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The ExoMars-2016 Trace Gas Orbiter is maneuvered into place above the launch vehicle adapter and secured into position on Jan. 5, 2016. Credit: ESA
On January 26, a Proton rocket with the Eutelsat-9B satellite arrived at launch pad for Russia's first orbital launch attempt in 2016. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
The architecture of the Blagovest military communications satellite. Credit: ISS Reshetnev
|Proton lifts key space mission of 2016
For the first time since the ill-fated launch of the Mars-96 spacecraft almost two decades ago, Russia's flagship Proton rocket was tasked to send another scientific probe beyond the Earth's orbit. The launch of the ExoMars-2016 spacecraft also marked the first European mission heading to the Red Planet since 2003.
From 2001 to the beginning of 2016, Proton flew 127 missions, 12 of which had failed, bringing down the rocket's success rate to 90.6 percent.
The Proton's launch campaign in 2016 was to open with a night liftoff from January 27 to January 28. Along with the delivery of the Eutelsat-9B communications satellite, the flight was to be the final qualification for the Proton-M rocket and its Briz-M upper stage, before a similar vehicle would lift the historic ExoMars-2016 mission on its journey to Mars. Several Proton launches at the end of 2015, showed increasingly accurate performance of the Briz-M in delivery of its payloads to orbit -- a welcome news for the ExoMars team.
Limited by the relative positions of the Earth and Mars, the launch window for the ExoMars-2016 extends from March 14 to March 25 only. The window will not re-open until around two years later.
Depending on the launch of the Mars mission, another team preparing the launch of the Intelsat-31 (a.k.a DLA-2) communications satellite is eyeing April 23 for the third Proton mission of the year. However, the actual launch could take place a few days earlier, sources familiar with the situation say.
Planners are also considering whether it would be possible to advance the launch of the Echostar-21 communications satellite to a late May or early June from the current window around June 25. However, the exact launch date for this mission depends on the status of three Russian federal payloads preliminary targeted for launch during a period from May to September. They include launching a trio of satellites to replenish Russia's GLONASS navigation constellation, the first classified Blagovest communications satellite for the Russian Ministry of Defense and another secret military payload.
Another commercial Proton mission to deliver the AsiaSat-9 satellite is currently scheduled for November. In addition, the US-based International Launch Services, ILS, the marketing arm for the Proton manufacturer, is currently looking at the possibility of arranging another commercial payload to fly in December, industry sources said.
Proton flight manifest as of beginning of January 2016:
*Later postponed until February 1
Jan. 30: Eutelsat-9B
Opening Russia's space launch operations in 2016, the nation's workhorse rocket carried the Eutelsat-9B communications satellite into orbit on January 30. In addition to expanding the fleet of a major European operator, Eutelsat S.A, the launch was also the final test for the Proton before its historic mission to send the ExoMars-2016 probe to the Red Planet in March.
March 14: ExoMars-2016
On March 14, at the beginning of an 11-day window, Proton launched Europe's only second mission to the Red Planet -- ExoMars-2016. It became the humanity's 45th attempt to visit the Red Planet. For Russian scientists, the launch marked the resumption of a cooperative effort with Europe to explore the Solar System after the failure of the Phobos-Grunt mission in 2011.
By the end of May, as the launch campaign for the Intelsat-31 (a.k.a DLA2) entered its final stage for the June 8 liftoff, the Proton flight manifest also envisioned the launch of the Echostar communications satellite at the end of August.
In the meantime, the Roskosmos mission to deliver a trio of GLONASS satellites was no longer planned in the next three months. Instead the launch of the Blagovest communications satellite for the Russian Ministry of Defense was penciled for September or October. At the same time, the mission with the AsiaSat-9 satellite slipped to 2017, due to delays during the manufacturing of the satellite.
It seemed that a combination of payload delays and the increasing competition on the international launch market could leave Proton with only five or six missions during the year, its lowest annual launch rate in a decade.
Proton flight manifest as of end of May:
New Proton variants proposed
Looking to expand payload capabilities of the Proton rocket downwards, its developer proposed smaller, cheaper versions of Russia's commercial space workhorse, which were dubbed Proton-Medium and Proton-Light. They were officially unveiled on September 13. At the top end of the rocket family, a Proton-M-Plus (Proton-M+) variant was also under consideration.
June 9: Proton-M succeeds in a cliff-hanger mission with Intelsat-31
Sporting the latest round of modifications known as Phase IV, a Proton-M rocket boosted the exceptionally heavy Intelsat-31 communications satellite on June 9, during the third mission in 2016 for Russia's commercial workhorse. The rocket's Briz-M stage successfully completed the mission despite an apparent anomaly during the operation of the second stage.
A file photo of the Proton's second stage in Baikonur.
Working to investigate and resolve the problem with the second stage operation during the launch of Intelsat-31 satellite in June, GKNPTs Khrunichev, the Proton manufacturer, postponed several missions of Russia's commercial workhorse during the rest of 2016. By the middle of October, the return-to-flight launch of the Proton-M rocket with the Echostar-21 communications satellite was pushed back from November to December 2016.
In a domino effect of delays, the next Proton mission, tasked to deliver the Blagovest communications satellite for the Russian Ministry of Defense had to be postponed to January or February 2017. Its exact pre-launch processing schedule will depend on operations after the New Year holiday season. In parallel, GKNPTs Khrunichev is preparing the third Proton rocket to deliver a trio of GLONASS satellites, however the rocket's already manufactured second stage would have to undergo the same corrective actions in the wake of the Intelsat-31's close call.
The Proton's next commercial mission carrying the Hispasat communications satellite for Spain was scheduled for March 2017, the industry sources told RussianSpaceWeb.com. In the meantime, the launch of the Asiasat-9 satellite, which had previously been at the top of the Proton's flight manifest in 2017, had to be postponed to a period after the Hispasat mission, due to additional testing required during its assembly at Space Systems Loral.
Proton flight manifest as of October:
A complete list of Proton missions in 2016:
Read (and see) much more about the history of the Russian space program in a richly illustrated, large-format glossy edition:
Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: November 28, 2016
Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: January 7, 2016
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