Russia's Proton heavy-lift rocket is expected to return to flightOct. 25 – just seven weeks after its Sept. 6 failure – following a Russiangovernment review that identified a damaged cable as the cause of the mishap,according to Russian government and industry officials.
The Oct. 25 flight will carry threeRussian Glonass-Mnavigation satellites and is expected to be followed by a mid-November launchof the Sirius-4 telecommunications satellite owned by SES Sirius of Sweden, a subsidiary of SES of Luxembourg.
International Launch Services (ILS),the McLean, Va.-based company that markets commercial Proton launches, wouldaccording to this schedule be able to launch Telenor Satellite Broadcasting'sThor 2R telecommunications satellite in late December or January – assuming itcan coordinate its launch manifest with the Russian government's use of theProton.
While they use the same basicvehicle, ILS and the Russian government operate in different legal andfinancial worlds whose timetables do not completely overlap. It was an ILSProton-M launch of the JS-CAT-11 telecommunications satellite owned by JSATCorp. of Tokyo that failed in September. JSCAT-11 was insured for $185 million.
To participate in the Proton failurereview, ILS needed the approval of the U.S. Defense Department's DefenseInformation Systems Agency (DISA), which determines what technologicalinformation can be transferred from U.S. companies to non-U.S. companies – evenin cases in which the hardware under analysis is Russian. The Russian reviewconcluded that theaccident was caused by a defective cable that prevented the firing ofexplosive bolts that permit Proton's first stage from separating from thesecond stage once the first-stage engine has completed its mission.
The Proton vehicle and the JCSAT-11crashed onto the Kazakh steppe down-range from the Russian-run BaikonurCosmodrome in Kazakhstan. More than 100 satellite and rocket pieces weresubsequently recovered, and analysis of this hardware helped speed the failurereview and permit such a quick return to flight, said Wendy Mihalic, ILS vicepresident for sales.
"They recovered a lot of thehardware on the ground, making the failure review a very data-richexperience," Mihalic said Oct. 12.
ILS's own Failure Review OversightBoard, which was briefed on the Russian state investigation's findings, wasexpected to return to Washington in time to begin briefing U.S. government officials the week of Oct. 15. Mihalic said the ILS team will talk with DISA aboutwhat information can be relayed to insurance underwriters – both those who arepaying the JCSAT-11 claim and those who are insuring ILS's upcoming commerciallaunches.
Mihalic said ILS expected to be ableto brief the insurers starting the week of Oct. 22.
Vasily Sychev, deputy director ofProton's prime contractor, Khrunichev State Research and Production SpaceCenter of Moscow, told an Oct. 12 press briefing in Moscow that the Glonass-Mlaunch was set for Oct. 25 and that "nothing will hinder thislaunch."
Alexander Bobrenev, a Khrunichevspokesman, said Oct. 12 that while the Oct. 25 return to flight appeared firm,Kazakh government authorities ultimately will need to give formal approval tothe date.
Russian and Kazakh negotiators hadyet to agree on how much Russia would pay in compensation to Kazakhstan for the environmental damage caused by the Proton crash, but these negotiations would notdelay the Glonass launch, Russian officials said.
There were no reports of casualtiesor substantial property loss, but environmental damage from rocket fuel haslong been an issue between Kazakhstan and Russia. The Baikonur Cosmodromeis one of the few spaceports whose geographic location requires that rocketsmake a long flight over land, regardless of the orbit of the satellite payload.
Anatoly Perminov, director-generalof the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, told an Oct. 11 press briefing in Moscow that all failure-related issues have been resolved with Kazakhstan except for thelevel of compensation. He said Russia will seek to negotiate a payment lowerthan the 7.32 billion Kazakh tenge ($61.7 million) that Kazakh authorities haverequested.
The Proton's grounding following theSeptember failure came at a particularly delicate time for the globalcommercial-satellite industry, which is in a boom period where launcheravailability has become an issue. The Proton mishap exacerbated a tight-marketsituation that existed following the January 2007 failure of the Sea Launchvehicle. The Proton and Sea Launch rockets, along with the European Ariane 5,are the most active vehicles in the commercial arena.
It remained unclear how ILS and theRussian government would sort out their separate Proton launch schedules in thecoming months. ILS's manifest is full or nearly so for the next two years.Mihalic said that before the Sept. 6 failure, the Russian government hadscheduled three launches – the Glonass flight and two others – to take placebefore the end of the year.
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Peter B. de Selding is the co-founder and chief editor of SpaceIntelReport.com, a website dedicated to the latest space industry news and developments that launched in 2017. Prior to founding SpaceIntelReport, Peter spent 26 years as the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews, an industry publication. At SpaceNews, Peter covered the commercial satellite, launch and international space market. He continues that work at SpaceIntelReport. You can follow Peter's latest project on Twitter at @pbdes.