Russian official blames Nov. 28 launch failure on botched software programming

A Soyuz-2.1b rocket lifts off Nov. 28 from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East. Credit: Roscosmos

A senior Russian politician whose portfolio includes the country’s space program has blamed human error for a Nov. 28 launch failure that led to the destruction of a $45 million weather satellite and 18 secondary payloads, according to multiple news reports.

The admission Wednesday from Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin on the Rossiya 24 state television channel was reported by Reuters.

It apparently confirmed suspicions leaked by Russian space officials in the days after the launch failure, which suggested the guidance computer on the Soyuz rocket’s Fregat upper stage was mis-programmed, causing it to begin an unnecessary turn that left it in the wrong orientation for a critical engine burn required to enter orbit.

Rogozin said the guidance settings were for a launch departing from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the Russian space program’s primary launch site, and not the new Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East.

“The rocket was really programmed as if it was taking off from Baikonur,” Rogozin said, according to Reuters. “They didn’t get the coordinates right.”

The mishap left Russia’s Meteor M2-1 weather satellite and 18 co-passengers for U.S., Canadian, European and Japanese companies short of their planned orbit, and the spacecraft burned up on re-entry with the Fregat stage over the Atlantic Ocean.

After its separation from a Soyuz-2.1b booster, the Fregat was supposed to deploy the 19 satellites at staggered altitudes after a series of orbital adjustment maneuvers.

But Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, published its own account of the failure Wednesday without explicitly attributing the cause to human error.

Roscosmos said there was a problem in the Fregat’s software algorithms, but that the flight profile for the Nov. 28 was calculated in accordance with established procedures. Without confirming that the Fregat was programmed for a launch from Baikonur, Roscosmos said that officials did not pay “sufficient attention … to the possible causes and consequences” of guidance issues related to a Soyuz/Fregat launch from Vostochny.

Officials from Roscosmos and Russian industry responsible for the launch did not properly coordinate their work, the space agency said, further contributing to the accident.

Roscosmos said in a statement that multiple Russian space officials will be reprimanded for their roles in the launch failure.

Rogozin took a shot a Roscosmos in a Facebook post, writing that the Russian space agency aims to prove that accidents are not the result of mistakes by management, but “due to ‘circumstances.'”

Roscosmos issued an earlier update Dec. 12 that blamed the mishap on a hidden problem in the Fregat’s guidance algorithms that had not caused a failure on previous missions.

The doomed Nov. 28 liftoff was the second Soyuz launch from the new spaceport in Russia’s Amur region, and the first from Vostochny with a Fregat upper stage, which flew more than 60 times previously from other launch sites in Russia, Kazakhstan and French Guiana.

The Roscosmos statement Dec. 12 described a multitude of factors, including the location of the Vostochny launch pad and the azimuth of the Soyuz trajectory to the north from the launch base. A change in some of the parameters, such as the direction of the launch, may have allowed the launch to occur successfully, Roscosmos said.

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