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Soyuz launches European weather satellite

Soyuz launch Metop-C

WASHINGTON — A Soyuz rocket successfully launched a European weather satellite Nov. 6, completing a constellation of polar-orbiting satellites and providing additional reassurance about the reliability of the Soyuz.

The Soyuz ST-B rocket lifted off from the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana on schedule at 7:47 p.m. Eastern. The Metop-C satellite on the rocket deployed from the Fregat upper stage one hour after liftoff.

The 4,084-kilogram satellite, built by Airbus Defence and Space for the European weather agency Eumetsat, is the third and final satellite in the Metop series of polar-orbiting satellites. The spacecraft joins Metop-A, launched in 2006, and Metop-B, launched in 2012, both on Soyuz rockets from Kazakhstan.

Metop-C will operate in the same 817-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit, with a mid-morning crossing time, as Metop-A and -B. The three satellites will be spaced 120 degrees apart in the orbit until the retirement and deorbiting of Metop-A, scheduled for 2022.

Metop-C carries nine instruments to collect imagery, temperature and humidity profiles in the atmosphere, and sea surface conditions, as well as monitor space weather conditions. That instrument suite includes three provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as part of cooperation with Eumetsat that includes sharing of data from the NOAA-20 satellite, which offers complementary observations from its mid-afternoon orbit.

The launch is the third for the Soyuz since an Oct. 11 failure during the launch of the crewed Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft, forcing the use of the rocket’s abort system to escape from the rocket and safely land downrange from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. A Soyuz rocket launched a military payload Oct. 24 from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia, while another launched a Glonass navigation satellite Nov. 3, also from Plesetsk.

Russian investigators said Nov. 1 that the Oct. 11 launch accident was caused when one of the four side boosters of the Soyuz failed to separate cleanly, coming into contact with the core stage. That separation issue was blamed on a sensor that was bent during assembly of the rocket.

One more Soyuz launch, of a Progress cargo spacecraft, is scheduled for mid-November before the rocket is used again for a crewed mission. That launch, of the Soyuz MS-11 spacecraft carrying three people, is scheduled for Dec. 3.

The launch was the eighth mission this year for Arianespace, counting Soyuz launches from French Guiana along with its Ariane 5 and Vega vehicles. In comments at a post-launch ceremony, Arianespace Chief Executive Stéphane Israël said three more launches are scheduled through the end of the year, starting with the Vega launch of a Moroccan Earth observation satellite Nov. 20. That will be followed by an Ariane 5 launch of two communications satellites in early December and a Soyuz launch of a French reconnaissance satellite in mid-December.

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Arianespace Soyuz launch schedule unaffected by Russian MS-10 failure

Soyuz VS07, used to launch Europe's Sentinel-1 satellite in 2014 from the European Spaceport in French Guiana. Credit: Credit: ESA–S. Corvaja.

WASHINGTON — An Arianespace Soyuz mission will launch Nov. 7 without any delays resulting from the failure of a crewed, Russian-operated Soyuz launch earlier this month, Arianespace said Oct. 30.

Arianespace of Evry, France, said the Europeanized Soyuz it uses will launch the Metop-C weather satellite from the Guiana Space Center in South America on the same schedule set prior to the Russian mission.

The Oct. 11 failure of the Russian mission from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, resulting in an abort that safely returned a Soyuz capsule carrying U.S. astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut  Alexey Ovchinin to the Kazakh steppes, had cast doubt on the schedule of other Soyuz missions. Arianespace said at the time it was still assessing whether there would be any impact on its own launch schedule.

Arianespace does not launch crewed Soyuz missions, and uses a modified version of the crewed rocket to send satellites into space. The Europeanized version is slightly newer, featuring modifications to launch in the high humidity of the Amazon and a digital control system instead of analog.

The Metop-C satellite launch is the second of three Soyuz missions planned before the rocket is used to again carry crew to the International Space Station. Russia’s Ministry of Defense launched a Soyuz rocket Oct. 24 from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome. The third unmanned Soyuz launch, carrying a Progress resupply vessel to the International Space Station, is scheduled for Nov. 18, according to Russian news outlet TASS.

Metop-C is a 4,100-kilogram satellite that will complete a polar-orbiting constellation of three weather-forecasting spacecraft. It will be Arianespace’s eighth launch of 2018 and its second Soyuz launch this year.

The launch is scheduled for 7:47 p.m. Eastern, with satellite separation expected one hour later. Airbus Defence and Space built Metop-C for the European meteorological organization Eumetsat.

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Roscosmos to complete Soyuz accident investigation this month

Soyuz contrail

WASHINGTON — The final report into the launch failure that forced the abort of a crewed Soyuz spacecraft is scheduled for completion by the end of the month, the Russian state space corporation Roscosmos announced Oct. 20.

In a brief statement, Roscosmos said the state commission investigating the Oct. 11 accident met Oct. 20 and approved a “preliminary report” on the cause of the failure during the Soyuz MS-10 launch. Roscosmos did not disclose any details about the report’s contents, such as what cause the investigators identified.

Roscosmos said that the final report, including recommendations to prevent a similar problem from occurring again, will be completed on Oct. 30. It didn’t state when that report, or some summary of it, will be publicly released.

While the statement didn’t discuss the causes of the failure, speculation has centered on a problem with one of the four strap-on boosters during staging, two minutes after liftoff. The boosters did not separately cleanly from the rocket as seen in video taken from the ground of the launch.

The Russian news service RIA Novosti said Oct. 20 that one of the boosters was not properly attached to the rocket’s core stage during assembly. According to that report, citing a “space agency source,” a mounting lug was bent when the side booster was “forcefully connected” to the core stage, and that workers then added lubricant to ensure that it would separate. However, during separation, that side booster hit the core stage and damaged it, leading to the launch abort.

The Roscosmos statement did not mention when the Soyuz boosters would be approved to resume crewed flights. Russian officials have previously stated that the rocket will perform as many as three uncrewed flights, including a Progress cargo launch, before crewed flights would resume.

The next crewed Soyuz mission, Soyuz MS-11, was scheduled to launch in mid-December prior to the accident, delivering an American, a Canadian and a Russian to the station. While Russian officials have suggested that mission could be moved up to late November, no decision on that flight has been made by Roscosmos or the other International Space Station partners.

The three people currently on the ISS— Alexander Gerst of ESA, Serena Auñón-Chancellor of NASA and Sergey Prokopyev of Roscosmos—will need to return home by the end of the year, when the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft currently docked at the ISS reaches the end of its certified orbital lifetime.

The investigation into the launch failure is going much faster than an earlier investigation into a hole found in the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft’s orbital module in late August. That hole, patched hours after its discovery, may have been caused by mishandling of the spacecraft during launch preparations.

Roscosmos officials said in early October, prior to the launch failure, said they would complete the investigation into the hole by mid-November, after cosmonauts performed a spacewalk to inspect the spacecraft’s exterior. That spacewalk was postponed after the launch failure.

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Arianespace assessing impact of crewed Soyuz failure on satellite-launching variant

The impact of an Oct. 11 crewed Soyuz rocket anomaly on Europeanized Soyuz rockets operated by Arianespace is still unclear. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON —  Arianespace said Oct. 11 it’s too soon to say whether the Soyuz-ST rockets it uses to launch satellites from South America will be grounded following the failure of a Russian Soyuz-FG rocket carrying crew to the International Space Station.

Preparations for Arianespace’s planned November launch of a Soyuz-ST rocket carrying a European weather satellite remained underway Oct. 11 at Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana despite a still-unexplained Soyuz booster failure earlier the same day that forced the Soyuz-MS10 spacecraft to abort its mission about two minutes after liftoff and make an emergency landing.

“Along with our Russian partners, as soon as the relevant data is available, we will study the possible impact of this anomaly on Arianespace’s planned launches with Soyuz,” Arianespace said in an Oct. 11 statement. “At this point, it is still too early to draw any conclusions. In the meantime, the launch campaign for next Soyuz in November is continuing.”

The payload for the November mission is Metop-C, a weather satellite built by Airbus Defence and Space for Europe’s Eumetsat meteorological organization. The launch is scheduled for Nov. 7, according to a recent Eumetsat update.

Arianespace also noted in its statement that it uses a variant of the Soyuz rocket Russia uses to launch Soyuz TMA-M capsules to the space station.

“The versions of this launcher used for Arianespace flights from the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana are ST versions, which are different from the FG version used for this mission to the ISS,” Arianespace said in the statement.

While both rockets are Russian, the Soyuz variant that Arianespace uses is slightly newer and incorporates changes such as a larger fairing, a new digital telemetry system and some engine modifications necessary for launching in high humidity.  

The crewed Soyuz vehicle with NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Roscosmos cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin returned to Earth safely after the Soyuz rocket booster malfunctioned. Roscosmos has set up a “state commission” to investigate the anomaly.

Arianespace has been launching Soyuz rockets for companies and government agencies since 2011, operating the Russian vehicles from Guiana Space Centre, the same spaceport used to launch European Ariane 5 and Vega rockets. Russian crewed missions take place from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Eumetsat’s Metop-C weather satellite is designed to measure temperature, humidity and wind, as well as to detect ozone and other atmospheric gases. Eumetsat has two second-generation MetOp satellites, Metop-SG A1 and Metop-SG B1, also slated to launch on Soyuz rockets between 2021 and 2023.

Four additional Arianespace customers — OneWeb, based in Britain’s Channel Islands, telecom satellite operator SES of Luxembourg, and the Italian and European space agencies — all have Soyuz missions scheduled for this year or next year.

The list of upcoming Arianespace Soyuz missions includes:

  • OneWeb’s debut launch of 10 small telecom satellites, planned for sometime between December and February. The launch is the first of 21 Soyuz missions OneWeb purchased from Arianespace to carry between 690 and 720 satellites to low Earth orbit. OneWeb envisions a fast-paced launch campaign for the subsequent 20 missions, each carrying 34 to 36 spacecraft.

  • SES’s final first-generation launch of four O3b satellites, planned for 2019. All 16 O3b satellites in medium Earth orbit today launched on Soyuz rockets four at a time. SES has not announced a launch provider for the second-generation fleet, called O3b mPower, which Boeing is building, but said last year that the satellites were also designed to launch four at a time like the first generation from Thales Alenia Space.

  • The 2019 dual launch of the European Space Agency’s CHEOPS (Characterizing ExOPlanet Satellite) and the Italian Space Agency’s Cosmo-Skymed radar satellite. The civil- and military-purposed Cosmo-Skymed satellite has a similar polar, sun-synchronous orbit to CHEOPS, enabling the shared launch. Airbus is CHEOPS’ manufacturer, while Thales Alenia Space is in charge of building Cosmo-Skymed.

Soyuz is Arianespace’s medium-lift launcher, filling the gap between the light-lift Vega rocket and the heavyweight Ariane 5. Last year Arianespace used Soyuz for two missions to geostationary transfer orbit — the drop of point for most multi-ton telecom satellites — a feat championed as evidence of the rocket’s versatility. Before then, Arianespace-operated Soyuz launches were all to lower orbits, many to medium Earth orbit for the European Commission’s Galileo navigation satellites and for SES’s O3b telecom fleet.

Eumetsat and the Italian Space Agency did not respond to requests for comment. OneWeb declined to comment. SES said it is not expecting an impact on its launch schedule due to the difference on Soyuz variants.

ESA issued the following statement:

“Most important – the crew (Nick Hague, NASA, Aleksey Ovchinin, Roscosmos) is safe and in good condition. The aborted launch will have influence on the planning for the near future of ISS and the Horizons mission of ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst. We can’t provide further comments on this right now.

“A commission is put in place by Russian space agency Roscosmos. All other International Space Station partners, including ESA, are in full support of the ongoing efforts by the Roscosmos commission.

The ISS partnership is strong and has already dealt well with similar incidents related to cargo vehicles in the past.”

ESA Director General Jan Woerner sent an email Oct. 11 to the head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, offering ESA’s assistance in the Soyuz anomaly investigation.

Glavkosmos, the Russian company that since 2017 has also marketed Soyuz missions, but mainly for cubesat and other small satellite missions, also did not respond to a request for comment.

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NASA to look at options to keep crew on ISS while Soyuz grounded

Soyuz contrail

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — With Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft grounded for an indefinite period, NASA managers said Oct. 11 that they will look at ways to keep the current International Space Station crew in orbit for an extended period if needed.

During a NASA briefing held less than eight hours after the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft performed an emergency abort two minutes into its launch to the station, agency officials said they had few details about the incident and declined to speculate into the cause.

“Watching the ascent from our contingency action center here, the first stage appeared nominal,” said Reid Wiseman, NASA deputy chief astronaut. “There was first stage booster separation and then the abort occurred, and that’s really all the data that we have at this time.”

“We would be speculating” by offering any more insights into the launch failure, said Kenny Todd, ISS operations integration manager, noting the abort took place seconds after the Soyuz rocket’s strap-on boosters separated. “It was clearly in and around that time frame, but it’s very, very difficult to the untrained eye to be able to try to diagnose what was going on.”

That investigation, he said, would be left to a Russian state commission established within a few hours of the accident. “We’ll expect to hear some details on that over the next few days from our Russian colleagues,” he said.

He said it was not clear how long the investigation would last. “Obviously this is a high priority from a Russian standpoint to go try and understand what happened,” he said. “They will put a lot of resources on trying to understand exactly what happened.”

The length of the investigation is an issue since, with the Soyuz grounded, there is no means to get crews to the station. The three people currently on the station — commander Alexander Gerst of ESA, Serena Auñón-Chancellor of NASA and Sergey Prokopyev of Roscosmos — can return to Earth using the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft docked to the station.

Soyuz spacecraft, though, have an orbital lifetime of about 200 days based on testing of the ability of the spacecraft’s components to handle the space environment. With the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft launched to the ISS June 6, that lifetime limit would be reached in late December.

“There’s a little bit of margin” on that lifetime, Todd said, “but not a whole lot of margin.” The Soyuz would likely reach the end of life by early January, he said.

Todd emphasized, though, that NASA will seek ways to avoid “de-crewing” the ISS, which would happen if the current crew left on the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft before the Soyuz returned to flight. “We’re going to have to let that play out a little bit,” he said of bringing the crew back in December as planned. “We’re going to look at what our options are to try to make sure we don’t have to de-crew station.”

The current crew, Wiseman said, would be willing to stay on the station beyond the end of the year. “I talked to the crew this morning. They’re doing great,” he said. “They’re ready to serve at the will of the program. They will stay up there as long as need them to.”

In a worst-case scenario, though, Todd said that it should be feasible to operate the ISS without a crew on board for at least a limited time. “I feel very confident that we could fly for a significant amount of time” without a crew, he said. “There’s nothing that says we can’t just continue to bore holes in the sky and do a minimal amount of commanding. I’m not too concerned about that.”

He emphasized that there was no urgency to make any decisions about station operations. The station has plenty of supplies, he said, and the only major near-term issue is rescheduling a pair of spacewalks planned for late this month that would have involved Nick Hague, the NASA astronaut on the aborted Soyuz mission.

“We certainly don’t anticipate any problems throughout the rest of their increment onboard,” he said. “I think we’ve got runway in front of us, so I don’t worry too much about at least the next couple of months from a station standpoint.”

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Soyuz demonstrates finesse in flight and failure

Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin and U.S. astronaut Nick Hague embrace their families after landing at the Krayniy Airport in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Their Soyuz MS-10 capsule landed east of the Kazakh town of Dzhezkazgan after their mission was aborted by a launch failure. Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

MOSCOW — Thursday’s dramatic launch abort that returned the crew of Soyuz MS-10 safely to Earth after a still-unidentified booster anomaly was the first time a crewed spacecraft bound for the International Space Station has suffered a mission critical failure. But it was not the first time that a manned Soyuz rocket has been forced to activate its launch abort system.

The current iteration of the manned Soyuz booster, the Soyuz-FG, had until today boasted a 100 percent success rate. The derivative has been transporting crews to the space station since coming into service in 2001, conducting 55 successful flights in 17 years. But previous versions of the manned Soyuz launch vehicle have twice seen their launch abort systems activated.

The first recorded instance of a launch escape maneuver came in 1975, when Soyuz 18-1 took off for the Salyut 4 space station. The situation looked quite similar to what Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin and American astronaut Nick Hague experienced Thursday. Both flights experienced an abort midflight, forcing the capsule to separate from the rocket.

Details of Thursday’s launch abort were not immediately clear. According to NASA TV footage of the launch, Russian flight controllers first announced a booster failure about 165 seconds into flight. However, other reports in the Russian press have placed the abort time as early as 119 seconds.

The 1975 Soyuz-18-1 mission was much further along in its flight when the abort occurred: just under five minutes, amid the rocket’s second and third stage separation. The capsule had jettisoned its launch escape tower earlier in the launch, and had to ignite its engines to pull away. The crew experienced an intense re-entry, and landed in the wilderness close to the Chinese border.

According to the TASS news agency, the crew of Soyuz 18-1 experienced anywhere from 20 to 26 Gs on their descent. This is far in excess of what some sources in the Russian press have estimated the crew of Soyuz MS-10 experienced Thursday: anywhere from 5 to 7 Gs. It is not yet clear whether they escaped using the launch escape tower or their capsule’s engines.

This leaves Soyuz 10-1, a 1983 mission to the Salyut 7 space station, able to retain its title as the only manned mission to use the launch escape tower — a funnel-like cap or tower that sits atop the stack ready to whisk the crew capsule away from an exploding rocket on the launch pad or during early phases of flight. NASA is using a similar design for Orion.

Forty-eight seconds before Soyuz 10-1 launched, a fire broke out on the launch pad. The launch escape tower activated two seconds before the rocket below the crew exploded, ripping the Soyuz spacecraft away from the inferno as it engulfed the launch pad. The escape tower then angled the capsule off to the side, ejected, and the capsule opened parachutes for landing.

All things considered, the Soyuz has proven itself reliable historically and its launch escape system — at various stages of flight — has proven effective three times now. Which is good news for NASA and companies like SpaceX and Boeing that are developing similar systems for their manned spacecraft — but have never had to test them under live conditions.

 

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Soyuz launch to ISS aborted after booster failure; crew safe

Soyuz launch

Updated at 11:05 a.m. Eastern.

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — An American astronaut and Russian cosmonaut are reported to be in good condition after a problem with their Soyuz rocket minutes after liftoff Oct. 11 forced them to abort their mission to the International Space Station and make an an emergency landing in Kazakhstan.

A Soyuz rocket carrying the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft lifted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 4:40 a.m. Eastern. The launch appeared to be normal until around first stage separation, when the crew reported a “failure” with the booster and feeling weightlessness.

NASA Television reported that the spacecraft was in a ballistic descent after apparently separating from the Soyuz rocket, making a return to Earth rather than heading to the International Space Station. Search and rescue crews arrived at landing site 20 kilometers east of the Kazakh town of Dzhezkazgan. They reported that the two people onboard were in “good condition” and were extracted from the capsule about 90 minutes after liftoff.

In a brief presentation at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight here Oct. 11, Mark Vande Hei, a NASA astronaut who returned from five and a half months on the ISS in late February, said the anomaly took place 119 seconds after liftoff, a second after first stage separation. He added the cause the the anomaly is still unknown.

The abort took place several seconds after the launch abort tower on top of rocket was jettisoned, leaving a shroud surrounding the Soyuz that has abort thrusters of its own. “Somewhere around 119 seconds, those thrusters on the shroud took the crew safely away from whatever the problem was,” he said.

Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin and NASA astronaut Nick Hague pose in front of the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft in September. Credit: Victor Zelentsov/NASA
Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin and NASA astronaut Nick Hague pose in front of the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft in September. Credit: Victor Zelentsov/NASA

The Soyuz was carrying NASA astronaut Nick Hague, making his first spaceflight, and Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin, making his second. The two were to arrive at the ISS about six hours after liftoff for a half-year stay.

“NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and the NASA team are monitoring the situation carefully,” the agency said in a statement issued about two hours after the launch. “NASA is working closely with Roscosmos to ensure the safe return of the crew. Safety of the crew is the utmost priority for NASA. A thorough investigation into the cause of the incident will be conducted.”

Roscosmos announced that a “state commission” has been formed to investigate the anomaly. No media updates are expected on that effort for the rest of the day.

A Soyuz failure could jeopardize continued operation of the International Space Station. Soyuz is currently the only means for crews to travel to and from the station, with commercial crew vehicles by Boeing and SpaceX not expected to be ready to enter service before the middle of 2019. The current Soyuz on the ISS, Soyuz MS-09, launched in June and has an orbital lifetime of about 200 days.

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NASA plays down Soyuz investigation controversy

Soyuz undocking

BREMEN, Germany — NASA continues to downplay any concerns about the status of current or future Soyuz missions even as rumors continue in Russian media about the cause of a hole in the Soyuz docked to the station.

In an Oct. 3 statement, the second in less than three weeks from the agency on the issue, NASA responded to Russian media reports quoting Dmirty Rogozin, head of Roscosmos, who said the hole was not the cause of a manufacturing defect.

“Ruling out a manufacturing defect indicates that this is an isolated issue which does not categorically affect future production,” NASA said in the statement. It reiterated past statements that the investigation would not affect the Oct. 11 launch of the Soyuz MS-10 spaceraft carrying NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin.

Rogozin, in an Oct. 1 interview on Russian television, claimed that the hole had been made deliberately. That led to speculation, similar to rumors last month, that the hole had been made by someone on the ISS.

NASA, in its statement, argued that even if the hole was not a manufacturing defect, it did not mean it was deliberately created. “This conclusion does not necessarily mean the hole was created intentionally or with mal-intent,” the agency said. “NASA and Roscosmos are both investigating the incident to determine the cause.”

The statement also confirmed plans by Russia to carry out a spacewalk in November to study the hole from the outside. A specific date for the spacewalk has not been announced.

Dmitri Loskutov, head of the international cooperation department at Roscosmos, offered few details about the status of that ongoing investigation during a press conference at the 69th International Astronautical Congress here Oct. 1.

“The investigation of Roscosmos is ongoing,” he said. “We hope to have some additional information after the 15th of November, when we’ll have the EVA. We are closely cooperating with NASA.”

While Rogozin’s recent statements, made while NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and other agency officials are here for the IAC, appear to inflame relations between the two countries, Bridenstine has in the past downplayed any tensions between the agencies.

“We’ve been able to make sure that space has been set apart from all of these sometimes terrestrial challenges that we have with our international partners, especially in this case, Russia,” Bridenstine said of his relationship with Rogozin during a Sept. 24 interview. “It’s my intent to keep that relationship strong. It’s his intent as well.”

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ISS leak highlights concerns about orbital debris and station operations

Soyuz MS-09

WASHINGTON — As the crew of the International Space Station worked Aug. 30 to fix, at least temporarily, a minor air leak, the incident illustrated the growing orbital debris risk to the outpost and strains in American and Russian approaches to ISS operations.

NASA, in a statement early Aug. 30, said that controllers first noticed a minor drop in air pressure within the station at around 7 p.m. Eastern Aug. 29. Flight controllers allowed the crew to continue sleeping since the pressure drop did not pose an immediate risk to the crew, who were notified of the problem when they woke up at their regular time.

The station’s crew traced the drop in air pressure to a hole about two millimeters in diameter in the orbital module of the Soyuz MS-08 spacecraft docked to the station. They covered the hole with a piece of Kapton tape to slow the rate of the leak temporarily.

In communications with controllers in NASA’s mission control facility in Houston, astronaut Drew Feustel, the commander of the Expedition 56 crew, sought a delay in implementing a permanent solution proposed by Russian controllers, concerned that, if such a fix failed, it might cause further damage to the spacecraft or other jeopardize the ability to fix the leak.

“I would really like to see a test of that, somehow, on the ground before we do a test up here and see if it’s going to work,” he said. “We sort of feel like we’ve got one shot at it and if we screw it up, then the implications are one of these [Soyuz] vehicles is going home, or that vehicle is going home, sooner than later.”

Feustel reiterated a desire for a delay in other conversations with controllers, concerned that Russia wanted to move ahead with a permanent repair immediately. “I’m inclined to request that we have some more time, like 24 hours, to talk about this,” he said. Controllers told him that there were potential alternatives under consideration that NASA engineers were discussing with their Russian counterparts.

Ultimately, though, the Russian space agency Roscosmos elected to move ahead immediately with a more permanent repair, using gauze and epoxy to cover the hole. Russian cosmonauts, speaking through an interpreter, said they were able to successfully cover the hole around 12:30 p.m. Eastern, but were concerned about a bubble that formed in the makeshift patch. Controllers advised them to let the patch harden in place overnight before taking any other steps in the repair.

The cause of the hole is not immediately known. Roscosmos, in a statement, called the hole a “microcrack” and that it had formed a special commission to study the problem.

One potential cause of the hole is an impact with a micrometeoroid or a piece of orbital debris, collectively known as MMOD by NASA. While such objects have struck the station in the past, no such impacts in the past have been linked to air leaks from the station.

“If that’s true, that would be a landmark thing,” said Wayne Hale, a former space shuttle program manager and current member of the NASA Advisory Council, during a meeting of the council Aug. 30 at the Ames Research Center. “If it is, that’s kind of a somber milestone as we talk about MMOD and space traffic management.”

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ISS crew schedules delay need for commercial crew

NASA will continue to have access to Soyuz seats on ISS missions until early 2020, versus the fall of 2019, giving NASA a little more schedule margin for commercial crew development. Credit: NASA

LOS ANGELES — New International Space Station crew assignments announced by NASA May 24 will give the agency a little additional schedule margin for getting commercial crew vehicles into service as it continues to study backup options.

In a statement, NASA announced it was assigning astronauts Christina Hammock Koch and Andrew Morgan to ISS missions launching in 2019. Koch will launch on a Soyuz mission to the ISS in April 2019 as a member of Expedition 59/60, and Morgan in July 2019 as part of Expedition 60/61.

With a typical crew rotation lasting six months, Koch would likely return to Earth in October 2019 and Morgan in January 2020. This is later than past statements from NASA officials, who said that Soyuz access to the ISS would end with the return of crews in the fall of 2019.

The announcement of the new crews and their launch schedules came after Kirk Shireman, NASA ISS program manager, said May 20 that NASA’s access to Soyuz would run into early 2020, rather than the fall of 2019.

“We do have Soyuz seats though contracts through the end of the calendar year next year, and really on into the first month or so of 2020,” he said at a press conference about the launch of a Cygnus cargo spacecraft, in response to a question on commercial crew planning. “So the first thing that we did is we worked with our Russian colleagues to go extend, to the maximum extent possible, those flights next year.”

NASA has been looking into options for maintaining access to the ISS should neither Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner nor SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft be certified for carrying NASA astronauts when access to the Soyuz ends. One option that agency has previously discussed is using a crewed test flight as an operational mission, adding a third crew member and staying at the station for months rather than weeks. NASA modified its commercial crew contract with Boeing in April to study that option.

Shireman said NASA’s top priority was to get the two commercial crew vehicles certified for ISS missions. However, he said that that NASA was considering alternative, unspecified ways to maintain access, perhaps in cooperation with Russia.

“We’re looking at other options of how we might do it,” he said. “The issue is we don’t want to go pull the trigger on those other options before we know the commercial U.S. providers won’t be ready.”

“Part of it is just working with our Russian colleagues about what options are available and when we would have to make decisions,” he added. “So far, those discussions have been very cooperative with our Russian colleagues. They certainly understand our situation.”

The Russian government-controlled news service Sputnik reported May 19 that Boeing was in negotiations with Energia to purchase an additional Soyuz spacecraft for a 2020 mission to the ISS, carrying two NASA astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut. The report, citing a “space industry source,” said that negotiations for the Soyuz were in progress, with the expectation that the U.S. would pay the entire cost of the spacecraft.

Boeing had previously acquired five Soyuz seats from Energia, including three in 2019, as part of a legal settlement between the two companies regarding the Sea Launch joint venture. NASA then contracted with Boeing for the Soyuz seats.

Boeing spokesman Jerry Drelling said May 22 that there were no plans by the company to acquire a Soyuz for a 2020 mission to the ISS. “As previously announced, Boeing, Energia and NASA negotiated the purchase of Soyuz seats to the International Space Station through 2019,” he said. “We are confident that CST-100 Starliner will be safely flying to ISS in 2020.”

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OneWeb shifts first launch to year’s end

One of OneWeb’s first satellites, built in Toulouse, France by its Airbus joint venture OneWeb Satellites. Credit: OneWeb

WASHINGTON — OneWeb has shifted the debut launch for its satellite megaconstellation to the fourth quarter of the year.

The startup’s first launch of 10 satellites aboard an Arianespace Soyuz rocket was scheduled for this month, but was pushed out toward the end of the year to allow for more testing and to incorporate improved components in the final spacecraft design.

“Our production launches will start in Q4,” Greg Wyler, OneWeb’s founder, told SpaceNews. “We decided to continue with more ground testing and then go right into production because we can test virtually everything we need on the ground.”

OneWeb is building the first 900 satellites of its constellation through a joint venture with Airbus called OneWeb Satellites. Wyler said the decision to delay was “based on which component revisions were available.”

Backed by SoftBank, Intelsat, Coca-Cola and other investors, OneWeb is creating a constellation of small telecom satellites with the goal of making the internet accessible to everyone on Earth by 2027. How many satellites exactly is still to be determined — OneWeb in March asked the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to expand its authorization from 720 to 1,980 Ku-band satellites. The company still expects to begin service in 2019, starting with the first few hundred spacecraft.

“As long as we begin our production launches this year we are still on schedule,” Wyler said.

Arianespace is launching the bulk of OneWeb’s first generation constellation, and has 21 Soyuz launches contracted, along with options for more with Soyuz and the next generation Ariane 6. In a January interview, Arianespace CEO Stephane Israel was noncommittal on how many OneWeb Soyuz launches the company would do this year, saying it would “launch at least once for OneWeb this year and maybe more.”

“There is a saying commonly used in engineering: ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good,’” Wyler said. “There are always margins that you could increase with more testing and design modifications. We are using this time to increase our margins and also implement some improvements. We didn’t absolutely need to do everything we are doing, but after internal discussion, we are taking advantage of the timing opportunity to iterate.”

Since OneWeb’s first launch will only have 10 satellites onboard, the rocket will travel straight to their 1,200-kilometer low Earth orbit instead of the 500-kilometer drop off planned for subsequent flights, Wyler said. The near-direct insert cuts a few months of orbit raising time that would have relied on each satellite’s internal propulsion.

Wyler estimated there might be a two month gap between the first launch and the rest of the launch campaign, which consists of a Soyuz launch every 21 days. After the first launch, each Soyuz will carry 36 satellites, with some occasionally carrying 34, he said.

OneWeb also has a contract with Virgin Orbit for 39 LauncherOne missions and a memorandum of understanding with Blue Origin for five New Glenn launches to supplement its primary Arianespace campaign. Neither of those vehicles are launching yet, however.

Wyler said OneWeb’s first generation satellites have “actually beat our plans,” on mass, weighing in at around 145 kilograms each instead of the projected 150 kilograms.

“We are at about 14.5 kilograms per Gbps. Each satellite is about the same performance as the satellites I designed for O3b, yet we are putting nine times as many on a rocket,” he said.

Prior to OneWeb, Wyler founded O3b Networks, a company since bought by Luxembourgian fleet operator SES, that provides connectivity services through a constellation of medium-Earth-orbit satellites. Wyler said each OneWeb satellite provides nine times as much throughput per kilogram as an original O3b satellite.

“Our next generation, which we are working on now, will see at least a 15X increase in performance,” he said.

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NASA may extend space station missions to address potential commercial crew delays

ISS

WASHINGTON — NASA is in discussions with its Russian counterparts about extending some upcoming space station missions as a way to buy more time for development of commercial crew vehicles.

During an April 12 hearing by the commerce, justice and science subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on the agency’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal, NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot said longer “increments” of crews on the ISS could be one way to provide more schedule margin in the event of additional delays by Boeing and SpaceX in the development of their crewed spacecraft.

“Right now we don’t show a gap” in U.S. access to the International Space Station, Lightfoot said in response to a question posed by subcommittee chairman Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas). “But we’re looking at options at what can we do to not have a gap.”

“We’re working with our partners, our Russian partners, on if we can have longer increments for crew members that go up,” he said.

He revisited that later in the hearing. “One thing we have is a great relationship with our Russians partners, and we’re looking at other alternatives about potentially extending mission duration for the current missions that are there so that we don’t gap the ability to get there,” he said.

NASA’s current agreement with flying astronauts on Soyuz vehicles expires next year, after the agency purchased three seats on Soyuz flights launching in the spring of 2019 and returning in the fall. It’s not clear what would be involved in extending ISS mission durations, such as any technical issues regarding how long a Soyuz spacecraft can remain docked to the ISS.

NASA announced April 5 it had updated its existing commercial crew contract with Boeing to study modifications to the crewed test flight for the company’s CST-100 Starliner. Those modifications would include adding a third astronaut and extending the spacecraft’s stay at the ISS from two weeks to as long as six months. Those changes, Lightfoot noted at the hearing, were another way to mitigate the effects of additional development delays.

At the hearing, Lightfoot said there was still schedule margin for the development of Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon to be ready by the fall of 2019. Schedules last updated in January call for both companies to make uncrewed test flights of their vehicles in August. Boeing would then make a crewed test flight in November, followed by SpaceX in December.

Lightfoot, though, hinted that those schedules would be delayed again. “We still expect to see the first test flights at the end of this year,” he said, later elaborating that these were the uncrewed test flights for both companies.

Culberson asked when the crewed test flights would take place, and Lightfoot said he would take that for the record. “I’m focused on the uncrewed one right now,” he said.

Juggling the SLS launch schedule

Lightfoot also said at the hearing that NASA was revisiting the schedule for Space Launch System missions based on the unexpected windfall it received in the final 2018 omnibus appropriations bill.

That bill, signed into law March 23, provided $350 million for NASA to build a second mobile launch platform for the SLS. NASA officials said last year a second platform could help shorten the gap between the first and second SLS launches, but did not include funding for it in its 2019 budget proposal, citing competing priorities.

That second launch platform, which would be designed for the Block 1B version of the SLS with the larger Exploration Upper Stage, would reduce the 33-month “iron bar” in the schedule between the first two SLS missions created by the time needed to modify the current platform. That platform has been built to support the Block 1 version of SLS, which uses the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS).

Lightfoot said that having a second launch platform opens the door to launching a second SLS mission with the ICPS. That could be used, he said, to launch the Europa Clipper mission, which could be ready for launch as soon as 2022. NASA’s 2019 budget proposal, though, plans a 2025 launch of Europa Clipper using a commercially-procured launch vehicle rather than SLS.

Another option would be to fly the first crewed Orion mission, known as Exploration Mission (EM) 2, on that second SLS Block 1. “If EM-2 flies that way, we would have to change the mission profile because we can’t do what we would do if we had the Exploration Upper Stage,” he said. “But that still gets humans in orbit and still allows us to check out all the systems that we wouldn’t check out on EM-1.”

He indicated that the funding for the second mobile launch platform took the agency by surprise. “You’re going to have to give us a little time, because that was just a couple weeks ago that we found out that we were getting that,” he said.

Defending budget cuts

The two-hour hearing by the subcommittee was largely cordial, with members thanking Lightfoot for his record-setting service as acting administrator. Lightfoot announced last month he will retire from the agency at the end of April.

He was called on by some members, though, to defend cuts in the 2019 proposal. That included NASA’s education office as well as four Earth science missions, all of which the administration sought to cut in 2018 but which Congress ultimately funded.

Lightfoot said it was continuing to work on those programs funded in 2018 despite the administration’s new effort to cancel them. “We are ready to execute as we were asked to do in 2018,” he said.

He added that NASA has looked at ways to make its education office more effective. That office, he said, will soon be renamed the “Next-Gen STEM Office” to focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics education activities for the next generation. But, should the administration’s proposal to defund the office be approved, he said the agency would focus its education activities through its missions. “That’s going to be how were going to try to inspire the next generation as we go forward,” he said.

“Admittedly, that’s going to be a concern whether that can actually fill the void or not,” he said later in the hearing. “As long as we’re getting appropriated the money, we will have an education office that executes what you guys have asked us to do.”

Committee members also questioned plans to cancel the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) in the 2019 budget proposal, citing its inclusion as the top-priority large mission in the 2010 astrophysics decadal. Lightfoot said that, should WFIRST be cancelled, NASA would look at ways instrument technology developed for it could be applied to future missions.

Culberson said his subcommittee planned to hold a hearing on issues with both WFIRST and the James Webb Space Telescope, whose launch NASA said last month would be delayed by about a year to May 2020. That hearing is tentatively scheduled for May 9, although Lightfoot said that ongoing reviews of JWST, including one by an independent review board established by NASA after the latest delay, will not be ready in time to support that hearing.

Culberson also offered advice to members concerned about cuts to education or science programs in the administration’s proposal. “The budget, again, is just a recommendation,” he said. “We don’t get too worked up over the budget.”

SpaceNews.com

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NASA may extend space station missions to address potential commercial crew delays

ISS

WASHINGTON — NASA is in discussions with its Russian counterparts about extending some upcoming space station missions as a way to buy more time for development of commercial crew vehicles.

During an April 12 hearing by the commerce, justice and science subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on the agency’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal, NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot said longer “increments” of crews on the ISS could be one way to provide more schedule margin in the event of additional delays by Boeing and SpaceX in the development of their crewed spacecraft.

“Right now we don’t show a gap” in U.S. access to the International Space Station, Lightfoot said in response to a question posed by subcommittee chairman Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas). “But we’re looking at options at what can we do to not have a gap.”

“We’re working with our partners, our Russian partners, on if we can have longer increments for crew members that go up,” he said.

He revisited that later in the hearing. “One thing we have is a great relationship with our Russians partners, and we’re looking at other alternatives about potentially extending mission duration for the current missions that are there so that we don’t gap the ability to get there,” he said.

NASA’s current agreement with flying astronauts on Soyuz vehicles expires next year, after the agency purchased three seats on Soyuz flights launching in the spring of 2019 and returning in the fall. It’s not clear what would be involved in extending ISS mission durations, such as any technical issues regarding how long a Soyuz spacecraft can remain docked to the ISS.

NASA announced April 5 it had updated its existing commercial crew contract with Boeing to study modifications to the crewed test flight for the company’s CST-100 Starliner. Those modifications would include adding a third astronaut and extending the spacecraft’s stay at the ISS from two weeks to as long as six months. Those changes, Lightfoot noted at the hearing, were another way to mitigate the effects of additional development delays.

At the hearing, Lightfoot said there was still schedule margin for the development of Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon to be ready by the fall of 2019. Schedules last updated in January call for both companies to make uncrewed test flights of their vehicles in August. Boeing would then make a crewed test flight in November, followed by SpaceX in December.

Lightfoot, though, hinted that those schedules would be delayed again. “We still expect to see the first test flights at the end of this year,” he said, later elaborating that these were the uncrewed test flights for both companies.

Culberson asked when the crewed test flights would take place, and Lightfoot said he would take that for the record. “I’m focused on the uncrewed one right now,” he said.

Juggling the SLS launch schedule

Lightfoot also said at the hearing that NASA was revisiting the schedule for Space Launch System missions based on the unexpected windfall it received in the final 2018 omnibus appropriations bill.

That bill, signed into law March 23, provided $350 million for NASA to build a second mobile launch platform for the SLS. NASA officials said last year a second platform could help shorten the gap between the first and second SLS launches, but did not include funding for it in its 2019 budget proposal, citing competing priorities.

That second launch platform, which would be designed for the Block 1B version of the SLS with the larger Exploration Upper Stage, would reduce the 33-month “iron bar” in the schedule between the first two SLS missions created by the time needed to modify the current platform. That platform has been built to support the Block 1 version of SLS, which uses the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS).

Lightfoot said that having a second launch platform opens the door to launching a second SLS mission with the ICPS. That could be used, he said, to launch the Europa Clipper mission, which could be ready for launch as soon as 2022. NASA’s 2019 budget proposal, though, plans a 2025 launch of Europa Clipper using a commercially-procured launch vehicle rather than SLS.

Another option would be to fly the first crewed Orion mission, known as Exploration Mission (EM) 2, on that second SLS Block 1. “If EM-2 flies that way, we would have to change the mission profile because we can’t do what we would do if we had the Exploration Upper Stage,” he said. “But that still gets humans in orbit and still allows us to check out all the systems that we wouldn’t check out on EM-1.”

He indicated that the funding for the second mobile launch platform took the agency by surprise. “You’re going to have to give us a little time, because that was just a couple weeks ago that we found out that we were getting that,” he said.

Defending budget cuts

The two-hour hearing by the subcommittee was largely cordial, with members thanking Lightfoot for his record-setting service as acting administrator. Lightfoot announced last month he will retire from the agency at the end of April.

He was called on by some members, though, to defend cuts in the 2019 proposal. That included NASA’s education office as well as four Earth science missions, all of which the administration sought to cut in 2018 but which Congress ultimately funded.

Lightfoot said it was continuing to work on those programs funded in 2018 despite the administration’s new effort to cancel them. “We are ready to execute as we were asked to do in 2018,” he said.

He added that NASA has looked at ways to make its education office more effective. That office, he said, will soon be renamed the “Next-Gen STEM Office” to focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics education activities for the next generation. But, should the administration’s proposal to defund the office be approved, he said the agency would focus its education activities through its missions. “That’s going to be how were going to try to inspire the next generation as we go forward,” he said.

“Admittedly, that’s going to be a concern whether that can actually fill the void or not,” he said later in the hearing. “As long as we’re getting appropriated the money, we will have an education office that executes what you guys have asked us to do.”

Committee members also questioned plans to cancel the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) in the 2019 budget proposal, citing its inclusion as the top-priority large mission in the 2010 astrophysics decadal. Lightfoot said that, should WFIRST be cancelled, NASA would look at ways instrument technology developed for it could be applied to future missions.

Culberson said his subcommittee planned to hold a hearing on issues with both WFIRST and the James Webb Space Telescope, whose launch NASA said last month would be delayed by about a year to May 2020. That hearing is tentatively scheduled for May 9, although Lightfoot said that ongoing reviews of JWST, including one by an independent review board established by NASA after the latest delay, will not be ready in time to support that hearing.

Culberson also offered advice to members concerned about cuts to education or science programs in the administration’s proposal. “The budget, again, is just a recommendation,” he said. “We don’t get too worked up over the budget.”

SpaceNews.com

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Proton, Soyuz engine reinspections complete, Roscosmos says

Engine inspections paused Proton launches for the first half of 2017. Soyuz launches continued during that time. Credit: Roscosmos.

WASHINGTON — A review of more than 70 Russian rocket engines manufactured at a factory that used the wrong solder is now complete, according to the Russian state corporation Roscosmos.

In a statement released April 2, Roscosmos said that workers at Khrunichev’s Voronezh Mechanical Plant verified 58 Proton engines as well as 16 Soyuz engines that were returned to the factory for revaluation last year.

Roscosmos did not say how many affected engines were discovered from Voronezh, which builds upper stage engines for both Proton and Soyuz.

The late-2016 discovery of an incorrect solder used to bond engine parts for Proton’s second- and third-stage engines halted Proton launches for roughly six months last year while the rockets were dismantled for inspection.

Initial discussions around the Voronezh investigation didn’t include Soyuz, which continued operations, including a January 2017 launch of the Hispasat-36W-1 telecom satellite through European launch provider Arianespace and the April 2017 launch of a crewed mission to the International Space Station.

Russia has been battling to overcome a string of launch failures and partial anomalies with Proton and Soyuz rockets for the past few years. Last year Roscosmos indicated that defective engine assembly contributed to the failure of a December 2016 Soyuz carrying a Progress cargo spacecraft. In 2016 a commercial Proton mission experienced a partial engine shutdown that, while compensated for by other engines, resulted in an investigation at the same level of a total failure.

Roscosmos said steps have been taken for quality improvement at Voronezh and other factories, such as the purchase of new equipment to reduce human factor risks.

Along with Proton and Soyuz, Voronezh is also involved in engine work for Russia’s next generation Angara and Soyuz-5 rockets.

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O3b MEO constellation grows to 16 with latest Soyuz launch

An Arianespace Soyuz launches from the Guiana Space Center March 9 with four O3b satellites. Credit: Arianespace video still.

WASHINGTON — A Soyuz rocket from Arianespace successfully delivered four telecommunications satellites into medium Earth orbit for fleet operator SES.

The rocket took off from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana at 12:11 p.m. Eastern March 9 after a 33-minute delay caused by high altitude winds. The four 700-kilogram satellites separated from the rocket’s upper stage two hours after liftoff in pairs 20 minutes apart.

The launch is Arianespace’s second launch of the year and first since an inertial navigation system with incorrect launch data led an Ariane 5 rocket slightly off course in January. Arianespace said at the time of the Ariane 5 investigation that future missions were proceeding as scheduled.

However, on March 5 Arianespace chose to delay the Soyuz launch by three days for “additional checks at the Guiana Space Center (CSG) as part of the resumption of launches,” according to a company statement. Spokesperson Aaron Lewis declined to say if they delay was related to the European Space Agency’s recommendation that Arianespace vet launch documents and mission parameters more diligently before launching.

Luxembourg-based SES now has 16 high-throughput Ka-band satellites circling the Equator at an altitude of 8,000 kilometers, about one fourth the distance from the Earth as geostationary orbit, where most telecommunications satellites operate. SES took full ownership of O3b in 2016, pairing O3b’s MEO satellites with its GEO fleet.

SES was an early investor in O3b back in 2009, four years before the company had any spacecraft in orbit and when the idea of putting broadband-optimized satellites in MEO instead of the traditional geostationary orbit faced substantial industry skepticism. O3b has championed MEO’s lower latency, or lag time, as an advantage over GEO.

In a post-launch speech at the CSG’s Jupiter control room, SES Chief Technology Officer Martin Halliwell said the four new satellites should enter service May 17, increasing the capacity of the O3b fleet by 38 percent. The new satellites also increase O3b’s reach by five degrees further from the Equator, up to 50 degrees north and south latitude.

Halliwell, an SES employee for 31 years and CTO for the past seven, said he plans to retire next year, and that today’s launch will likely be his last visit to the CSG.

The four satellites launched today are part of an eight-satellite order O3b Networks made in 2015 to incumbent supplier Thales Alenia Space, prior to SES ownership. The other four satellites launch early next year, Halliwell said, on another Arianespace Soyuz. Those satellites will compete the first-generation O3b constellation.

SES placed an order in 2017 with Boeing for seven second-generation satellites for a constellation called O3b mPower, designed to deliver 10 terabits of throughput. O3b mPower is scheduled to start launching in 2021. SES has not yet selected a launch provider for the O3b mPower satellites. 

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Russia looks past Soyuz-2 failure to Soyuz-5

A Soyuz-2.1b lifts off Nov. 28 from Russia’s new Vostochny Cosmodrome. The rocket’s Fregat upper stage failed to deliver its 19-satellite payload into orbit.(Roscosmos photo)

The article originally ran in the Dec. 4 issue of SpaceNews Magazine as “Like a Phoenix, Russia looks past Soyuz-2 to Soyuz-5.”

MOSCOW — Try as they might, the Russian space program is having a hard time sustaining a positive news cycle. For every small step forward, it seems they take one giant leap back. Budget cuts, program delays, and regular launch failures dog Russia’s space industry at every turn — making small victories and promises of glories still to come harder and harder to swallow.

With the latest setback, last week’s botched launch of a new weather satellite and 18 secondary payloads, fate seems to be piling on. After Roscosmos claimed a successful Nov. 28 launch of a Soyuz-2.1b rocket from the new Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East, reports surfaced that contact with the rocket’s Fregat upper-stage, which transports the payload, was lost.

Russian officials took more than a day to acknowledge the mission had failed, but said little beyond vowing to complete an investigation by mid-December. Russian state-owned media, meanwhile, reported that a guidance-and-navigation error appears to be to blame for Fregat’s likely plunge into the Atlantic Ocean. The rocket’s flight control system, according to industry sources cited by RussianSpaceWeb.com, essentially used the wrong coordinates for launching out of Vostochny instead of one of Soyuz’s usual launch sites.

It is never good to lose a rocket, but the timing of this loss — the 12th failure across different families of launch vehicles since 2010 — is especially unfortunate for Russia’s space program. In recent months, industry leaders and Roscosmos officials have been touting the development of their own next-generation spacecraft, hoping to keep up with Western private space firms.

Russia has been lagging in efforts to ensure it remains competitive with new players such as SpaceX. But in the past year, a new player has emerged from Russia that is at least playing the part of private operator: S7, the holding company that owns Russia’s most successful private airline, last year stepped up to buy and modernize the troubled Sea Launch project.

The New Face?

S7 still has a long way to go to prove it is a serious player in the emerging private space industry, but it is already a refreshing face for Russia’s space industry. “Why are we doing this?” S7 CEO Vladislav Filyov told Bloomberg in a 2016 interview, “Just because it is beautiful.” Filyov’s lofty remarks earned him immediate comparisons to Elon Musk in the Russian press.

Since September 2016, things have been moving quickly for S7. The director of the company’s space subsidiary, Sergey Sopov, told Russia’s state-owned TASS news agency in October 2016 that the company hopes to the secure a place in the commercial market with launches priced at $65-75 million. The only real question seemed to be what kind of rocket the company would use aboard Sea Launch.

Initially, speculation was rife that the rocket would be a medium-class version of the Khrunichev company’s Angara rocket. Angara, after all, became the only brand-new Russian rocket design to make it off post-Soviet drawing boards when it conducted its first test launch in 2014. But Angara’s star appears to be waning as S7’s rises. The hype now focuses on the latter’s plans.

Enter Soyuz-5

As with Western private space firms, S7’s private efforts feature a significant amount of government involvement and support. The company is working with Energia — a state-owned entity — on refurbishing Sea Launch. Meanwhile, the state space corporation Roscosmos, with federal funding, is working with Energia and other companies to develop new booster rockets.

As part of the 2016-2017 Federal Space Program, a funding document, Roscosmos announced project Phoenix — a 30-billion-ruble ($512 million) crash program to develop a new medium-class launch vehicle to replace Soyuz, and the Russian-Ukrainian Zenit vehicle, by the early 2020s. The idea was to have alternatives to Angara should any problems with that, primary, project arise.

Several design proposals were forwarded from Russia’s major rocket production centers to compete for the Phoenix tender. In the end, it was Energia’s proposal for a Soyuz-5 that won over. Roscosmos demanded work to begin by 2017 or 2018. On Nov. 10, Energia’s press service announced preliminary designs for Soyuz-5 will be completed by the end of this year.

The namesake of the new rocket, which is supposed to be ready by 2021, is a bit misleading. The Soyuz name implies continuity, but Soyuz-5 has little to do with the current family of Soyuz launch vehicles — which are derived from the Soviet Union’s very first R-7 rockets. Rather, Soyuz-5 derives from the Zenit booster first developed for Energia and used on Sea Launch.

Although manufactured by Ukraine’s Yuzhmash rocket company, Zenit is constructed largely from Russian-made parts supplied by Energia. About 70 to 80 percent of the rocket is reportedly Russian. The anticipated speed of development of the Soyuz-5 can be attributed to the fact that it is basically a program to clone and upgrade Zenit by replacing Ukrainian components.

“80 percent of the Soyuz-5 will be the Zenit-3 launch vehicle, with the only new components basically being engines used in the Soyuz-2 built into the new rocket’s second stage,” says Pavel Luzin, a Russian space industry analyst. “So, this Soyuz-5 will actually be a well known launch vehicle, and Baikonur already has all the necessary infrastructure launching it.”

In an interview with TASS published in late November, Energomash director Igor Arbuzov said that his company was in negotiations with S7 on supplying engines for the Soyuz-5 project. Zenit already uses Energomash’s RD-171, but the company has received 7 billion rubles from the state to modernize that engine by 2019 for Soyuz-5 under the designation RD-171MV.

Fate of Angara

A critical part of the Soyuz-5 story is the Russian space industry’s ongoing efforts to get Angara ready for service by 2021. The project will no doubt continue — it has been in development since the 1990s, and no one really knows exactly how much money has been poured into its development. Suffice it to say, Angara is too big to fail. But its outlook has been downgraded.

Nominally, Angara is supposed to be ready to hit the market by 2021 and launch from the $3 billion Vostochny Cosmodrome. But delays on both projects continue to mount, and 2021 should be treated as an aspirational date to generate headlines. Khrunichev, the company that is working on Angara, continues to struggle with quality control and financial problems.

And so, what was once supposed to be the centerpiece of Russia’s future space program looks increasingly like a sideshow. There have been delays in building launch infrastructure for Angara at Vostochny. And that spaceport itself, once intended to host manned versions of Angara to overtake Russian dependence on the Soviet-era Baikonur, also seems secondary.

“Angara-A5 is neither ready for commercial nor manned flights due to trouble with manufacturing,” Luzin said. “And then there is the problem of launching manned flights safely from Vostochny. If something goes wrong, cosmonauts will have to conduct an emergency landing in the tundra or the northern Pacific — it is not a good scenario.”

It seems, then, that manned launches aboard Angara rockets from Vostochny are a long way off. This has given S7 and Energia — the company building Russia’s new manned spacecraft, a replacement for Soyuz known as Federation — an opportunity to sell their Soyuz-5 project as the answer to Russia’s near-term space woes.

Ultimately, Soyuz-5 represents a triumph of older Soviet technology — with a few newer enhancements — winning over ambitious plans formulated under a better economy. Angara and Vostochny will continue to develop, but for not all eyes are on Soyuz-5 and Baikonur. In Russia, what is old is new again.

S7, when asked to comment on this report, referred SpaceNews to already published information on their plans.

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Soyuz satellites feared lost in launch failure

A Soyuz-2.1b rocket lifts off from the Vostochny Cosmodrome Nov. 28. Controllers have not been able to contact the rocket’s primary payload, a Meteor-M weather satellite. Credit: Roscosmos

WASHINGTON — Nineteen satellites launched on a Soyuz rocket Nov. 28 are now widely assumed to be lost, with one of the companies involved in the mission stating that the launch was a failure.

The Soyuz-2.1b rocket lifted off from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East early Nov. 28. After initial reports of a successful launch, the Russian state space corporation Roscosmos said it could not contact the vehicle’s primary payload, the Meteor-M No.2-1 weather satellite, because it was not in its planned orbit.

Neither Roscosmos nor Glavkosmos, the company that arranged the launch of 18 secondary payloads on this mission, have provided further updates. However, Canadian satellite operator Telesat, which had a prototype satellite on the rocket, said later Nov. 28 that the launch had failed.

“Telesat learned this morning that the Soyuz 2 launch vehicle that was to place 19 spacecraft into orbit, including Telesat’s first Phase 1 LEO satellite, has failed,” the company said in a brief statement.

The satellite was one of two ordered by Telesat to demonstrate its planned low Earth orbit broadband constellation. The satellite lost on the Soyuz was built by the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies Space Flight Laboratory in partnership with Space Systems Loral.

A second satellite, built by British company Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd., is scheduled to launch on the return-to-flight mission of India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, now expected in late December or early January. This failure, Telesat said, did not impact its long-term constellation plans.

“Notwithstanding this failure, Telesat’s plans to develop a state-of-the-art, high capacity LEO constellation that will deliver transformative, low latency, fiber-like broadband to commercial and government users worldwide, remain on track,” the company said in its statement.

Other customers of the launch have refrained from commenting on the apparent launch failure to date. Nick Allain, spokesman for Spire, which had 10 of its ship-tracking and weather data cubesats on the Soyuz, told SpaceNews Nov. 28 that the company would not comment on the launch until Russian officials “have completed their own investigation.”

He added, though, that Spire has a diversified launch strategy, minimizing the effect of this failure. That includes three launches planned in December and a deployment of satellites from the International Space Station next week.

Two other companies with satellites on the Soyuz mission — Astro Digital, with two Earth imaging cubesats, and Astroscale, with an orbital debris measurement small satellite — did not respond to requests for comment Nov. 28 on the status of their spacecraft.

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Contact lost with satellites after Soyuz launch

A Soyuz-2.1b rocket lifts off from the Vostochny Cosmodrome Nov. 28. Controllers have not been able to contact the rocket’s primary payload, a Meteor-M weather satellite. Credit: Roscosmos

WASHINGTON — Controllers have been unable to contact a weather satellite launched on a Soyuz rocket from the country’s new spaceport Nov. 28, raising fears of a launch failure.

The Soyuz-2.1b rocket lifted off from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East at 12:41 a.m. Eastern. Its primary payload was the Meteor-M No.2-1 polar-orbiting weather satellite, with 18 small satellites flying as secondary payloads.

The launch initially appeared to go as planned, but the Russian state space corporation Roscosmos said in a statement several hours after launch that it was unable to contact the Meteor-M satellite. “However, during the first planned communication session with the spacecraft, it was not possible to establish a connection due to its absence in the target orbit,” Roscosmos said in a translation of a Russian-language statement.

That lack of contact has raised concerns that the satellites failed to reach the proper orbit, or may not be in orbit at all. A report by the Russian news service Interfax, citing a Russian industry source, claimed that the Fregat upper stage was in the wrong orientation during its initial burn, sending the stage and its satellite payload into the Atlantic Ocean. That report has not been confirmed by Roscosmos.

Among the secondary payloads on this launch was the first prototype satellite of a Ka-band low Earth orbit constellation being developed by Canadian satellite operator Telesat. The LEO 2 satellite, built by the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies Space Flight Laboratory in partnership with Space Systems Loral, was one of two such satellites Telesat planned to launch by the end of the year to demonstrate a future constellation of more than 100 satellites. The other satellite, built by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd., is scheduled to launch in December on the return to flight of India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle.

Another secondary payload was IDEA OSG, a 25-kilogram satellite that is the first spacecraft for Astroscale, a company planning to develop systems to deorbit spacecraft and debris. IDEA OSG planned to operate in an orbit of 600 to 800 kilometers altitude, measuring the density of orbital debris too small to track from the ground.

Other secondary payloads on the launch included 10 Lemur-2 cubesats for Spire, the company that operates a constellation of such spacecraft to collect ship-tracking and weather data. It also carried two Corvus-BC imaging cubesats for Astro Digital, whose first two satellites malfunctioned after launching as secondary payloads on another Soyuz launch in July.

Glavkosmos, the company that arranged the secondary payloads for the July mission as well as this launch, said there were no issues with the vehicle that would have caused satellites to malfunction, despite reports that several of the more than 70 spacecraft launched on that mission subsequently failed.

This launch was the second mission from the Vostochny Cosmodrome, and the first since the inaugural launch, also of a Soyuz rocket, in April 2016.

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Soyuz capsule suffered partial depressurization during April landing

The Soyuz MS-02 capsule descends under its main parachute prior to landing in Kazakhstan in April 2017. An issue with the parachute’s deployment caused a partial loss of pressurization inside the capsule. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — A Soyuz spacecraft returning three people to Earth in April experienced a partial loss of pressure during the final stages of its descent, but did not put the crew’s lives in danger.

The incident, revealed during an Oct. 16 meeting of NASA’s International Space Station Advisory Committee, is one of a series of events that have raised questions about the reliability of Russian vehicles supporting the station.

During the committee meeting, chairman Thomas Stafford, a former astronaut, said the incident took place when the main parachute of the Soyuz spacecraft deployed about eight kilometers above the landing site in Kazakhstan. A buckle that is part of the parachute system struck the capsule.

“The buckle struck a welding seam and, as a result, there was a depressurizing event that resulted in some air escaping the capsule,” he said.

Stafford didn’t identify the specific mission where this took place, other than to say that it happened in April of this year. The only Soyuz spacecraft to return to Earth that month was Soyuz MS-02, which landed April 10. It carried NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough and Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko, who spent nearly six months on the ISS.

NASA spokesman Gary Jordan confirmed Oct. 17 that the incident took place during the Soyuz MS-02 landing. He referred additional questions about it to the Russian state space corporation Roscosmos, which has not publicly discussed it to date.

The partial loss of pressure did not put the crew in jeopardy, Stafford said. A valve normally opens once the capsule descends to an altitude of five kilometers to allow outside air into the capsule. The crewmembers were also wearing pressure suits, as is standard procedure on Soyuz landings.

“Since the crew was suited, the depressurization presented no issue for the crew,” Stafford said, adding that they knew about the issue from sensors in the spacecraft.

At a June meeting of Stafford’s committee with its Russian equivalent, Stafford said that Russian officials believed that the way the parachute was folded inside the Soyuz may have caused the buckle to hit the capsule during deployment, with the angle of the spacecraft during reentry also possibly playing a role.

Stafford said there was no record of a similar event taking place in previous Soyuz landings. “Work has been done to review the anomaly, and mitigation steps were implemented to ensure it will not happen in the future,” he said.

The incident, while minor, is one of several in recent years involving Russian vehicles supporting the ISS. Last December, a Progress cargo spacecraft was lost when the upper stage of its Soyuz rocket failed. Another Progress was stranded in low Earth orbit, spinning uncontrollably, after an April 2015 launch. It reentered days later without attempting to dock to the ISS.

Stafford said that the investigation of the December 2016 launch failure was hampered by a telemetry system that was not able to capture the high-speed anomaly, lasting only milliseconds, leading up to the failure. Roscosmos has since upgraded that telemetry system to be able to better capture rapid events, he said, while also reviewing and updating overall quality controls for launch vehicle and spacecraft manufacturing.

On Oct. 12, the launch of another Progress spacecraft on a Soyuz rocket was aborted in the final minute of the countdown, a rarity in the history of Soyuz missions to the ISS. That scrub, NASA later said, was due to an electrical connection on one of the launch pad service towers failing to disconnect from the rocket as planned, keeping the rocket from switching to internal power.

The Soyuz successfully launched the Progress two days later, and the cargo spacecraft docked with the ISS on Oct. 16.

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