Russia Launches Investigation Into Proton-M Rocket Failure
July 5, 2013

Russia Launches Investigation Into Proton-M Rocket Failure

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Russia has suspended all launches of Proton rockets following the July 2 launch failure of a Proton M rocket carrying navigational satellites into space. The country is also launching a criminal investigation into the disaster, sparking renewed doubts about the capabilities of the Russian space industry.

On Tuesday, July 2, an unmanned Proton M rocket was launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan carrying three GLONASS satellites. The rocket veered off course moments after launch and broke apart as it erupted into a ball of fire and crashed back on the Earth below.

Russian officials now want answers as to how this tragedy has occurred and is set to question space program coordinators to determine whether safety rules were violated ahead of the unsuccessful launch.

"The investigation commission that is looking into the causes of the accident on July 2 has made a decision to stop the preparations for the planned Proton rocket launches from Baikonur," the source told Interfax news agency.

A Proton rocket was also scheduled to carry the satellite Astra 2E into space on July 20. However, after Tuesday's failure, that launch will not be carried out. Other Proton launches scheduled for this year, including one for the American radio satellite Sirius FM6 on August 14, have also been scrubbed in light of this week's failure. Three other launches scheduled later this year have also been postponed until further notice.

"Due to the accident the launches will be pushed back to later dates and will resume only after the commission finishes its work and after its recommendations are put to use," the Interfax source added.

"Investigators are examining the relevant documentation, and questioning officials who were in charge of the preparation and the launch of the rocket," Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for Russia's Investigative Committee told RIA Novosti news agency.

"A number of forensic experiments may be ordered to establish the exact cause of the accident," he said.

The exploding rocket left a cloud of toxic chemicals and fuels in its wake, although experts believe they will not impact the local ecology. Initial reports of livestock deaths immediately following the rocket failure were dismissed as rumors. But the country's environmental minister has set up a commission to look into the accident's aftermath.

Although nobody has yet been accused of causing the accident at this point, breaking launch safety rules carries a penalty of up to three years in prison under Russian law.

The Proton rocket had been one of Russia's most popular for unmanned commercial launches and analysts have said Tuesday's accident was a major blow to the industry, leaving many commercial businesses to look for alternative carriers.

Tuesday's launch failure was the second unsuccessful launch of a Proton-M rocket carrying GLONASS satellites in three years for Russia. A December 2010 launch failure also saw the destruction of the rocket along with the country's flagship GLONASS positioning system satellites. International Launch Services, the US firm that markets commercial Proton launches, said that failure was a result of engineers loading too much fuel into the rocket.

Tuesday's launch failure marked at least the fifth Proton rocket malfunction in the past three years as well. A separate Proton-M launch in December 2010 crashed after the upper-stage Briz engine failed. A control system glitch caused the loss of a Proton-M rocket in August, 2011. Another issue with a Briz engine led to the loss of another Proton-M rocket a year later. A partial Briz booster failure on a December 2012 Proton launch caused the payload to be put into an incorrect orbit. However, engineers were able to correct that issue, according to Roscosmos.

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said after Tuesday's launch disaster "harsh decisions" must be made and "Russia's rocket and space industry cannot continue to exist in its current form."

Apart from the Proton-M rocket failures, Russia's space industry has already been facing a tarnished image due to several other launch failures over the past few years, including the ambitious Phobos-Grunt mission in November 2011 and the Progress 44 resupply vessel failure in August 2011.

The increase in Russian spacecraft failures makes it all the more necessary for NASA and other space agencies to find alternative means to fly their astronauts into space. Currently, all participating nations rely on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The US currently pays Russia in excess of $50 million per seat for a ride to the ISS.

Several commercial companies, such as SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, are vying to become the first to bring NASA's next line of astronauts into space in the hopes of ending US reliance on Russia's aging spacecraft.