Russian cargo ship fails to reach orbit


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Published: 2011 Aug. 24; updated: Aug. 25, 26, 29; 30; 31

A Soyuz-U rocket, carrying the Progress M-12M cargo ship bound to the International Space Station, ISS, lifted off from Site 1 in Baikonur into a cloudless sky on August 25, 2011, at 17:00:08 Moscow Summer Time. The launch vehicle followed a standard ascent trajectory to reach an orbit with an inclination 51.6 degrees toward the Equator and the separation of the cargo ship from its rocket was expected at 17:09. However shortly after the launch, Russian space agency, Roskosmos, announced that a failure of the propulsion system on the third stage of the launch vehicle led to its premature emergency shutdown 325 seconds after a liftoff and the loss of the payload. The timing of the failure indicated that the engine on the third stage fired for around 38 seconds, or less than a quarter of its planned duration. Under normal circumstances, the third stage would fall into the Pacific Ocean.

According to NASA, mission control in Houston received a report about "off-nominal situation" during the launch five minutes 50 seconds after the liftoff. At the time, the agency had already posted a note about the successful launch on its web site.

The official RIA Novosti news agency reported that the remnants of the cargo ship or its launch vehicle had crashed in the Choisk Region of Russia's Altai Republic around 17:25 Moscow Time. Later during the day, the impact point was narrowed down to the Bezhel Bik forest, some 40 kilometers from the nearest town of Karakoksha. The agency quoted local residents reporting a huge explosion in the hard-to-reach wooded area resulting in rattling windows as far as 100 kilometers from the epicenter. There were no immediate reports of casualties. The search for the remnants of the vehicle was promised to start at dawn on Aug. 26.

Posters on the web forum of the Novosti Kosmonavtiki magazine said that telemetry from the spacecraft had been lost practically simultaneously with the engine failure, however shortly before the loss of communications (some 305 seconds after the liftoff and 20 seconds before the engine stalled), data had indicated some pressure drop in the rocket's propellant tank.

Progress M-12M was carrying 2,670 kilograms of supplies to the ISS including 257 kilograms of food, 420 kilograms of water and 50 kilograms of oxygen. The spacecraft also carried 10 paintings by the son of the Russian artist Aleksandr Shilov. The collection was reportedly sent to the station for the "psychological support" of the crew, however, some reports suggested that the artist planned to use the occasion to drastically hike up prices for the display of his work back on Earth. Some posters on Russian web forums characterized the destruction of paintings as "the only good news coming out of the accident."

The docking of the ill-fated spacecraft with the ISS was scheduled for Aug. 26, at 18:38 Moscow Time. To make room for the new arrival, a previous Russian cargo ship -- Progress M-11M -- was undocked from the station on August 23, 2011, at 13:37 Moscow Time. Several hours after the botched launch, Roskosmos announced that the loss of the cargo ship would not affect the life conditions of the station crew and onboard supplies enable the functioning of the outpost during a prolonged period. At the time, a crew of six, delivered by the Soyuz TMA-21 and Soyuz TMA-02M spacecraft, worked and lived onboard the ISS. Both Soyuz vehicles remain docked at the station, always ready for quick evacuation of all residents of the outpost if necessary.

Within a couple of hours after the accident, NASA organized a press-briefing with Mike Suffredini, the agency's ISS manager. He echoed Roskosmos' claim that the ISS crew had been well stockpiled with all critical consumables for the foreseeable future. "...We can go several months without re-supply if that becomes necessary," Suffredini said. According to Suffredini, the crew could remain at its full size until around October without additional transports. Suffredini mentioned some of the consumable components of the station's toilet system, which could put limit on the duration of the expedition in some remote future. Also, such factors as radiation exposure levels for the crew and the maximum mission duration allowable for the Soyuz lifeboats could also become factors in the coming months.

At the time of the accident, the launch of the next Russian cargo ship -- Progress M-13M - was scheduled for Oct. 28, 2011, at 13:59:08 Moscow Decree Time. The vehicle was shipped from its manufacturing site at RKK Energia's facility in Korolev near Moscow to its launch site in Baikonur in the early hours of August 24, 2011.

Debris search

Following a delay caused by bad weather, the search for debris started in the area where the Progress was believed to crash. Although the search efforts produced a variety of man-made hardware, including remnants of an aircraft, none of the finds could be positively linked to the accident with the Progress M-12M.

As it transpired, the cargo ship's impact site was roughly coinciding with Drop Zone No. 327, designated for the second stage of the Proton rocket during nominal launches of satellites into the geostationary orbit from Baikonur. As a result, the helicopter search team returned to the area on September 21 to support the launch of the Proton rocket with the Garpun military satellite. Yet again, no evidence related to the Progress crash was found, leading to suggestions that remnants of the cargo ship and its upper stage had completely burned up during the reentry into the atmosphere.

In the wake of the accident

The loss of the Progress cargo ship became the latest in a string of launch mishaps which plagued the Russian space agency since the end of 2010. It was also the first failure of the Progress to deliver cargo to the space station since the introduction of this spacecraft series in 1978. The third stage on the Soyuz family of rockets failed last time in 2005, during the mission of the Molniya launcher. Hours after the Progress accident, a spokesman for the Russian space forces was quick to tell official media that the mishap would not affect the preparation for the launch of the Soyuz-2 rocket with the GLONASS-M satellite from Plesetsk scheduled for August 26. However a day later, the Interfax news agency quoted Roskosmos sources as saying that all missions of rockets in the Soyuz family would be grounded until the investigation in the Progress launch failure was completed. The third stage of the Soyuz-2 rocket uses a different engine -- RD-0124 -- rather than RD-0110 installed on the Soyuz rockets.

According to Roskosmos, a commission including representatives of the agency and the industry was formed to investigate the incident. The head of Keldysh research center, Anatoly Koroteev, was appointed to lead the inquiry. The next Progress vehicle was scheduled to go to the station on October 28. The impact of the failure on the next manned launch of the Soyuz spacecraft scheduled for September 22 was yet to be determined, said Gennady Raikunov, the head of TsNIIMash research and certification center at Roskosmos. The man-rated Soyuz-FG rocket uses an identical third stage with the one on the failed Soyuz-U vehicle. The exact cause of the failure would have to be established before program officials could clear the manned mission for liftoff. In case of serious problems, corrective actions could take up to a month, Raikunov said.

By August 26, the Russian media quoted various sources within the industry as saying that the upcoming launch manifest would have to be reshuffled to perform two unmanned missions of the Soyuz rocket, before the launch vehicle could be re-certified to carry the crew. It meant that the next manned mission to the International Space Station would have to be postponed from September 22 and allow the next Progress cargo ship to go first. In turn, the Progress launch would be preceded by the GLONASS-M mission.

On Aug. 29, 2011, Roskosmos confirmed that space officials had been considering postponing the landing of the Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft beyond a previously scheduled Sept. 8, 2011, as well as the launch of Soyuz TMA-22 spacecraft, originally set for the liftoff on Sept. 22, 2011. The return of the Soyuz TMA-21 was preliminary re-scheduled for around September 16, the Russian media said. According to industry sources, officials were considering either November 1 or November 11, 2011, as a possible new launch date for the Soyuz TMA-22 spacecraft.

The agency also said that members of the investigative commission into the Progress M-12M launch failure had established a cause of the abnormal functioning of the engine on the third stage in the "malfunctioning of the operational conditions of a gas generator in the engine." A Roskosmos representative told Russian media that the temperature in the gas generator had started climbing above normal levels immediately after its activation. The device apparently was unable to provide enough gas to drive the turbine which supplies propellant into the combustion chamber of the engine.

As of August 30, the upcoming station milestones looked as following:

  • Sept. 16 (Sept. 15, 11:30 p.m. Houston Time): Soyuz TMA-21 (Tail No. 231; ISS mission 26S) landing (Delayed from Sept. 8);
  • Sept. 25: Soyuz-2-1B/GLONASS-M launch (return to flight for the Soyuz family of rockets);
  • Oct. 13: Progress M-10M (Tail No. 410; ISS mission 42P) undocking from the station;
  • Oct. 14: Progress M-13M (Tail No. 413; ISS mission 45P) launch (a test flight of the Soyuz-U rocket);
  • Oct. 28: Soyuz TMA-22 (Tail No. 232; ISS mission 28S) launch (delayed from Sept. 22);

During this period, the crew of Soyuz TMA-02M would remain onboard the ISS, along with its spacecraft serving as a lifeboat. If this scenario is accomplished as planned, the station would remain manned.

Investigation results

On the evening of Sept. 8, 2011, Roskosmos published a statement announcing that an interagency commission investigating the Progress M-12M crash had completed its work and had found the cause of the launch failure. The analysis of telemetry information showed that the reduced consumption of fuel in the gas generator of the third stage engine had been a result of the contamination in the supply pipeline. This led to the violation of the engine's operational conditions and the shutdown of the propulsion system under the "Emergency engine shutdown" command, Roskosmos said.

According to the press-release, the commission members came to the conclusion that the discovered production defect was random, however the decision to qualify the accident as a single occurrence should be taken only following additional checks and a special quality control program reviewing the entire inventory of the already manufactured propulsion systems.

The commission recommended to develop a coordinate program of quality control for already manufactured engines and certify each particular unit for flight. In addition, the commission proposed to develop and introduce new quality control measures for various phases of development and manufacturing, including the installation of video monitoring at the final assembly plant.

On Oct. 7, 2011, speaking at the Duma (parliament), the head of Roskosmos, Vladimir Popovkin, said that no technical problems had been found in any of 18 engines, which had been recalled following the Progress crash. At the time, the upcoming schedule of ISS milestones looked as following:

  • Oct. 30: Progress M-13M (Tail No. 413; ISS mission 45P) launch (a test flight of the Soyuz-U rocket);
  • Nov. 14: Soyuz TMA-22 (Tail No. 232; ISS mission 28S) launch;
  • Nov. 22: Soyuz TMA-02M landing;
  • Dec. 26: Soyuz TMA-03 launch.

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Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: February 18, 2023

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The ill-fated Progress M-12M cargo ship lifts off from Baikonur on August 24, 2011. Credit: Roskosmos


A third stage of the manned version of the Soyuz rocket seconds before launch. A white frost is clearly visible around the area of the cryogenic liquid oxygen tank in the center of the photo. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak


A third stage of the Soyuz rocket with an RD-0110 (11D55) engine featuring four combustion chambers. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

stage 3

A front side of the third stage of the Soyuz rocket with a kerosene fuel tank clearly visible. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak


The RD-0110 engine, which powered the 3rd stage of the Soyuz rocket. Copyright © 2002 Anatoly Zak