Launching objects (or people) on top of huge rockets is dangerous business. It always was, and while systems and safety records have improved, there is still significant risk. Rockets are built to be light weight, contain huge amounts of volatile fuel and engines that produce enormous energy, while requiring that brute force to be directed and controlled with precision. Being launched on a rocket has been described as riding a contained explosion, and that’s not too far off the mark.
Earlier today, a Proton-M rocket, the newest member of the Russian Proton rocket family experienced a dramatic catastrophic failure just after launch. The Proton rocket is the workhorse of Russian heavy lift rockets. It has been used to launch portions of the International Space Station as well as other heavy and large payloads. It is also available for commercial payload launches. It is one of the largest rockets currently available, though it has recently been challenged by the SpaceX Falcon 9.
The Proton rocket has been in use for more than 40 years. There were a number of failures early on, but after redesigns and additional testing, the Proton went on to achieve a very high success rate and become one of the most reliable rocket families in the world.
There had been three failures of the Proton-M since 2007, although it’s not clear if all of them were caused by the rocket itself and not the failure of the payload. Given that it is a proven design, it begs the question whether they could be quality control issues in the assembly and launching of the rockets. This issue has plagued the Russian space program in recent years.
Now this dramatic crash has occurred. The rocket was carrying a number of satellites for the Russian GLONASS system, a satellite navigation system similar to GPS. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the GLONASS system rapidly fell behind GPS in both availability and accuracy. In recent years, Russia has been working to improve the system by launching next generation GLONASS satellites. This crash will surely be a major setback to that effort.
An amateur video from nearby shows a wider shot of the events:
It’s not entirely clear what happened here. The rocket can be seen to wobble and begin to go off course shortly after launch. It’s possible that either one of the thrust vector controls malfunctioned or that the guidance system failed to operate correctly. Shortly after launch, a dark plume can be seen coming from the rocket. It’s hard to tell if this is a sign of an engine malfunction or leak or if it might be caused by the rapid throttling of one or more engines, in an attempt to compensate for the rockets pitch. A few seconds more discharge can be seen. Again, it’s hard to tell what this is. It could be that the engines are malfunctioning due to the stress caused by the rocket flying outside its design envelope.
The rocket begins to explode as it tumbles, likely as a result of structural failure, but it strikes the ground more or less in one piece. This is an extremely dangerous event and thankfully nobody was killed. In addition to the explosion, the Proton rocket carries hundreds of tons of unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine. This hypergolic fuel is extremely toxic, and even those outside the blast area could be in signifficant danger from residual UDMH released.
In an article from a couple of years ago, it was noted that the Russian space program seems to allow spectators much closer to rocket launches than its US or European counterparts allow. While there were launch personnel close to the launch pad, they were in armored control houses and no injuries were reported.
In 1960, a prototype Soviet ICBM was being test launched when a premature ignition of the second stage engine caused the rocket to explode, spewing huge amounts of hypergolic fuel and oxidizer. A large number of officials were in attendance to watch the launch and were out in the open near the launch site when the explosion occurred. Over one hundred spectators died, some killed by the explosion and others by the highly reactive and toxic fuel released. It became known as the Nedelin catastrophe.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013 at 1:59 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Good Science, Misc, Space. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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