RSCC Chief Financial Officer Dennis Pivnyuk said the new procedure will not necessarily move RSCC away from Russia’s principal commercial launcher, the heavy-lift Proton vehicle. Credit: International Launch Services

PARIS — The scheduled Sept. 17 return to flight of Russia’s Proton rocket carrying SES’s Astra 2E telecommunications satellite has been scrapped following discovery of an anomaly on the rocket, industry officials said Sept. 11.

Officials said it was too early to determine how serious the problem is, but that the launch likely would be delayed by at least a week to give Proton prime contractor Khrunichev Space Center of Moscow and Proton commercial sales agent International Launch Services (ILS) of Reston, Va., time to determine the cause of the problem.

“At this point it does not look serious,” said one official familiar with the issue.

One official said a dispute between Russia and Kazakhstan over launch authorizations — a long-running issue at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which is on Kazakh territory but managed by Russia under a lease arrangement — also posed a return-to-flight issue. But another official said this issue had been resolved.

Russia’s heavy-lift Proton rocket is returning to service after a July failure caused by a sensor installation error that was so egregious — the sensors were installed upside-down — that commercial satellite insurance underwriters have agreed to a return to flight in record time.

Luxembourg-based SES has also agreed to place its Astra 2E on a Proton without waiting for at least one other launch to occur after the failure.

ILS President Phil Slack on Sept. 9 told reporters that ILS plans three launches before the end of the year, with the Russian government planning two more Proton campaigns in the same period.

Slack said Proton would end the year with 10 flights, which is about average for the vehicle despite the two-month grounding following the failure.

For 2014, Slack said, ILS plans between five and seven commercial Proton flights.

Industry officials have remarked that Proton’s poor launch-success record in the past two years has mainly affected Russian government flights. Government missions aboard Proton have failed at a much higher rate than commercial ILS missions.

The result has been that the global satellite insurance industry has not suffered heavy losses from Proton’s recent mishaps. Most governments do not insure their missions.

Slack was at a loss to explain the reason for the higher failure rate for government Proton launches than for ILS launches.

He said the July failure following the badly installed sensors would have occurred on an ILS mission as well, and that the differences between ILS and government missions is not so extensive as to have detected the installation error. Slack nonetheless said Khrunichev and ILS are continuing a broad quality-assurance program that will install more video surveillance cameras in Proton production facilities, and add more quality-assurance reviews for future launches.



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Proton Launch Failures More Likely when Russia Footing the Bill

Roscosmos Fingers Botched Sensor Installation in July 2 Proton Failure

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.