On September 28, 2014, a Proton-M launch vehicle with a Briz-M orbit-insertion upper stage lifted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome, successfully inserting a Luch relay satellite into a near-nominal orbit. This marked the resumption of Proton operations following a failed launch on May 16, 2014, when an upper-stage malfunction prevented the orbiting of the Express-AM4R communications satellite.
The cause of the accident was made public on June 11: a disintegrated bearing in the upper-stage thruster turbopump. Roscosmos head Oleg Ostapenko commented: “Our final conclusion backs the preliminary theory voiced in the initial phase of the inquiry. The telemetry and analytical information we have indicate that a bearing must have been disintegrated in the turbopump.”
The accident, and the subsequent grounding of the Proton fleet, affected the current launch schedule. The constrained throughput capacity of the Briz-M fuelling area also played a role. Early in 2014, the plan was to launch 14 Protons during the year. Only five launches had been performed by late September; another four rockets are expected to be launched by year-end.
Consequently, the number of Proton-assisted commercial launches has also dropped. Of the 11 launches scheduled for 2015, only six will be performed in the interest of foreign customers. According to a forecast made by the Proton-M operator, the Reston, Virginia-based Russian-US joint venture International Launch Services (ILS), the launch rate will drop to three or four per year in 2016-17. ILS has already announced it will lay off 25% of personnel to retain just 35-40 staff. ILS holds exclusive rights to the marketing and commercial operation of the Proton launch vehicle, the Briz-M upper stage and the Angara rocket family. The company has launched over 80 Protons over the 18 years of its operation.
The market situation is actually the primary cause of the declining demand for Proton-M services. Since early 2014, the commercial geostationary satellite market has been dominated by orders for lightweight spacecraft.
This new trend, which follows two years of strong demand for heavy satellites, did not caught launch specialists off guard: on March 10, 2014, ILS President Phil Slack and Nikolay Testoyedov, CEO of the Russian company ISS-Reshetnev, signed a cooperation agreement on dual satellite launches using a single Proton-M vehicle. The two companies will be jointly seeking spacecraft which can be dual-launched in stacked configuration, with the lower one supporting the upper one.
Reshetnev already has a fitting satellite platform, the Express 1000, whose reinforced design allows for stacking spacecraft one on top of the other. To date, the platform has been used in four tandem launches: on February 11, 2009 (Express-AM44 and Express-MD1), on July 16, 2011 (SES-3 and KazSat-2), on August 6, 2012 (Telkom 3 and Express-MD2), and on March 16, 2014 (Express-AT1 and Express-AT2). The upper satellites for the 2011 and 2012 launches were provided by ILS.
The resumption of Proton-M operations means that the vehicle may remain on the space-launch market until the mid-2020s.