PROTON FAILS JUST AFTER LIFTOFF
BY JUSTIN RAY
Posted: September 5, 2007; Updated on Sept. 6
Update 1: Statements from ILS and JSAT;
Update 2: Adding impact area
Update 3: Replacement satellite ordered
Two minutes after launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Wednesday night, a Russian heavy-lifting Proton rocket suffered a malfunction of its second stage, leading to destruction of a Japanese satellite payload riding aboard the booster.
The 18-story Proton M rocket soared away from pad 39 at 6:43 p.m. EDT (2243 GMT), marking an on-time start for a planned seven-hour ascent to geosynchronous transfer orbit for the four-stage launcher.
The six hydrazine-fueled first stage engines propelled the Proton into a clear, predawn sky over the desert steppes of Central Asia. Riding its fiery tail of super-heated exhaust, the vehicle arced downrange with normalcy.
As the first stage was nearing the time its engines would deplete their fuel reserves and snuff out, the four engines on the second stage were supposed to ignite, revving to full throttle at the same time as the spent lower stage would drop away.
The staging event, when visible by ground tracking cameras, always provides a dramatic spectacle in the sky with streaks of smoke as the first stage is blasted away.
But on Wednesday night something didn't seem quite right.
"I just got word from the launch site in Baikonur that we experienced a problem with the second stage engines. Apparently they did not ignite," Greg Gilmore, senior director of marketing and sales for International Launch Services, said moments after the incident.
"Therefore we are now faced with an anomaly that we must go and find out more about. Unfortunately for our customers and everybody involved, we appear as though we've had a problem with the second stage engines, which didn't ignite."
Without a successful ignition of the second stage, the rocket was dealt a helpless scenario of plummeting back to Earth. The wreckage laden with toxic rocket fuel impacted an area about 30 miles southeast of the Kazakh town of Dzhezkazgan, Russian news reports said.
ILS is the U.S.-based firm that markets Proton rockets to commercial customers. Russia's Khrunichev State Research and Production Center builds the rockets.
Wednesday marked the 42nd Proton flight for ILS dating back to 1996 and the fourth to end in failure. The earlier mishaps in 1997, 2002 and 2006 were caused by problems with the upper stage motors.
Proton's lower stages had enjoyed a faultless track record for nearly eight years, until Wednesday night. The most recent trouble -- also affecting the second stage -- downed a pair of Russian government launches in July and October 1999. Those failures were traced to poor workmanship and debris in the engines.
Destroyed in Wednesday night's launch accident was the JCSAT 11 communications spacecraft, the first commercial Japanese satellite to ever fly on Proton.
Russia's workhorse Proton was making its 327th flight. Developed more than four decades ago, the heavy-duty rocket has lofted scores of satellites, interplanetary spacecraft and pieces of orbiting space stations, including the International Space Station's initial control and living quarters modules -- Zarya and Zvezda.
The JCSAT 11 spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin, was headed for geostationary orbit 22,300 miles above the equator. JSAT Corp. of Tokyo would have operated the satellite to provide telecommunications services to Japan, the Asia-Pacific region and Hawaii.
The 8,800-pound craft was fitted with 30 Ku-band and a dozen C-band transponders. It had an anticipated service life of 15 years.
JSAT intended to use the satellite as a spare for the company's fleet of eight older spacecraft.
"This satellite was launched as a successor to an in-orbit backup satellite. The failure does not affect the communications and broadcasting services currently offered," JSAT said in a statement.
"At the moment, the impact of the announced incidents on the consolidated results of JSAT is expected to be negligible, given that the satellite and launch costs are covered by satellite launch insurance."
On Thursday, JSAT announced it was ordering a replacement satellite from Lockheed Martin. It will take about two years to construct the new A2100AX-model spacecraft.
In a written statement issued late Wednesday, ILS promised a full investigation into the launch accident.
"A Russian State Commission is in the process of determining the reasons for the anomaly. ILS will release details when data become available," a statement from ILS read.
"In parallel with the State Commission, ILS will form its own Failure Review Oversight Board. The FROB will review the commission's final report and corrective action plan, in accord with U.S. and Russian government export control regulations."
All Proton launches for ILS and the Russian government have been suspended pending the outcome of the inquiry. ILS had hoped to fly three additional commercial missions this year with the SIRIUS 4 and AMC 14 spacecraft for SES Global companies, plus Thor 5 for Telenor of Norway, but those plans have been put on hold.
"ILS remains committed to providing reliable, timely launch services for all its customers. To this end, ILS will work diligently with its partner Khrunichev to return Proton to flight as soon as possible," the company's statement read.