Fregat satellite deployment
An illustration of the deployment of small satellites from the Fregat upper stage during its July 14, 2018 launch. Credit: Glavkosmos

SAN FRANCISCO — An insurance company paid Astro Digital’s claim for the loss of two Landmapper cubesats sent into orbit in July 2017 on a Russian Soyuz rocket after the Earth imaging and analysis company proved the failure stemmed from a launch problem, according to two space industry executives.

“I can confirm that Astro Digital did have launch insurance policies for the Landmapper-BC1 and Landmapper-BC2 satellites,” Chris Biddy, Astro Digital chief executive and co-founder, said by email. “However, we cannot comment further due to non-disclosure agreements.”

Astro Digital insured the Landmapper cubesats with Starr Aviation, a subsidiary of Starr International Co., according to a space industry executive who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss the matter. Starr does not comment on whether claims have been paid, spokeswoman Paula Negro said.

According to a space industry executives from a different company, Starr paid the claim after Astro Digital presented telemetry documents from Glavkosmos, the subsidiary of Russian state space corporation Roscosmos that arranged the small satellite launches. Those documents showed that one of two attitude control thrusters on the Fregat upper stage failed to fire but instead pumped out hydrazine, which exploded when the second thruster fired.

Since the July 14 Soyuz launch, when 72 small satellites traveled to orbit alongside Russian Earth imaging satellite Kanopus-V-IK, satellite engineers and insurance executives have been struggling to understand what happened because at least nine cubesats stored in one area of the Fregat upper stage never responded to commands from their operators while the vast majority of satellites launched on the rocket worked as designed.

For months after the launch, students at Moscow State University, whose Mayak cubesat also failed, investigated possible causes. After attempting to replicate launch conditions and analyzing information on the Fregat and the fate of cubesats stored alongside Mayak, the students determined “Mayak and other failed satellites put into orbit with an approximate apogee of 600 kilometer have failed because of the ingress of decomposition products of hydrazine from one or more low-thrust liquid engines, used in the reactive control system of the upper stage Fregat,” Claudia Kitova, a Mayak spacecraft engineer, said by email.

Glavkosmos said by email that no launch failure occurred.

“There was not any anomaly in Soyuz-2 launch vehicle operation,” Tamara Gulyaeva, Glavkosmos press secretary, said in response to questions about the Astro Digital insurance claim. “The designer of Fregat Upper Stage has analyzed the flight telemetry data on the operation of the upper stage systems. The analysis outputs confirmed that all the Fregat Upper Stage systems provided the cubesats’ injection into the specified design orbit of 601 kilometers in altitude and 97.61 in inclination. The orbit deviations were within the allowable limits and did not have an effect on cubesats operation. The cubesats separated in accordance with the flight program without any external impact on them.”

Astro Digital lost two additional cubesats on a November Soyuz flight before achieving success in orbit for the first time with a Landmapper-BC satellite launched Jan. 11 on an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle carrying a Cartosat-2 remote sensing satellite and 30 secondary payloads.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...