The Express-MD2 and Telkom-3 satellites, which were launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Monday, failed to reach their designated orbit due to untimely mission maneuvers performed by the Briz-M upper stage, a spokesman for the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) told Interfax-AVN.
"The upper stage and the two satellites were not spotted in their transitional orbit on Tuesday. Their SOS message was received from an intermediate orbit," the spokesman said.
Roscosmos said in a preliminary report that the Briz-M performed the first two mission maneuvers routinely, but the upper stage's engine operated for just seven seconds instead of 18 minutes and five seconds during the third maneuver.
Earth-based systems of Russia's Aerospace Defense Forces and Roscosmos are currently following the upper stage and the satellites.
"This extremely complicated situation is being analyzed," the spokesman said.
The Express MD-2 and Telkom telecommunications satellites cost approximately 5-6 billion rubles ($100 - 150 million), a Russian space sector source told Interfax-AVN.
"The Telkom satellite was designed by Russia for an Indonesian operator. It is carrying high-cost equipment provided by a European firm. The Express satellite, which was developed for a Russian operator, includes a lot of Western-made components as well. A satellite of this class costs $100 million-$150 million on average on the world market," he said.
It is the first failed launch conducted by Russia following a string of accidents in 2011, when Russia carried out 35 space launches, of which five ended in failure. China conducted 19 space launches (one failure), and the United States 18 (one failure).
Last year, Russia lost the Geo-IK-2 geodetic military satellite, the Express-AM4 telecommunications satellite, the Progress M-12M re-supply ship, the Phobos-Grunt interplanetary research rover, and the Meridian dual-purpose satellite.
According to space experts, the flight paths of the Express MD-2 and Telkom satellites and the Briz-M upper stage could pose a threat to spacecraft in low near-earth orbit, including the International Space Station (ISS).
"In theory, the threat of a collision between the satellites, which failed to reach an altitude of 36,000 kilometers, and other satellites, as well as the ISS is possible, but this threat is minimal," a Russian space sector expert told Interfax.
The current orbit of the Express MD-2, Telkom and Briz-M has an apogee of more than 5,000 kilometers and a perigee of 300 kilometers, the source said.
The average altitude of the space station's orbit is some 350-400 kilometers.
"The elliptical orbit of the satellites and the upper stage will cross the orbital paths of other spacecraft in low near-earth orbit from time to time," he said.
The Ballistic Service of the Russian Mission Control Center is currently calculating the trajectories of the satellites and the upper stage in order to be able to alert about a possible collision with the ISS, should such a need arise, the source said.
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