Soyuz launch customers search for cause of cubesat failures

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SAN FRANCISCO – Four of the 72 miniature satellites sent into orbit July 14 on a Russian Soyuz 2.1a rocket alongside the primary customer, the Kanopus-V-IK Russian Earth-imaging satellite, are not responding to commands from their operators and two additional cubesats are not in their intended orbits.

Dauria Aerospace, Russia’s first privately owned and operated satellite manufacturing company, announced Aug. 29 that it has been unable to establish contact with the two MKA-N cubesats the firm designed and built for the Russian state space corporation Roscosmos.

SpaceNews has learned that two additional cubesats, the Moscow Aviation Institute’s Iskra-MAI-85 and Moscow State University’s Cosmo Mayak, are not responding to commands from their operators. In addition, one of Spire Global’s eight Lemur-2 satellites and one of Earth-observation company Planet’s Flock 2k Doves are not in their intended orbits.

It is not clear whether each of the unresponsive cubesats experienced its own hardware or software failure or whether a launch event prompted the failures.

The July 14 Soyuz flight, which set a record for the most spacecraft launched on a single Russian rocket, was a particularly challenging mission. The Fregat upper stage deposited satellites into three different orbits. 

The four satellites that failed are in a 600-kilometer orbit. One of those, the Cosmo Mayak cubesat developed by Moscow State University Mechanical Engineering students with $30,000 raised through crowdfunding, failed to deploy its Mylar solar reflector. Because that satellite has no radio, Alexander Shaenko, who leads the Cosmo Mayak team, is investigating the status of his team’s “rocket mates,” according to an Aug. 18 post on RadioReference.com. “If most of them failed that this is the reason to ask Roscosmos about off-nominal situation during ascent to orbit,” Shaenko wrote.

Cosmo Mayak’s “rocket mates” include MKA-N, Iskra-MAI-85, three GeoOptics Cicero GPS radio-occultation satellites, Tyvak Nanosatellite Systems’ NanoACE technology demonstrator and the UESOR cubesat built cooperatively by Ecuador’s Equinoctial Technological University and the State University of Southwest Russia.

Tyvak and UESOR officials did not respond to requests for comment. Alex Saltman, GeoOptics chief operating office,r said by email, “We have a company policy of not commenting on the status of individual satellites or launches.”

Spire launched eight Lemur-2 weather and maritime-tracking satellites on the Soyuz mission. Seven arrived in their intended orbit and one was placed into a lower orbit with Planet’s Flock 2k Doves.

Planet has commissioned 47 of the 48 satellites it launched on the flight and is “working with all the parties involved to collect telemetry and other data to better understand the situation,” and find its remaining satellite, spokeswoman Rachel Holm said by email.

The majority of satellites launched July 14 on the Soyuz are in their intended orbits and working, including the Norwegian Space Center’s NorSat-1 and -2, Axelspace of Japan’s WNISAT-1R, the German University of Stuttgart Institute of Space Systems’ Flying Laptop, Astro Digital’s two Landmappers, 47 Planet Doves and seven Spire Lemurs.

“From our perspective, Soyuz is a fine vehicle,” Robert Zee, director of the University of Toronto’s Space Flight Laboratory, which developed the two Norwegian satellites, said by email.

Although one of Spire’s Lemur satellites was not deposited in its planned orbit, company officials are not complaining.

“While not expected, this further diversifies our orbital planes and improves coverage,” Nick Allain, Spire brand director, said by email. “We would actually be interested in launch providers offering multiple altitudes as an option for future launches.”

Dauria Aerospace is trying to determine what caused its MKA-N cubesats to fail. Prior to launch, the cubesats and satellite deployers “underwent the complete series of experimental ground tests, which confirmed the full readiness of the spacecraft for the launch and operations in the conditions of space,” according to the Aug. 29 announcement. “The testing was conducted in strict accordance with the conditions of the best practice and the client’s requirements.”

“The engineers at Dauria Aerospace are currently considering several possible causes of the failure as well as the follow-up procedures. As a working hypothesis some internal causes having to do with the spacecraft design, the quality of the components and the software are being considered, as well as the likelihood of an external impact.”

Dauria wants to contact all the institutions and businesses that launched spacecraft simultaneously with the MKA-N satellites “in order to clarify all the circumstances and the cause of the failure,” the statement adds.  

“We do realize that the considerations of commercial confidentiality or keeping business reputation intact do not facilitate full openness. We have waited for 40 days hoping that a miracle might happen and the satellites would come alive. You might have possibly registered some abnormalities during the separation phase or while establishing contact with the satellites, or during follow-up operations. This information would be a great help to Dauria Aerospace’s effort to establish the cause of the issue with the MKA-N satellites. We are open for dialogue in such a way as to satisfy all parties involved.”

Remotes sensing company Astro Digital, which also sent two Landmapper cubesats into orbit on the Soyuz flight, is commissioning the spacecraft and “excited to show off first light,” said Bronwyn Agrios, Astro Digital product head.