A Russian weather satellite is suspected to have plummeted into the ocean after failing to reach orbit.
The launch of the Meteor-M satellite on a Soyuz-2.1b rocket took place today at 2.41pm local time (5.41am GMT) from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in eastern Russia. Also on board were 18 smaller satellites.
The first part of the launch appeared to go well, heading towards a polar orbit 825 kilometers (515 miles) above the surface of Earth. Nevertheless, several hours after the launch, the Russian space agency Roscosmos said it was unable to contact the weather satellite.
“However, during the first planned communication session with the spacecraft, it was not possible to establish a connection due to its absence in the target orbit,” Roscosmos said, reported SpaceNews.
According to the Russian news agency Interfax, a “human error” may have resulted in the satellite ending up in the Atlantic Ocean rather than space. They reported that the Fregat-M Upper Stage of the rocket, which was supposed to put the satellites into orbit, may have had the wrong orientation, causing the mission to fail.
“Fregat-M ignited a minute after third-stage separation, performing a 77-second burn to inject itself into an initial parking orbit,” noted NASASpaceFlight.com. “It is not clear if this is when data was lost, resulting in the failure.”
This was only the second launch ever to take place from the Vostochny Cosmodrome, the first coming in April 2016. Russia is hoping to increasingly use this site in future to reduce its reliance on the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which is causing increasing tensions, especially after a worker was killed by a fire caused by falling space debris earlier this year.
Had the launch been successful, the Meteor-M satellite would have monitored the cloud and ice cover on Earth for five years, also measuring the temperature and humidity of our atmosphere. It was to be the latest in the Meteor series of weather satellites.
“[T]his latest failure is likely to only add to concerns in the global aerospace industry about deleterious effects on Russian spaceflight from low funding and mismanagement of the Russian space agency,” noted ArsTechnica.