Russia suspends launches over costly satellite loss


Russia suspended launches of its chief Proton-M rocket over the multimillion-dollar loss of a communications satellite, the latest in a string of embarrassing setbacks that have dogged the industry.

Russia’s space agency said the failure of the rocket’s upper stage, responsible for boosting satellites into final orbit, was the most likely cause for last week’s botched launch, it said in a statement.

Roskosmos said its experts were still trying to link back up with the $265-million Express AM4 satellite, billed by its maker EADS as the most powerful ever built in Europe, after it disappeared from monitors shortly after launch last Thursday, Reuters reports.

The costly debacle on Russia’s principal launch vehicle for heavy commercial and military satellites is a major embarrassment for the aerospace industry, coming on the heels of a series of other mishaps.

With 10 more Proton-M launches planned this year, the rocket is the backbone of Russia’s space industry and has seen several upgrades since the Soviet era to extend its lifespan.

Space officials blame the Proton-M’s recently developed upper stage Briz-M for dropping the Express AM4 onto the wrong path last week.

The North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) has pinpointed the satellite’s location, but unless experts manage to re-establish contact and manoeuvre it back into the correct orbit it will be useless to planned digital television, Internet and government communication services.

A similar breakdown of the Briz-KM upper stage on another Russian rocket led to the loss of a key military Earth-mapping satellite earlier this year.

Space officials said the suspension would not delay the launch of a GLONASS navigation satellite later this week — one in a series aimed at making up for the expensive loss of three satellites earlier this year.

The poorly-insured orbiters crashed into the Pacific Ocean after a failed February launch, costing veteran space agency head Anatoly Perminov his job and setting back Kremlin plans for a global positioning system to rival the U.S.-made GPS.

Perminov was replaced this spring by former deputy defence minister and space forces commander Vladimir Popovkin.