Paperwork extends Dnepr rocket's recovery from failure
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: January 20, 2007
A group of upcoming launches for a converted Russian ballistic missile are being postponed at least two months due to bogged down paperwork needed to clear the rocket for future launches from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome.
The launch of a second inflatable space module for U.S.-based Bigelow Aerospace was pushed back from the end of January to no sooner than about April 1. Two other flights with a menagerie of small science satellites and a German radar satellite were also postponed from January and February, respectively.
Other launches later this year could also be affected, but the extent of those delays are not yet known.
Senior payload officials told Spaceflight Now the paperwork from Kazakhstan's government to clear the Dnepr rocket for future launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome was still pending.
Kazakhstan banned further Dnepr launches from Baikonur after debris from a botched launch in July impacted Kazakh territory south of the booster's launch silo. The wreckage was strewn across a large area, and pictures showed sizable chunks of the launcher carved craters into the desert floor.
The Dnepr's three stages also use a dangerous mix of toxic propellants. The rocket is loaded with hypergolic fuels that react explosively when in contact with each other.
The Russian government paid Kazakhstan more than $1 million to help local officials in cleanup efforts, according to the Interfax news agency.
The launch of Bigelow's Genesis 2 module is planned to occur at the Yasny launch base in far southern Russia, while the other two flights will be out of Baikonur.
"Naturally, we are all disappointed because the spacecraft was and is ready to ship out to meet the original Jan. 30 launch date," said real-estate and hotel entrepreneur Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace.
Bigelow launched its first module in July, and the 14-foot-long craft has performed well in its first six months in space, according to the company.
The module launched in a contracted configuration, but was filled with compressed air after arriving in space to fully deploy to its operational state. Called Genesis 1, the satellite is a one-third scale model of modules Bigelow eventually hopes to assemble into a private space station.
"Kosmotras has assured Bigelow Aerospace that the Dnepr will soon be prepared to safely and successfully return to flight," Bigelow said in a written statement.
Engineers and students working on a number of small satellites from across the globe were also informed of the delay last week.
"We've just received word from Kosmotras that the launch date will be no earlier than March," said Lori Brooks from California Polytechnic State University.
Brooks is the coordinator for seven tiny CubeSat payloads to be put into space alongside other small satellites from Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
"Their stated reason is that the final paperwork from Kazakhstan to allow more Dnepr flights has not been completed, but they expect it to be done by the end of January," Brooks said.
The Dnepr rocket had completed six successful orbital missions before embarking on its doomed flight in July. The 111-foot-tall booster is a decommissioned R-36M missile, also called the SS-18 by Western analysts.
The converted missile is marketed to international customers by Kosmotras, a company formed in a 1997 agreement between the Russian and Ukrainian governments.
During last summer's failure, the first stage's four-nozzle RD-264 main engine shut down just over one minute after blastoff.
Investigators faulted the hydraulic control system in one of the engine's combustion chambers for the accident, according to a Kosmotras statement.
The engine features a hydraulic control system designed to swivel the power plant's four nozzles from side to side. This subtly changes the direction of the engine's thrust to point the rocket on the correct path.
The investigation board found a brief disturbance in the control system lasting less than one-half second, which was long enough to allow the launcher to veer out of control before its flight computer ordered the engine to switch off.
Damaged insulation inside the engine's fuel and hydraulic lines caused the propellant to overheat in the seconds prior to the failure, according to investigators.
Kosmotras said the insulation damage was due to flaws stemming from the rocket's initial construction in the former Soviet Union, the company said in a written statement last year.
Investigators recommended inspecting the insulation on all missiles destined for use in space missions to check for potential damage before launch.