Another Year, Another Russian Launch Failure

The Progress 65 spacecraft is pictured at its launch pad Nov. 29 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. (Credit: Roscosmos)
The Progress 65 spacecraft is pictured at its launch pad Nov. 29 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. (Credit: Roscosmos)

They came so close this time.

In another four days, the Russians would have gone a full year without losing a spacecraft in a launch mishap. That’s something that hasn’t happened since 2009-10. In another 30 days, they would have gone an entire calendar year without a launch failure.

The loss of the Progress 65 cargo ship during its launch aboard a Soyuz-U rocket today marks the latest in a string of failures stretching back more than seven years. Since May 2009, Russia has suffered 13 launch failures and four partial failures involving its stable of satellite boosters. (See table below)

In another failure in 2011, a Zenit booster delivered Russia’s Phobos-Grunt mission safely into orbit. However, the rocket engine incorporated into the spacecraft failed to fire, leaving the probe stranded in Earth orbit instead of heading for the martian moon Phobos.

RUSSIAN LAUNCH & MISSION FAILURES, 2009 – 2016
DATE LAUNCH VEHICLE
PAYLOAD(S)
RESULTCAUSE
May 21, 2009Soyuz-2.1a/ FregatMeridian 2FailureSecond stage shut down early, Fregat upper stage ran out of fuel trying to compensate. Satellite left in useless orbit, declared a loss by Russian military.
Dec. 5, 2010Proton-M/ Blok-DM-3Uragan-M #739 Uragan-M #740
Uragan-M #741
FailureRocket failed to reach orbital velocity after upper stage overfilled with propellant.
Feb. 1, 2011Rockot/Briz-KMGeo-IK-2 No. 11FailureUpper stage malfunction.
Aug. 17, 2011Proton-M/ Briz-MEkspress AM4
FailureBriz-M upper stage suffered failure of attitude control.
Aug. 24, 2011Soyuz-UProgress M-12FailureThird stage failure due to turbo-pump duct blockage.
Nov. 8, 2011Zenit-2SB/ FregatPhobos-Grunt
Yinghuo-1
FailureZenit placed Phobos-Grunt in proper orbit. Spacecraft stranded in Earth orbit after on-board propulsion system failed to fire.
Dec. 23, 2011Soyuz-2.1b/ FregatMeridian 5FailureThird stage failure.
Aug. 6, 2012Proton-M/ Briz-MTelkom-3
Ekspress MD2
FailureBriz-M upper stage failed 7 seconds into its third burn.
Dec. 8, 2012Proton-M/ Briz-MYamal-402Partial FailureBriz-M upper stage shut down 4 minutes earlier than planned on fourth burn. Spacecraft reached intended orbit under own power.
Jan. 15, 2013Rockot/Briz-KMKosmos 2482 Kosmos 2483 Kosmos 2484Partial FailureUpper stage failed near time of spacecraft separation; one satellite destroyed.
Feb. 1, 2013Zenit-3SL
Intelsat 27FailureFirst stage failure.
July 2, 2013Proton-M/DM-03Uragan-M #748 Uragan-M #749
Uragan-M #750
FailureFirst stage failure.
May 15, 2014Proton-M/Briz-MEkspress AM4RFailureProton third stage vernier engine failure due to turbo-pump leak.
Aug. 14, 2014Soyuz-STB/ FregatGalileo FOC-1
Galileo FOC-2
Partial FailureSatellites placed in wrong orbits due to freezing of hydrazine in Fregat upper stage. Satellites made operational as part of Europe’s Galileo navigation constellation.
April 28, 2015Soyuz-2.1aProgress 59PFailureThird stage failure left Progress in uncontrollable tumble.
May 16, 2015Proton/Briz-MMexSat-1FailureThird stage failure.
December 5, 2015Soyuz-2.1v/ VolgaKanopus ST
KYuA 1
Partial FailurePrimary payload Kanopus ST remained attached to upper stage, later burned up in atmosphere. Secondary payload KYuA 1 deployed successfully.
December 1, 2016Soyuz-UProgress 65FailureThird stage anomaly.

The long string of launch failures has led to repeated shakeups of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, with a revolving door of director generals coming and going. Last year, the government decided to transform Roscosmos from a government agency to a state corporation that is consolidating control over the entire Russian space industry.

Initial reports indicate that the Soyuz-U booster’s third stage stopped firing prematurely, causing the cargo ship to fall back into the Earth atmosphere after entering space.

Progress 65 was carrying supplies to six astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). NASA has issued a statement saying the astronauts are safe and that supply levels aboard the station are good. Japan is set to launch the HTV-6 cargo ship to ISS on December 9.

Prior to this incident, the closest thing to a launch failure Russia experienced in 2016 was the early shutdown of second stage of a Proton booster in May. The rocket’s Briz-M third stage fired longer than planned, delivering the Intelsat 31 communications satellite into its proper orbit.

The Proton rocket has been grounded since that anomaly. It is scheduled to return to flight on Dec. 22 with the EchoStar 21 satellite aboard.

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