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Three Russian Navigation Satellites lost in Proton Launch Failure

PARIS — The Dec. 5 failure of a Russian Proton rocket with a Block DM upper stage resulted in the destruction of three Russian Glonass-M navigation and positioning satellites, likely delaying Russia’s goal of placing the Glonass constellation on a par with the U.S. GPS system by late 2011.

The Russian Federal Space Agency, Roskosmos, and the Proton’s prime contractor, Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center of Moscow, issued a statement late Dec. 5 saying the Block DM upper stage and the three Glonass spacecraft, intended for medium-Earth orbit, had not reached their destination. A board of inquiry has been formed to investigate what happened.

Russian authorities and Khrunichev in the past have been able to recover from Proton failures much more quickly than their U.S., European and Japanese counterparts commonly do when their rockets fail.

In this case, Roskosmos and Khrunichev were not immediately clear on whether the anomaly originated in the Block DM stage, one of the three lower stages or with the rocket’s avionics or computer system.

Depending on the origin of the problem, the failure may have an effect on the schedule of International Launch Services (ILS) of McLean, Va., which is owned by Khrunichev and handles Proton commercial launches.

ILS had been preparing for its eighth and final launch scheduled for 2010, of the large Ka-Sat consumer broadband satellite owned by Eutelsat of Paris. The launch had been scheduled for Dec. 20. An ILS official on Dec. 6 said Ka-Sat launch preparations are continuing pending further information from Russian authorities about the Dec. 5 failure.

ILS Proton launches use the Khrunichev-built Breeze M upper stage for final orbital insertion of satellites, and not the Block DM stage used for the Glonass launch.

The Russian government has made restoring Glonass to full operational capacity a major investment priority in recent years. It has been aided in this effort by gradual improvement in the operating lifespan of newer Glonass-M satellites, which are designed to function for seven years in orbit, compared to three years for the first-generation Glonass spacecraft.

A fresh design, called Glonass-K, is scheduled to be tested later this month in a launch aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket. Glonass-K satellites have 10-year lifetimes in addition to additional signals.

Glonass program managers had hoped that Glonass would approach the accuracy of the U.S. GPS system — both are 24-satellite constellations in medium Earth orbit — by the end of 2011.

Russian officials are also preparing to launch Glonass signal verification payloads on Russian Luch data-relay satellites in geostationary orbit starting in 2011. This geostationary overlay, similar to architectures already in operation in the United States, Europe and Japan, is called SDCM.

Three Luch satellites are expected to be equipped with SDCM payloads and launched in 2011, 2012 and 2013 into orbital slots at 16 degrees west, 95 degrees east and 167 degrees east, respectively.

Peter B. de Selding

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.