Archive for the Launch Failures Category

But the Aliens were Cooler!

Posted in Launch Failures, Launches, Test on 12/10/2009 by clairdeluna

Update: The failed launch has been confirmed as a Russian Bulava missile test.

This morning I posted about the Aliens Hypnotizing Norway. Via Spaceweather and Bad Astronomy come some useful updates.

First, there was a navigation warning issued for the area indicating that no one (let me repeat NO ONE) was trying to hide the fact that there was a launch test being performed. Second, another picture has emerged of the event:

The inset clearly shows a perfectly normal launch trail leading up to the more bizarre imagery that we have seen. This white trail has begun to dissipate, with differing winds at different altitudes pushing the trail around until it looks irregularly jagged. Anyone who has seen a successful launch on a clear day will recognize that trail.

At the top of the trail, there is a brighter spot and the trail itself ends abruptly. I suspect this is where the anomaly likely occurred. Having seen this picture, I will revise my earlier statements and say that the upward thrust probably ceased at this point. The remainder of the upward motion was simply from the rocket’s momentum. The blue trail is likely fuel venting from the first stage.

At the end of the blue trail, something changes. It could be that a second stage on the rocket ignited autonomously (most launches are run by an onboard script…you don’t want to have to try to command something that complex by hand), or simply that the torque got too large and created venting as I suggested before. Either way, the rotation had already been imparted to the system. Once there was some sort of thrust (engine firing, massive venting) the spiral started to form.

Anyone who says the system should have fallen to earth at that point needs to play with those spiral fireworks for a little bit. The push given by the tangential thrust may very well have kept the system rotating in what is a nearly stationary position. From some of the images the cloud is obviously three-dimensional. However it is clear that by the time the spiral started, very little of the rocket’s original forward momentum remained.

Words have meaning: Anomaly

Posted in Launch Failures, Mission Operations, Word Meanings on 12/09/2009 by clairdeluna

In these posts, I typically like to highlight words with very specific meanings that are used far too generally or improperly by the average person. However, the popularity of my Norway Spiral post has led me to another word, one which is used as a catchall by engineers. And a word that seems to imply much, while actually giving nearly zero information. I mean, of course:

In engineer-speak, an “anomaly” is anything that didn’t go the way you expected it to go. While we test this hardware over and over on the ground, and rehearse the expected launch and activation sequences repeatedly, sometimes things just don’t behave as you expect. This can be due to something catastrophic, like a mission-ending hardware failure, or something as simple as not getting telemetry when you expected. (This can happen due to a scheduling conflict giving access to the communication satellite you were planning to use to a different, higher priority, user.)

When things don’t work the way you expect, it must ALWAYS be documented (an issue/discrepancy/anomaly/pick-a-word report should be filed). If the reason for the anomaly is simple, this step is a formality. But good engineering practices means it should be done anyway. On the other hand, some anomalies, especially those that result in mission loss, will be investigated by a number of experts for as long as it takes to either 1) find the root cause and communicate it to the rest of the space industry, or 2) determine that the cause is unknowable due to lack of sufficient information.

The Columbia tragedy started out as an anomaly and was investigated for years, leading to significantly improved processes for monitoring orbiter health post-launch. And you can bet the Norway Spiral was a launch vehicle anomaly. We watch this video and chuckle at the network callout that “we have just had an anomaly…” True, that may seem like a gross understatement. But in an industry where words have very specific meanings, no other word can be used without implying more than simply “something didn’t behave as expected.”

So next time you hear about some “anomaly” occurring on your favorite spacecraft, remember: it could be anything…or nothing at all.

Aliens are Hypnotizing Norway!

Posted in Launch Failures, Launches on 12/09/2009 by clairdeluna

On Edit: I have posted an UPDATE to this topic.

Final Note: The failed launch has finally been confirmed as a Russian Bulava missile test.

Ever wonder what a failed launch looks like? Check this out. (Note that there is a video of the event at that site.)

Launch failures come in many flavors, from huge explosions to a simple failure to reach orbit (i.e. “crash”). At this point no nation is laying claim to this one, and experts are speculating about possible new atmospheric phenomena, etc. But to me, this looks like a launch gone bad, with the root cause occurring right at launch. Check out this picture:

See the squiggly blue line leading up to the spiral? “Experts” are speculating that it is leaked fuel from a rocket of some sort. I suspect it’s simply the emission from whatever thrust mechanism was used, and that a stabilization problem on the launch vehicle caused the rocket to spiral up rather than launch straight up. I have seen this effect before, and once the instability gets large enough to be obviously visible, it’s nearly impossible for the launch vehicle to self-correct.

This instability probably produced a significant torque on the entire system, finally rupturing something on the vehicle – essentially ending the upward thrust. It’s at that point that the real show starts. The instability that shows up in the blue corkscrew imparted a rotation to the system. This rotation, plus what appears to be venting from the rupture, is what produced this extraordinary spiral in the sky.

When you watch a launch you notice that as the rocket gets to higher and higher altitudes, the plume from the engine spreads wider and wider. This is due to a reduction in the density of the atmosphere. Lower density equals less air pressure equals wider plume. From the amount of spread seen in the vented material, the spiral appears to have occurred at a reasonably high altitude. Evidence for this is increased by the fact that photographs of the event from different locations (see here, here and here) show similar structure. If it was low, the viewing angles would be very different. But while you can see some differences in the spiral pattern, the same basic structure is visible.

It will be interesting to see who finally admits to having performed this launch. Alternately, I could be completely off base and it really is evidence of aliens trying to hypnotize Norway. But I wouldn’t bet on it…

Hat-tip to Spaceweather for the heads-up.

“My rockets always blow up”

Posted in Launch Failures, Launches, Mission Operations on 12/05/2009 by clairdeluna

“My rockets always blow up…until they don’t.”

I say this all the time. It’s representative of the mindset I have developed to protect myself against the possibility of a catastrophic failure on launch. When you spend 5 to 15 years of your life working toward the launch of a single spacecraft/instrument, a failure just before the culmination of your work can be devastating. To combat this, I have developed a very simple defense mechanism. I assume they will ALL fail. That way if they do, then it was to be expected. If they don’t, then I have had a very good day.

Thankfully, I have been pleasantly surprised on all three launches where I worked mission operations. I attribute this partly to the incredible reliability of the launch vehicle they all used, the Boeing Delta II. If you want to see what a typical Delta II launch looks like, check this video (launch is at about 2:37). Sadly, this launcher has been discontinued, and there are only a few more in the inventory. That’s not to say that the Delta II hasn’t failed. While supporting pre-launch operations on my last mission, the operations team repeatedly viewed this video. As you can see, I am not the only person who ascribes to this method of coping.

Sometimes missions do fail. It’s heartbreaking to us who work so hard to bring these missions to fruition. So, if sometimes it seems like I’m a bit pessimistic, please forgive me. It’s all part of the job…