Russian, Ukrainian Rockets Prone to Failure in Recent Years

Another fine day for Russia's space program. A Proton crashes with three GLONASS satellites.
Another fine day for Russia’s space program. A Proton crashes with three GLONASS satellites.

The spectacular crash of Russia’s Proton rocket on Tuesday — with the loss of three navigation satellites — was simply the latest in a series of launch failures that have bedeviled the Russian and Ukrainian space industries over the last 30 months.

The table below shows a tale of woe that began in December 2010 and has resulted in the loss of 15 spacecraft and cost the heads of the Russian space agency Roscosmos and launch vehicle builder Khrunichev their jobs.

RUSSIAN & UKRAINIAN LAUNCH FAILURES SINCE DECEMBER 2010

Date

Rocket

Upper Stage

Payload

Result

Cause

Dec. 5, 2010ProtonBlock-DM3 GLONASS satellitesCrashed in Pacific OceanBlock-DM overfilled with fuel making it too heavy to send satellites into orbit
Feb. 1, 2011RockotBreeze-KMGEO-IK 2Stranded in useless orbitFailed restart of Breeze-KM
Aug. 18, 2011ProtonBreeze-MExpress-AM4Stranded in useless orbitBreeze-M under performance
Aug. 24, 2011Soyuz-UBlock-I (3rd stage)Progress M-12M freighterBurned up over SiberiaBlocked fuel line in third stage
Sept. 27, 2011ICBM
(Possibly Avangard)
Missile failed during initial test, crashed 5 miles from launch siteFailure of first stage
Nov. 9, 2011Zenit-2SB
(Ukraine)
Fregat (Russia)Phobos-Grunt (Russia)Stranded in Earth orbit, re-entered atmosphereFregat upper stage failure
Dec. 23, 2011Soyuz-2.1bFregatMeridian-5Re-entered over SiberiaFailure of Block-1 third stage engine
Aug. 23, 2012ProtonBreeze-MTelkom 3 (Indonesia), Express MD2Satellites stranded in useless orbits;  Breeze-M later exploded, creating large debris fieldBreeze-M failure
Dec. 8, 2012ProtonBreeze-MYamal-402Placed satellite in wrong orbit; satellite reached planned orbit using on-board propellantEarly shutdown of Breeze-M
Jan. 15, 2013RockotBreeze-KM3 Strela 3M Rodnik satellitesOne satellite reportedly lost, two others placed in orbit; controllers unable to maneuver upper stage to lower orbit for rapid re-entry into Earth’s atmosphereErratic behavior of Breeze-KM
Feb. 1, 2013Zenit-3SL
(Ukraine)
Block DM-SL (Russia)Intelsat 27Rocket and satellite fell into the seaFirst stage failure
July 2, 2013ProtonBreeze-M3 GLONASS SatellitesCrashed at launch siteFirst stage failure

Twelve launches have gone awry since December 2010, with 10 failures and two partial successes. Fifteen spacecraft were lost, ranging from communications and navigational satellites to Russia’s first Mars probe in 17 years. Four satellites were successfully deployed into orbit. And a cloud of orbital debris resulted from the explosion of a malfunctioning upper stage.

Ten of the 12 failures involved Russian rockets. The list includes five failures involving Protons, two each involving Soyuz and Rockot launch vehicles, and the loss of an ICBM during a test flight.

Two other failures involved Ukrainian-built Zenit launch vehicles. One of the Zenit failures involved Sea Launch, a company which is majority owned by Energia of Russia. That flight fell into the sea after the Ukrainian first stage failed. The other mission failed due to a malfunctioning Russian upper stage.

Problems with upper stages figured into nine of the 12 failures, including malfunctions in three Breeze-M and two Breeze-KM stages.  First stage anomalies were responsible for the other three launch failures.

As the problems have mounted, the Russian leadership has made some personnel changes at the top. Roscosmos head Anatoly Perminov was replaced by Vladimir Popovkin in April 2012.

Last September, Khrunichev Director-General Vladimir Nesterov was also relieved of his post. Khrunichev is responsible the Proton and Rockot launch vehicles, including the Breeze-M and Breeze-KM upper stages that have figured in five of the failures.

Officials also have installed Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin as the nation’s defense and space czar, charging him with improving quality control throughout these vital sectors and rooting out corruption.

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  • Nickolai

    Doug, could you please clean up the wording for Jan 2 2013? It’s somewhat confusing.

  • Nickolai

    OK that’s a bit clearer. Did the inability of the controllers to deorbit the upper stage have any impact on the satellites that were placed into orbit? And how did they manage to lose 1 but not the other 2?

  • Douglas Messier

    I’m not entirely sure. It’s a bit of a mystery. Officially, everything went well with the launch. That was the announcement at the time.

    Then later reports indicated there were problems. The response, if I recall, is that satellites ended up going into the orbits they were supposed to go into. At least within the expected range of orbital parameters.

    It seems pretty clear that there was once again some anomaly with the upper stage.

    I also fixed the date. It was Jan. 15, not Jan. 2.