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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Loses Massive Satellite in Space

APAstra, built by France's Alcatel, is the world's largest civilian communications satellite.
The world's largest civilian communications satellite went into the wrong orbit Tuesday, dooming it to destruction, because of a Russian booster failure, the Russian Aviation and Space Agency said.

It was the biggest setback yet to Russia's satellite-launching program, which Moscow has seen as a potential cash cow for its depressed space industry.

The failure follows an accident about a month and a half ago when an unmanned Soyuz-U rocket carrying another satellite blew up half a minute after liftoff.

The Astra-1K satellite blasted off early Tuesday atop a Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The rocket successfully carried it to a preliminary orbit, but the Russian-made DM-3 boosting unit failed to give a secondary impulse to send it to a higher orbit, said Konstantin Kreidenko, a spokesman for the Russian Aviation and Space Agency.

Officials have opened an investigation.

Kreidenko said in a telephone interview that a glitch in the software that controls the DM-3 may have caused the failure.

The Astra-1K, manufactured by France's Alcatel Space corporation for the Societe Europeene des Satellites of Luxembourg, was the largest communications satellite ever built at 5.25 metric tons.

With a height of 6.6 meters and a total span of 37 meters and equipped with 10 antenna reflectors, the satellite was intended to replace three Astra satellites now in orbit, broadcasting radio and television programming and providing mobile telephone and Internet connections.

SES engineers were still trying Tuesday night to rescue the satellite and had managed to boost its orbit a little, SES spokesman Yves Feltes said. "We are not very happy today," he said.

Kreidenko said the DM-3 boosting unit, manufactured by RKK Energia, is used frequently without problem to launch satellites to high, geostationary orbits.

"Until now, it has had a good reputation for safety," he said.

Denis Pivnyuk, a deputy director of the Khrunichev company, which manufactures the Proton boosters, told Ekho Moskvy radio that the rocket itself had functioned properly.

He added that the satellite was insured by the owner.

Interfax reported an insurance industry source as saying the satellite was insured for more than $217 million.

Khrunichev carries out commercial launches of Protons in a joint venture called International Launch Services with U.S. company Lockheed Martin. Pivnyuk said the failed launch would probably not delay the company's plans to send up a commercial satellite next month.

Khrunichev is also scheduled to launch a Russian satellite atop a Proton next month, Pivnyuk said.

Feltes said that despite the failure, SES will launch two more satellites next year using the Proton.

But Kreidenko said these launches may be delayed if investigators fail to discern what caused the crash.

The space industry was already shook by the Oct. 15 accident, which was blamed on an alien object found in the rocket's fuel line.

The rocket was carrying a Foton-M satellite containing scientific experiments from several countries including Russia and the United States. The explosion killed a soldier and injured several other servicemen at the Plesetsk launch pad in northern Russia.

Satellite launches are an important source of revenue for Russia, and the heavy-lift Proton rocket has become the Russian space industry's top cash earner. Russia receives tens of millions of dollars for each launch, a coveted revenue source for an industry struggling to survive on a fraction of generous Soviet-era state funding.

Yet Khrunichev has found it increasingly hard to market the Proton, in service since 1965, as the global market for space services has shrunk from up to 60 launches annually several years ago to just about 20 now. Meanwhile, U.S. and European companies have been developing more efficient and environmentally friendly boosters.

Kazakhstan has also grown increasingly impatient about environmental damage from Proton launches. It recently won compensation from Russia for spills of Proton fuel.

(AP, MT)