2 July 2013, 16:23

Most reliable rockets are the oldest ones - expert

протон-м падение байконур ракета

The unmanned Proton-M rocket with 3 GLONASS navigation satellites blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome at 6:38 a.m. Moscow Time on Tuesday. But 30 seconds into the launch the live-streaming video showed it losing control, breaking apart and bursting into flames. The rocket carried 172 tons of highly toxic heptyl fuel plus the oxidizer. The leaked fuel is now scattered around the launch site and could have devastating effects to the environment. Let's now talk about the incident and the prospect of the space conquest with Mark Hempsell – Vice President of the British Interplanetary Society from UK.

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Last year we saw 10 Proton launches, all from Baikonur. One was a failure (in August) and one - a partial success (in December). This year, there have been four Proton launches. Three were a success and the last one – a failure. What does this statistics mean? Can we say that the Proton-M rocket is reliable?

It is not the most reliable launch vehicle, but it is still around 88-89% reliable, which is not too bad. The really good rockets, again like the Russian Soyuz, probably get into 92-93%. So, all rockets fail. This one is not quite the best but it is not a disaster.

Now with the poisonous fuel around the launch area, what do you think Kazakhstan will do? What will be the consequences of all that, maybe ban the Russians from the launch pad?

Yes, there will have to be cleanup crew go in. The chemicals will eventually decay. And there have been failures of rockets with this propellant combination before. Ariane used the same propellant combination in the Arianes 1 to 4. So, it’s not the first time vehicles with this propellant combination have failed and crashed. You have to be careful with it, the chemicals are toxic. But it is a thing that both the Baikonur launch site and other launch sites have had to deal within the past.

Did similar accidents happen in the past and how did the cleanup go? For us to understand, over 700 tons of this chemical, what is that to the environment?

In the explosion a lot of the chemicals will react one another, that’s the point of the two chemicals as they chemically explosively react. So, what you are worried about is what is left over. Now, the products that are left over are not stable chemicals and they will react and decay. So, it is something that the Baikonur site has seen before. I’m not sure of their exact procedures for cleanup, but they’ve done it before. And I’m sure they will be able to do it again.

What does this crash mean for Russia's competitor to the GPS - GLONASS?

It depends on how quickly they can make new satellites and then launch them. One of the problems worldwide with launch failures it would take maybe three years to recover from a launch and get the capability back up.

Of course the launch failures that have haunted Russia in recent years have prompted speculation about systemic flaws in the ageing Russian space industry. Do you agree with that?

Not entirely. All the countries who launch rockets do it on the basis of a very old legacy of rockets. And actually, the most reliable rockets tend to be the oldest ones because you know what’s wrong with them and have corrected it. So, one of the world’s most reliable rockets is the Soyuz, which was essentially the rocket that launched Sputnik 1. And 60 years later it is still the most reliable vehicle because it’s got a history and heritage. So, actually, having that can actually improve your reliability rather than degrade it.

The Atlas and Ariane rockets are propelled by solid fuel. Russia uses liquid fuel. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the two types of fuel?

The American rockets are now all liquid. Yes, European Ariane 5 uses solid boosters but a liquid core. You normally use liquids on a launch vehicle because the performance is much better. You get a much lighter, smaller and cheaper vehicle to launch a certain payload. They are much more controllable and, generally speaking, they are safer. So, the choice, if you are making a launch vehicle from scratch, normally is to have the core of the rocket to be liquid. You may use solid propellants to boost that and help it along a bit, but mostly all launch vehicles of any significant size use liquids.

And finally, what do you think the official response would be? Would replacing bosses help? What is Russia's solution to this?

I think don’t panic. Everybody’s launch vehicles fail and this is known within the industry. Proton is beginning to slip a little bit and may have to pay attention to quality control. And the real issue is – can you persuade the insurers to ensure satellites on your launch vehicle. And overall, when you look at the totality of Russian launch systems – there is nothing there that would worry you.

Voice of Russia

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