By Anna MALPAS
Moscow (AFP) May 17, 2015
Russia on Sunday began investigating the loss of a commercial satellite and a separate glitch on the International Space Station, sparking fears over the industry's safety.
A commission to investigate the accident with the Proton-M rocket carrying a Mexican telecommunications satellite met Sunday morning, the TASS state news agency reported, citing a space industry source.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had on Saturday demanded answers from space agency chief Igor Komarov and the names of those responsible, suggesting that heads could roll over the incident.
President Vladimir Putin was also said to be aware of the accident by his spokesman, though he has not commented on it. Neither has Dmitry Rogozin, the usually outspoken deputy prime minister who oversees the space sector.
Last year, Russia sacked the head of Roscosmos space agency over previous failures.
In the accident early Saturday, according to Roscosmos, the engines of the third stage of the rocket taking the satellite into orbit malfunctioned.
The rocket's third and upper stages and the satellite fell back to Earth from a height of 161 kilometres (100 miles), burning up in the atmosphere.
Russian media including state-controlled outlets reported openly on the failures, as relatively low pay in the space industry was blamed.
- 'Old engines' -
Izvestia daily reported that the rocket's engine was built in 2013 in the central Russian city of Voronezh.
"The engines are, you could say, old, although they were of course checked before the start, but we need to figure out how they were made two years ago," a senior source in the space industry told TASS, adding that investigators would be working at the manufacturing site.
"It's obvious that there are failings of quality control in production which could have let through some defects," he said.
Russia is currently reforming its space industry, as it seeks to improve its record and streamline it.
But experts say years of underfunding mean there is a shortage in new generation specialists to replace those recruited in the Soviet era.
"The best of the best do not go to work in the rocket and space sector. There is nothing to attract highly qualified specialists: the pay is low and it's not very prestigious to work there," Yury Karash of the Russian Academy of Cosmonautics said on Russkaya Sluzhba Novostei radio.
"For 20 years the sector wasn't financed, staff weren't being trained," Valery Gartung, an MP and first deputy head of the lower house's industry committee, told RIA Novosti.
The Proton-M failure came exactly a year after the same model of rocket carrying Russia's most advanced communications satellite fell back to Earth minutes after lift-off. The accident was later blamed on a damaged ball bearing.
Proton-M rockets are a workhorse of the space industry, used in 91 launches since 2001, all but 10 of which have been successful.
The accident came just hours after a Progress spacecraft attached to the International Space Station (ISS) failed to switch on its engines on command from mission control to move the station into a higher orbit in a planned manoeuvre.
A second attempt will be made at 3:30 am Monday (0030 GMT), a space industry source told the state news agency RIA Novosti.
Russia loses Mexican satellite after rocket failure
Russia's Roscosmos space agency said the Proton-M rocket carrying a Mexican MexSat-1 satellite fell back to Earth and burnt up in the atmosphere after suffering an engine problem on launch early Saturday.
Just over eight minutes after launch, an "emergency situation was recorded with the engines of the third stage of the carrier rocket", the space agency said.
The Mexican satellite launch took place at 8:47 am Moscow time (0547 GMT) from Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It was shown live on the website of Roscosmos.
The accident took place at an altitude of 161 kilometres (100 miles), high enough for the rocket to burn up as it plunged back to Earth, it said.
"The third stage rocket, the upper stage and the satellite almost completely burnt up in the atmosphere," it said. "At the moment there have been no reports of falling non-combusted fragments."
Fragments of the carrier rocket, which contained several tonnes of toxic fuel, fell back to Earth over Siberia's Chita region, space industry sources said, while Russia's emergencies ministry said there were no injuries or damage on the ground.
The Proton-M carrier rocket has been Russia's main workhorse used for launches of Western and Asian satellites that earn millions of dollars, but in recent years it has suffered a litany of failures and has been repeatedly grounded.
A commission involving various space industry bodies will investigate the accident and "take the corresponding decisions," the space agency said.
The accident commission was due to meet Sunday at 10:00 am (0700 GMT), a space industry source told Interfax news agency.
Russian President Vladimir Putin "naturally was informed" of the satellite failure, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists, cited by Interfax.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev ordered space agency chief Igor Komarov to establish who was to blame, the premier's spokeswoman Natalya Timakova said, quoted by Interfax.
The prime minister asked Komarov to "establish the exact reasons for what happened" and name those with "personal and material responsibility for this incident," she said.
Russia last year sacked the head of the space agency over previous failures.
- 'Negative record' -
Russia's space programme has experienced a troubling number of accidents in recent weeks.
RIA Novosti state news agency criticised what it called "a negative record for Roscosmos -- several accidents in space in three weeks."
The failed satellite launch came just hours after a separate glitch in which a Russian Progress spacecraft docked to the ISS failed to switch on its engines at the command of mission control in a planned manoeuvre to shift the ISS into a higher orbit.
The Progress space freighter was to have lifted the ISS's orbit in preparation for the next astronauts' return to Earth set for early June.
Vladimir Solovyov, the flight director for the Russian section of the ISS, told TASS that a fresh attempt to switch on the Progress's engines would be made on Sunday night.
He said "we need more time" to understand the reason for the glitch.
On April 28, a previous Progress resupply ship heading to the ISS lost communications and crashed to Earth after an apparent problem with its Soyuz rocket.
This has prompted delays in the ferrying of astronauts to and from the orbiting station, which currently has six crew aboard.
British singer Sarah Brightman announced Wednesday that she would not fly to the ISS as a space tourist in September as planned, citing personal reasons. Russian media speculated that she pulled out over safety fears.
A previous Progress ship taking supplies to the ISS crashed in Siberia shortly after launch in 2011.
Since the mothballing of the US Space Shuttle programme, Moscow has had a monopoly on sending astronauts to the ISS from Baikonur.
Experts suggested the problem was a failure of quality control at the production level.
"What's amazing is that the Proton is an old rocket," Ivan Moiseyev, head of research at the institute of space policy, told Business FM radio.
"There have been many launches and the technology should only be getting better, but it is visibly getting worse."
"What we are seeing is a systemic deterioration of the production of Russian space technology," a space industry source told RIA Novosti.
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