Kosmos 3M
Launch vehicle Kosmos 3M
Launch site Plesetsk, Russia
Date/Time 2000-11-20 23:00
Description Second stage failure
Cause Malfunction of either control system or payload (disputed)
Payload QuickBird 1 (Imaging satellite, Earthwatch, USA)
Desired orbit Solar-synchronous 590km orbit

 
The re-ignitable second stage fired only one time. Contact with the satellite was never established. Rocket and satellite did not reach the required altitude and re-entered the Earth's atmosphere before even completing one orbit.

There are two versions why this had happened.

Version 1: There was a malfunction of the second stage's flight control system. Rocket and satellite veered off course, which explains why contact was lost. The incident happened outside the reach of the Russian ground control centres' radar.

Version 2: According to Russian newspapers, satellite owner EarthWatch did not re-programme its satellite correctly after a launch delay of one hour at the request of the customer. It is claimed the satellite's timers were not reset to reflect the new launch time.

"Americans have yet to answer the question whether the necessary adjustments had been made ... in connection with the one-hour delay. The satellite control system, for example, may have ordered its solar cells to open while the rocket was flying with its engines on. This may have destroyed the American satellite," according to an article in Kommersant Daily.

An unnamed member of the investigation commission was quoted as saying, "if the accident had been caused by failure of the second firing of the second stage engine, some anomalies ... would have been registered at the first firing."

This would indicate that the second stage was also destroyed, because undisputedly there has never been a second firing, and both rocket and satellite are known to have crashed back to Earth soon after launch.

Launch Failures Chronology