Proton-M Launch With Sirius FM-6 Satellite Delayed Until 25/26 October

The Proton-M vehicle is rolled out horizontally to its launch pad. Photo Credit: Roscosmos
The Proton-M vehicle is rolled out horizontally to its launch pad. Photo Credit: Roscosmos

Following considerable speculation from several media outlets, International Launch Services (ILS) has formally announced that its next Proton-M mission will take place no earlier than the night of 25/26 October. In a brief notice released on its website this afternoon (Monday), the joint U.S.-Russian company which operates all Proton flights out of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan revealed that the flight of the three-stage booster and its Briz-M upper stage to insert the Sirius FM-6 digital radio satellite into geostationary transfer orbit will occur no sooner than 12:08 a.m. local time Saturday, 26 October (2:08 p.m. EDT Friday, 25 October).

This mission has been a long time coming, following problems with both the launch vehicle and the spacecraft itself. The Proton-M returned to flight on 29 September, delivering the Astra 2E communications satellite into orbit, following several months of corrective actions in the wake of a dramatic launch failure on 2 July. Alongside the Proton’s woes, Sirius FM-6 was originally scheduled to fly in March 2012, but was extensively delayed, due to concerns about a possible solar array defect. A short-lived glitch with the array deployment mechanism on the SES-4 satellite—a spacecraft of similar design and construction—prompted a decision to return Sirius FM-6 to prime contractor Space Systems/Loral’s (SS/L) facility in Palo Alto, Calif., for additional work. Launch was eventually rescheduled for 20 July 2013, but was further postponed following the 2 July explosion of a Proton-M seconds after liftoff. Preparations resumed in earnest in early September, when Sirius FM-6 was delivered to Baikonur for final pre-launch processing.

The Proton-M is the descendent of a vehicle which made its first flight in 1965. Photo Credit: Roscosmos
The Proton-M is the descendent of a vehicle which made its first flight in 1965. Photo Credit: Roscosmos

On 17 October, with the satellite stacked atop the booster, the vehicle was transported in a horizontal orientation from the assembly building to Pad 39 at Site 200 for final preparations. Liftoff was targeted for 12:12 a.m. local time Monday, 21 October (2:12 p.m. EDT Sunday, 20 October), but ILS announced on Sunday a further delay of at least 24 hours. Citing “issues with the satellite ground station network required for the launch and early orbital operations of the Sirius FM-6 spacecraft,” ILS explained that “as a precautionary measure,” additional time was needed to rectify the problem.

Launch was initially rescheduled for 12:12 a.m. local time Tuesday, 22 October (2:12 p.m. EDT Monday, 21 October)—a postponement of exactly 24 hours—and the countdown clock on ILS’s website reflected this revised liftoff time until well into Monday afternoon. However, several media sources, including and Spaceflight Now, indicated that the launch had been further delayed by as much as four days “at the request of the American side” and that a “new launch date will be determined by the State Commission.”

All components of the Proton-M, including its three main stages and the restartable Briz-M upper stage, are fueled by a mixture of nitrogen tetroxide and unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine. Loading of these propellants aboard the Briz-M—whose single engine has the capability to restart on multiple occasions and can support up to eight discrete “burns” to inject payloads into orbit—took place on Tuesday, 15 October. The State Commission formally granted its approval for the rollout of the Proton-M vehicle to the pad on Wednesday, 16 October and by the afternoon of Thursday, 17 October the vehicle was “hard down” at the launch complex. At the time of the decision to effect a delay on Sunday, 20 October, ILS announced that both vehicle and payload remained in a safe configuration on the pad and were experiencing no other technical difficulties.

Fueling of the three main stages of the Proton-M will get underway about nine hours ahead of Friday night’s scheduled liftoff. The rocket’s first stage consists of a central oxidizer tank, surrounded by six outboard fuel tanks, each fed by an RD-276 engine, and these will provide the initial impetus to boost the mission toward space. At T-5 minutes, the Briz-M will be transferred to internal power and confirmed its status as healthy. Ignition of the six RD-276 engines will commence at T-2 seconds, ramping up to 100 percent of rated performance to produce 2.3 million pounds (1.04 million kg) of thrust at liftoff.

A little over a minute into the ascent, the Proton will encounter a period of maximum aerodynamic turbulence (known as “Max Q”) on its flight surfaces, and the first stage separation will occur at the two-minute point. The vehicle’s second stage will then pick up the baton, with its four engines generating a combined 540,000 pounds (244,950 kg) of propulsive yield for a little over 3.5 minutes. Shortly after the second stage separates from the Proton-M, the Payload Fairing (PLF) will be jettisoned and the single-engine third stage will add a further 138,000 pounds (62,600 kg) of thrust for the next four minutes of flight. Shutdown of the third stage is due about 10 minutes after launch, by which time the vehicle will have been placed onto a suborbital trajectory.

The Sirius FM-6 satellite undergoes pre-flight checkout. Photo Credit: ILS
The Sirius FM-6 satellite undergoes pre-flight checkout. Photo Credit: ILS

The turn will then come for the single-engine Briz-M upper stage, which has exhibited a mixture of success and failure since its maiden voyage, back in May 2000. In August 2012, a premature shutdown of the Briz-M left Indonesia’s Telkom-3 and Russia’s Ekspress-MD2 satellites in useless orbits, and in December 2012 another launch glitch impacted the Yamal-402 satellite. Last March, a Proton-M/Briz-M successfully injected Mexico’s Satmex-8 communications satellite into orbit, and on 29 September another vehicle transported Astra 2E perfectly into orbit. Capable of restarting up to eight times in flight, the Briz-M has a battery-powered lifetime of 24 hours and is scheduled to execute five “burns” to insert Sirius FM-6 into orbit.

The first burn will last 4.5 minutes and is expected to commence about 11 minutes into the mission, after which the Briz-M/Sirius FM-6 combo will enter a circular “parking orbit” and coast for almost an hour, preparatory to the second burn. This will be a much longer firing of almost 18 minutes, followed by a two-hour period of coasting, then a third burn of 11.5 minutes and a fourth of about six minutes in duration. After the fourth burn, the combo will coast for about five hours, ahead of the final scheduled Briz-M firing at T+8 hours and 52 minutes. This six-minute burn will position Sirius FM-6 into geostationary transfer orbit, and at T+9 hours and 12 minutes the satellite will separate from the upper stage. Sirius FM-6 (Radiosat-6) will enter an operational orbit at 115 degrees West longitude, covering the western half of the contiguous United States.

The satellite is assembled around SS/L’s LS-1300 “bus,” which was originally introduced in the 1980s and in its current incarnation can provide 5-25 kW of continuous electrical power throughout a project 15-year orbital lifespan. Lightweight and high-strength in construction, the LS-1300 can support as few as 12 and as many as 150 transponders. After insertion into orbit, Sirius satellites receive “Radiosat” designations to differentiate from a Swedish network of communications satellites, which are also known as Sirius.

In June 2000, ILS successfully lofted the 8,400-pound (3,800-kg) Sirius FM-6 (Radiosat-1) atop a Proton-K booster from Baikonur, injecting it into a highly elliptical, high-inclination geosynchronous orbit, known as a “tundra orbit,” from where it provided satellite radio communications services across North America. The FM-2 (Radiosat-2) mission was launched in September 2000, followed by FM-3 (Radiosat-3) in November. All three were placed into tundra orbits, completing a circuit of Earth in about 23 hours and 56 minutes, or one solar “day,” whose characteristics cause the satellites to spend most of their time over a specific point on Earth, known as “apogee dwelling.” The effect was that the Sirius/Radiosat satellites follow a predictable pattern in the sky at the same time, day after day, and the shape of their trajectories described a closed figure-eight.

Tundra orbits—with an apogee of about 29,200 miles (46,990 km) and a perigee of about 14,900 miles (23,980 km)—provide high-latitude users with higher elevation angles than can be offered by a geostationary orbit. The three Sirius/Radiosats spend about 16 hours of each solar day over the continental United States, with at least one of them over the country at all times. Sirius FM-4 (Radiosat-4) was built as a flight-ready spare and in October 2012 was donated to the National Air and Space Museum for display in the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Washington, D.C., to “tell the story of modern satellite communications and its powerful impact on everyday life.”

An uprated satellite, Sirius FM-5 (Radiosat-5), was launched in June 2009. Unlike its predecessors, which occupied tundra orbits, the 12,830-pound (5,800-kg) Sirius FM-5 was the first to be placed into geostationary orbit. Whereas its predecessors carried traditional parabolic reflecting antennas, the new satellite was equipped with a 30 foot (9.1 meter) unfurlable reflector, and its geostationary location was reportedly chosen because it allowed for more consistent reception for fixed-location users. By the time Sirius FM-5 began operations in September 2009, contracts for Sirius FM-6 had already been signed.

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