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Soyuz fails to deliver 19 satellites from Vostochny
The second Soyuz rocket mission from Russia's new Vostochny spaceport lifted off on November 28, carrying the Meteor-M2-1 weather and climate-monitoring satellite, along with a cluster of 18 secondary payloads. However the spacecraft had never established contact with mission control...
The Meteor M2-1 mission at a glance:
The main spacecraft of the mission is a sibling of the previous Meteor-M2 satellite launched in 2014. The delivery of Meteor-M2-1 marked the resumption of launches from the far-eastern Russian space center after a more than a year-and-half lull. This time, the Soyuz-2 rocket custom-built for Vostochny was upgraded with a Fregat upper stage making its inaugural flight from this launch site.
Like its predecessor Meteor-M No. 2, the 2,750-kilogram Meteor-M No. 2-1 satellite (a.k.a. Meteor-M2-1) was designed to monitor global weather, the ozone layer, the ocean surface temperature and ice conditions to facilitate shipping in polar regions of our planet.
The spacecraft was built at Moscow-based VNIIEM corporation, which relied on its standard Resurs-UKP-M platform as a basis for the Meteor-M series.
The Meteor-M No. 2-1 carries a set of instruments and systems, which represent its main payload:
The multi-channel low-resolution imaging scanner, MSU-MR, is designed for wide-angle imaging of the Earth's surface along the flight path of the satellite, capturing a swath 2,900 kilometers wide. The scanner's photos register cloud cover, Earth's surface, ice cover and other feature visible in optical and near-infrared parts of spectrum with a resolution no worse than one kilometer when the instrument is looking directly in nadir.
The multi-channel imaging complex of medium resolution, KMSS-2, is used for multi-zonal imaging of the underlying surface in optical range along a swath 1,000 kilometers wide with a resolution of 60 meters.
The ultra-high frequency temperature and humidity radiometer, MTVZA-GYa, is used for mapping temperature and humidity in the UHF range. The instrument can be used for early forecasting of typhoons and hurricanes and also creating vertical profiles of temperature and humidity of the atmosphere and in the soil.
The infrared Fourier spectrometer, IKFS-2, is designed for profiling temperature and humidity in the troposphere and the lower stratosphere and it can also be used for monitoring of the ozone content in the ozone layer.
The modified Rescue Radio-complex, RK-SM-MKA, is installed for the first time on a satellite in the Meteor-M series. The system was designed to operate as part of the KOSPAS-SARSAT search and rescue system, which can be used to send distress messages from sea vessels, aircraft and land vehicles.
The radio relay complex, BRK, for storage and transmission of meteorological data SSPD, can simultaneously pick up signals from up to 150 sea- and land-based automated weather measurement stations spread around the Earth.
Unlike the previous Meteor-M2 satellite, the M2-1 variant is not equipped with the Severyanin radar, because, according to VNIIEM officials, the radar already operating on the Meteor-M2 satellite has provided enough data. (821)
The Meteor-M No. 2-1 is certified to work for at least five years. It will become the third spacecraft in the Meteor-3M network, complementing the Meteor-M No. 1 satellite, which was launched on Sept. 17, 2009, and Meteor-M No. 2 launched on July 8, 2014.
According to the original plan, the launch of the Meteor-M2-1 satellite would allow Russia to have three low-orbital meteorological satellites simultaneously in orbit, allowing a total meteorological coverage of the Russian territory from polar orbit every two or three days. However the original Meteor-M satellite lost most of its capabilities in 2014, or three years before Meteor-M2-1 reached the launch pad.
Known specifications of the Meteor-M No. 2-1 satellite:
In addition to its primary passenger, the Soyuz-2-1b rocket and its Fregat upper stage carried 18 secondary payloads:
Preparing Meteor-M2-1 mission
As of the end of 2009, the launch of Meteor-M2-1 was promised in 2012, however by that year, the mission slipped to 2015. Roskosmos announced a formal tender for the construction of the follow-on Meteor-M No. 2-1 and No. 2-2 satellites on Dec. 30, 2013. Because the satellites were supposed to be almost exact copies of the original Meteor-M2 satellite, the VNIIEM corporation was the only real contender for the 3,136.2-million-ruble contract, which was awarded on Feb. 26, 2014. At the time, the launches of the 2-1 and 2-2 versions of Meteor-M were scheduled for December 2015 and December 2016, but they had to be postponed to 2017 and 2018 respectively.
One of the likely factors contributing to the delays was the move of their launches from Baikonur to Vostochny, which required deploying the processing infrastructure at the new site and the building a custom version of the Soyuz-2 rocket for the mission.
The launch campaign finally began in Vostochny with the delivery of the Meteor-M No. 2-1 satellite on Oct. 11, 2017.
The rocket for the mission arrived at Vostochny's Ledyanaya train station on October 28. It was then delivered to the processing complex, where the assembly of the four boosters of the first stage and the core booster of the second stage into a single vehicle was completed on November 8. On the same day, Roskosmos announced that the assembly of the payload section with the Fregat upper stage had been scheduled to begin after November 14. According to Roskosmos, the Meteor-M No. 2-1 satellite and the secondary payloads were undergoing processing at the time and the propellant components were being delivered to the launch site. Also, the Fregat stage was being fueled, Roskosmos said.
On November 17, specialists completed the integration of the spacecraft with the upper stage. All the electric checks and test deployment of extendable structures and solar panels had also been completed, according to Roskosmos.
The assembly of the payload section for the mission was completed on November 20 with the encapsulation of the Fregat stage and the satellites under their payload fairing. The transfer of the payload section to the vehicle assembly building for integration with the Soyuz-2-1b rocket was performed on November 21 and the assembly of the launch vehicle was completed on November 23, Roskosmos said.
The rollout of the Soyuz-2-1b rocket to its launch pad took place on November 25. After the vehicle arrived at the launch complex and was erected onto the pad, the Mobile Service Tower moved into position to provide access to the rocket during the final countdown for liftoff. According to Roskosmos, the schedule of the first day on the pad included checks and tests of systems on the booster and the Fregat upper stage.
In the meantime, on November 24, teams charged with clean up operations and environmental monitoring at four drop zones, where fragments of the Soyuz-2-1b rocket were expected to fall during the launch of Meteor-M2-1, began deploying in the Amurskaya Oblast and the Sakha Republic. Specialists set base camps and deployed portable tracking radars, Roskosmos said.
A Soyuz-2-1b rocket with a Fregat upper stage lifted off from the Soyuz launch complex in Vostochny on Nov. 28, 2017, at 08:41:45.965 Moscow Time. The launch vehicle carried the Meteor-M No. 2-1 satellite, along with a cluster of 18 secondary satellites.
After a few seconds in a vertical ascent under power of the four boosters of the first stage and the core booster of the second stage, the rocket headed northwest across eastern Russia, aligning its trajectory with a polar orbit inclined around 98 degrees toward the Equator. The strap-on boosters of the first stage separated 118.2 seconds into the flight and should've crashed at Drop Zone No. 981 in the Amurskaya Oblast (Amur Region) on the border between Tynda and Zeya Districts.
The fairing protecting the payload then split in two halves and separated during the operation of the second stage at L+223 seconds in flight. The payload fairing was projected to fall at Drop Zone No. 983 in the Aldan District in the Sakha (Yakut) Republic.
Moments before the second stage completed its firing less than five minutes into the flight, the RD-0124 engine of the third stage fired through the interstage lattice structure, which then separated along with the second stage at L+287.13 seconds in flight.
Just five seconds later, the tail section on the third stage dropped splitting into three segments at L+292.28 seconds. Both the second-stage booster and the segments of the tail section were to fall at Drop Zone No. 985, in the Vilyusk District, located farther north in the Sakha Republic.
The third stage continued firing until 562 seconds into the flight, inserting the Fregat upper stage and its 19 passengers into a ballistic trajectory just short of orbital velocity. As a result, after its engine cutoff and separation from Fregat, the third stage was to reach the peak of its ballistic arch and begin a long free fall back to Earth over the Arctic Ocean and Northern Atlantic. Its trajectory was designed to bring flaming debris of the stage crashing into the middle of the Northern Atlantic.
Shortly after the launch, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who had witnessed the liftoff along with the Head of Roskosmos Igor Komarov, congratulated the Vostochny personnel with the successful mission. Although the orbital insertion of the payload would not be completed for a few more hours, the celebratory mood at the launch site likely indicated that the available telemetry had confirmed the successful separation of the payload section from the third stage of the launch vehicle.
Space tug flight profile
In the meantime, exactly one minute after its split from the third stage, the Fregat was to fire its engines over the Arctic Region for around 1.5 minutes, which would ensure its insertion into an initial transfer orbit. The stack would then climb passively for around 46 minutes before Fregat would fire for the second time near the apogee of its initial orbit, this time over the southern polar region of the planet. The maneuver, lasting less than a minute would insert the vehicle into a nearly circular orbit around 800 kilometers above the Earth's surface. Less than a minute later, the Meteor M-2-1 satellite would eject from Fregat's payload adapter, completing the main task of the mission. Both initial engine firings would be completed by the Fregat beyond the view of Russian ground stations and would have to be confirmed during the subsequent passes of the vehicle over Russia.
The Fregat was then programmed to embark on a complex sequence, including three firings of its main engine, to deliver its secondary payloads into three different orbits, a task expected to be completed five hours after liftoff.
After all 18 secondary payloads were released, the Fregat was programmed to conduct its 5th maneuver to place itself on a suicide trajectory into the Earth's atmosphere. If everything went as planned, the nearly empty stage would plunge into the dense atmosphere over the Eastern Pacific Ocean around 5.5 hours after launch.
The Meteor-M No. 2-1 launch timeline on Nov. 28, 2017:
At 12:08 Moscow Time, while the mission was still expected to be in progress, Roskosmos published a statement saying that the Fregat upper stage with the Meteor-M satellite had been inserted into the prescribed intermediate orbit. "However in the course of the first planned communications window with the spacecraft, it was not possible to establish contact with the spacecraft due to its absence in its target orbit. The analysis of information is currently ongoing," Roskosmos said.
The official Russian media then reported that one of the first two firings of the Fregat upper stage had not taken place as planned, possibly leaving the stack in a wrong orbit. There was also early confirmation that the Fregat had begun its first firing, but it was unclear whether it had been concluded as planned.
In the early afternoon, Moscow Time, the Interfax news agency reported that preliminary data indicated that a human error in the pre-programmed flight sequence could have placed the Fregat upper stage into a wrong orientation during its first maneuver, sending the space tug and its payloads into the Atlantic Ocean. Soon thereafter, the North-American aerospace defense command, NORAD, said that it had not detected any objects in orbit associated with the launch. Also, TASS quoted Russian industry sources as saying that they had practically exhausted all the opportunities for finding the Fregat in orbit by the end of the day on November 28 and further chances of detecting the object in space were slim.
In the meantime, pilots flying aircraft over the North Atlantic near Iceland reported seeing bright fireballs apparently entering the atmosphere and disintegrating overhead on the morning of November 28. The reentry was actually captured from British Airways Flight BAW94 heading from Montreal to London.
Also, a colorful commentary from a source clearly familiar with mission operations appeared on social media and reported that the Fregat had crashed in the Antarctica. According to the poster, the vehicle began its descent during its first pass within range of the Russian ground control stations, which apparently were able to confirm that the space tug's main flight control computer was functioning well. As a result, the propulsion system, KDU, or the attitude control system were suspected.
Shortly thereafter, the same poster formulated four possible culprits:
1 - A problem with the KDU propulsion system, even though the poster skeptically noted that the system has reliable backup and its multiple thrusters can take over for failed ones.
2 - At the point of separation between the third stage of the launch vehicle and the upper stage, it lost its stable position. The flight control computer and the KDU thrusters tried to restore the attitude but ultimately failed.
3 - An unidentified technical problem during the assembly, which the poster also saw skeptically based on his high regard for quality control and testing at NPO Lavochkin which builds Fregat.
4 - The vehicle collided with space junk.
By November 29, specialists at NPO Lavochkin, which builds Fregat, had already narrowed down the most likely culprit in the failure of the Soyuz launch from Vostochny spaceport, industry sources close to investigation told RussianSpaceWeb.com
Although the information is still preliminary, it is increasingly clear that all the hardware aboard the Fregat upper stage performed as planned. But, almost unbelievably, the flight control system on the Fregat did not have the correct settings for the mission originating from the new launch site in Vostochny, as apposed to routine launches from Baikonur and Plesetsk. As a result, as soon as Fregat and its cargo separated from the third stage of the launch vehicle, its flight control system began commanding a change of orientation of the stack to compensate for what the computer had perceived as a deviation from the correct attitude, which was considerable. As a result, when the Fregat began its first preprogrammed main engine firing, the vehicle was in wrong attitude, which led to a maneuvering in a wrong direction.
At the time, ground control was still receiving telemetry from the mission, but the space tug left the communications range around 7o0 seconds after the liftoff and before the completion of the first maneuver. Apparently, it was not immediately possible to predict the exact trajectory of the stage resulting from the wrong attitude, but it likely led to a suicidal plunge of the stack into the Earth's atmosphere. The available telemetry also allows to establish the exact culprit in the failure, sources said.
In the meantime, Roskosmos announced that the State Commission had approved the members of the accident commission looking into the causes of the failed launch of the Soyuz-2-1b rocket on November 28. The commission would be headed by Oleg Skorobogatov, Deputy Director General at TsNIIMash, his deputy would be Aleksandr Medvedev, Deputy Director General at TsNIIMash and Designer General for Launch Vehicles and Launch Infrastructure. The commission included representatives from Roskosmos, key research institutions of the rocket and space industry and the Ministry of Defense, Roskosmos said.
According to Roskosmos, the commission was expected to meet on December 1 and continue its work until Dec. 15, 2017.
Also on November 29, search teams on helicopters located three out of four boosters of the first stage from the ill-fated launch and planned to resume the search of the fourth booster on November 30, Interfax reported. Drones were also used in the search effort.
Coordinate system for the Soyuz family of rockets. Credit: Starsem
The complex failure scenario of the second Soyuz rocket launch from Vostochny continued emerging in the days following the accident. Although the culprit had quickly been pinned down by flight control specialists, even seasoned space engineers, who were not directly involved in the intricacies of guidance systems, struggled to fully comprehend the bizarre nature of the accident.
In the Soyuz/Fregat launch vehicle, the first three booster stages of the rocket and the Fregat upper stage have their two separate guidance systems controlled by their own gyroscopic platforms. The guidance reference axis used by the gyroscopes on the Soyuz and on the Fregat had a 10-degree difference. The angle of a roll maneuver for rockets lifting off from Baikonur, Plesetsk and Kourou, which was required to guide them into a correct azimuth of ascent, normally laid within a range from positive 140 to negative 140 degrees. To bring the gyroscopic guidance system into a position matching the azimuth of the launch, its main platform has to be rotated into a zero-degree position via a shortest possible route. The ill-fated launch from Vostochny required a roll maneuver of around 174 degrees (which was apparently conducted from the 5th to 22nd second of the flight), and with an additional 10 degrees for the Fregat's reference axis, it meant that its gyro platform had to turn around 184 degrees in order to reach the required "zero" position.
In the Soyuz rocket, the gyro platform normally rotated from 174 degrees back to a zero position, providing the correct guidance. However on the Fregat, the shortest path for its platform to a zero-degree position was to increase its angle from 184 to 360 degrees. Essentially, the platform came to the same position, but this is not how the software in the main flight control computer on the Fregat interpreted the situation. Instead, the computer decided that the spacecraft had been 360 degrees off target and dutifully commanded its thrusters to fire to turn it around to the required zero-degree position. After the nearly 60-degree turn at a rate of around one degree per second, the Fregat began a preprogrammed trajectory correction maneuver with its main engine. Unfortunately, the spacecraft was in a wrong attitude and, as a result, the engine was fired in a wrong direction.
On Dec. 1, 2017, the accident commission met to review causes of the November 28 Soyuz failure, Roskosmos State Corporation announced. According to Roskosmos, the latest calculations showed that the most likely crash site for the payload section is the Northern Atlantic at a point 42 degrees North latitude and 38 degrees West longitude, with a possible deviation of -120 or +230 kilometers along the ground track of the mission and 45 kilometers left and right from the ground track.
The accident commission decided to permit further launches of the Soyuz-2 rocket series according to the previously approved schedule, Roskosmos said. At the same time, the commission will continue work with the next meeting set on Dec. 12, 2017.
In the days following the November 28 accident, Russian space officials and the wider engineering space community also did some soul-searching on the underlining causes leading to the bizarre error during the launch. First of all, a number of experts, pointed out that the overall cause of the accident was a rare confluence of rotation angles within the gyroscopic system of the Fregat upper stage which had not been accounted for in the software of its onboard flight control computer. Such a confluence could only be generated by the particular navigational situation in Vostochny and had never been encountered during the previous 66 launches of Soyuz-2 rockets from Baikonur, Plesetsk and Kourou.
According to a post on the online forum of the Novosti Kosmonavtiki magazine, the Fregat stage for the ill-fated first mission from Vostochny was originally built for the launch of the Rezonans scientific satellites from Baikonur.
At the same time, experts agree that the problem could theoretically have been resolved before launch, if not for the poor coordination between the developers of the flight control systems of the Soyuz-2 launch vehicle and their colleagues working on flight controls for the Fregat. As one poster on the Novosti Kosmonavtiki forum noted: in the deluge of pre-launch paperwork between RKTs Progress in Samara, which built Soyuz-2, and NPO Lavochkin, which developed Fregat, discussing a multitude of legal issues, confirming and reconfirming various agreements and reminders, there was not a single memo attracting the developers’ attention to a different alignment of the launch pad in Vostochny from that of other sites. Obviously, such information was buried in the working documentation on the mission, but nobody thought about the effect of this fact on the launch. The lower echelon of engineers simply missed that detail, while top managers had no idea at all, because, the majority of them lacked the necessary qualifications, the poster said.
On December 11, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin announced the investigation into the Meteor-M-2-1 launch failure completed, however the conclusions about personal responsibility of Russian space officials for the accident would be made later.
Read (and see) much more about these and many other space developments in Russia
Final assembly of the Meteor-M2-1 satellite. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
The MSU-MR scanning sensor is the main instrument aboard Meteor-M2-1 satellite. Credit: RKS Corporation
Train carrying stages of the Soyuz-2-1b rocket arrives at vehicle storage facility in Vostochny on Oct. 28, 2017. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
The Meteor-M No. 2-1 satellite was prepared for launch in Vostochny in October and November 2017. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
On Nov. 20, 2017, the Meteor-M2-1 satellite was encapsulated under its payload fairing inside the spacecraft processing building. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
The LEO Vantage satellite developed for Telesat was intended for testing low-orbital communications system operating in Ka-band. Click to enlarge. Credit: Telesat
The Soyuz-2-1b rocket with Meteor-M2-1 ready for rollout from the vehicle assembly building on Nov. 23, 2017. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz-2-1b with Meteor-M2-1 arrives at the launch pad in Vostochny on Nov. 25, 2017. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz-2-1b with Meteor-M2-1 is being erected on the launch pad in Vostochny on Nov. 25, 2017. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Meteor M2-1 lifts off on Nov. 28, 2017. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos