Russia Cleans Up, Investigates After Rocket Launch Failure

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Russian authorities searching a remote region of the country by aircraft have found the debris from a military satellite launch failure that occurred June 21, but might not know for a month or more what caused the accident.

The flight of the three-stage Molnia-M rocket carrying the military telecommunications satellite was aborted shortly after liftoff from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia. The mission was supposed to place the satellite into a highly elliptical orbit.

The Russian Space Forces, the arm of the Russian military that launches satellites, typically does not release the names of payloads or their missions. But the Russian space agency identified the satellite as Molnia-3K in a June 21 press release.

In a press conference June 21, Anatoly Perminov, director-general of the Russian space agency, said investigators are looking into the possibility that the rocket’s second and third stages failed to separate. Another possibility is that the third-stage engine failed to ignite, he said.

Whatever the problem was, the flight was aborted five minutes after liftoff, and the rocket and satellite, still enshrouded in its protective fairing, crashed in the Siberian region of Tyumen, according to Aleksei Kuznetsov, spokesman for the Space Forces.

In a phone interview June 22, Kuznetsov confirmed that the flight was aborted at about the time when the second and third stage were supposed to separate , but declined to comment on Perminov’s suggestions as to what might have caused the failure.

Kuznetsov said a commission headed by Gen. Oleg Gromov, deputy commander of the Space Forces, was established June 21 to investigate the accident . It may take the commission a month or more to come up with a preliminary report on what could have caused the crash.

Meanwhile, the Chief Military Prosecutor’s Office announced June 21 that it will investigate the incident for possible violations of regulations governing aviation and space-launch activities. The office’s spokesman, Mikhail Yanenko, said in a June 23 phone interview that the “investigation continues” but declined to give any details.

Such investigations are required by law following airplane and rocket crashes regardless of whether casualties are involved.

After two days of the searching the Tyumen region’s Uvat district by aircraft, Russian authorities located the debris from the mishap June 22, an official at the regional branch of the federal Ministry for Emergency Situations told Space News June 23.

The Uvatsky district is sparsely populated, and there have been no reports of casualties or damage stemming from the incident .

Kuznetsov said the impact on the environment should be negligible because the Molniya-M rocket is fueled by relatively benign kerosene and liquid oxygen. Some other Russian rockets, notably the workhorse Proton vehicle, are fueled by a poisonous chemical called heptil.

Reached by phone June 22, Oksana Yefimenko, a spokeswoman for TsSKB-Progress of Samara, Russia, which builds the Molnia-M vehicle, said her company would have no comment on the incident until the investigation commission publishes its findings.