Russian Proton-M rocket fails to inject its domestic payload into the desired orbit during its launch on May 15, 2014. Russian Space Agency Roscosmos, in its press-release, states that “an emergency situation has arisen during the third stage operation of the launch vehicle which caused the failure of the mission.”

The vehicle, carrying the Russian Express-AM4R communication satellite, lifted-off nominally from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, but contact with the rocket was lost at around T+540 seconds. According to Roscosmos, the telemetry data indicates that the failure occurred at an altitude of 160 km where the speed of vehicle was around 7 km/s, which is close to reaching the orbital speed at LEO. Although several Russian sources state that no debris has reached to Earth, chinanews.com reports that a spherical tank has fallen in the town of Shuangyang early morning, which may be linked with this launch.

It is the sixth time that a Russian Proton-M rocket fails in the past three and a half years. In all of these failures, the launchers were carrying Russian payloads to orbit, with the exception of an Indonesian satellite in one of the missions. During the failure of December 2010 launch, the vehicle had been unable to reach to its desired orbit due to overloading of fuel to the upper stage tanks. The failure in August 2011 resulted from the control system malfunction of Breeze-M upper stage. One year later, another Breeze-M suffered from a component failure. The December 2012 launch failed after thermal control anomalies of the Breeze-M upper stage. In the most recent and dramatic occasion, a Proton-M crashed near its launch pad due to erroneous integration of its accelerometers, in July 2013.

Russia uses the Proton-M family for launching both its domestic payloads and the satellites of ILS’s international customers. With all past five failures showing some degree of negligence of quality assurance requirements, it is also a question of whether Roscosmos claims looser quality control procedures during the manufacturing and integration process of its domestic missions.

Regarding yesterday’s failure, Itar-Tass quoted the head of Roscosmos, Oleg Ostapenko, stating that “an emergency pressure drop occurred in a steering engine of the third stage, and the nose cone did not have time to separate from the rocket.” However, the Proton-M family does not suffered from separation-related failures in its short-term history; therefore an engine-malfunction related cause may be unveiled after the investigations. The failure investigation commission, to be headed by TsNIIMash’s deputy director Alexander Danyluk, has been tasked with examining the underlying reasons of the incident. Upcoming missions of Proton launch vehicles are likely to be grounded until investigators determine the cause of the abnormality.

Feature Image Caption: ‘The spherical tank that fell in the Chinese town of Shuangyang (Credits: China News)’.

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About the author

Göktuğ Karacalıoğlu

Göktuğ Karacalıoğlu

Holding a BS in Mechanical Engineering, a MS in Engineering Management from Middle East Technical University (METU), Turkey, and a second MS degree on Space Sciences from International Space University, France, Göktuğ is now working as a researcher at NASA Ames Research Center, California. Besides his current work on space debris mitigation, he is also interested in asteroids, colonization on Mars and space launch vehicles. He is also a PhD candidate on Operations Research.