Russian Proton/Briz-M launch failure - Possible cause of recent sonic-booms

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posted on Oct, 20 2012 @ 07:40 PM
It's being reported that a Russian rocket which launched from Baikonur on Aug 6 has failed catastrophically in it's mission to put two communications satellites into orbit.

In spite of assurances by Russian Space Agency head, Vladimir Popovkin, that the heavily-fuelled Briz-M rocket body from this launch was "" (see note for August 16 below), the fuel and oxidiser seem to have come into contact.

On October 19, rumour started to spread that the stage had exploded on October 16 - the same day that Spacetrack ceased to release orbital elements for object 2012-044C/38746, the Briz-M rocket body. As of early in the day October 20, SpaceTrack had not released orbital data for any fragments.


Details are sketchy, but it seems the 3rd stage of the Proton rocket (known as the "Briz-M") experienced the failure, and reportedly exploded on the 16th.

The Mission Plan

A map issued by the Khrunichev company prior to the launch depicts mission events. The four planned firings of the Briz-M are marked as is where the failure occurred, plus some other major launch events. The second and third firings, lasting nearly 20 minutes each occupy long segments of the orbit.

At 04:08 UTC, Kevin Fetter, an well-known amateur satellite observer based in Canada was unaware of the failure. Using a set of orbital elements released by SpaceTrack after the 20:38 UTC engine firing, he set out to observe the Briz-M stack. Instead, he was treated to the sight of a 'train' of four objects crossing the sky. They were the two satellites and the Briz-M, and the fourth item was either the Briz-M's Auxiliary Propellant tank (APT) that was due to be jettisoned after the engine firing or a piece of debris.

Here's Kevin's footage:

This is the second Briz-M failure to deliver in less than twelve months. After launch on August 17 last year, Russia's Express-AM4 comsat was lost. In that case, the Briz-M completed everything it was instructed to do but there was an error in its computer programming that resulted in the wrong orbit being achieved.

At present the cause of the failure is not known but the satellites are probably a lost cause. It is unlikely that either has enough propellant to climb anywhere near its intended orbit. Given that the last Briz-M failure was down to a computer programming fault, human error could be a factor in this case too.

The next planned launch of a Briz-M stage is scheduled for later in August, on a similar mission to this one, carrying the Intelsat 23 satellite to geosynchronous drift orbit. This failure puts it in doubt.

As of writing nothing has yet been confirmed by the authorities, which is not surprising since this a quite embarrassing situation for the Russians, but perhaps we will hear something soon.

Possible cause of recent sonic-booms

I am just speculating, but re-entering debris from the explosion may be what is behind the recent reports of sonic booms heard in Cornwall/Devon UK and possibly others that have been reported recently. I am still looking for the "orbital elements" for the debris, which would allow me to reconstruct the orbit in software so that I could check if there was a pass over the UK at the time of the booms. If anyone comes across this data, please can you post a link to it here. Thanks.

I don't think this had anything to do with the Bay Area fireball on Wednesday night, which although very slow, which would be expected for reentering debris, it was not quite slow enough. I've lost the link, but as I recall analysis of the footage of the fireball suggested the entry velocity was around 14km/s, where as satellites/junk are limited to about 10 km/s.

Edit to add: It's possible that some debris may reenter over the coming days/weeks/months/years, so be alert for particularly slow moving fireballs/meteors, and if you do see a bright one, wait for 5 minutes and listen out for sonic booms/rumbling. In extreme cases it can take over 3 minutes for the sound to reach an observer after he or she has seen the fireball.

Related links:
Briz-M (wikipedia)
edit on 20-10-2012 by FireballStorm because: aded note

posted on Oct, 23 2012 @ 12:16 AM
I should just clarify what I wrote in my OP regarding recent mystery sonic booms. I still think the most likely cause for them (at least in the case of the Cornwall/Devon event) is a natural meteorite dropping fireball, but I also think that there may be a very small possibility that reentering Briz-M debris could have been the cause, and I will continue to investigate the possibility.

I'm a little surprised no one is interest in this!

Perhaps because it was a "rumor", but then we also had someone who inadvertently captured footage which suggested that all was not as it was supposed to be.

Either way, it appears that the Russian authorities have confirmed that the incident took place.

Russia’s Space Defense Forces have confirmed that the Briz-M propellant upper stage fell apart in the near-Earth orbit on October 16.

Space Forces spokesman Colonel Alexei Zolotukhin said Monday the command was closely monitoring whereabouts of the 12 fragments that the rocket split into.

Astronomers reported earlier they had detected several dozen chunks of debris in the orbit scattered along the estimated Briz-M trajectory.

A spokesperson with Russia’s missions control center reassured journalists the space junk posed no direct threat to the International Space Station.

Source: Voice of Russia

Reports on the web indicate that fragments of the rocket were observed from Siding Spring Observatory in Australia within a short while of the event. Unconfirmed reports quote a source at SpaceTrack saying that over 1000 items have been detected so far. Having said that, six days have now passed since the event and SpaceTrack has not yet published orbits for any of the debris.



Some fragments will have received a backwards push and will have moved into lower orbits.

Unlike other recent fragmentation events, such as the interception of Fengyun 1C, fragments from this event pass through the orbital altitude of the ISS. The differing rates at which the two orbits precess around the Earth’s polar axis mean that the ISS orbital path will periodically move in and out of the debris cloud. It will sometimes spend several days at a time with a large part of its orbit within the cloud.

It makes this, depending on the number of fragments, perhaps the most dangerous fragmentation event so far..


So we now have a debris cloud that is potentially a real threat to the ISS. I think we will be hearing more about this story in the days and weeks to come.

Still no one interested??

posted on Oct, 23 2012 @ 12:20 AM
Why are there so many Russian sat launches failing? Don't they use the same Soyuz that carry astronauts to the ISS that work just fine?

Think there might be some foul play involved?

posted on Oct, 23 2012 @ 12:40 AM
reply to post by Clisen33

I'm not sure why they are having so much trouble. My only guess would be budget cuts, assuming the global economic downturn is affecting the Russian economy. I hope we will have some more input from someone more knowledgeable than I on the subject.

I suppose foul play has to remain a possibility. The payload was a couple of commercial satellites, so perhaps an "insurance job"?

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