Saturday, November 15, 2008

20 Years Ago Today: Buran Saves the World From War in Space!

Gist: Today is an important date in the history of the Russian space program. Twenty years ago the reusable Buran shuttle made her maiden voyage. Without exaggerating it was a pivotal moment for the planet. Because the USSR obtained the ability to launch a nuclear first strike, it headed off the possibility of a war in space.

These people have gathered once again after twenty years. Today, as back then, cosmonauts, test pilots, engineers and designers have all gathered here in the hall of the Energiya Design Bureau, united by the multi-use space shuttle Buran. This is footage of the Energiya launch vehicle with the Buran aboard. It may be history now, but back on 15 November, 1988, the people sitting here watched this live holding their breath. The Soviet government placed great hopes on this project. More than a 1000 design bureaus worked on the project. The Buran was designed to put a then record 30 tons of payload into near-Earth orbit.

For a long time we debated on where to put the booster rocket, on the Buran or on the launch vehicle. In the end we put it on the rocket, like the Americans. So we got two ways to launch payloads into orbit. One way was to put a hundred tons of payload on the rocket and the other was to put up to thirty tons on the sub-orbital vehicle.

The system worked fine during its 206 minute flight, making two orbits around the Earth. But all the tasks hadn't been carried out. Now came the most complicated step - a one of a kind landing in autonomous mode. After a few minutes, for the first time in the history of flight a multi-ton aircraft came in for a landing using only electronics into the airfield at Baykonur, strictly on course, not a centimeter off.

The multi-use Buran was a new type of space craft for her time. Her flight demonstrated the high level of acheivement of the Soviet space program. Her flight parameters were unparalleled, even surpassing those of the American Space Shuttle. To this day the American space shuttle is landed manually. Today it is known that the shuttle had a secret side.

The Buran deterred war in space. She deterred American plans for war in space. With one flight we canceled out everything the Americans were going to do with ten. You can imagine what an accomplishment that was back then.

Depite it's success, the program was canceled because of a lack of financing, but specialists consider the program to be viable. They are sure that a need for a shuttle will arise. And technology developed for the program like heat resistant materials and the automatic landing system have found wide use.

Where are they today?

A Buran test model floats down the Rhine to her final resting place in a German Museum.

(Photo: Siberian Light)

And here is the actual Buran that traveled into space:

(Photo: Buran Homepage)
The roof of the hanger where it is stored in Baykonur collapsed in 2002, killing eight workers.

Here is a great series of pictures of the Buran getting unloaded from the An-225 and placed on the launch vehicle in the assembly hall in Baykonur.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Peter the Great Update: Guns, guns, guns

Gist: The nuclear missile cruiser Peter the Great repelled an enemy attack. True, it was a notional enemy. The ship carried out a practice firing. Sailors say that the Atlantic is not just a unique firing range. It is priceless training - on land, there isn't the kind of rocking like there is here.

On board the TRKR Peter the Great in the Atlantic Ocean. These shots are from the ship's helo. It is searching for submarines in the area around the cruiser. It lowers the hydrophone and that which is normally hidden is visible to the operator on the monitor. The radius of operation for the device is dozens of kilometers.

The crew is performing the mission along a designated route and reports back to the ship, either on the air or after returning to the ship, about any surface contacts gained.

Coordinates of unfriendlies are relayed to the ship. This is the Marine zone. They are also conducting training. The reliable AK-47 isn't the main Marine weapon. They also have a machine gun. It weighs 45 kg and fires 600 rounds a minute at a range of 3.5 km. It can even be used as an anti-aircraft weapon.

You can know the feeling of a powerful Russian weapon because its a large caiber weapon.

The enemy survived even after large caliber machine gun fire. Two shots from a grenade launcher dealt a shock. The enemy was destroyed, but a new enemy appeared on the horizon. The main universal gun mount will deal with that one.

The AK-130 is the most powerful weapon in its class. It has a 22km range. That means that the enemy could even be beyond the horizon and not visible. It takes a few seconds to transmit the coordinates of the target from the Peter the Great's radar to her guns and only a few seconds more to send a 70kg shell. When this gun is fired, all the external hatches on the ship are secured and to stand as close to the gun as I am now is deadly. Sixty tons of metal and explosives fly from the barrels of this gun in a minute. It can destroy anything.

Small, fast moving surface targets or fixed, unseen land-based targets. Also low-flying missiles, the most threatening kind of missile. They can also be repelled.

The deck on the Peter the Great shakes when the AK-130 fires. The 27,000 ton ship recoils a bit.

The "metal-cutter" is in operation. That is what the sailors call the anti-air Kortik system, which fires 6000 rounds/second.

This kind of training will go on for almost the entire week on the way across the Atlantic to the shores of Latin America.

Russia to India: Don't Make Me Commission Your Ship Into My Navy

If Russia wants to demostrate to the world that it just isn't a reliable partner just look no further than the Indian carrier refurbishment project, which is taking on a distinctly Guns and Roses record release quality:

While talking about needing another $2 billion from the Indians to refurbish a 20 year old hull out of one side of their mouth, the Russians are talking about commissioning the carrier into their own Navy if the Indians don't accept it.

The modernization of the Gorshkov for the Indian Navy will require two billion more dollars according to the Deputy General Director of Sevmash Sergey Novoselov.

"The price of such a ship on the open market ranges from three to four billion dollars. The repairs that we are doing at Sevmash are sixty to seventy percent of the cost of a new carrier. This is about two billion dollars. Of course, this number needs a little clarification."

According to Novoselov, Sevmash is in fact constructing a new carrier and not repairing or modernizing an old one. "The fact of the matter is that we are building a new aircraft carrier in the dock at Sevmash. The last two years of work have proceeded only because we have gotten credit. The construction of any ship, most of all like this one demands a steady, unbroken line of financing."

He noted that 617 billion dollars was the agreed upon sum back in 2004. "But when the contract was signed, a deep search for defects wasn't done, the equipment wasn't removed and tests of the cabling system wasn't done."

He emphasized that there isn't any fault for the differences between today's price and the original price. A Russian-Indian commission is currently resolving issues surrounding funding.


Then there is this:

The Admiral Gorshkov could be transfered to the Russian Navy if India refuses to further finance modernization of the ship according to a source in the Russian military-industrial complex.

Uh huh.

(Note: I edited this post shortly after I posted it because it was unnecessarily inflamatory and prominently displayed the La Russophobe side of my personality. The Russian Navy Blogger is quite cranky at the end of this week. My original advice to the Indians about sunk costs still applies...)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Peter the Great Update: Clip Your TLDs to Your Belt Please

Gist: The Peter the Great has been at sea for almost two months now and is on her way to Venezuela. Our team takes a look at the heart of the ship, the reactor compartment.

The first step of the Russian Navy flagship's journey is done. Now the Peter the Great has passed through the Straits of Gibraltar, the gates of the Mediterranean Sea. Ten thousand km of sailing is behind with friendly visits to Libya, Turkey and France. Ahead lies three weeks of sailing across the rough Atlantic and Venezuela. The Peter the Great is moving at 18 kts, almost 32 km/hr. Those numbers don't sound like much, but considering great weight of the 27,000 ton ship, it becomes clear what kind of power plant is required to move such a mountain of metal. Our camera team was permitted to check out the reactor zone. To go down there with the crew we needed to obtain special passes with a lot of signatures and stamps on them.

"This is the most powerful shipboard engine in the world. It allows the ship to circle the earth at the equator 50 times. The steam generated by the reactor turns turbines that each generate 70,000 hp."

That's a total of 140,000 hp. The nuclear power plant could supply electricity to a small city. The processes in the reactor are controlled second by second, 24 hours a day by special equipment manned by specially trained sailors. Each one receives a dosimeter and when leaving the reactor area they revceive a scan for radiation.

"So what has gone on during the month and a half at sea...well, so far there hasn't been any leak of radioactive substances into the sea or ocean."

And here is the TsUP - central control. The sailors jokingly call it "being in the soup". From here all the electrical supply systems for the ship are controlled. The scale of the equipment is grandiose - huge buttons and breakers and redundant systems.

"The ship is built for battle. If the ship is damaged in battle, it has to tranfer operations to secondary systems and continue to function."

This is the main propulsion shaft on the Peter the Great. There are two on the ship, each more than 100 meters long. The reactor makes 400 degree high pressure steam which turns two screws, each with a diameter of three meters and weighing seven tons. These screws literally make the water boil, throwing up a white wake larger than any other non-aircraft carrier warship in the world and trailing the ship for kilometers.

Nerpa Disaster Update


1. The boat departed on sea trials in the Sea of Japan from Bol'shoy Kamen'.

2. The fire fighting system activates in the 1st and 2nd compartments at a depth of 80 meters. There are forty one people in the two compartments. The anti-submarine ship Admiral Tributs and the salvage tug Sayany along with a helicopter depart Vladvostok to render assistance.

3. The boat surfaces. The four worst injured people are taken by helo to a hospital in Vladivostok. The rest of the injured and the bodies of the dead are transferred to ships. The Nerpa proceeds under her own power to port.

4. The boat arrives in port and the injured are flown by helos to hospitals in Fokino.

Il'ya Kramnik, RIA Novosti military commentator.

The incident on the Nerpa which has taken the lives of 20 people has become the biggest event on Russian submarines since the loss of the Kursk in 2000. As with any other event on nuclear submarines, this incident has drawn the attention of the Russian and the world press as well as giving birth to a multitude of rumors and versions.

For now it is difficult to paint an accurate picture since there hasn't been an official investigation yet, but one can get to the approximate root of the incident. To begin with, we have to define our terms and emphasize that the boat was still formally going through sea trials and wasn't accepted into naval service.

There was a catastrophe on K-152 Nerpa. That means an incident leading to the death of people when many people us the word accident which means an incident not leading to deaths. Officially the cause of the incident is the unsanctioned activation of the fire suppression system.

Further we have to deal with equipment that submariners use to fight on board fires. Russian submarines are equipped with two fire suppression systems. The first is a foam system, designed to fight local fires. The second is a chemical compartment flooding system, designed to extinguish large volume fires (except solid rocket fuel and ammunition fires) by means of filling the compartment with freon or its derivatives. Freon bonds with sticks to oxygen in order to put out the fire.

Freon is the most effective way to extinguish a fire, while it is also toxic and breathing it can lead to poisoning and death. This risk is justifiable in the harsh conditions on submarines and some have commented on the availability of individual breathing apparatus.

The compartment flooding system is located in all compartments on the boat except the reactor compartment (there isn't a permanent watch in the reactor compartment and it is protected by stations in the neighboring compartments) and it has two modes: "right there" and "from the neighboring compartment".

The system can be operated directly from the compartment, although on board third generation submarines, experts assert that it can also be activated from the control panel in central control (the "Molybden" system). In any case, activation of the system requires human intervention - all submariners stress that "self activation" is impossible. There is one incident recorded regarding an accidental discharge and it wasn't in the same compartment (the incident on K-77 on 13 Feb 1976) because of a mistake made during the assembly of the system during overhaul (markings on a valve were confused in the factory). But, in any case, the activation of the system can only occur with human intervention.

This system is installed on all boats in the Russian Navy and since there is no evidence that some other kind of, or new, system has been mounted on the K-152, it stands to reason that K-152 carries the standard equipment.

The order to use the system can not only be given from the central command post, but also by the commander of of the compartment on the scene. In accordance with damage control regulations the commander of the compartment has the following rights to use the system:

- when there is no comms with the central command post,

- when it isn't possible to find a fire or when the fire can't be extinguished immediately by other means,

- during a flash fire,

- where there is a fire in the regeneration substances (Russian Navy Blog comment: presumably meaning where there is a fire in substances that produce their own oxygen, like oxygen candles),

- during fires in uninhabited hermetically sealed spaces.

If crew members are caught in a fire and the resulting discharge of the fire suppression system, they have personal breathing devices, the IDA-59 or IDA-59M which allows 10 to 30 minutes of oxygen in a poisonous atmosphere (the amount of time depends on the intensity of breathing - when strenuous work is being done, the oxygen reserve depletes quicker).

The central command post can decide to activate the system in a compartment and issue a corresponding order automatically through the fire alarm system or on the ship wide announcing system. It should be noted that the computerized fire alarm system gives false alarms once in a while, so comms between the affected compartment and the central command post are important. But it is only a fire alarm and generally not a command to activate the fire suppression system.

Having been briefed on the fire suppression system, we can again turn our attention to what happened on K-152. It is known that the boat, which has just been recently constructed, was undergoing trials. There was more than just the Navy crew of 81 on board in connection with the trials. There were a lot of civilian specialists - workers and engineers, a total of 208 on board. It has to be noted that the majority of these people don't have damage control experience or know what to do during a casualty on board a submarine - they just don't learn that, or at a maximum, they have a short theoretical course.

The civilian specialists were part of the sea trials, preparing the boat for transfer to the Navy together with the crew, checking the systems.

So what happened in the bow (torpedo) compartment on K-152? Sifting through the official version produces evidence that none of the injured (21 total) didn't have burns. One can deduce the following: there wasn't a fire on the boat. It's possible that there was a small local fire, leading to smoke in the compartment and a false alarm in the fire alarm system. As a result, either by command from the central command post where they didn't investigate the situation thoroughly, or on the scene - they decided to activate the fire suppression system in the first and second compartments simultaneously.

As a consequence of the discharge, the atmosphere in the first and second compartments became unbreathable, leading to deaths. It must be noted that 36 out of the 41 casualties were civilians which means that they either didn't know how to use their emergency breathing devices or, possible but less likely, there wasn't enough of them to go around in the crowded conditions on the submarine.

Since the truth isn't known yet, the guilty haven't been found yet. But conclusions can already be drawn from the incident. At a minimum, workers and engineers participating in construction and sea trials have to be trained to the same standard of the crew in what to do in the event of a casualty on a submarine, including during a fire and activation of the fire suppression system. Beside that someone has to ask if its necessary to take to sea triple the normal compliment during trials and testing - a crowd like that produces nothing except disorder.

Now it remains to be hoped that some lessons will be learned from this tragedy and that nothing like this happens again. Not on the Nerpa or any other submarine.

U-96 commenter Timofey Sklyankin adds the following:

Like I promised, here is some more detailed information which was received directly from participants in the event and also from representatives of NPO Avrora, the manufacturer of the fire suppression system on board this class of nuclear submarine.

In order:

1. Project 971I (I for Import) SSN K-152, factory number 518. The boat was designed for leasing to the Indian Navy through RosOboronEksport and the cost of the contract was about $670M. The boat was conducting sea trials at periscope depth with the factory crew on board, the regular crew and a large number of contractors on board. There were representatives from NPO Avrora on board.

2. Around 2030 there was an unsanctioned activation of the fire suppression system and as a result freon was released into the second compartment (where the central command post is located) and the alarm system activated. According to eyewitnesses who were using their IDAs (a second, the rep from Avrora, managed to get out of the compartment), the alarm was very quiet compared to the usual "roar", which evidently played its own unpleasant role for those sleeping.

3. Before we move on to possible causes, it is worth going over the fire suppression system installed on the Nerpa in detail. The system is controlled by the Molibden-BS, manufactured by NPO Avrora and has the following structure:

In each compartment (designated in Roman numerals) there is a 200 liter freon gas tank (C) and each tank has three exits controlled by electromagnetic valves. One exit leads to the compartment where the tank is located and the other two lead to the neighboring compartments. In this way the second compartment can by supplied with freon from the tanks in the three compartments, which is what happened in this case (according to eyewitnesses, the concentration of freon was so high that droplets formed on the walls and equipment!).

The tanks can be controlled three ways (I will emphasize that none of these methods are automatic):

First, there is the Molibden system (A) in the central command post, located in the second compartment, where the operator or watch stander can decide which tanks to fire into which compartments. This choice is made with a combination of barrel switches. Second, in each compartment there is a Molibden control panel for that compartment (B) which controls the flow of freon from the three tanks into a given compartment. The compartment commander or the watch decides to enter the info on a keyboard, verifies it on a liquid crystal display and then uses the control lever. Third, like I already said, every exit from the tank has a valve which can be opened manually like the "turn of a faucet".

4. Now the most interesting part:

The freon was delivered to the second compartment from all three tanks. Since one can pretty much exclude the possibility of that all three taps were turned by three different people simultaneously in three different compartments and the control panel (A) in the command post is under the control of an operator, one of two things most likely happened.

First version: The choice to empty three tanks of freon into a compartment of sleeping people was entered into the system from the keyboard on control panel (B) located in the second compartment. Since an excessive amount of freon was released, this raises the question of sabotage. This issue will probably be resolved since there is a sub-system of Molibden called Rotor (D), which functions like the black box of an airplane and records all the parameters of the system. This equipment block, as it was explained to me, has already been removed by the FSB and is the object of investigation.

Second version: There was a technical fault in the Molibden system which led to a mistaken activation of the system in the second compartment. The NPO Avrora representatives exclude this possibility. Honestly, I also doubt such a "happy" mistake since the firing of all three tanks into one compartment seems doubtful for now.

In general, we await the expertise of the Rotor system. Taking into account how many procurators are there now (a personal representative of the President himself has taken charge), it wont be soon. I'll keep you updated if I find out anything.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Commentary by a Russian Submarine Writer on the Nerpa Tragedy

(Caption: Project 971 K-152 Nerpa at Bol'shoy Kamen',

Russian author and long-time submariner Alexandr Pokrovskiy on the accident on board the multipurpose submarine Nerpa.

"While departing her base at the closed military city (ZATO) Bol'shoy Kamen' for sea trials on the 8th of November at 2030 local time on board the multipurpose submarine Nerpa (Project 971 Shchuka-B, NATO Akula II), there was an uninteded discharge of the firefighting system and Freon. Six service members and fourteen civilians were killed. Another twenty two were hospitalized. There were 208 on board, eighty one of them military", which is all the mass media has told us so far.

One of the peculiarities of the Project 971 Shchuka-B is its reliance, in comparison with other submarine classes, on automatic combat and technical systems. Control is effected from one center - the main command post. The crew usually numbers seventy three. Since there were 208 on boards, that means that there was a big sea trials crew on board and it also means that it was crowded and there was no where for people to sleep. Unfortunately, this is the way sea trials are done since the ships systems and mechanisms must be tested for reliability. This is common during sea trials.

The mass media has talked about "a fire outbreak" which led to an "unplanned release of extinguishing agent (Freon)".

If a fire breaks out completely unexpectedly, then "an unplanned release of extinguishing agent" couldn't happen - let us remember that all control of technical systems takes place from one center on this class of boat. Freon just can't "get released" into the space. It needs to be released there. By the way, a little bit about freon. Freon is only used in big fires in submarine spaces. Before it is used, all people in the compartment have to be connected to the emergency air lines. That or death by suffocation. Besides that, after a release of freon, all the electrical panels and electronic systems go out of service. That is to say, the compartment ceases to function after a freon discharge. Therefore submariners don't like to use freon.

In domestic shipbuilding, the use of freon extinguishing systems has its partisans and opponents. For many years there has been a fight to put modern methods of fire supression on board submarines. There has been talk of special nitrogen systems. Nitrogen floods the compartment lowering the concentration of oxygen to 12 percent and the fire extinguishes. In this case even people who couldn't hook up to low pressure air would remain alive and the equipment in the space doesn't suffer.

People have asked me: why does the automatic fire suppression system on board use freon?

I answer: because in Russia, its always been like that. They construct a super-modern boat, but they put previous century equipment on board. And so it goes...