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Report: Upside-Down Sensors Toppled Russian Rocket

Last week, we reported on the spectacular failure of a Russian Proton-M rocket launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Now, a report from Russian Space Web says investigators have traced the problem to a series of sensors that were apparently installed upside down.

The so-called angular velocity sensors (дачик угловой скорости in Russian, according to NPR's Moscow bureau) were a critical part of the circuitry that kept the rocket upright during launch. They were so important, says Russian Space Web, that they even had little arrows on them that were supposed to point toward the top of the rocket.

That seemingly was not enough to prevent a young technician from installing them upside down, according to the site, which aims "to preserve and popularize history of space exploration, to promote cooperation in space and to provide independent coverage of space program."

The upside down sensors misinformed the rocket's flight control system. In this amateur video, you can actually see the massive machine wobble back and forth as the system appears to try to "correct" the problem:

It's important to note these reports are unconfirmed. The official investigation by the Russian Federal Space Agency is ongoing, according to Karen Monaghan, a spokesperson for International Launch Services, the commercial arm of Khrunichev, the Russian firm that built the rocket.

"Until their report is complete, we will not have any details about what the cause is," Monaghan tells NPR.

Still the lesson may be as simple as this: Upside-down sensors can lead to upside-down rockets.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.