Russia loses contact with Meteor satellite shortly after launch, says space agency

New Vostochny cosomodrome is key to Russia's plans for space exploration and the loss is a blow to the country’s long-term space ambitions

Andrew Griffin
Tuesday 28 November 2017 10:24 GMT
The Souyz-2 spacecraft with Meteor-M satellite and 18 additional small satellites launches from Russia's new Vostochny cosmodrome
The Souyz-2 spacecraft with Meteor-M satellite and 18 additional small satellites launches from Russia's new Vostochny cosmodrome (Reuters)

Russia has lost contact with a crucial satellite just hours after it was launched into space.

The rocket carrying the satellite was only the second launch from the Vostochny spaceport, a project that has been hailed as a major part of Russia’s plans for space exploration. As such, the problems look in danger of causing damage to morale in a country that sets a great deal of store by its historic achievements in space.

The satellite had also been an important part of the Russian space agency’s plans. The Meteor M2-1 weather satellite was launched with the hope of a five-year mission to monitor weather and the climate on behalf of the country’s meteorological agency.

The Meteor M2-1 was supposed to detach from the rocket carrying it this morning, soon after it launched. But it failed to do so, according to Russian news service Interfax, and the space agency has now lost contact with it.

Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, said the satellite had not reached its designated orbit and that it could not make contact with it. Roscosmos experts were analysing the situation, it said in a statement.

The new Vostochny spaceport is part of a move by Russia to take launches away from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome and into the country’s far east. But it has been marred by delays and problems, and has only managed two launches so far.

It’s the failure of that spaceport that could really damage the reputation of the Russian space programme. Moving from Baikonur to Vostochny was a major move – and one that has so far been beset by problems.

Those issues affect the country itself, and any failure to launch a satellite will clearly cause damage. But they have knock-on effects internationally, too – a number of satellites from other countries were on board the destroyed Soyuz rocket, and all are now lost, potentially damaging the country’s reputation as a space giant.

That is becoming more of a problem amid the rise of China and India’s space programmes. Those countries stand ready to depose Russia as a global space power, and so any mistakes could lead to major problems.

“The problem is this new cosmodrome is not good enough in terms of international standards. It’s quite a problem for Russia’s credibility,” said Mathieu Boulègue, research fellow in Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Programme. “In the long term they want to keep it as a top notch facility for space launches, if they want to get a better hand of the business and don’t want to be overtaken by other countries like China and India.”

However, Russia remains one of just three agencies that can send satellites and other cargo into space, and doesn’t look as if it’s going to be deposed any time soon.

But the problems at the Vostochny cosmodrome could continue, amid worries that it simply isn’t ready for the various launches it has been booked in for. It needs constant work to keep it restored and in working order, and if the failed launch is anything to go by even that isn’t keeping it from disaster.

Moving the cosmodrome into Russia could be incredibly helpful – it gets rid of the country’s reliance on Kazakhstan, puts the Russian space agency near a military base so that the two organisations can work together, and being near China means that it’s closer to the source of many of its missions. But if the move isn’t successful it could undermine the entire space programme, and therefore damage Russian national pride.

“The whole Russian – and by that I mean Soviet, initially – space conquest, and place that space has in Russia comes from the glorious years of the space race during the Soviet times, which is still something that Russians remember very fondly and are very proud of,” said Mr Boulègue. They still see it as a major boost and as a projection of Russia’s power in the world.

“They still remember it fondly. It still remains up there as one of these great nations of space, and it certainly doesn’t want to be overtaken by these new countries like India or China,” he said.

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