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Years of Failures Haunt Russian Space Program

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
May 16, 2015
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Holy shi'ski! The go KABOOMSKI! (Credit: Tsenki TV)

Proton rocket falls to Earth at Baikonur in July 2013. (Credit: Tsenki TV)

Sixteen botched launches in six years.

That’s the Russian space program’s sad record since May 2009. The failure of a Proton rocket earlier today with the loss of a Mexican communications satellite was yet another sign of the prolonged crisis affecting Russia’s once powerful space program.

The crash came less than three weeks after a botched launch left a Progress supply freighter spinning end over end like an extra point before it burned up in Earth atmosphere. There was also news today that another Progress cargo ship attached to the International Space Station failed to fire its engine as planned to boost the station’s orbit.

The list of Russian launch accidents over the last six years includes:

  • 13 complete failures resulting in the loss of all payloads;
  • 3 partial failures that left spacecraft in the wrong orbits;
  • complete loss of 20 spacecraft;
  • 6 Russian GLONASS navigation satellites destroyed; and,
  • an ambitious Mars mission left stranded in Earth orbit.

The table below shows the full extent of the damage.

May 21, 2009 Soyuz-2.1a/ Fregat  Meridian 2 Failure Second 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, 2010 Proton-M/ Blok-DM-3 Uragan-M #739 Uragan-M #740
Uragan-M #741
Failure Rocket failed to reach orbital velocity after upper stage overfilled with propellant.
Feb. 1, 2011 Rokot/Briz-KM Geo-IK-2 No. 11 Failure Upper stage malfunction.
Aug. 17, 2011 Proton-M/ Briz-M Ekspress AM4
Failure Briz-M upper stage suffered failure of attitude control.
Aug. 24, 2011 Soyuz-U Progress M-12 Failure Third stage failure due to turbo-pump duct blockage.
Nov. 8, 2011 Zenit-2SB/ Fregat Phobos-Grunt
Failure Spacecraft stranded in Earth orbit after upper stage failed to fire.
Dec. 23, 2011 Soyuz-2.1b/ Fregat Meridian 5 Failure Third stage failure.
Aug. 6, 2012 Proton-M/ Briz-M Telkom-3
Ekspress MD2
Failure Briz-M upper stage failed 7 seconds into its third burn.
Dec. 8, 2012 Proton-M/ Briz-M  Yamal-402 Partial Failure Briz-M upper stage shut down 4 minutes earlier than planned on fourth burn. Spacecraft reached intended orbit under own power.
Jan. 15, 2013 Rokot/Briz-KM Kosmos 2482 Kosmos 2483 Kosmos 2484 Partial Failure Upper stage failed near time of spacecraft separation; one satellite destroyed.
 Feb. 1, 2013 Zenit-3SL
 Intelsat 27 Failure First stage failure.
July 2, 2013 Proton-M/DM-03  Uragan-M #748 Uragan-M #749
Uragan-M #750
Failure First stage failure.
 May 15, 2014 Proton-M/Briz-M  Ekspress AM4R Failure Proton third stage vernier engine failure due to turbo-pump leak.
Aug. 14, 2014 Soyuz-STB/ Fregat Galileo FOC-1
Galileo FOC-2
Partial Failure Satellites placed in wrong orbits due to freezing of hydrazine in Fregat upper stage.
 April 28, 2015 Soyuz-2.1a Progress 59P Failure Third stage failure.
May 16, 2015 Proton/Briz-M MexSat-1 Failure Third stage failure suspected.

Proton has been the most troubled of the Russian boosters, with six failures, 1 partial failure and 11 spacecraft lost. One spacecraft was able to reach its intended orbit using on-board propulsion after the Proton rocket’s upper stage shut down prematurely.

Different variants of the venerable Soyuz booster have failed completely on four occasions, taking with them two Progress freighters and a pair of Meridian military communications satellites. Another Soyuz rocket stranded two European Galileo navigational satellites in the wrong orbits.

Russia’s Rokot launch vehicle suffered anomalies on two flights. In 2011, the Geo-IK-2 No.11 satellite was declared unusable after it was placed in the wrong orbit. Two years later, one of three satellites launched aboard a Rokot was lost due to a malfunction of the upper stage booster.

The trouble-plagued Zenit booster, which is a joint program with Ukraine, suffered two failures during the past six years. In 2011, Russia’s ambitious Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars was left trapped in Earth orbit after the failure of its upper stage to fire. A failure of the Zenit’s Ukrainian-built first stage destroyed the Intelsat 27 communications satellite in 2013.

If there is a common thread in the accidents, it involves the failure of upper stages to either fire or to finish their burns as planned. The Briz-M, Briz-KM and Fregat upper stages have all been implicated in failures. Third stages of various boosters also have failed.

By contrast, the U.S. launch record has been much cleaner over the last six years. The nation has suffered three catastrophic launch failures, all involving Orbital ATK launch vehicles. Tauraus XL rockets failed in 2009 and 2011, destroying a pair of NASA environmental satellites. Last October, an Antares rocket exploded shortly after launch, destroying a Cygnus cargo ship bound for the International Space Station.

The Atlas V and Delta IV launch vehicles, which are operated by United Launch Alliance, have suffered no catastrophic failures since they began operations in 2002.  Each rocket has experienced a partial failure, but they have otherwise proven to be extremely reliable. The highly reliable Delta II launch vehicle has not suffered a catastrophic failure in 18 years.

SpaceX has successfully launched variants of its Falcon 9 rocket 18 times without the loss of primary payloads. In October 2012, an Orbcomm OG2 test satellite was stranded in the wrong orbit when it flew as a secondary payload on a Dragon supply mission to the space station.

Europe’s Arianespace has not experienced a failure of its Ariane 5 booster since 2002. All four flights of its new Vega launch vehicle have been successful.