Space: A Dangerous Place To Be


February 7, 2011: On February 2nd, Russian ground controllers restored contact with an earth mapping satellite that was launched the day before, but into the wrong orbit. Ground control lost contact with the GEO-IK-2 satellite shortly after launch and was initially believed to be a total loss. The GEO-IK-2 was designed to measure the shape of the earth and monitor planetary movement (land, tides, ice). The satellite also had a military use, to measure the planet's gravitational field, which helps make missile guidance systems (and commercial ones) more accurate and reliable. If controllers are not able to get GEO-IK-2 into a better orbit, and functioning reliably, this will be the second major satellite loss in three months for Russia. Right now, it appears that GEO-IK-2 will never be able to achieve its 1,000 kilometer circular orbit needed for its main function.

There will be repercussions for this. A month ago, Russia fired two senior managers of the Russian Space Agency, plus some lesser managers, because of the December loss of three navigation satellites. The December incident used a Proton satellite launcher that failed due to poor management and supervision. Russia lost the three GLONASS navigation satellites when the rocket malfunctioned and caused the satellites to crash into the Pacific. The Proton rocket had been fueled incorrectly, causing imbalance and failure to achieve orbit. This was poor management at its most obvious.

The prompt dismissal of so many senior managers was actually pretty typical. Russia has a long tradition of the "vertical chop", where several senior leaders in the same chain of command are dismissed (or even executed, at least in the old days) when there was a screw up in their area of responsibility. This approach has fallen out of favor in the West, where the tendency is to fire as few people as possible when there is a major failure. After September 11, 2001, for example, no one got fired.

But the vertical chop still lives in some areas. The U.S. Navy, for example, will fire the captain of a ship, and often several other officers as well, when there is an accident. This recognizes the fact that accidents with ships can be very expensive, and get a lot of people killed. While the officers fired don't like it, most naval officers accept the vertical chop as a necessary evil. There are always plenty of capable officers available to replace those dismissed, and the replacements have the fear of the vertical chop to encourage them to do better.

That said, the Russian satellite launchers are far from perfect. Including the partial failures, the Proton has about a ten percent failure rate. However, the Russian launchers, and Russian launch facilities, are cheaper than those in the West, and nearly as reliable. But the higher failure rate of the Proton rocket causes some concern among potential customers. Nevertheless, the Proton is so cheap, that you can afford to pay more for insurance. And there is some comfort in knowing that the Russian Space Agency suits put their jobs on the line every time one of those rockets is launched.

The three lost satellites were to make GLONASS fully operational, but now that will have to wait, until later this year, when more satellites can be put up. As a result of the loss, GLONASS does not yet cover the entire planet. Three years ago, Russia thought it had GLONASS ready for prime time. Three more GLONASS satellites had just gone into orbit. These, in addition to those put up a few months earlier, meant there were 20 GLONASS birds up there. Russia planned to have the system operational by 2010. That plan has now fallen apart. At the moment, there are 22 GLONASS satellite in orbit, but only sixteen of them are working. That's particularly discouraging, because 18 of the GLONASS birds must be operational to provide worldwide service.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close