International Launch Services (ILS), which uses Russia’s Proton rocket system to launch satellites, suffered a major problem late on Saturday night (December 8). While the launch itself went well, the Briz-M upper stage of the Proton rocket reportedly separated too soon after its 4th planned firing. The “anomaly” has left the satellite some distance away, and much lower, than its planned transfer orbit.
Russia’s Roscosmos says it can salvage the Yamal-402 communications satellite over time, by using the satellite’s on-board thrusters to bring it to its correct position. However, this uses the craft’s precious on-board station-keeping fuel and will inevitably shorten the satellite’s useful life. The satellite will be used by Gazprom Space Systems.
Officially, ILS says: “The Proton Breeze M rocket lifted off at 7:13 p.m. today local time from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, carrying the Yamal 402 satellite. Preliminary flight information indicates that the 4th and final burn of the Breeze M engine ended about four minutes early and subsequently separated the spacecraft.”
France’s Thales Alenia Space built the satellite which has 46 Ku-band transponders – enough to provide coverage over most of Eurasia, the Middle East and Africa.
Notwithstanding that the craft can be eventually recovered, the greater damage is possibly done to the ILS/Khrunichev relationship and reputation. Khrunichev State Research & Production Centre, which controls ILS, builds the giant Proton rockets, and they have suffered launch problems this past year or so. In August, for example, a Proton/Briz-M rocket combination lost both a Russian satellite and Indonesian craft when the rocket failed to make its target orbit, which created knock-on delays for the industry. A few weeks ago, Khrunichev let go ILS president Frank McKenna.
A Russian State Commission will now begin the process of determining the reasons for the anomaly. ILS will release details when data becomes 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 accord with US and Russian government export control regulations.