Last month, a Russian Progress MS-04 cargo ship headed for the International Space Station (ISS) exploded in the atmosphere just six minutes after the launch. It destroyed about 2.6 tons of food and other supplies. The cargo ship was carried by the Russian-built Soyuz rocket. Following an investigation into the incident, Russia has grounded all its Proton-M rockets for three-and-a-half months.
December incident caused by ‘assembly fault’
The investigators blamed faulty engine parts for the explosion. They said it was caused by the break-up of the third-stage engine, which was traced back to an “assembly fault.” On Saturday, Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin visited the Voronezh plant where the Soyuz and Proton-M rocket engines are built. According to the investigation, workers at the plant might have switched out key components in the second and third stages of the rocket during the construction process.
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The report added that instead of using materials made of precious metals, they used less heat-resistant components that are used for other engine models. The replacement components might have been cheaper, but proved disastrous. Some Proton-M rockets are still being inspected. The entire rocket fleet will remain grounded until the inspection is finished and the faulty engines are replaced.
Workers switched technology and documentation
Rogozin said workers at the Voronezh plant had been directed to “switch technology and documentation.” He vowed to “harshly” punish all those involved in switching technology and documentation. The Russian deputy prime minister told media that three Proton-M rockets will be fully disassembled, and their second and third-stage engines will be replaced.
Last week, the chief of the Voronezh plant resigned due to “unsatisfactory work and product quality.” Authorities including the FSB were investigating how the swapped components slipped through different quality controls. Despite the setback, the Russian space agency has promised to fix the problems and ensure that the rockets are ready for all in three and a half months.
Proton-M and mishaps are familiar with each other
The Proton-M rockets have a history of mishaps. Technical issues with the rockets led to crashes in 2013, 2014, and 2015. The report that components were swapped out could have consequences beyond Russia because it is the only country in the world that can launch manned space missions to the International Space Station (ISS). The Soyuz rockets are mostly used for manned missions while Proton-M is used for launching civilian and military satellites.
Though Soyuz and Proton-M are manufactured at the same Voronezh plant, Rogozin did not comment on the Soyuz engines.