Updated A Russian weather satellite and 18 micro-satellites are right now thought to be at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean after a Soyuz rocket carrying the birds malfunctioned shortly after launch.
The launch of the Soyuz 2-b rocket – the latest addition to Russia's venerable line of boosters – took place at the new Vostochny cosmodrome today, and initially appeared to go without a mishap. However, contact was lost shortly after. The Russian space agency reports no further communication with the hardware.
The thing isn't where it's supposed to be at all, which isn't a particularly good sign. Here's a video of the liftoff:
"During the first planned communication session with the spacecraft, it was not possible to establish a connection due to its absence in the target orbit," said Roscosmos in a statement. "Currently, the information is being analyzed."
The main payload for the launch was Russia's latest weather satellite Meteor M2-1, which was due to go into low Earth orbit. Nine minutes and 23 seconds after the successful blastoff, the Fregat upper stage, carrying the Meteor satellite and the other hardware, was due to maneuver into a parking orbit.
The Russian news agency Interfax quoted an anonymous source who said the Fregat stage didn't separate as planned, and wasn't able to reach a safe orbit. Instead, it fell back to Earth, possibly still carrying its payload, and was destroyed by air friction, with the debris falling safely into the sea, we're told.
In other words, it sounds as though the rocket didn't do its job of getting the stuff up into space, and keeping it there.
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"According to preliminary data, there was an error in the flight task of the carrier rocket and the Fregat booster block, as a result of which the first impulse was issued in the wrong orientation, so the upper stage together with the satellite entered the atmosphere and fell into the Atlantic ocean," the source said.
It's not a good look for the rocket, and casts a pall over Russia's shiny new cosmodrome. This was only the second launch from the new site, which was built in the far east of the country to reduce Russia's dependence on the Baikonur complex, which is owned by Kazakhstan and leased by the Russians.
Vostochny was supposed to be a triumph of Russian engineering, however, its construction was marred by labor disputes and corruption allegations. President Putin took a personal interest in the project, calling it "one of modern Russia's biggest and most ambitious projects," so today's loss may be a little galling.
The failure is also bad news for the 18 microsat makers who had hitched a ride on the rocket. They include 10 satellites from San Francisco-based Spire Global, here in California. The biz told The Register it hasn't heard from its hardware yet, and would have expected to have received communications by now.
"It looks like there was a failure but we're waiting to hear from our Russian partners," a spokesman for the company told us. "That said, we already have hardware on the International Space Station waiting to launch so there's plenty to be getting on with." ®
Updated to add
It is claimed the rocket's software was misconfigured: it wasn't programmed with information relevant to the new launch site. In other words, it thought it was launching from Baikonur or Plesetsk, not Vostochny, and thus got lost. According to Russian Space Web:
Almost unbelievably, the flight control system on the Fregat did not have the correct settings for the mission originating from the new launch site in Vostochny, as apposed to routine launches from Baikonur and Plesetsk. As a result, as soon as Fregat and its cargo separated from the third stage of the launch vehicle, its flight control system began commanding a change of orientation of the stack to compensate for what the computer had perceived as a deviation from the correct attitude, which was considerable. As a result, when the Fregat began its first preprogrammed main engine firing, the vehicle was apparently still changing its attitude, which led to a maneuvering in a wrong direction.