Proton Set To Return to Flight Oct. 14 Carrying Intelsat’s IS-23

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PARIS — Russia’s Proton Breeze-M rocket will return to flight Oct. 14 with Intelsat’s IS-23 satellite following a Russian inquiry board’s conclusion that an out-of-specification component in a Breeze-M fuel line caused an August launch failure, Proton commercial provider International Launch Services (ILS) said Sept. 11.

A Russian federal government mission carrying a Russian Lutch data-relay satellite and Gazprom Space Systems’ Yamal 300K telecommunications satellite will follow on Nov. 2, ILS President Frank McKenna said. The ILS and Russian government manifest on Proton rockets following November remains unclear and will not be decided until the end of September, he said.

Proton is likely to be able to conduct two or three more launches by the end of the year in addition to the two campaigns already identified.

Briefing reporters here during the World Satellite Business Week conference organized by Euroconsult, McKenna said a Russian government commission looking into the Aug. 6 failure, which left Russian and Indonesian telecommunications satellites in useless orbits, has clearly identified the failure’s cause and remedial action.

The Breeze-M upper stage failed to deliver sufficient thrust on the third of its planned ignitions because of a small metallic orifice inside a fuel line that was not manufactured according to specifications, McKenna said.

The component was built by Polyot of Omsk, Russia, in a manufacturing plant owned by Khrunichev Space Center of Moscow, which is Proton’s prime contractor and for the last several years has assembled most Proton subcontractors under its management.

McKenna said the defective pressurization-line component was built by Khrunichev until 2011, when it was moved to Polyot in 2011 as part of a general reorganization of Proton assembly.

The Polyot-built component has flown on several flights without failing, a fact that McKenna said help explained why the defect, which he said was due to a misunderstanding at Polyot of how the part should be built, escaped the attention of Polyot and Khrunichev.

Given that the defect only occurred at certain pressure thresholds, McKenna said, it was not picked up as the component was tested, with Khrunichev oversight.

The component will be removed from two Breeze-M upper stages awaiting integration at the Russian-run Baikonur Cosmodrome spaceport in Kazakhstan. The components also will be replaced in those Breeze-M stages at Khrunichev. It is not yet entirely clear, McKenna said, how quickly replacement components can be qualified and installed into new Breeze-Ms, which is why the company will refrain from announcing a manifest for a few weeks.

McKenna said that like a software issue that caused the last Proton Breeze-M failure, in August 2011, ILS’s quality control system likely would not have picked up the defect that caused this latest failure.

He said that the same flight also witnessed “a slight deviation” in the performance of the Proton third stage, but he said this had no effect on the mission.

In addition to the Russian government inquiry, ILS assembled two insurance underwriters and nine satellite fleet operator customers, along with an outside expert in propulsion, to review the Russian findings the week of Sept. 10. McKenna said this group totals 50 people.

McKenna said space insurance underwriters will be briefed on the inquiry in the United States on Sept. 18 in Reston and on Sept. 20 in Munich. He said no ILS customers have indicated they would be seeking alternative launch services because of the Proton failure.

The Proton rocket has been the most active among the principal satellite-launch vehicles in the past couple of years following Khrunichev’s decision to ramp up production.

McKenna said Proton has launched 45 times since 2008, which is more than all its competitors combined, whose total he said is 35 launches.

Russian government officials, including the Russian president and prime minister, have been withering in their criticism of the space industry since the August failure, ultimately accepting the resignation of Khrunichev Director-General Vladimir Nesterov.

McKenna said that while the post-failure review will include a government-ordered re-evaluation of the quality assurance regime applied throughout the Proton manufacturing system, ILS has found no systemic issue that needs to be addressed.

ILS has 19 commercial missions in its backlog. The company expects that while it will take some time to make up the two months of grounding following the failure, there will be almost no effect on ILS’s customers awaiting launches in 2013.