Dramatic Crash of Russian Proton-M Rocket

July 2nd, 2013
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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:

Click here to see see video at higher quality on YouTube

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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14 Responses to “Dramatic Crash of Russian Proton-M Rocket”

  1. 1
    drbuzz0 Says:

    Apparently the Russian Space Agency is now saying that the failure was caused by the emergency shutdown of the rockets engine 17 seconds after launch. I have my doubts about that, however, as it seems that the rocket was in trouble almost as soon as it took off.

    http://www.nbcnews.com/science/spectacular-russian-rocket-failure-blamed-engine-shutdown-6C10518083

    Also, the six rocket engines certainly appear to be firing all the way to the end.


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  2. 2
    drbuzz0 Says:

    A little more information: It seems that there may have been a failure of the vector control on one of the six engines, which caused it to become stuck in an extreme position.

    This makes sense, because if the thrust control had just failed to activate or the engine didn’t fire properly, the other five engines should have been able to compensate to either keep the rocket on course, or at the very least, maintain enough control for a safer abort profile.

    The fact that the thrust control was jammed in such an extreme position meant the other engines couldn’t effectively compensate and keep the rocket under control.

    http://www.russianspaceweb.com/proton_glonass49.html


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  3. 3
    drbuzz0 Says:

    Reports now are that the rocket crash narrowly missed some important infrastructure. It came just short of the main rail line used to transport rockets to the launch pad and it missed all the major support facilities.

    The loss of the mission is reported to be about 200 million USD.


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  4. 4
    DV82XL Says:

    Well obviously this is a perfect example of why the space programs of every nation all over the world should be immediately stopped and declared illegal under international law – it’s just too dangerous to innocent bystanders. Just think of the carnage if this rocket had hit a heavily populated area; the risks of this technology are simply too great regardless of any marginal benefits it might have.

    As well these programs are just a fig-leaf to cover their real military purpose which is as a weapons delivery system, and even if that is not always the case, development of a space exploration program will always serve as a temptation to bad countries to pervert it to that end.

    The world would be far better off if we simply stopped this dangerous pursuit altogether, after all it is now possible to build a communication network using balloons, and solar powered drones could take over imaging duties from satellites, and surely there is some technology on the distant horizon that will replace GPS if we just believe in it hard enough.

    As for any other applications of space technology, these are just not necessary as we should as a species keep our noses to the ground and concern ourselves each with our immediate surroundings only. That’s how it was in the past, and everyone knows the human condition was far superior then, and life more fulfilling than it is now.

    /sarcasm


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  5. 5
    Anon Says:

    There are people who would agree with what DV82XL just wrote and if it was written by an unknown I’d have had to read until /sarcasm before I realised what it was.


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  6. 6
    Robert Sneddon Says:

    The heaviest launch vehicle now flying after the Shuttle’s retirement is the Delta 4 Heavy with nearly twice the capacity of the Falcon 9 which is more comparable to the venerable Soyuz than anything else. The big thing about the Falcon 9 is that is is being actively man-rated unlike virtually everything else in the commercial launch catalogue — Soyuz and Shenzhou, the only two man-rated boosters flying today are not intended to make a profit.


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  7. 7
    drbuzz0 Says:

    Of course, you are right and I probably should have written it differently.

    I should have been more specific. When I said “It is one of the largest rockets currently available,” I was thinking mostly in terms of commercial heavy lift. The Proton has dominated the heavy lift market for some time. I basically mean it’s the workhorse of heavy lift rockets at the moment.

    The Delta IV family is used almost exclusively for US government satellites.

    In the future, the Falcon 9 and the Falcon 9 Heavy (which has not yet flown) may challenge the Proton family as being the current workhorse of heavy lift launch systems.


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  8. 8
    Robert Sneddon Says:

    The Ariane 5 (ECA variant for satellites, ES for ISS ATV cargo ships) has about the same lift as the Proton-M (21 tonnes into LEO). Ariane will be used to orbit four production Galileo satellites per launch, the Proton-M that just failed was only carrying three GLONASS satellites. Falcon 9 v1.1 is 5 tonnes under Ariane’s performance to LEO and at least 4 tonnes less in its (unproven) GTO capability and its launch schedule is in a stretch at the moment with first flight now scheduled for September delayed from April.

    F9 Heavy has no real commercial market since the demand is constrained by the existing family of 20-tonne boosters with customers currently building payloads to fit into that capability. The biggest single lumps being flown today are the 20-tonne ESA ATVs, for example with the largest geostationary birds being under 7 tonnes (which the F9v1.1 can’t handle).

    “If they build it they will come” may work for F9 Heavy single payloads over 20 tonnes but it means a big financial investment up front for Musk and co.


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  9. 9
    Jay Says:

    Pardon my ignorance, but regarding the toxic fuel in the rocket, why is it that such toxic fuels are used? I know the space shuttle is powered by hydrogen and oxygen, which are really cold, but not a danger of toxicity and I believe some rockets are powered on kerosene or something similar to it. Do these rockets also have toxic fuels in addition to that?


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  10. 10
    drbuzz0 Says:

            Jay said:

    Pardon my ignorance, but regarding the toxic fuel in the rocket, why is it that such toxic fuels are used?

    I know the space shuttle is powered by hydrogen and oxygen, which are really cold, but not a danger of toxicity and I believe some rockets are powered on kerosene or something similar to it. Do these rockets also have toxic fuels in addition to that?

    Hypergolic fuels are liquids that ignite when they come in contact with each other. The most common are hydrazine and related chemicals (Unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine, Monomethylhydrazine etc) as the fuel and dinitrogen tetroxide as the oxidizer. Both are very toxic, especially hydrazine, which is extremely toxic.

    These propellants are used by nearly all spacecraft for their maneuvering thrusters and things like that. The reason is that they can be easily stored as liquids and don’t need to be kept refrigerated. They are highly reliable, because once they come into contact in the thruster, they ignite. There’s no need for an igniter or anything. This was a big concern with manned missions, like the lunar missions. A hypergolic engine will be almost 100% sure to work unless one of the tanks leaked and the fuel is lost.

    As for why it is used in the Proton: The Proton rocket was developed in as a kind of “Super ICBM” that could deliver a large number of very high yeild warheads. It was abandoned in this configuration because it turns out that it was too big to hide or protect in a silo. Hypergolic fuel was necessary for a liquid fueled ICBM because it could be stored. It’s a liquid. No need to refrigerate it or store it at high pressure.

    This is similar to the Titan rockets used by the US, which were both ICBM’s and used for space launches.

    Hypergolic fuel has been used as the first stage propellant of other rockets too. It has a number of advantages and disadvantages.

    Disadvantages:

    - Highly toxic and thus requires special fueling protocol, such as protective suits for technicians
    - Generally tends to be more expensive than LH2 or kerosene
    - Corrosive and reactive, so only compatible materials can be used.

    Advantages:

    - Engines that run on hypergolic fuel can be much more simple and thus lighter and more reliable
    - No cryonic temperatures. No need to use compatible materials (seals that won’t become brittle etc) and no need for insulation, which is heavy and expensive.
    - The fuel tanks and storage tanks are much simpler and lighter
    - No loss of fuel due to boiling off and no need to have systems to collect and safely burn off or vent fuel or oxygen that boils off
    - It can stay in the tank as long as needed with no boiling away. If the launch needs to be scrubbed and rescheduled, the rocket does not need to be de-fueled and no fuel is lost.


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  11. 11
    Anon Says:

    Hypergolics for large rockets are in the process of being phased out, the US and Europe having already done it (replacement of Titan IV with the EELVs and development of Ariane 5) and Russia and China (only countries still using them) planning on doing it (though I’m not holding my breath for either to do it).


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  12. 12
    Robert Sneddon Says:

    Hypergolics for primary launch vehicle use are being phased out but N2O4/MMH or UDMH motors are still being flown regularly in upper stages and free-flight space probes. The Shuttle launched with about 20 tonnes of N2O4/MMH on board for the OMS motors which were the main propulsion system used to manoeuvre the spacecraft after the External Tank disconnected near the end of the launch sequence and to carry out the deorbit burn at the end of the mission.

    One other downside to using N2O4/MMH is that its Isp is typically 10% less than modern LOX/RP-1 (Ariane 5, Atlas) and LOX/LH2 (Delta 4) engines.


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  13. 13
    drbuzz0 Says:

            Robert Sneddon said:

    Hypergolics for primary launch vehicle use are being phased out but N2O4/MMH or UDMH motors are still being flown regularly in upper stages and free-flight space probes. The Shuttle launched with about 20 tonnes of N2O4/MMH on board for the OMS motors which were the main propulsion system used to manoeuvre the spacecraft after the External Tank disconnected near the end of the launch sequence and to carry out the deorbit burn at the end of the mission.

    One other downside to using N2O4/MMH is that its Isp is typically 10% less than modern LOX/RP-1 (Ariane 5, Atlas) and LOX/LH2 (Delta 4) engines.

    True, but if I were going to land on the moon, I would not be willing to do it in anything other than a vehicle propelled by an engine that was pressure-fed and hypergolic.


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  14. 14
    Matte Says:

    It would seem this little misshap was due to missaligned accelerometers (mounted upside down). Seems like a junior technician will have a very sore bum for a very long time…

    http://nextbigfuture.com/2013/07/russian-13-billion-proton-rocket.html


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