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You're reading: Russian rocket fails to reach target orbit

MOSCOW — Russia's space pride suffered another blow Tuesday when a booster rocket failed to place two communications satellites into target orbits, a mishap that came a day after NASA successfully landed a robotic vehicle on Mars.

Russia’s
Roscosmos space agency said the Proton-M rocket was launched just
before midnight Monday from the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in
Kazakhstan. The booster’s first stages worked fine, but the upper stage
intended to give the final push to the satellites switched off
prematurely.

The agency said that the engine’s malfunction
stranded the Russian Express MD-2 and Indonesia’s Telkom-3 satellites in
a low orbit where they can’t be recovered.

“The satellites can be considered lost,” Roscosmos spokeswoman Anna Vedishcheva said on Rossiya television.

The
failure comes a day after NASA managed to land a roving laboratory the
size of a compact car on Mars after an eight-month, 352-million-mile
(566-million-kilometer) journey.

A Russian robotic probe designed
to study a moon of Mars got stranded in Earth orbit after its launch in
November and eventually came crashing down in January.

A few
months before, a Soyuz booster rocket similar to those ferrying crews
and cargo to the International Space Station failed, prompting officials
to consider leaving the space outpost unmanned. Russian space officials
eventually tracked down the reason, saying it was caused by
“accidental” manufacturing flaws and the Soyuz launches resumed.

Those
mishaps followed other failures. Russia lost three navigation
satellites in December 2010, then a military satellite in February 2011
and a telecommunications satellite in August of that year.

Officials
blamed the botched launches on the post-Soviet industrial meltdown that
stymied modernization of a once-proud space program, which put the
first satellite in orbit and sent the first human into space. Despite a
steady increase of funding thanks to oil revenues, Russia’s space
industries continue to rely on obsolete equipment and an aging
workforce, and production standards have degraded.

“It’s very
difficult to get out of the pit the Russian space industries have fallen
into,” said Igor Marinin, the editor of the Novosti Kosmonavtiki
monthly magazine that covers space industry news.

Russia’s space
agency chief Vladimir Popovkin has ordered the establishment of quality
inspection teams at plants that produce rocket parts. The inspectors
have the authority to halt production if they see that a plant is
struggling to maintain quality standards.

Marinin said that
Popovkin’s move was a step in the right direction. “It has already
yielded some immediate results, making the Bulava (intercontinental
ballistic) missile capable of flying. But it appears that it hasn’t been
properly organized at every plant and is not working everywhere yet.”

Popovkin’s
predecessor, Anatoly Perminov, who lost his job after previous launch
failures, also said that the latest failure had likely been rooted in a
manufacturing flaw.

Marinin said that despite Tuesday’s failure,
the Proton rocket, capable of launching massive satellites into high
orbits, will remain popular among global customers. The rocket
manufactured by the Moscow-based Khrunichev company has been the main
cash-cow for the space industry since its darkest days in the 1990s.

“Proton is a very good and solid design,” Marinin said.

NASA
has also experienced an array of launch failures, including those of
two high-profile climate research satellites. The Glory satellite, which
was to collect long-term climate data, crashed in 2011 after the
rocket’s nose cone failed to separate. In 2009, the Orbiting Carbon
Observatory, to monitor atmospheric carbon dioxide, crashed off
Antarctica after payload fairing failed to separate from the rocket.

The
European Space Agency’s Ariane 5 rocket, used for launches from the
cosmodrome in French Guiana, has not experienced a launch failure since
2003.

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