Today's failure of a Russian rocket launch has had a profound impact on engineering students in California. The Russian News and Information Agency (RIA Novosti) reported earlier today that the first-stage booster of a Dnepr launch vehicle had quit shortly after lift-off, resulting in total failure of the mission, which included the deployment of a number of miniature satellites built by students in the U.S.-based CubeSat program.
"During the launch of a Dnepr carrier rocket, which was to have orbited 18 Russian and foreign-made satellites, the rocket's first stage engine experienced an emergency shutdown," said Federal Space Agency Press Secretary Igor Panarin. "This is the agency's official viewpoint."
The lift-off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan, took place at 19:43 UTC and the first announcement of the premature shut-down of the booster came 21 minutes later. In an update on the CubeSat Web site, the First Deputy Director General of the Baikonur Base said:
"The State Launch Committee continues their work to investigate what happened. We have some preliminary information of the cause [of the failure]. They have an idea of what might have happened. They know the location of where the rocket fell. They are performing the debris recovery plan. [They] always have that plan for such cases. As soon as tomorrow morning, the rescue team will be in the debris area... We will have more feedback from [them], but I'm not sure that it will be at exactly 10 o'clock [Thursday morning] when they'll tell us something. We'll do our best to keep you updated as much as possible as soon as possible. As soon as we have any specific information of when the debriefing will take place, we will inform you immediately. All we can say right now is that it's a pity, and we're really sorry."
The CubeSat group was formed by students at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo and Stanford University's Space Systems Development Lab. It's composed of participants from over 60 universities and high schools interested in the aerospace industry. Today's mission, known as Dnepr 1, was to have deployed in orbit (of 500-600 km) 14 CubeSat picosatellites. A follow-up mission, to launch 7 CubeSats on Dnepr 2, is tentatively scheduled for September, according to the group.
RIA Novosti reported that the accident involved no casualties or environmental damage and that a special commission has been formed to investigate the failure.
It's a sad end to a project eagerly anticipated by engineers on two continents.