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Proton returns to flight with successful launch for SES

Posted: September 30, 2013

A Russian Proton rocket lifted off from the steppes of Kazakhstan on Sunday, launching with the ASTRA 2E broadcasting satellite on the heavy-lift booster's first mission since a July 2 failure.

Credit: Roscosmos
The three-stage rocket and a Breeze M upper stage powered the ASTRA 2E communications satellite into a geostationary transfer orbit during a 9-hour, 12-minute mission beginning at 2138:10 GMT (5:38:10 p.m. EDT) Sunday.

The return-to-flight mission was managed by International Launch Services, the U.S.-based firm responsible for commercial sales of Proton rocket flights.

Russian investigators blamed the fiery mishap on improperly installed yaw angular rate sensors, which feed attitude data to the Proton rocket's guidance system. Evidence from debris recovered near the Proton's impact crater, located less than 2 miles from the launch pad, showed technicians installed the sensors upside down.

The sensors fed bad information to the Proton's computers, and the 19-story booster almost immediately flew off course moments after liftoff July 2. It gyrated wildly as it ascended from the launch pad, then tilted over and broke apart before exploding in a fireball upon impact with the ground at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The accident destroyed three Russian Glonass navigation satellites. Russian media reported the mission was insured for about $200 million.

Officials ordered a design change to prevent the sensors from being installed down on future missions. A review board also recommended the Proton's prime contractor - Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center - improve quality control measures in its factory.

The successful resumption of Proton flights was good news to satellite operators waiting to launch payloads. After the launch of ASTRA 2E, ILS plans the launch of a new satellite for Sirius XM Radio and the launch of the Inmarsat 5 F1 spacecraft to inaugurate the London-based firm's Global Xpress service, which promises to deliver mobile users with broadband connectivity of up to 50 megabits per second.

The ASTRA 2E spacecraft with its antennas deployed in a test range at the EADS Astrium plant in Toulouse, France. Credit: SES
The Sirius XM and Inmsarsat launches are scheduled before the end of 2013, along with two missions with communications satellites for the Russian government.

ASTRA 2E was already at the Baikonur Cosmodrome when the July 2 failure occurred, and officials suspended launch preparations while investigators probed the mishap.

The 13,271-pound spacecraft, built by Astrium Satellites in France and based on the Eurostar E3000 platform, is designed to beam next-generation broadcast, direct-to-home and broadband services over Europe, the Middle East and Africa for a 15-year mission. It carries 60 Ku-band and four wideband Ka-band transponders to do the job.

"With the success of this launch, ASTRA 2E will be able to provide growth and replacement capacity for SES' orbiting fleet. ASTRA 2E is now poised to help ensure reliable and secure connectivity," said Romain Bausch, SES CEO. "This is the 54th satellite launch for SES, and almost half of our fleet has been launched by ILS Proton. We appreciate the determination and dedication that the ILS and Khrunichev teams consistently provide to SES."

The Proton's three core hydrazine-fueled stages boosted ASTRA 2E and a Breeze M upper stage on a suborbital trajectory in less than 10 minutes, then the Breeze M's main engine fired five times over the next 9 hours to raise its orbit and position ASTRA 2E for deployment.

The mission was targeting an orbit with a high point of 22,205 miles, a low point of 2,611 miles and an inclination of 23 degrees.

ASTRA 2E's on-board propulsion system will finish the task of placing the satellite into a circular 22,300-mile-high orbit over the equator, and ultimately an operating post at 28.2 degrees east longitude.