It seemed that nothing could possibly go wrong with a 6-ton, $45 million satellite from one of the most prestigious space programs in the world—until it vanished.
When Russia lost contact with its Meteor-M satellite back in November shortly after launch, it became obvious that the spacecraft hadn’t taken off into the right orbit. Russian space agency Roscosmos was baffled as to why they lost contact with the satellite after it was launched from the agency’s new Vostochny cosmodrome. Gizmodo reports that the answer ended up being the ultimate embarrassment when it was finally broadcast by Russian deputy prime minister Dimitry Rogozin from the Rossiya 24 state TV channel: Someone screwed up the coordinates.
What this means is that even though the rocket was ready to blast into space from its shiny new launchpad in the Far East, it was actually programmed with the coordinates to take off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, where Russia’s rockets had previously been launching from. When you plug in coordinates for a hulking piece of metal loaded with explosive fuel to launch from a different location than the one it’s actually in, you’re going to have issues. You’re also going to have heavy financial casualties.
“Roscosmos officials and the main development companies responsible for creating the space complex and its components did not take comprehensive measures to ensure proper control and coordination of the work,” said the space agency in a recent statement.
Meteor-M wasn’t flying solo before it got lost in space. Also on board on the doomed Soyuz-2 booster rocket was more scientific cargo, and not just from Russia. Reuters reported that there were “18 smaller satellites belonging to scientific, research and commercial companies from Russia, Norway, Sweden, the US, Japan, Canada and Germany.”
Even the first rocket officially launched from Vostochny, the first civilian launch pad in Russia, had issues. After going massively over budget and encountering almost as many delays as extra dollars, this is one spacecraft whose launch should have been flawless. You don’t exactly want a technical glitch to postpone a monumental takeoff right in front of Vladimir Putin. Except that was exactly what ended up happening.
Russia isn’t the only country that has had spacecraft fall victim to human error. Japan’s highly anticipated Hitomi X-ray Satellite went spiraling to its death after a series of mistaken maneuvers that started when the $23 million space telescope was turned away from observing the Crab Nebula to peer into a galactic nucleus where a supermassive black hole was thought to lurk.
After Hitomi shifted focus, too many programming errors and a fatal mistake in transmitting commands to its rocket thrusters caused it to spin out of control and be ripped into shreds of space junk. This incident had JAXA doing a collective facepalm.
This isn’t going to be the last wrong answer in the real-time test of how to successfully launch a satellite. Even Elon Musk admitted that his monster Falcon Heavy rocket could either shoot through the stratosphere or just explode. At least his car will be the only other ridiculously expensive thing that will go with it.