ATLANTA — In a remarkably quick end to a failure review investigation even by Russian standards, a Russian state board of inquiry announced Aug. 30 it had determined the cause of an Aug. 18 failure of a Proton rocket upper stage, ordered corrective actions and cleared Proton rockets to resume operations, according to the Russian space agency, Roscosmos.
The Proton rocket’s Breeze-M upper stage placed the Russian Satellite Communications Co. (RSCC) Express-AM4 satellite into a useless orbit from which recovery would be difficult. In the days since the launch, Roscosmos has said the satellite has been unable to communicate with ground controllers.
Express-AM4 was insured for about $300 million, according to insurance underwriters. RSCC, in announcing the end of recovery efforts and the loss of the satellite on Aug. 29, said it carried insurance of 7.5 billion rubles for the craft, or some $260 million at current exchange rates.
How long Express-AM4’s batteries could survive without being recharged by the satellite’s solar panels is unclear. Industry officials said the batteries, which are typically charged to roughly 80 percent of capacity before launch, could continue functioning for a week, perhaps a little longer. Also unclear is whether the satellite has been able to deploy its solar arrays. One industry official said the arrays have not deployed.
Express-AM4’s prime contractor, Astrium Satellites of Europe, has declined to comment on the situation, referring inquiries to RSCC. RSCC spokeswoman Anna Sokolova said Sept. 1 that the company would have no comment beyond its announcement that the satellite is a total loss.
In its Aug. 30 announcement, Roscosmos said the interagency board of inquiry determined that the Breeze-M failure was due to a badly programmed sequence for its guidance system. “This resulted in an off-nominal orientation of the Breeze-M and, as a consequence, in injecting the [Express-AM4] into an off-design orbit,” Roscosmos said in its statement.
All other Breeze-M flight control systems have performed “within specs,” Roscosmos said. As a result, “the ban on Proton-M/Breeze-M ground processing has been lifted, and appropriate recommendations have been prepared, to be implemented prior to the upcoming launches.” Roscosmos said an updated Proton/Breeze-M launch schedule would be announced shortly.