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The future of Russia’s launch vehicle fleet

Having a national fleet of launch vehicles is one of the key factors in ensuring a country’s independent guaranteed access to space. Russia at present possesses a necessary and sufficient variety of expendable launchers to achieve all the current space exploration goals, but the ageing technical capabilities of these vehicles necessitate the development of new-generation rockets. Russia’s light launch vehicles are represented by the Rockot, Dnepr, and Strela designs; its medium-class launchers are the Soyuz family and the Russo-Ukrainian Zenit model; the country’s heavy vehicle is the Proton-M. In the first nine months of this year, Russia performed 21 space launches. Two Rockots together inserted six communications satellites in orbit; nine spacecraft were orbited in 11 Soyuz launches, alongside three Soyuz TMA manned ships and three Progress M resupply vehicles; six Protons delivered a total of eight satellites (one of these launches failed); one Dnepr carried a South Korean satellite to orbit, and one Strela lofted a Kondor-E radar satellite. A Zenit orbited Israel’s Amos-4 telecom satellite. Another 13 launches are planned before the end of the year. Russian launch vehicles have sufficient thrust-to-weight ratios, relatively high reliability, and come with an agreeable launch price tag. These factors, as well as the high frequency of launches (by Western standards), make them internationally competitive. As a result, Russia leads the world in the number of commercial space launches with 40% of the market. The cost of launching a Soyuz in different modifications, depending on whether the mission is commercial or in Russia’s government interests, varies between $35 million and $85 million. For the less powerful US Delta II rocket, the price range is $65 million to $95 million. A Proton-M commercial launch costs around $90 mln, against $150 million for the similar-payload US-made Delta IV Medium+, $150-180 million for the Atlas V, and some $220 million for the ESA Ariane 5. It should be noted that all these figures come from different sources, including unofficial ones, and are therefore fairly approximate. However, Russian rockets have a number of shortcomings that affect their competitiveness. The primary shortcoming is their insufficient capability of inserting spacecraft in high-energy orbits and departure trajectories. Due to the medium energy performance of the fuel components used (such as liquid oxygen plus kerosene or nitrogen tetroxide plus unsymmetric dimethylhydrazine), and also because of the relatively low structural efficiency of their upper stages, the performance of Russian launch vehicles quickly degrades with the increase of the required launch speeds. In the meantime, modern telecom satellites are growing increasingly heavier, pushing the capabilities of Russian launch vehicles to the limit. Another factor is that the current Russian rocket designs are based on technology of the 1950s and 1960s, and incorporate components manufactured across the country with extensive use of mechanical processing operations on specialized tools. As a rule, readying a rocket for launch requires significant manual labour inputs by a large group of specialists at the launch site. As wages grow, so does the cost of manufacturing and operating these launch vehicles, particularly in the situation when their production rates have stayed unchanged for many years. Certain components have already gone out of production, or they cost too much to manufacture (this concerns, in particular, instruments based on 50-year-old components). This factor also brings the launch costs up. One more oft-criticized deficiency of certain Russian launchers is that they run on toxic fuels. Finally, due to the general skill fade in the industry and continuing degradation in process discipline, the reliability of Russian rockets has recently been raising concerns. Suffice it to recall the loss of three Glonass satellites in the failed launch of a Proton-M on July 2, 2013. It is obviously high time the Russian fleet of launch vehicles got renovated. For this purpose, a comprehensive modernization program has been on since the mid-1990s. However, unsystematic funding has resulted in massive delays in implementing this effort. The slipping schedule is affecting not just the image of the design houses involved but also the competitiveness of Russian launchers on the international market. The Angara family of new modular rockets is designed to launch light, medium, and heavy satellites into high-energy orbits from a new launch site at Plesetsk Cosmodrome. Flight tests should start in 2014, so that the Angara could replace the Proton-M after the year 2020 (the Proton-M would then be retired). A heavy-class oxygen-hydrogen booster will help preserve Angara’s competitive advantages in launching massive geostationary satellites even from Plesetsk, thus making the rocket’s performance comparable to foreign equivalents. The booster is expected to enter flight tests in 2015. The light-class Soyuz-2.1 launch vehicle is set to begin flight trials in late 2013. This rocket could be launched from the existing launch pads at Plesetsk, and also possibly from Kourou in French Guiana. On the other hand, these new vehicles are not going to resolve all the accumulated problems of Russia’s space industry. Work to develop the Angara family, for one, is taking too long. Many of the technical solutions implemented in the program were decided on at the spur of the moment; a number of options were never realized at all, and in order to implement others, the upper stages have had to be redesigned in a departure from the very principles on which the entire Angara concept rests. The size of the modules constituting the Angara family, as well as the parameters of the launch site (which is built on a Zenit launch site whose construction was abandoned in the 1990s), put a cap on any further increase in the performance of these launch vehicles. Critics note in this connection that the effectiveness of the Angara family is not that obvious. The Soyuz-2.1 implements palliative solutions based on a combination of obsolete technology and a relatively new (but still four-decades-old) NK-33 engine with advanced instrumentation. The projected launch cost for this rocket is in no way appropriate for a light-class launch vehicle. The now-defunct Rus-M program was an attempt to develop a principally new launch vehicle, but exorbitant costs involved in the development, and also the fact that the Rus-M’s functionality would partially overlap that of the Angara family, resulted in the program getting scrapped in October 2011. Therefore, the problem of developing a future Russian fleet of launch vehicles remains pretty much unresolved. Hence are the current active R&D efforts in this area. Samara-based TsSKB-Progress is designing a family of rockets codenamed Soyuz-5, to be based on newest technology including engines running on liquefied natural gas. If the project is approved and enough funding becomes available, flight tests of the first variant may begin in 2020-22. One promising program is Khrunichev Centre’s MRKS-1 reusable launcher. Khrunichev says its partially reusable launch vehicles with high payload capacity (originally 25-35 tons, and eventually up to 60 tons) will offer two to five times greater efficiency than the existing vehicles. The next phase in the development of Russian launch vehicles is linked to possible future manned missions to the Moon and Mars. It is obvious that such missions, expected to be implemented beyond 2020, will require the creation of super-heavy launch vehicles capable of inserting over 60-70 tons of payload in low Earth orbits. Research in this area is being conducted by all Russian space enterprises. What is required is an open-architecture rocket whose payload capacity could be upgraded to 130-180 tons. A final decision has not been taken yet, because the technical specifications of the future interplanetary missions are still unclear, as is the composition of possible participants in such programs.

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