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Soyuz Ballistic Re-entry 300 Miles Off Course 197

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the you-know-you-need-the-soviet-russia-joke dept.
call-me-kenneth writes "Soyuz TMA-11, carrying a crew of three returning from the ISS, unexpectedly followed a high-G ballistic re-entry trajectory and ended up landing 300 miles off-course. The crew, including Commander Peggy Whitson and cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, are reportedly in good health. Soyuz capsules have previously saved the lives of the crew even after severe malfunctions that might have led to the loss of a less robust vehicle."
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Soyuz Ballistic Re-entry 300 Miles Off Course

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  • by tpheiska (1145505)
    In the article they state that the vehicle returned in "a plunge with an uncontrollable, steep trajectory." So basically it came down without guidance, maybe the steering systems malfunctioned. The "ballistic trajectory" seems to be an euphemism for coming down like a rock.
    • by figleaf (672550) on Saturday April 19, 2008 @09:51AM (#23127532) Homepage
      The article also says
      "He said the crew missed the target because they changed their landing plan at the last minute without telling mission control."

      So most likely it was not a steering malfunction.

    • by trout007 (975317) on Saturday April 19, 2008 @09:58AM (#23127568)
      A capusle can "sort of fly" during reentry. You can use thrusters to change the attitude of the craft which changes the direction. This requires guidance. You usally use this because it's less stressful on the crew and you have pretty good accuracy. The ballistic trajectory is just like you said. Uncontrolled so you fall like a rock. So you spend less time slowing down in the upper atmosphere. You get to the thicker atmosphere sooner and when you do you are going faster which causes very high G deceleration. Not fun but the craft is designed to do it.
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by ThreeE (786934)
        The soyuz changes its CG position to change its attitude which rotates the lift vector which changes the trajectory.

        There. I fixed it for you.
      • by Rei (128717)
        When I first read the subject here, all I could think was, "at least they didn't roll off a cliff" (as a Soyuz once nearly did). And "at least they didn't break through a frozen lake and sink to the bottom" (as another Soyuz once did). There are some very serious hazards to using a nearly unguided reentry. If a craft isn't to have wings, at least give it a lifting body or parafoils or something so that it has *some* sort of guidance.
    • by MopedJesus (1266412) on Saturday April 19, 2008 @10:25AM (#23127684) Homepage

      The "ballistic trajectory" seems to be an euphemism for coming down like a rock.

      A jet mechanic friend of mine is fond of the phrase "the glide-ratio of a rock".

    • by Waffle Iron (339739) on Saturday April 19, 2008 @11:19AM (#23128014)

      The "ballistic trajectory" seems to be an euphemism for coming down like a rock.

      It's not really an euphemism. The definition of "ballistic" literally means to fall like a rock.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by v1 (525388)
      basically that's correct. "ballistic trajectory" means there is no course correction/adjustment/maintenance going on during the trip. Like firing a mortar, you initially set the angle and power, and fire it. If your math was good, it lands where you wanted it to. "ballistics" (or "dumb firing") more commonly refers to munitions firing.

      He said the crew missed the target because they changed their landing plan at the last minute without telling mission control.

      Certainly IS scary. You wouldn't expect the a
      • by arivanov (12034)

        I wonder what sort of reprimand the senior astronut is going to receive over this?
        My guess will be a promotion.

        The greatest miss in russian landing history ended up being "Cosmonavt No 1" in command of the entire space programme.

        To be most exact that was Leonov on his Voskhod 2 mission where they landed nearly 1000 km off course in the middle of the forest near Perm.
  • "less robust" (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Swampash (1131503) on Saturday April 19, 2008 @09:45AM (#23127498)
    read "Made in America"
    • Re:"less robust" (Score:5, Interesting)

      by call-me-kenneth (1249496) on Saturday April 19, 2008 @11:48AM (#23128164)
      Well, maybe.

      The US hasn't had a man-rated traditional stack since the last Apollo in 1976, but the next-gen Ares launcher will be a traditional inline design with the payload at the top. That, plus the lack of enormous asymmetrical control and lifting surfaces required for (some value of) atmospheric flight pretty much eliminates the sources of danger caused by the shuttle design.

      OTOH, the somewhat... controversial? decision to make the Ares first stage an adaption of the existing shuttle solid rocket boosters is proving rather problematic, owing to the well-known pogo oscillation modthrusterse problems of SRB [flightglobal.com]s. (that's just a random story that popped up on google, no doubt there are much better overviews elsewhere.) Basically as designed the vehicle would crush the crew to jelly with high frequency +/1 70G vertical oscillations (shortly before the entire stack shakes itself to pieces.) (This wasn't a problem on the shuttle because there are two SRBs coupled through the external tank.)

      Anyway, in a few years' time we'll be able to start comparing the safety of like with like.

      No-one outside the space geek community seems to have noticed, but the Ariane-V launched ATV cargo vessel (payload: ~20 tons) has now launched human flight-rated hardware (the ATV, now docked to ISS), albeit without humans in it when it went off. I suspect there are some interesting things being doodled on napkins at cafes and bars all over Darmstadt.

      • by arivanov (12034)

        I suspect there are some interesting things being doodled on napkins at cafes and bars all over Darmstadt.
        Yep. That and building a Soyuz capable launch pad in Guinea... Hm.... That does call for some napkin calculations...
  • by MagdJTK (1275470) on Saturday April 19, 2008 @09:50AM (#23127524)
    According to the first paragraph of the article, the distance by which they were off was 400km, which Slashdot claims is 300 miles.

    Perhaps the calculations were done by the same person who worked out the re-entry trajectory?

    • Re:How far exactly? (Score:5, Informative)

      by whoda (569082) on Saturday April 19, 2008 @10:01AM (#23127582) Homepage
      It says 420km, which gets rounded down to 400 in the headline paragraph.

      420km in miles is 260, which gets rounded up to 300 for the Slashdot article.
      • sort of off-topic (Score:5, Insightful)

        by zappepcs (820751) on Saturday April 19, 2008 @10:11AM (#23127630) Journal
        This is one of the reasons that material/websites are listed as inaccurate sources of data. Rounding is good when you are talking about 1.300056000 billion dollars as 1.3billion. But in the case of simple math that the reader can do on their own rather quickly, it is imprudent to do any rounding.

        A professional news reporter would know that there have been trouble with the US space program regarding conversions to and from metric units. Therefore it is professionally prudent to make sure you are not lumped in with the same idiots who made those mistakes.

        It's not that hard, really. Such things are the stuff of journalism classes from the 50's or sooner. How not to look like an idiot when reporting the news!
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by MrNaz (730548) *
          "Such things are the stuff of journalism classes from the 50's or sooner."

          Spoken like a true foreigner.
          • by zappepcs (820751)
            Out of curiosity, how does that statement make me a foreigner? What country do you think I am from? I'm truly interested in how writing styles or indeed simple phrasing can be used to determine where I am from.

            • by ozmanjusri (601766) <aussie_bob@hotmail.cOPENBSDom minus bsd> on Saturday April 19, 2008 @11:42AM (#23128126) Journal
              Out of curiosity, how does that statement make me a foreigner?

              You've made an intelligent point without threatening anyone.

              That's downright unamerican.

            • by flimflam (21332)

              Out of curiosity, how does that statement make me a foreigner? What country do you think I am from? I'm truly interested in how writing styles or indeed simple phrasing can be used to determine where I am from.
              I think because it makes absolutely no sense. "50's or sooner"? Seriously, what does that mean?

            • by MrNaz (730548) *
              I was actually agreeing with you, implying that if you think that journalists have learned these things, then you couldn't possibly be from America, as American journalism has none of these things. Obviously, you missed the joke, and so did the mods, who gave me -1 flamebait :(

              I shall endeavour to make my humour more obvious from now on. Knock knock...
        • by amorsen (7485)

          But in the case of simple math that the reader can do on their own rather quickly, it is imprudent to do any rounding.
          This is simply wrong. The original number had 1 digit precision. The new number has 1 digit precision. Don't invent precision.
        • by rcw-home (122017) on Saturday April 19, 2008 @03:16PM (#23129466)
          Very often, especially in American news reporting, you'll see an exact unit converted from a previously-rounded metric figure. To make up an example: "Witnesses said the flames from the fuel tanker crash reached between 328 feet [google.com] to 656 feet [google.com] in the air." Of course, the source they are quoting said "100-200 meters". It kinda sucks because it implies a level of precision that wasn't ever there.
      • by Daimanta (1140543)
        That, or they used MS Excel to do the calculations ;)
      • by SteveDob (449830) on Saturday April 19, 2008 @10:28AM (#23127698)
        In both cases the figure was rounded to 1 significant figure, which is as relevant as is needed for the audience.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by FlyByPC (841016)

          In both cases the figure was rounded to 1 significant figure, which is as relevant as is needed for the audience.

          You're trying to explain significant figures to /. ? You must be new here. Good luck, sir.
      • Let me guess - you work for NASA?
      • by call-me-kenneth (1249496) on Saturday April 19, 2008 @11:51AM (#23128198)
        Story submitter here... I used 300 miles because the NASA press release (the second link in the story) says:

        "The landing was approximately 295 miles from the expected landing site"
        ...which I rounded to 300 to try to make the story sound more exciting than it really is, just in order to flatter my inadequate sense of identity and self-esteem. Little did I reckon on the elite mental arithmetic of the Slashdot readership! I hang my head in shame.
      • So, how does this relate to german school boys [slashdot.org]?
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by budgenator (254554)
        Huntsville Al, the city nearest to the Marshall Space flight center has had metric speed limit signs for 40 years that I know of.
  • by CodeBuster (516420) on Saturday April 19, 2008 @09:55AM (#23127550)

    There is an interesting article [space.gc.ca], written by a Canadian, in which he discusses the manual descent training that he received as part of cosmonaut training. Apparently, one of the back up computer systems is your brain itself (i.e. full manual control or renentry with analog controls and instruments). Queue the Soviet Russia jokes now...In Soviet Russia the re-entry computer is YOU!

    From TA: "Under nominal end-of-mission situations, an automatic re-entry system will return the Soyuz vehicle and crew from space safely back to the ground. However, the crew must be familiar with the several backup modes that exist in instances when the automatic system fails. One of the backup re-entry modes is the crew themselves! For certain hardware and software malfunctions, the crew will be required to manually fly the Soyuz back to Earth through the atmosphere."

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Phanatic1a (413374)
      But at 10G, the crew's probably not going to be conscious to operated that manual system. 10G is enough to cause G-induced loss of consciousness (GLOC) in anyone, even physically fit, properly trained, and prepared personnel. Even fighter aircraft, where the pilot is in a properly reclined position and is wearing a g-suit, limit maneuvering to 9g, because after that, that pilot's asleep.
      • by johnny cashed (590023) on Saturday April 19, 2008 @10:15AM (#23127644) Homepage
        I would think that once you're experiencing 10G, your course has already been set. It is a space capsule, not a maneuverable atmospheric vehicle. The only control I could imagine is the decent burn, just prior to "falling out" of orbit. Once that happens, it is like going over the hump on a roller coaster, gravity takes over from there.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by DieByWire (744043)

        But at 10G, the crew's probably not going to be conscious to operated that manual system. 10G is enough to cause G-induced loss of consciousness (GLOC) in anyone, even physically fit, properly trained, and prepared personnel. Even fighter aircraft, where the pilot is in a properly reclined position and is wearing a g-suit, limit maneuvering to 9g, because after that, that pilot's asleep.

        In an aircraft, the pilot's head is necessarily somewhat higher than the rest of his body so that he can see outside, especially forward. That's why high G's result in a loss of blood flow to the brain.

        An astronaut doesn't have that limitation. I wouldn't be surprised if their seating position makes them less vulnerable to GLOC than a pilot.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by berashith (222128)
        I would also think that having just spent some time in a much less than 1 G environment, that the 10G is even more severe by relativity. Aren't the astronauts a bit wobbly when they return to a normal G load?
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by J05H (5625)
        Ballistic reentry like this is still under computer control. Manual reentry is for an even-worse condition Soyuz. IIRC ballistic reentry is for off-nominal or main computer crashing. Article says they altered course before reentry without telling MCC so they were either having trouble or screwing around. This is another testament to Soyuz robustness - still the safest spacecraft around.
      • Heavyside Layers (Score:4, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 19, 2008 @12:15PM (#23128320)
        Alan Shepard hit over 11g during re-entry, and he didn't pass out and could still hit switches. The early astronauts training- had them routinely hitting 10g or more and they didn't pass out.

        There's a difference between the eyes-down load on a fighter pilot sitting in an ejection seat (even the semi-reclining versions, which aren't really very reclined) and the eyes-in loading on a astronaut laying on their back. The main difference is that the person on their back isn't having their blood trying to fill their boots when the Gs strike like the person sitting in a chair.

        The two don't really compare. I'd advise you to do a little research before trying to make that case.
    • by AHuxley (892839)
      In Capitalist West you need another seven astronauts.
      In In Soviet Russia, Germans designed good capsule for you.
  • by skeeto (1138903) on Saturday April 19, 2008 @10:02AM (#23127594)
    They didn't come back with any beautiful, belly-buttonless genies, did they?
  • by edwardpickman (965122) on Saturday April 19, 2008 @10:03AM (#23127598)
    Hey give them some credit they hit the right planet.
    • by fuego451 (958976)

      "Hey give them some credit they hit the right planet."

      And, the right continent and country within 250 miles of the desired touchdown point in spite of a glitch. Pretty damn good, I'd say.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by mysticgoat (582871)

        "Any landing you walk away from is a good landing."

        Ancient quotation from the early days of airplanes... and still appropriate.

        Good to have the cosmonauts back in one piece.

  • I'm impressed (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Whuffo (1043790) on Saturday April 19, 2008 @10:14AM (#23127638) Homepage Journal
    They came down in a space capsule on a ballistic trajectory - in other words, dropped like a rock.

    The fact that they survived the experience is amazing. Say what you want about Soviet technology, this was a very, very neat trick.

    • I'm not impressed. (Score:5, Informative)

      by DerekLyons (302214) <fairwater@gmFREEBSDail.com minus bsd> on Saturday April 19, 2008 @10:37AM (#23127748) Homepage

      The fact that they survived the experience is amazing. Say what you want about Soviet technology, this was a very, very neat trick.

      When it comes to Soviet technology only one thing needs to be pointed out: This brings the re-entry failure rate of the current mark of Soyuz to 20% and trending upwards. (This report [jamesoberg.com] on Soyuz landing safety with the older marks is sobering reading.)
      • by EsonLinji (723693) on Saturday April 19, 2008 @10:52AM (#23127856) Homepage
        Of course, this is still a lot better than what happens to a space shuttle that has problems on re-entry.
      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward
        This wasn't a re-entry failure at all. It landed and the crew is fine. Ballistic re-entry is a contingency for the Soyuz, and it functioned exactly as it was meant to.

        The Soyuz are rugged little buggers, far more so than any other re-entry vehicles. Their failure rate is excellent considering how long they have been in service.

        It comes down to this: If you were undergoing a re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere and there was a problem, would you rather be in a Soyuz capsule which has proven effective fal
      • by khallow (566160) on Saturday April 19, 2008 @12:28PM (#23128408)
        This is incorrect. The reentry was successful. Using a fallback mode is not a failure of reentry, it is a failure of the primary mode of reentry. For example, burning up in the atmosphere or "lithobraking" (slowing down only when you leave a smoking crater in the ground) are failures of reentry. Reading through Oberg's report, he indicates that there were few actual reentry failures and most of these occured early in the program. Further you seem to be counting things like a capsule landing on its side as a "failure". I'm not interested in playing semantics games with the several posters here who claim otherwise. But a failure in a reentry system isn't automatically a failure in the process of reentry. The capsule and crew arrived intact. In my book, that makes the reentry successful no matter how many systems failed on the way down.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by DerekLyons (302214)

          I'm not interested in playing semantics games with the several posters here who claim otherwise.

          Yet, that is exactly what you are doing by claiming that a failure of a major system during reentry isn't a reentry failure.

          In my book, that makes the reentry successful no matter how many systems failed on the way down.

          In my book, when you have a major system fail routinely... you have a serious problem. After all, fifteen crews landed safely despite O-ring failure and dozens of crews landed s

      • by fm6 (162816)
        The failure rate is not good. But look of the system as a whole: it can suffer major failure and still deliver its crew home safely. It's also a lot cheaper than the U.S. shuttle, which may suffer a lower failure rate, but is much more likely to kill its crew when it does fail.

        Neither system is really great. But the Russians know how to make a workable system cheaply, and know they can't design out Murphy's Law. That's the future of space flight. Assuming it has one, which I'm no longer willing to do
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        Oh dear, +5 informative and no-one's noticed that figure's fantasy. No-one's died on a Soyuz since 1971.
      • by moosesocks (264553) on Saturday April 19, 2008 @09:14PM (#23131890) Homepage
        The last fatality was in 1971 with a much older version of the spacecraft.

        Saying that Soyuz is no good is like saying that Linux is no good because the 2.2 kernel sucked.

        Soyuz is a $#*#*ing remarkable spacecraft. Its reentry mechanism might not be the most elegant, but is certainly the most robust, and has proven able to get the crew back even after every other system has failed.

        Since the last fatality in 1971, Soyuz cosmonauts have survived two booster failures -- one in which the booster wildly deviated off-course, and another in which the rocket exploded on the pad with the capsule still attached.

        To contrast, the Space Shuttle was destroyed by a piece of foam, and must follow its landing procedure to a T in order for the crew to have even a remote chance of survival.
    • Re:I'm impressed (Score:4, Insightful)

      by c6gunner (950153) on Saturday April 19, 2008 @11:21AM (#23128022)

      The fact that they survived the experience is amazing. Say what you want about Soviet technology, this was a very, very neat trick.
      Despite the pointless profanity which makes his comment appear to be a mindless rant, JockTroll actually made a good point in his response to you [slashdot.org].

      He's right, there's nothing amazing about the Soyuz surviving a ballistic re-entry, since that's what it was designed to do. This isn't the shuttle we're talking about - you can't compare the two. It's like saying that it's amazing that a 747 can continue flying with one broken engine, while a Cesna can't. You'd be comparing two completely different things.
    • I suspect that the difference between "dropping like a rock" and a controlled re-entry is something on the order of 0.01%
  • by DieByWire (744043) on Saturday April 19, 2008 @10:54AM (#23127872)

    Mr Perminov said the craft followed the back-up landing plan, a so-called "ballistic re-entry" - a plunge with an uncontrollable, steep trajectory

    He said the crew missed the target because they changed their landing plan at the last minute without telling mission control.

    Astronauts don't just don't go changing re-entry profiles willy-nilly. If they did it, there was a reason they needed to.

    Remember the collision between the Progress supply ship and Mir during the manual docking? The first thing the Soviets did was blame it on the Russian cosmonaut. It turned out the whole operation was poorly planned, rehearsed and was an accident waiting to happen.

    There's a lot more to this story than we've heard yet.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by kriptonus (1176987)
      Yep; Switching to a Ballistic trajectory would tend to make you fall short of your target and land early; yet they overshot by almost 300 miles and landed 20 minutes late. There had to be a failure that caused them to spend too much time in the upper atmosphere, not losing momentum quickly enough. Once they realized they were overshooting they must have switched to plan B.... and without a time consuming chat with ground control.
  • Miss, are you telling us absolutely everything?!

    Not exactly. We're also out of coffee.

    [Ok, PANIC!]
  • Oblig (Score:3, Insightful)

    by iminplaya (723125) <iminplaya.gmail@com> on Saturday April 19, 2008 @11:10AM (#23127966) Journal
    "Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
    That's not my department," says Wernher von Braun.
  • Astronauts. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by radarsat1 (786772) on Saturday April 19, 2008 @11:31AM (#23128054) Homepage
    Wow. Stories like this remind me of the huge BALLS it takes to strap yourself onto a rocket and fly straight into orbit, and then come back down again. We like to think that technology has progressed so far that things like space travel are safe, and to a large extent it is. But with the shear number of things that can go wrong and the calculations that have to be *just so* in order to get back safely, I am seriously humbled to remember that astronauts are still explorers, and, frankly, still Heroes to mankind. Let's not forget it.
  • .. the difference is 8-10G vs. normal 2-3G on re-entry. What a ride.
  • Nice Spin (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Dun Malg (230075)
    I love the "spin" in this line:

    Soyuz capsules have previously saved the lives of the crew even after severe malfunctions that might have lead to the loss of a less robust vehicle.
    Well yeah, it's not surprising that the Soyuz is built more robustly than other spacecraft, given that it has a 20% malfunction rate. It's a classic Soviet design philosophy: when quality and precision are unavailable, substitute brute strength.
    • by kinabrew (1053930)
      How many Soyuz shuttles have not survived re-entry? And what percentage of launches have not met with a successful landing?
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        Well, slightly higher in the wikipedia page referenced is a section on accidents [wikipedia.org]. Count the number there. I think the most infamous was Soyuz 11 [wikipedia.org], where the interior was vented to space.

        It's rather a case of "we make them rugged, 'cause we got a lot of other problems we have to overcome."

        • Exactly... 1971, the last fatality in a Soyuz capsule. How many fatal accidents have the US had since 1971?

          Did you ever read up on how close STS-1 came to disaster? Go look at some footage of John Young at the post-landing press conference. Seem a little perky? No wonder, he's just flown the thing in manually after the aerodynamic models failed to predict the hypersonic airflow at re-entry correctly. The point of degeneracy (the hottest spot, right on the nose cone) moved off to the side of the orbiter, the

          • Re:Nice Spin (Score:5, Informative)

            by mlyle (148697) on Saturday April 19, 2008 @01:11PM (#23128642)
            Taken from a web forum, but I've seen similar stuff before:

            http://www.airliners.net/aviation-forums/military/read.main/54404/ [airliners.net]

            Soyuz (1967-Present)
            Flights: 95
            Failures: 4 (2 non-fatal)
            Failure Rate: 4.21%

            Cosmonauts Flown: 228
            Fatalities: 4
            Fatality Rate: 1.75%

            Shuttle (1981-Present)
            Flights: 116
            Failures: 3 (1 non-fatal)
            Failure Rate: 2.59%

            Astronauts Flown: 692
            Fatalities: 14
            Fatality Rate: 2.02%

            This is a statistical dead heat. There is simply not a big enough sample size to distinguish between a 1.75% and a 2.02% fatality rate. And the "who had an accident more recently" does not establish it either.

            Both are good systems, each has respective advantages (simplicity and low-cost vs. a lot of on-orbit assembly and payload capability). It's good the world has both, and we may never know which would be safer with infinite flights.
  • ... get off of my lawn!!!
  • by Abies Bracteata (317438) on Saturday April 19, 2008 @01:38PM (#23128808)
    ...nothing beats the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) approach.
  • AK-47 (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Fifth Earth (1172333)
    I find it interesting that Russia makes (made) both the Soyuz and the AK-47, which have reputations for robustness and ability to function in adverse conditions, while America makes the M16 and the Space Shuttle, which have reputations for failure in less-than-ideal conditions.

    Granted, I hear the latest versions of the M16 and its descendants are much better.
  • Fortunately, soyuz is unbreakable!

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