A Russian rocket with a Mexican satellite aboard burnt in the atmosphere minutes after launch on Saturday due to a technical failure – the second critical mishap for the Russian space sector in less than a month.
The Proton-M launcher took off from Russia’s Baikonour cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Saturday shortly before noon local time aiming to deliver the MexSat 1 telecommunication satellite to the geostationary orbit. However, just 500 seconds after lift-off, the third stage of the rocket experienced a critical failure which resulted in the complete loss of the spacecraft.
The incident has come less than three weeks after the loss a Russian cargo ship bound for the International Space Station which was left stranded in the orbit after a technical failure during separation. Moreover, the Progress M-26M cargo vehicle currently docked at the space station failed to ignite on Saturday, just a few hours before the Proton crash, during an attempt to boost the space station’s orbit.
MexSat1 together with its carrying rocket was said to have burnt completely above Siberia with no fragments reaching the Earth's surface, according to Russia’s space agency Roscosmos. The incident took place about 161km above the Earth. Roscosmos hinted a problem involving the rocket’s steering engines was the most likely culprit. The satellite was insured.
Russian news agency RIA said the incident would mean all launches using the Proton-M rocket would now be suspended pending investigation results.
Proton M is a heavy lift launcher based on Soviet-era technology developed in the 1960s. In operation since 2001, the rocket conducted more than 100 flights of which 11 have failed. Three of the failures were caused by the rocket’s Briz-M upper stage.
The latest incident comes exactly a year after the previous failure experienced by Proton M, which also resulted in a loss of a telecommunications satellite. Six successful flights took place in the meantime.
Proton-M launches are marketed through the International Launch Services, a subsidiary of Russia’s Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Centre.
However, it’s not only Proton-M that has been in trouble lately. The failed April Progress M27M mission towards the space station travelled aboard the lighter Soyuz rocket, until recently considered the most reliable launcher in the world. Last Augus,t a failure of the third stage of Soyuz left two European Galileo navigational satellites stranded in useless orbits prompting an extensive recovery operation by the European Space Agency.
"It seems that the Russian space industry is disintegrating with cosmic speed," Yuri Karash, a leading space scientist and member of the Russian Academy of Space Science, told the Interfax news agency.
The string of failures raises concerns about the operations of the International Space Station. Since the retirement of Nasa’s Space Shuttle in 2011, Russia has been the only country capable of taking human crew to the orbital outpost. The latest Progress failure has, however, disrupted the space station’s schedule as half of the current crew, who were scheduled to return to Earth in May, would have to stay until June.
Roscosmos said the loss of the Progress M-27M was caused by leaking fuel tanks in the Soyuz rocket's third stage.