Russia on Tuesday temporarily grounded its workhorse Proton-M carrier rockets after the latest in a string of launch mishaps put a prized telecommunications satellite into the wrong orbit.
The Federal Space Agency (Roskosmos) said Thursday’s accident was probably caused by a malfunction in an upper booster that Russia also uses in military satellite launches.
“The preparation of Proton-M carrier and Briz-M upper stage rocket launches is temporarily suspended until the reasons for the Express-AM4 satellite’s aborted ascent are learned,” the agency said in a statement.
An agency official said the decision covers all scheduled Proton-M missions.
The satellite lost by Roskosmos was billed by state media as one of Europe’s largest and promised to provide digital television along with secure government communications for Siberia and Russia’s Far East.
The launch was attended by senior officials including Communications Minister Igor Shchyogolev and Vladimir Popovkin, the new head of Roskosmos, whose predecessor was sacked after overseeing his own string of failures.
Space officials said they had managed to pinpoint the satellite’s exact location with the help of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).
“At the moment, our specialists are continuing to try to establish communications with the space craft,” Roskosmos said.
It added that a group of experts is trying to establish whether the craft can still be manoeuvred into the right orbit and its mission be saved.
Russia has been using Proton carriers since the Soviet era and has since been working on various upgrades that can expand and extend its use.
One of those modifications include a Briz-M upper stage that propels payloads into the more distant orbits used by some satellites.
Officials said Tuesday’s decision to ground missions will not affect this week’s planned launch of a Glonass communications satellite from Russia’s northern Plesetsk space centre.
A Proton-M failure prompted Russia to lose three of the advanced Glonass satellites last year in a launch conducted from the Baikonur launch pad in Kazakhstan.
Plesetsk launches rely on a different carrier rocket called the Soyuz.