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Technical Problem Delays Russian Proton Launch-UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Dec-2011 (Updated: 26-Dec-2011 04:34 PM)

UPDATE:  This story has been updated to indicate that the launch vehicle has been rolled back from the launch pad.

Russia delayed the launch of Europe's SES-4 communications satellite today because of technical problems with the Proton rocket.

Russia has experienced an unusual number of rocket problems in the past 12 months, starting with the failure of a Proton last December that doomed three GLONASS navigation satellites.   Five more failures since then have stranded spacecraft in transfer orbits or not gotten them into orbit at all, including a cargo spacecraft headed to the International Space Station, the Phobos-Grunt Mars probe, and just three days ago, a military communications satellite.  A variety of launch vehicles and upper stages from different manufacturers have been involved.

Russia's news agency ITAR-TASS reported Monday afternoon Eastern Standard Time that the rocket "has been removed from the launch site in order to replace some of the instruments and run additional checks."  A new launch date was not announced.

This is a commercial launch for International Launch Services (ILS), a U.S.-based company that sells launches on the Proton.  SES-4 belongs to Luxembourg-based satellite operator SES.

The satellite was originally built for New Skies, which was headquartered in the Netherlands, and carried a New Skies designation -- NSS-14.  SES acquired New Skies in 2005.

Congress Finishes Work for 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Dec-2011 (Updated: 23-Dec-2011 03:14 PM)

The House and Senate passed the two-month extension of the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits quickly today, completing Congress's work for 2011.  The bill also keeps Medicare reimbursements to doctors at the current rate instead of declining as they would have otherwise.  No offsetting cuts to NASA or NOAA were included.

The final week was chock full of political drama as House Republicans tried to force the Senate to negotiate a one-year extension before December 31, a route the Senate rejected for the short-term knowing that such negotiations will be complicated and time consuming.  Offsetting cuts will need to be found.  House Republicans did succeed in forcing Senate Democrats and the President to accept a requirement that the President agree to grant a permit for construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast within 60 days of the law's enactment (today) unless he determines that such a permit is not in the national interest.

The agreement that passed Congress today and was immediately signed into law by President Obama does not affect funding for NASA or NOAA.   Last weekend the Senate rejected a House-passed resolution that would have imposed a 1.83 percent across-the-board rescission of FY2012 funding for those and many other government agencies, although the Department of Defense would have been exempted.

House and Senate negotiators are expected to begin work shortly after the New Year to find a way to extend the payroll tax cut and other provisions for the rest of 2012.   Where the offsetting cuts will come from is anyone's guess at this point, so no federal agency can rest easy yet.

Soyuz TMA-03M Docks, Hatches Open

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Dec-2011 (Updated: 23-Dec-2011 01:35 PM)

Russia may have suffered another launch failure today, but on a better news front, the Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft successfully docked with the International Space Station (ISS).

The three Soyuz TMA-03M crew joined the three current residents of the ISS, restoring the space station to its full complement of six.  Soyuz TMA-03M docked at 10:19 am EST and the hatches between the Soyuz and the ISS opened at 12:43 pm EST. The six crew members include three Russians, two Americans, and one European.  To keep up with who's on board the ISS and what they are doing, visit NASA's ISS website.

Russia has a launch vehicle named Soyuz (Union), and a spacecraft named Soyuz, which can be confusing.   The Soyuz spacecraft is launched by a Soyuz launch vehicle, adding to the confusion.   The Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft was launched by a Soyuz-FG launch vehicle.   It is somewhat different than the Soyuz-2 that failed today and somewhat different than the Soyuz-U that failed in August.   However, because of the similarities among the vehicles, following the August failure Russia delayed further launches of the Soyuz-FG until they were certain that the Soyuz-FG was safe to fly.  It is too early to know if today's launch failure will affect future crew launches to the ISS.

Russia Suffers Another Soyuz Rocket Failure

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Dec-2011 (Updated: 23-Dec-2011 01:09 PM)

Russia reportedly has suffered another launch failure today of a Soyuz rocket that was intended to place a military communications satellite into orbit.

This version of the Soyuz rocket, Soyuz-2, is slightly different from the Soyuz U rocket that failed in August dooming the Progress M-12M cargo spacecraft.   One of the uses of the version that failed today is putting satellites into highly elliptical orbits that have long dwell times over the north pole.   These launches take place from the Plesetsk launch site near the Arctic Circle.  

The Soviet Union pioneered the use of this type of orbit early in the space program because it is advantageous for communications in northern latitudes where most of the country is located.   The communications satellites placed into this orbit for decades were called Molniya (lightning) and the orbit took that name -- a Molniya orbit -- with an apogee of about 40,000 kilometers and a perigee of less than 1,000 kilometers.  Molniya orbits now are used by different countries primarily for communications and early warning missions.

Russia's military Molniya satellites are being replaced by a new version, Meridian, and that was the payload today.   According to, the third stage of the Soyuz shut down 421 seconds into the flight and the latest reports indicate "a possible bulging of the combustion chamber No. 1, leading to its burn through and a catastrophic fuel leak."  That website cites Russian news service Interfax as estimating the "financial loss from the accident could reach two billion rubles."

This is Russia's fifth launch failure in 2011, a surprising number given the usual reliability of Russian rockets.   The other four were GEO-IK2, a Rokot launch vehicle with a Briz upper stage that left the spacecraft stranded in transfer orbit; Express AM-4, a Proton-Briz combination that left the spacecraft in transfer orbit; Progress M-12M, a Soyuz U-Fregat combination that did not attain orbit; and Phobos-Grunt, a Zenit-Fregat combination that left the spacecraft stranded in Earth orbit instead of on a Mars trajectory.

New ISS Crew Set to Dock Friday Morning

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Dec-2011 (Updated: 22-Dec-2011 05:49 PM)

The three crew currently aboard the International Space Station (ISS) will get an early Christmas present Friday morning -- three more crew members, restoring the space laboratory to its full complement of six.

NASA's Don Pettit, Russia's Oleg Kononenko, and Europe's Andre Kuipers (from the Netherlands) are scheduled to dock with the ISS about 10:22 am EST.   They will join NASA's Dan Burbank and Russia's Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivinishin, who boarded the ISS last month.

Burbank got another special treat yesterday, witnessing a comet streak by in the sky.   He took stunning video of it -- and of the ISS becoming illuminated at orbital sunrise -- that is available on NASA's website.

Soyuz TMA-03M Launches

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Dec-2011 (Updated: 21-Dec-2011 08:25 AM)

UPDATE:   On-time launch at 8:16 am EST.

ORIGINAL STORY:  The launch of Soyuz TMA-03M continues on schedule for launch at 8:16 am EST (7:16 pm local time in Kazakhstan).

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are providing live coverage of the launch.   The three astronauts aboard the spacecraft are NASA's Don Pettit, ESA's Andre Kuipers, and Russia's Oleg Kononenko.

If all goes according to plan, they will dock with the ISS in two days (December 23) at 10:22 am EST. 

Latest Exoplanets Earth-Sized, But Not "Just Right"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Dec-2011 (Updated: 20-Dec-2011 06:02 PM)

The latest findings from NASA's Kepler space telescope confirm rocky planets the same size as Earth orbiting a star like our Sun, but they are too close to their Sun to be able to support life as we know it.

NASA announced the most recent Kepler findings today.  The planets, designated Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, are part of a five-planet system orbiting a star similar to our Sun in the constellation Lyra, about 1,000 light years away.

Earlier this month, NASA said that it had confirmed the existence of an Earth-sized planet around a different star that is 600 light years away.  That planet, Kepler-22b, is at the correct distance from its Sun -- in the "habitable" or "Goldilocks" zone where the temperature is not too hot, not too cold, but just right -- for liquid water to exist. According to current knowledge, life as we know it requires liquid water.

However, NASA said today that Kepler-22b is "likely to be too large to have a rocky surface."    The two planets discussed today are likely to be rocky, but probably do not have liquid water, NASA said.  The search for Earth-sized, rocky planets in the habitable zone of a star like our Sun continues.

Kepler can not actually see other planets.   It collects data on the dimming of stars that suggests that other bodies -- planets -- are crossing ("transiting") between the star and the telescope at regular intervals and thus are in orbit around the star.


Next ISS Crew Ready for Launch Wednesday Morning

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Dec-2011 (Updated: 20-Dec-2011 05:23 PM)

Preparations remain on target for the launch of three new crew members for the International Space Station (ISS) on Wednesday, December 21, at 8:16 am EST.

Three men -- one each from the United States, Russia and the Netherlands -- are scheduled to blast off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard the Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft at that hour (7:16 pm local time at Baikonur).  If all goes according to plan, they will dock with the ISS two days later, joining the three crew members already aboard and restoring the ISS to its usual six-person crew complement.

NASA TV plans to cover the launch live beginning at 5:45 am EST. 

NASA Sets Briefings for Tomorrow on Planets, Commercial Crew

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Dec-2011 (Updated: 19-Dec-2011 08:39 PM)

Today NASA announced two press briefings that will take place tomorrow, Tuesday, December 20.

  • One will be an announcement of new discoveries by NASA's Kepler space telescope that is searching for planets around other stars -- exoplanets.   Participants in the news teleconference at 1:00 pm EST (listen to the live stream at are:
    • Nick Gautier, Kepler project scientist, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.
    • Francois Fressin, lead author, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.
    • David Charbonneau, professor of astronomy, Harvard University
    • Linda Elkins-Tanton, director of the Carnegie Institution for Science's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism in Washington.
  • The other is on a completely different topic -- a status report on NASA's commercial crew program (thanks to NASAWatch for publicizing it).   That "forum" will be held at Kennedy Space Center in Florida from 11:00 - 11:30 am EST (note that the original announcement incorrectly said it ended at 11:30 pm, but was later modified).  From the description, it sounds like a very brief recap of the announcement last week about the new commercial crew strategy. Unveils Revamped Website

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Dec-2011 (Updated: 19-Dec-2011 01:48 PM)

Today marks the launch of our revamped website.  The event should be seamless, but if you encounter any difficulties, please let us know at or


Based on the many positive comments we’ve received over the past two years, we've kept the same look and feel.  Our web address is the same and if you are getting our RSS feed nothing should change.   You will still be able to access all the free content to which you are accustomed -- our objective, non-partisan reporting and analysis; handy fact sheets, hearing and meeting summaries; lists of GAO, NRC and other reports of interest; and a listing of events of interest to the space policy community.


  • SHARE YOUR VIEWS:  You can now post comments using Disqus.   We encourage debate, but ask that everyone keep his or her  remarks professional and dignified.   Passion is OK, vitriol – no.  As we state at the bottom of the Disqus comment box, has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.
  • SIGN UP FOR A DAILY EMAIL NOTIFICATION:  As requested, you can now sign up for daily emails to keep apprised of new stories that we’ve posted.  In the blue bar at the top of our home page, click the envelope icon and enter your email address.   We don’t do anything with your email address; this service is provided automatically through Feedburner.
  • SEARCH MORE EASILY:   Our search box is in the same place (top right), but the search engine recognizes longer strings of characters, making searching much easier. 
  • VIEW EVENTS OF INTEREST AS A LIST:   We’ve replaced the calendar on our home page with a list of upcoming events, but if you liked the calendar format, you can still see one by clicking on the “full calendar with filters” link at the bottom of the list.
  • SHARE USING EMAIL, SOCIAL MEDIA AND OTHER TOOLS:  You can now easily share our stories with others via Twitter, Facebook and other e-tools.  We've also made it easier for you to follow us on Twitter or Facebook by using the now-familiar icons on the top right of the home page.    If you don't use Twitter yourself, you can see what we are tweeting and retweeting right there on our home page.  Twitter is a terrific news feed and we find lots of interesting tweets by others to retweet and bring to your attention, so please check our "Twitter widget" throughout the day.
  • ADVERTISE ON SPACEPOLICYONLINE.COM:   Contact us at for details. 


Soon we will be offering premium reports for purchase on a per-report basis or by subscription.  Building on the tradition of Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports that founder and editor Marcia Smith wrote for more than three decades, our premium reports will provide objective and non-partisan information and analysis about commercial, military and civil space policy and programs in the United States and around the world.  Stay tuned for details!

We're excited about the new site and hope you are, too.   With best wishes to you and yours for happy holidays and a sparkling New Year!

Marcia Smith and Laura Delgado

Events of Interest

Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »

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