At the Soviet era Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan, a Russian Proton-M rocket exploded ten seconds after launch on July 2nd, destroying three Glonass (Russian GPS) satellites it was carrying. The cause was quickly found and it appears to be criminal negligence by space program workers and managers. This disaster cost Russia over $200 million and further blemished the reliability of Russian satellite launch services. The satellites, being state property, were not insured so the total loss comes out of the government budget.
This accident dumped 600 tons of fuel and tons of rocket components on the launch complex. Cleaning all this up is expected to take up to three months. This latest failure gives the Proton a success rate of 88 percent (for 388 launches). Western launchers tend to be 5-10 percent more reliable but a lot more expensive. The Russians soon revealed that they had discovered the cause of the Proton-M failure: the installation of a sensor upside down, which caused the rocket control system to believe the rocket was going in the wrong direction. The rocket then tried to adjust for the incorrect sensor signal and began behaving erratically and crashed. There were supposed to be visual inspections of all installed equipment and the investigation is seeking to discover who did not do their job. The government is planning to prosecute whoever was responsible. During the Soviet period (1921-1991) those responsible for disasters like this would often be executed or imprisoned.
There would be more failures were it not for the ingenuity of Russian engineers. Last year Russian satellite engineers managed to rescue a telecommunications satellite (Yamal-402) that was placed in the wrong orbit by a Proton launcher on December 8th. The last stage of the Proton, carrying the satellite, stopped its engines a few minutes early and left the satellite out of position. Russian engineers devised a plan to use the satellite’s engines (used to maintain orbit) to move the bird higher and into its proper orbit. This worked but the fuel used means that the useful life of the Yamal-402 (about 15 years) will be reduced about 30 percent. Still, that’s a lot cheaper (by over $100 million) than building another Yamal-402 and launching it.
The Russian commercial satellite launching company ILS (International Launch Services) uses Proton rockets for putting heavy satellites into high orbits. So far ILS has carried out 87 launches, and the recent incident with the Yamal-402 demonstrates to prospective customers how resourceful and effective the Russians can be. The Proton entered service in the 1960s, and in the last two decades Protons have earned Russia over $6 billion by putting foreign satellites into orbit, especially high orbits. While the Proton isn’t perfect, it is competitive when it comes to price and reliability.
There are two Proton designs, the older Proton K and the much updated Proton M. Originally designed as an ICBM in the 1960s, but never used that way, the Proton proved better at launching satellites. Proton is actually a launcher system that can be configured with three or four stages and different types of booster rockets to put different types (and weights) of satellites into orbit. Proton K could put 20 tons into low orbit and 5 tons into the highest (stationary) orbits. Current Protons cost nearly $70 million to build and launch. These use a lot of 1960s technology, which gets the job done and is cheap. The new model, the Proton M, replaces all the 1960s stuff and is basically a new rocket design. The Proton M has been in service 11 years and made 68 launches so far.
Overall, nearly 90 percent of Proton launches have been successful, although the success rate has been higher in the past few years. Proton's owner, Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, is developing a new and cheaper heavyweight rocket, the Angara. This rocket was supposed to enter service by 2006, but first flight won't take place until next year. Meanwhile, Proton M has taken over the work of putting satellites into high orbit until Angara is finally ready.
The most used launcher is the Russian R-7 (Soyuz), which has launched over 1,600 times. The Soyuz is a much smaller rocket which can only put 6.4 tons into low orbit.