Programming Error May Have Caused Failed Russian Rocket Launch

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Ideally, a rocket makes things go up instead of down, but a Russian Soyuz launch last week did very much the opposite. The rocket’s payload of 19 satellites failed to reach orbit for previously unknown reasons. Now, reports indicate that it was a programming error that led to the loss of the payload. Instead of releasing the satellites on an orbital trajectory, it sent them back down into the atmosphere. Oops.

The Soyuz 2.1b rocket is regarded as a reliable launch vehicle, but it didn’t launch from the usual Baikonur facility as most Russian missions do. This was only the second launch from the troubled Vostochny Cosmodrome in far eastern Russia, construction of which won’t be complete until sometime next year. The Vostochny spaceport has been under development for years before the first launch took place in April 2016. Then, there was no activity for more than a year. Now, the second launch from Vostochny is a failure.

The latest reports cite a programming error related to the new launch facility as the cause of the incident. The rocket was composed of the Soyuz launch vehicle and a Fregat second stage vehicle. The Fregat carried the Meteor M2-1 meteorological satellite along with 18 smaller satellites (most of them under 10 pounds) and was responsible for releasing them in a stable orbit. However, because of a programming error, the spacecraft thought it has been launched from the old Baikonur Cosmodrome in southern Kazakhstan several thousand miles away from Vostochny.

The Meteor M2-1 meteorological satellite as it would have appeared had it not been destroyed.

According to the new report, the initial stage of the mission went as planned, but the Fregat second stage was unable to orient itself after separating from the Soyuz because of the programming error. When the engines fired to boost it into an orbital trajectory, it was still attempting to correct its orientation. As a result, it was pointed toward Earth when the engines ignited. It dropped back into the atmosphere and burned up, taking all 19 satellites with it.

Russian state news says a full investigation has been opened into the failure. The investigation will include representatives from Russia’s Roscosmos space agency and members of the aerospace industry. The official report is expected around the middle of December, so we’ll know then if the claims of a programming error match up with the official explanation. If that’s the only issue, a software update to account for the new launch location should keep future missions on track.

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