Proton rocket suffers launch failure
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: March 15, 2008
For the second time in six months, a commercial launch of the Russian Proton rocket ended in failure early Saturday after an undetermined problem struck the booster's upper stage, leaving the mission's DISH Network broadcasting payload in a useless orbit.
The failure occurred near the end of the 34-minute-long second burn of the launcher's Breeze M upper stage, which features a single engine powered by explosive hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide propellants.
"The satellite failed to reach the planned orbit," International Launch Services said in a written statement.
The Proton was carrying AMC 14, a communications satellite owned by SES AMERICOM, a New Jersey-based satellite operator, destined to beam direct-to-home television programming for DISH Network.
ILS officials provided no further details on the nature of the failure, but Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, reported the Breeze M engine shut down two minutes and 13 seconds earlier than planned.
In an update posted on its Web site, Roscosmos said the stage and the AMC 14 payload reached an orbit with a high point of about 17,400 miles, about 5,000 miles short of the intended altitude at the end of the burn.
The Breeze M deployed the spacecraft shortly after the early engine shutdown, and SES AMERICOM will now be faced with making future plans for the stranded satellite, Roscosmos said.
AMC 14 could reach its target orbit if there is enough space fuel on-board, or officials could elect to use a dramatic lunar flyby to use the moon's gravity to slingshot the craft into geosynchronous orbit. Such a maneuver succeeded in 1998 for AsiaSat 3, another satellite victim of a Proton failure.
Owners of other communications birds left in low orbits have considered similar measures, but opted instead to de-orbit their satellites for insurance purposes.
It is unclear what options SES AMERICOM may consider for AMC 14.
ILS is the firm responsible for commercially marketing the Proton rocket to international customers. The U.S.-based company is jointly owned by Space Transport Inc. and Khrunichev, the Russian manufacturer of the Proton rocket and Breeze M upper stage.
Friday's launch was the 45th for ILS since it began Proton missions in 1996. Five of those flights have been unsuccessful, and four of the failures were caused by upper stage malfunctions.
The failure also marked the second botched launch of a commercial Proton mission in just over six months. Another ILS Proton crashed to Earth on Sept. 5 after a damaged electrical cable caused an anomaly during the separation of the rocket's first and second stages.
Since the September failure, the Proton had successfully completed six flights for Russian government and commercial customers.
The Proton flight appeared flawless during the first hour of flight. Liftoff of the 184-foot-tall rocket was at 2318:55 GMT (7:18:55 p.m. EDT) Friday, or early Saturday morning at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The Proton disappeared into thick clouds about 40 seconds after launch, eventually jettisoning its first stage just over two minutes into the flight. The rocket's second and third stages both fired as planned, propelling the Breeze M upper stage and the 9,127-pound AMC 14 satellite into a suborbital trajectory within the first ten minutes of the mission.
The Breeze M fired first to loft AMC 14 into a circular parking orbit with an altitude of about 107 miles and an inclination of 51.5 degrees to the equator.
The botched second burn was to have further boosted the payload into an elongated transfer orbit with a high point of 22,211 miles and a low point of 553 miles.
A final maneuver nearly seven hours after liftoff would have drastically raised the transfer orbit's perigee to 3,888 miles and reduced its inclination to 19.7 degrees, much closer to the satellite's eventual target of zero degrees. The third firing would have been closely followed by spacecraft separation in a normal launch.
Russian officials set up a state investigation commission to scrutinize the failure, and ILS will form its own oversight board to review the commission's findings and assemble a report.
"ILS remains committed to providing reliable, timely launch services for all of its customers," ILS said a written statement. "To this end, ILS will work diligently with its partner Khrunichev to return Proton to flight as soon as possible."
Built by Lockheed Martin Corp., AMC 14 would have been parked in geosynchronous orbit at 61.5 degrees west longitude. The satellite's 32 Ku-band transponders were designed to serve the continental United States during a 15-year mission.
SES AMERICOM was to have tested the high-power satellite's communications instruments before handing it over to EchoStar Corp.
A corporate customer of SES AMERICOM's direct broadcasting unit, EchoStar would have used the spacecraft to beam high-definition television programming directly into homes and businesses across the continental United States under the DISH Network umbrella.
Communications specialists were also eager to test AMC 14's next-generation phased array antenna, a leap in technology that allows satellites to reshape their ground coverage in orbit.