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Proton rocket lifts off on return-to-flight mission

Posted: September 27, 2014
Updated after spacecraft separation

A Russian Proton rocket blasted off Saturday with a secret military satellite, returning to flight status after a four-month grounding following a launch failure in May.

The three-stage booster, topped with a Breeze M upper stage, launched at 2023 GMT (4:23 p.m. EDT) Saturday, or 2:23 a.m. local time at the historic Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, according to Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency.

The Proton booster released the launcher's Breeze M upper stage about 10 minutes after liftoff to begin a series of maneuvers to propel the mission's payload into orbit thousands of miles above Earth.

The Breeze M deploy a secretive Russian military satellite called Luch at 0526 GMT (1:26 a.m. EDT), Roscosmos said in a post on its website.

Russia has revealed little about the mission -- also known as Olymp -- other than the spacecraft was built by ISS Reshetnev, a Russian satellite manufacturer.

The satellite was likely heading for geostationary orbit, a 22,300-mile-high perch used by communications satellites, where a spacecraft's orbit matches the speed of Earth's rotation.

Saturday's launch was the first flight of a Proton rocket since a launch failure in May.

Investigators traced the cause of the May 15 failure to the premature shutdown of the Proton rocket's third stage engine. News reports after the launch blamed the problem on an anomaly in the third stage's steering system.

The Express AM4R communications satellite was lost in the launch mishap.

Russian officials delayed the launch of the Luch satellite four months after the May 15 failure.

The next Proton mission after Saturday is set for Oct. 21 with the Express AM6 satellite, a civilian telecommunications spacecraft for the Russian Satellite Communications Co.

Commercial flights of the Proton rocket, managed by U.S.-based International Launch Services, are scheduled to resume later this year.

The ASTRA 2G communications satellite, owned by SES of Luxembourg, is the next commercial payload on the ILS manifest.

Troubled by reliability concerns and deteriorating relations between Russia and Western governments, ILS announced a staff cut of 25 percent in August to align with an expected reduction in launch business.

Phil Slack, president of ILS, said the layoffs would make the company's workforce consistent with three or four commercial Proton launches per year, down from up to eight ILS missions annually under previous forecasts.

The Proton rocket's performance is best suited to launching large telecommunications satellites weighing more than 6,000 kilograms (13,227 pounds).

But launch contracts for commercial telecom satellites of that size have mostly gone to SpaceX and Arianespace this year.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.