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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Zvezda Launch Held Back by Crashes

The launch of the Zvezda Service Module, a key component of the International Space Station, could be put off at least until spring because of the recent failures of Russia's Proton rocket, a senior official said Friday.

The launch of Zvezda, which is to provide propulsion and initial living quarters, has been repeatedly delayed, in most cases due to Russia's lack of cash to complete the module and run tests on it.

The module is still scheduled to take off between Dec. 26 and Jan. 16, but the launch may have to be shifted to April, Yury Koptev, general director of the Russian Aviation and Space Agency, said Friday at a news conference.

For the launch to go ahead as scheduled, Russian space specialists must determine quickly what caused the two Proton rockets to crash down onto Kazakhstan's steppe after their launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

The latest three-stage Proton crashed Oct. 27 after one second-stage RD-0211 engine malfunctioned. A special government commission has been set up to determine the cause of the malfunction, but they are far from completing the investigation.

If the investigation drags well into next year, the Russian space agency chief acknowledged he may have to order an improved version of this type of engine to be installed in the Proton that has already been assembled for the Zvezda launch.

A set of improved engines is being manufactured at the Voronezh Machine-Building Plant in Central Russia. Koptev said a Proton with new engines will be ready for launch only in March.

However, the space agency is not prepared to risk the International Space Station's module in the maiden launch of a newly-powered Proton. Koptev said the module could blast off only in a second launch, with a one-month interval between launches, or no sooner than April.

Even if the engines' defects are found and fixed before the end of the year, there are other factors that could postpone the launch, Koptev said.

The main one is a lack of Progress cargo ships. At least six of these ships will have to be launched after Zvezda to deliver vital supplies, but the space agency currently only has four.

Also, at least one Altair data relay satellite has to be launched before Zvezda to control the module when it goes beyond the Korolyev Flight Control Center's direct contact zone. He said the satellite should be completed this month.

An official at the Moscow representation office of the National Aeronautics and Space Agency said he is "definitely concerned" about the possible delay of the Zvezda launch. However, the official, who asked not to be named, stressed that NASA has "full confidence" in Russia's efforts to "solve the Proton rocket situation."

It was the third engine of the second stage's four engines that malfunctioned during the July 5 launch of the Russian military satellite Raduga.

Back then, a government-led commission concluded the failure had occurred due to inferior welding of a cap on the engine's turbo-pump unit, Koptev said. He said the commission then recommended the Voronezh plant X-ray the unit's cap during assembly to detect inferior welding seams, as well as to ensure that no alien particles get into the rocket's tanks when fuel is pumped in. These recommendations were met, Koptev said.

Yet, one of the inspected Protons crashed last month because a second-stage engine malfunctioned in a similar pattern, which means that "the problem lies deeper," Koptev said.