Sunday, May 31, 2015

Third Stage Engine Blamed for Russian Proton-M Rocket Crash

Proton-M rocket launch on May 16, 2015. Credit: Roscomos

Russia's Federal Space Agency Roscosmos has blamed the failure of the third stage’s engine for the latest Proton-M rocket crash on May 16, 2015. The failure was characterized as a design flaw. According to the findings the shaft in the third stage engine’s pump failed due to excessive vibration loads, just as it did decades ago to cause a Proton rocket crash back in 1988. "The conclusion of the [investigation] commission: the cause of the failure of the Proton-M carrier rocket mission was the failure of the steering third stage engine due to excessive vibration as a result of imbalance in operation of a rotor of a pump unit," said Roscosmos head Igor Komarov.

Aleksandr Ivanov, Roscosmos deputy chief, admitted that the cause was rooted in the design. Komarov agreed saying: "The failure was due to a design fault."

The officials noted that eliminating the flaw will not require great costs. However, they promised to take disciplinary and administrative measures following the inquiry and to present a plan for reforming the system of quality management in the space rocket industry.

Komarov ordered the Khrunichev Centre (Proton’s manufacturer) to develop a plan to eliminate similar issues in the future. The plan should include: replacement of the material making up the shaft of the turbopump rotor, revision of rotor balancing techniques and upgrading the attachment of the steering engine turbopump to the framework of the main engine.

"In the near future the shafts will be replaced in all turbo pumps," Ivanov added, noting he is certain that the proposed measures would "cure the disease."

Komarov also said the investigation revealed errors in quality management at the space rocket industry.

"The inquiry identified quality management and manufacturing process inconsistencies. They are very clear. Instructions have been issued. A plan for eliminating the mistakes will be finalized within two weeks. Possibly, it will be systemic," he said.

Roscosmos representatives concluded that despite recent launch failures, Russia will not give up on the use of Proton-M carrier rockets.

The date of the next Proton-M launch will be decided in June 2015.

On May 16, 2015, Proton-M launch vehicle with Mexico’s communication Satellite MexSat-1, lifted off as scheduled from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 11:47 a.m. local time. Approximately eight-and-a-half minutes into the flight, just before third stage separation, an anomaly occurred. The rocket fell back to the ground from an altitude of 160 kilometers over Siberia.

The recent failure is another blow to Russian space industry on a long list of the country’s rocket accidents. The list and a review of Russian space failures since 2011 can be found here.

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