Russian rocket stage could reenter Earth’s atmosphere today, weeks after failed test launch

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Bangalore: A Russian rocket stage from a failed satellite test is expected to hit Earth’s atmosphere within the next few hours.

The Angara A5 launcher was launched on a test flight on December 21 from the site of the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia. He was unable to reach his designated orbit due to the failure of his upper stage Persei booster to relight.

The 20,000 kg thruster remained in degrading low orbit and is expected to make an uncontrolled reentry, possibly between 1330 UTC (7 p.m. IST, Wednesday) and 2330 UTC (5 a.m. IST, Thursday).

The precise time or location of re-entry is not yet confirmed, and the booster stage is expected to break down into smaller pieces in the process and burn in Earth’s atmosphere.

This was the third test flight of the Angara A5, Russia’s newest rocket launcher. It is named after a Siberian river and is the first heavy launcher built by Russia since the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

It was developed to reduce the dependence of Russia’s orbital launch on the Baikonur Cosmodrome, located in southern Kazakhstan in an area leased from Russia, and launched directly from Russian soil.


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Flight test details

The rocket’s first test flight took place in December 2014, inserting a test payload into a geosynchronous orbit (GEO).

A GEO is a low-tilt orbit around the Earth with a period of 23 hours, 56 minutes and 4 seconds, located 35,786 km from the Earth’s surface. The orbit of the satellite corresponds to the rotation of the Earth, due to which it appears in the same position in the sky to observers on the surface.

The second test flight was postponed from 2016 to December 2020, when another dummy payload was inserted into GEO.

This third launch, which also carried a dummy payload, was the first to use the all-new Persei top-stage booster engine, which is only used when delivering payloads to GEO and not to the low Earth orbit (LEO).

The Persei thruster uses a new, less toxic thruster instead of the traditional dimethylhydrazine or asymmetric heptyl, used by the previous Proton rocket family. Heptyl, a combination of hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide, can cause serious damage to the environment and has already raised many concerns for its regular use in Kazakh airspace despite the accidents.

After the launch on December 21, the first two stages received a nominal fire and the Persei stage hoisted the payload towards LEO. But he failed to fire again and did not achieve the necessary GEO.

Angara A5’s next flight is scheduled for March 2022, with a communications satellite payload. Future heavy flights would be launched from Russia’s newest spaceport, Vosochny, which has been launching medium-range Soyuz vehicles for five years.


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