Russia’s new Angara launch vehicle should begin flight tests this summer, with a delay of nearly one decade. The first launch of the light modification was originally scheduled for June 27. Two days prior to the liftoff, the rocket was rolled out of the processing facility and positioned on its launch pad at Plesetsk Cosmodrome. All operations proceeded nominally on the day of the launch. Then, about 79 seconds prior to ignition, the vehicle’s automated control system aborted the sequence. The launch was first postponed by one hour, then by 24 hours. Further telemetry analysis showed that the malfunction could not be rectified within that timeframe. The rocket was defueled and returned to the processing facility. At print time, a second attempt had been scheduled for July 9.
Launch delays for technical reasons are nothing out of the ordinary. Rockets are high-tech pieces of equipment; they consist of myriads of components. Ensuring their problem-free operation, especially in an all-new product, is never a trivial matter. Nevertheless, let us hope that Angara, Russia’s first entirely indigenous launch vehicle, will blast off in the end.
The Angara program came about shortly after the collapse of the USSR, when it became clear that Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan could not accommodate a range of Russian space payloads, primarily defense missions. Besides, only Baikonur had a launch pad for the heavy Proton vehicle, which is capable of inserting geostationary satellites. In order to ensure Russia’s guaranteed independent access to space, including to geostationary orbits, the Defense Ministry and the national space industry decided to move critical launches to Russian territory, simultaneously designing an alternative to Proton that could carry a wide range of payloads to orbit from the country’s Plesetsk space center in Arkhangelsk Region.
Based on a resolution by the scientific-technical board of the Space Rocket Troops of 3 August 1992 and the Russian government’s decision of 15 September 1992, a tender was announced for a heavy launch vehicle that would run on an environmentally friendly fuel and would be built entirely with Russian components. The rocket was to be launched from a pad to be built in place of an unfinished Zenit-2 site at Plesetsk.
Bids were submitted by Khrunichev and by a team comprising the Energia Rocket and Space Corporation and Makeyev Design Bureau. Khrunichev won in September 1994. The winning design was based on the maximum use of existing components, and would be capable of inserting 26 t of payload in a low Earth orbit. The rocket was expected to be fitted with a modification of the production RD-171 and RD-0120 engines used in the Zenit-2 and Energia launch vehicles, respectively. Energia’s losing bid, for its part, was expected to be built around the newly designed RD-180 engine, which fact was viewed as a great shortcoming at that point.
The winning Angara project was approved by the Russian president in January 1995, and a relevant government resolution was published in August that year. Under the two documents, flight development tests were to begin in 2005. In parallel, another Angara launch site was to be built at Svobodny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East.
The Angara program was identified as a government priority, but the continuing economic reforms stood in the way of appropriate and rhythmic funding. Development progressed at a staggering pace. Many critical technologies fell victim to the profound economic crisis. There was no industrial production of liquid hydrogen in the country, and production of the RD-0120 engines had stopped. The program was literally falling apart. Then Russia agreed with Kazakhstan on a long-term lease of Baikonur, making the problem of guaranteed access to space less relevant and effectively putting Angara on the back burner.
By that time, production of indigenous light (Cosmos, Tsyklon) and medium (Zenit) launch vehicles had run into serious problems. The Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos) felt it necessary to close the resulting payload capacity gaps. Khrunichev, which had been thinking of future Angara as a very specialized rocket, decided to revise the program. The new concept emerged in 1997-1998, and called for the creation of a family of light, medium and heavy vehicles based on different combinations of two universal rocket modules of the lower (URM-1) and upper (URM-2) stages. This solution allowed for cutting production and operating costs, making the family available for commercial launches in the future. The URM-1 modules were expected to be fitted with the new RD-191 engine, whose development had started at NPO Energomash in 1998. The URM-2 was to be built around a modification of the RD-0124 engine, under development at Chemical Automatics Design Bureau for the third stage of the Soyuz-2.1b rocket.
By the beginning of the 2000s the Angara family comprised four variants: two light rockets (A-1.1 and A-1.2), one medium (A-3) and one heavy (A-5) vehicle. This product line was later optimized, omitting the lightest (A-1.1) and medium (A-3) variants for which no demand was identified.
At present, the Angara customers (the Russian Defense Ministry and Roscosmos) have a clear vision for the Angara A-1.2 and A-5 versions. A new second stage to be designed for the former will have a smaller diameter (2.9 m against 3.6 m) and, consequently, will hold less fuel than the URM-2. The light rocket will be able to insert 3.8 t of payload into a low Earth orbit; the heavy one will carry 25 t to low Earth orbit or 8 t to geostationary transfer orbit. The possibility of a two-stage Angara A-5.2 variant is being contemplated; this one could be used as the launch platform for the future new-generation Prospective Piloted Transport System. There are also plans for a super-heavy Angara A-7 version that could insert payloads of 35-40 t into low Earth orbit.
Khrunichev is working on the program with a wide range of suppliers. Its own production facility and the Omsk-based Polet production association have completed preparations for series production of the universal rocket modules. Voronezh Mechanical Plant and the engine manufacturer Metallist-Samara have launched production of the combustion chambers, while the engine maker Proton-PM is building a number of components for the RD-191. Final assembly of the engines is done at the Energomash company; Proton-PM may be involved in this process at some stage as the production rate grows. The RD-191 has completed a full cycle of firing tests. The RD-0124A engine is manufactured by Chemical Automatics Design Bureau; an extra production line may be launched at Voronezh Mechanical Plant in the future.
The URM-1 and URM-2 modules completed their firing tests in 2009-2010; a URM-1 variant was used three times on the South Korean launch vehicle Naro-1 in 2009-2013.
Work to install the launching and maintenance infrastructure at Plesetsk was completed in 2014. Plesetsk will be primarily used for defense-related launches. In addition, two Angara launch pads are planned to be built at Russia’s new Vostochny Cosmodrome. These will be used for civilian (including commercial) launches, as well as for military and dual-use projects. It is also possible that Angara will be involved in a future manned space program.
The Angara program has entered its final phase: in late May last year, a train carrying components of the first flying prototype, Angara А-1.2PP, was sent to Plesetsk. The rocket comprises a URM-1 and a URM-2 and will be used to test the ground infrastructure and check the performance of onboard systems in flight. If successful, the launch will be followed by flight tests of the heavy Angara A-5 variant, whose first trial is scheduled for December 2014.