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According to official Russian media, the Meridian (14F112) satellite was designed to provide communications between ships and aircraft operating in the Arctic Ocean, as well as ground-based stations in Siberia and the Russian Far East. The Russian government also confirmed the satellite's military role, replacing Molniya-1, Molniya-3 and Parus spacecraft.

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Fifth bird for Meridian constellation fails to reach orbit


The Russian military launch of a fresh satellite for the country's newest communications network failed on Dec. 23, 2011. A Soyuz-2.1b rocket with a Fregat upper stage lifted off from Pad 4 at Site 43 in Plesetsk at 16:08 Moscow Time. The launch vehicle carried a Meridian No. 5 communications satellite for the Russian military. The Titov Test Space Center started tracking the mission at 16:11 Moscow Time, a representative of Air and Space Defense Forces, VKO, told the official Russian media.

According to the flight program, the satellite was expected to establish contact with Russian ground stations at 18:28 Moscow Time. However during the firing of the launch vehicle's third stage, 421 seconds after the liftoff, an emergency command shut down the engine, a VKO representative said. According to other sources, data showing the loss of thrust in the third stage engine was received 427 seconds into the flight.

It was the fifth launch failure for the Russian space industry in 2011, and the first for the Soyuz-2 rocket, which uses the latest RD-0124 engine on its third stage. According to the Interfax AVN news agency, the financial loss from the accident could reach two billion rubles.


Debris fall

According to initial reports, the remnants of the spacecraft were expected to crash near Tobolsk in the Tyumen Region of Russia. However within three hours after the accident, Interfax news agency reported that fragments of the spacecraft were found near Ordynskoe in Novosibirsk Region.

Soon, a report came that a fragment from the failed mission crashed into the residential house in the village of Vagaitsevo, some three kilometers from the Ordynskoe regional center in Novosibirsk Region. Ironically, what was described as a 50-centimeter spherical gas tank hit the roof of the house along Cosmonauts Street. Fortunately, nobody was hurt in the incident, Russian media said.

By the end of December 2011, a total of 13 recovered fragments from the Meridian launch accident were reported in the Novosibirsk region and three additional pieces were discovered in the area by January 6, 2012, RIA Novosti reported. Fragments were found in Ordynsky and Chulymsky districts of the Novosibirsk Region. On December 26, 2011, local hunters found two 1.5-meter tanks in the woods.


Failure investigation

According to industry sources, the analysis of available telemetry on the fuel line pressure before the entrance to the engine's injection system indicated a possible wall bulging of the combustion chamber No. 1, leading to its burn through and a catastrophic fuel leak. (RD-0124 engine has four combustion chambers).

In the meantime, sources at NPO Lavochkin, which monitored the status of the vehicle's Fregat upper stage, confirmed reports from the launch site about nominal operation of first two booster stages of the Soyuz rocket. The engine of the third stage fired as planned 288 seconds after liftoff and the Fregat upper stage started transmitting telemetry to NPO Lavochkin, as soon as the vehicle entered the range of the company's tracking facility in Khimki, near Moscow. Everything looked normal until the 425th second in flight, when the signal from Fregat suddenly weakened. Available telemetry showed that in just five seconds, Fregat's gyroscopic sensors exceeded the maximum allowable deviation of 40 degrees from its prescribed attitude, indicating tumbling of the vehicle, likely resulting from an onboard explosion.

By January 2012, the analysis established that unlike the August 2011 crash of the Progress mission, the pressure in the fuel line leading to the engine fell really quickly: first collapsing to 10 percent of nominal amount in just 0.5 second and then reaching an absolute zero in just 0.1 second.

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This page is maintained by Anatoly Zak; Last update: January 8, 2012

Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit; December 24, 2011

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An aproximate launch path and a crash site of the Meridian No. 5 mission. Copyright © 2011 Anatoly Zak


An artist rendering of the Meridian satellite released by its manufacturer NPO PM after the launch of the first spacecraft. Credit: NPO PM


The Meridian spacecraft in launch configaration with the Fregat upper stage and the payload fairing. Credit: NPO PM