After a difficult two-year span which had seen a surprising number of failures in the Russian launch industry, things appeared to be getting back on track in 2013. Until today. Within a few seconds of liftoff at 8:38 a.m. local time, (10:38 p.m. EDT Monday July 1) a Russian Proton-M booster carrying 3 Glonass (GPS) satellites began oscillating, exhibiting a loss of control which resulted in a wild, arching flight which came to a fiery conclusion near an alternate launch pad 17 seconds after ignition.
With the booster’s highly toxic unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide fuel residue blanketing the immediate area around the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Rianovosti is reporting that the upcoming launch of the Progress resupply ship to the International Space Station will almost certainly be delayed.
The dramatic failure of the trouble plagued rocket is going to have numerous repercussions, and is a blow to International Launch Services of Reston, Va. which markets a slightly different version of the Proton for commercial satellite launches. ILS had been planning a launch of the SES Astra 2E comsat later this month, but that is clearly not going to happen. With Sea-Launch attempting to recover from its most recent and similarly dramatic failure, and SpaceX yet to qualify the Falcon 9 V1.1, Arianespace is likely to begin looking for places on a crowded manifest as it cements its position as the world’s most reliable commercial launch provider. The Proton accident may also open a rare window for United Launch Alliance, which has reportedly been attempting to re-entry the commercial market with the Atlas-V booster.
In addition to the commercial implications, this latest example of what seems to be a teetering Russian space infrastructure raises additional concerns about ongoing American reliance on the Russian launch industry which includes ISS crew transportation as well as the RD-180 main engine for the Atlas-V.
Anatoly Zak has in depth coverage of the accident at Russianspaceweb.com
Rianovosti has a useful infographic detailing the cost of recent Russian launch failures.