Proton disaster: “Launched too early”

Rocket launch countdowns are highly sophisticated, computer controlled, affairs. However, early – and wholly unofficial – reports suggest that a software glitch might be to blame for the Proton launch catastrophe last week. The Proton-M rocket failed July 2nd spectacularly just seconds after lift-off, exploding into a dangerous ball from its 170 tonnes of highly toxic Heptyl rocket fuel.

A Russian source is quoted by news agency Novosti as saying: “One of [the reasons could be], for yet unknown reasons, an early start took place and resulted in the failure. The control system treated it [the early start] as an emergency situation… and started to divert the rocket away from the launch pad, to a safer distance, just the way it was programmed. This version now prevails,” the source said, while also stressing that the Russian technicians are examining all options.

Roscosmos, quoted by newspaper Pravda, says that the rocket’s engines were disabled 17 seconds into the flight. All other Proton launches are now suspended. Russia’ deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said after the accident that “harsh decisions” will be taken and that “Russia’s rocket and space industry cannot continue to exist in its current form.”  Indeed, there are reports that a criminal investigation has begun into the whole launch and pre-launch process. “Investigators are examining the relevant documentation, and questioning officials who were in charge of the preparation and the launch of the rocket,” quoted Pravda.

An early response to the various failure examination boards is needed if the whole ‘western’ satellite launch business isn’t to run into major delays. SES Astra (Astra 2E was scheduled for launch on July 20th), Turksat, Inmarsat, Sirius-XM and a number of other clients are looking for any delays to their satellites being launched to be minimised.

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