MOSCOW — A few hours after the U.S. robot explorer Curiosity successfully landed on Mars and began transmitting images of the Red Planet, America’s Russian collaborators in the International Space Station project suffered another setback in their battered space program with the potential of endangering the station itself.
A Russian Proton-M booster rocket launched Tuesday morning from Baikonur Space Center in Kazakhstan failed to deliver Indonesian and Russian telecommunication satellites into orbit, instead adding millions of dollars worth of space junk into Earth’s orbit.
The launch proceeded normally until the acceleration engine block Briz-M switched off by itself only seven seconds after its third ignition instead of the more than 18 minutes required to put the Russian Express-MD2 and the Indonesian Telcom 3 satellites into their orbits, Russian space officials said.
There is “not a chance” at this point to do anything to correct the error, said Alexei Kuznetsov, spokesman for the Russian Space Agency.
Kuznetsov didn’t rule out a possibility that the now-useless satellites and the engine block may pose danger to the International Space Station but said it was “very unlikely.”
“A special group is studying the situation now to warn the station crew in time if such a possibility becomes real so that the crew can maneuver the station away from the collision course,” Kuznetsov said in a phone interview. “In a situation where the time is limited the crew can always hide themselves inside the Soyuz spaceship docked into the station.”
The three objects will continue to float in space only for a month or two before reentering the Earth’s atmosphere and burning up, given that their perigee orbit at 187 miles “is literally scratching the atmosphere now,” said Igor Marinin, editor-in-chief of the News of Cosmonautics, a Russian monthly journal.
“With the International Space Station low orbit of 250 miles these satellites and the engine block become theoretically dangerous,” Marinin said in an interview. “But we should also pray that in that period of time the fuel tank of the engine block wouldn’t explode due to overheating from solar exposure because then we will have to deal with thousands of smaller objects in unpredictable orbits.”
The Russian space industry, which was afflicted with insufficient funding in the late 1980s and early 1990s and subsequent loss of highly trained personnel, is desperately trying to recover from a series of space accidents and launch failures, including the loss in November of the $167-million Mars-bound probe Phobos-Ground shortly after launch due to a programming error. The probe finally fell into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Chile in mid-January.
“This is the first emergency situation this year,” Kuznetsov said. “We thought that the situation [in the space industry] began to improve but you know there is always a risk there that something may go wrong.”
“Basically all our problems today still stem from the long years of our space industry poverty in the late ’80s and early ’90s when our workers were not paid their salaries for months and many quit,” space expert Marinin said.
“When we reduced the production and thus saved the workforce in the late ’90s we began experiencing a bad want of designers and engineers because young people were not interested in space research anymore.”
Russian space research has lost over two generations of young specialists who have been choosing business and trade rather than space exploration, Russian cosmonaut Alexander Laveikin complained.
“Today’s failure is very embarrassing especially against the backdrop of the success of the U.S. exploration of Mars,” Laveikin, also the deputy director of the Memorial Museum of Russian Cosmonautics, said in an interview. “Our people have lost all interest in space research and most of them don’t even know or care what crew is on board of the International Space Station now and what they are doing there.”
Russia needs to promote its space program and make it a key element in the patriotic upbringing of Russian youth, Laveikin said.
-- Sergei L. Loiko
Photo: A picture dated Oct. 30, 2011, released by Russian Federal Space Agency Roscosmos shows a Russian Proton-M carrier rocket being transported to the launch pad at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. On Tuesday, a Proton-M carrier rocket failed as it was attempting to put two satellites into orbit. Credit: Roscosmos