permit the launch to go ahead as scheduled.

Canada’s Anik G1 for Telesat is then next in line and currently scheduled for the end of January, followed by Eutelsat 3D in February. Astra has a planned launched in March for its 2E craft. All are now likely to be subject to delays.

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