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In spite of assurances by Russian Space Agency head, Vladimir Popovkin, that the heavily-fuelled Briz-M rocket body from this launch was "....safe" (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.
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.
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.
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.
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..