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Russian Proton Rocket Suffers Launch Failure

For the second time in sixmonths, a commercial launch of the Russian Proton rocket ended in failure earlySaturday 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 nearthe end of the 34-minute-long second burn of the launcher's Breeze M upperstage, which features a single engine powered by explosive hydrazine andnitrogen tetroxide propellants.

"The satellite failedto reach the planned orbit," International Launch Services said in awritten statement.

The Proton was carrying AMC14, a communications satellite owned by SES AMERICOM, a New Jersey-basedsatellite operator, destined to beam direct-to-home television programming forDISH Network.

ILS officials provided nofurther details on the nature of the failure, but Roscosmos, the Russian spaceagency, reported the Breeze M engine shut down two minutes and 13 secondsearlier than planned.

In an update posted on itsWeb site, Roscosmos said the stage and the AMC 14 payload reached an orbit witha high point of about 17,400 miles, about 5,000 miles short of the intendedaltitude at the end of the burn.

The Breeze M deployed thespacecraft shortly after the early engine shutdown, and SES AMERICOM will nowbe faced with making future plans for the stranded satellite, Roscosmos said.

AMC 14 could reach itstarget orbit if there is enough space fuel on-board, or officials could electto use a dramatic lunar flyby to use the moon's gravity to slingshot the craftinto geosynchronous orbit. Such a maneuver succeeded in 1998 for AsiaSat 3,another satellite victim of a Proton failure.

Owners of othercommunications birds left in low orbits have considered similar measures, butopted instead to de-orbit their satellites for insurance purposes.

It is unclear what optionsSES AMERICOM may consider for AMC 14.

ILS is the firm responsiblefor commercially marketing the Proton rocket to international customers. TheU.S.-based company is jointly owned by Space Transport Inc. and Khrunichev, theRussian manufacturer of the Proton rocket and Breeze M upper stage.

Friday's launch was the45th for ILS since it began Proton missions in 1996. Five of those flights havebeen unsuccessful, and four of the failures were caused by upper stagemalfunctions.

The failure also marked thesecondbotched launch of a commercial Proton mission in just over six months.Another ILS Proton crashed to Earth on Sept. 5 after a damaged electrical cablecaused an anomaly during the separation of the rocket's first and secondstages.

Since the Septemberfailure, the Proton had successfully completed six flights for Russiangovernment and commercial customers.

The Proton flight appearedflawless during the first hour of flight. Liftoff of the 184-foot-tall rocketwas at 2318:55 GMT (7:18:55 p.m. EDT) Friday, or early Saturday morning at theBaikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The Proton disappeared intothick clouds about 40 seconds after launch, eventually jettisoning its firststage just over two minutes into the flight. The rocket's second and thirdstages both fired as planned, propelling the Breeze M upper stage and the9,127-pound AMC 14 satellite into a suborbital trajectory within the first tenminutes of the mission.

The Breeze M fired first toloft AMC 14 into a circular parking orbit with an altitude of about 107 milesand an inclination of 51.5 degrees to the equator.

The botched second burn wasto have further boosted the payload into an elongated transfer orbit with ahigh point of 22,211 miles and a low point of 553 miles.

A final maneuver nearlyseven hours after liftoff would have drastically raised the transfer orbit'sperigee to 3,888 miles and reduced its inclination to 19.7 degrees, much closerto the satellite's eventual target of zero degrees. The third firing would havebeen closely followed by spacecraft separation in a normal launch.

Russian officials set up astate investigation commission to scrutinize the failure, and ILS will form itsown oversight board to review the commission's findings and assemble a report.

"ILS remains committedto providing reliable, timely launch services for all of its customers,"ILS said a written statement. "To this end, ILS will work diligently withits partner Khrunichev to return Proton to flight as soon as possible."

Built by Lockheed MartinCorp., AMC 14 would have been parked in geosynchronous orbit at 61.5 degreeswest longitude. The satellite's 32 Ku-band transponders were designed to servethe continental United States during a 15-year mission.

SES AMERICOM was to havetested the high-power satellite's communications instruments before handing itover to EchoStar Corp.

A corporate customer of SESAMERICOM's direct broadcasting unit, EchoStar would have used the spacecraft tobeam high-definition television programming directly into homes and businessesacross the continental United States under the DISH Network umbrella.

Communications specialistswere also eager to test AMC 14's next-generation phased array antenna, a leapin technology that allows satellites to reshape their ground coverage in orbit.

Copyright 2008,all rights reserved.

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Stephen Clark is the Editor of Spaceflight Now, a web-based publication dedicated to covering rocket launches, human spaceflight and exploration. He joined the Spaceflight Now team in 2009 and previously wrote as a senior reporter with the Daily Texan. You can follow Stephen's latest project at (opens in new tab) and on Twitter (opens in new tab).