By Douglas Messier
Russia once again led the world in orbital launches in 2013, keeping the International Space Station supplied with a study stream of crew members and cargo while earning hard currency with commercial satellite launches.
Although the vast majority of Russia’s launches were successful, the spectacular failure in July of a Proton rocket — which nosedived into the ground shortly after liftoff — accelerated efforts to reform the nation’s failure-prone space program. By the end of the year, the Russian space agency Roscosmos had a new leader and a major effort was underway to consolidate a large part of the bloated and inefficient space sector under a single government-owned company.
During 2013, Russia introduced a new variant of its venerable Soyuz rocket while also making progress on constructing a new spaceport in the Far East and developing a larger human spacecraft to replace the Soyuz transport and a heavy-lift booster to facilitate deep space exploration.
Russian Launches in 2013
The table below shows all 2013 launches in which Russia and its companies were involved. The majority of these flights can be considered primarily Russian launches; in other cases, Russia was involved as a partner or a major contributor.
|Number||Date||Launch Vehicle||Launch Site||Payload(s)
|2||01/30/13||KSLV 1||Naro||STSAT 2C||Success|
|3||02/01/13||Zenit 3SL||Odyssey Platform, Pacific Ocean||Intelsat 27||Failure|
|22||08/31/13||Zenit 3SLB||Baikonur||Amos 4||Success|
|29||11/21/13||Dnepr||Dombarovsky||DubaiSat 2, STSAT 3, SkySat 1 & 29 other payloads||Success|
|34||12/25/13||Rockot||Plesetsk||3 Rodnik satellites||Success|
|36||12/28/13||Soyuz 2-1v||Plesetsk||AIST & Calibration Spheres||Success|
|TOTALS:||34 Successes, 2 Failures|
Russia’s space program is heavily reliant upon the Soyuz booster, which were launched 16 times in 2013. Fifteen of the Soyuz launches took place from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan or the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia. Two launches were conducted at Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana.
Seven of the Soyuz launches were to support the International Space Station. Russia sent four Soyuz spacecraft with three-person crews to ISS along with three Progress supply freighters. The other nine Soyuz flights involved satellite launches.
The final Soyuz launch of the year was the maiden flight of the new Soyuz 2-1v light vehicle, which can place payloads of between 2,000 kg (4,409 lb) and 2,800 kg (6,173 lb) into low Earth orbit. The launch capacity is well below other Soyuz variants that are now in operation.
In spite of its name, the Soyuz 2-1v is significantly different from its predecessors. The four first-stage engines have been replaced by a single NK-33 engine left over from the Soviet manned lunar program of the early 1970′s. The Soyuz 2-1v’s second stage is the same as the third stage of the larger Soyuz 2-1b. The newly developed Volga upper stage will be used on most missions, another change from traditional Soyuz launchers.
A Spectacular Crash
The Proton flew 10 times in 2013, although the only flight most people will remember from that year is the one on July 2. The vehicle took off, wobbled to one side and then the other, and then pitched over and headed back to Earth. The rocket was a flaming hulk even before it slammed into the ground in a giant fireball.
Investigators soon discovered the cause of the failure: three sensors designed to keep the rocket properly oriented during launch had been installed upside down at rocket builder Khrunichev. It was the latest in a series of embarrassing launch failures for the Russian space program that stretched back to the end of 2010. Many of them involved Khrunichev built systems.
Three months after the accident, Roscosmos head Vladimir Popovkin was out of a job. Russian officials also began an ambitious effort to consolidate much of the Russian space industry under a new company, the United Rocket and Space Corporation. (See “Big Changes Ahead for the Russia Space Program in 2014“)
Meanwhile, the Proton successfully returned to service at the end of September and would fly four additional missions by the end of the year without incident.
A trio of converted Soviet-era ballistic missiles — Rockot, Dnepr and Strela — were used for seven Russian launches last year. Rockot — which is marketed by the joint Russian-European venture, Eurockot Launch Services — flew four times, Dnepr flew twice, and the Strela rocket made its second orbital flight.
The Dnepr rocket returned to flight after a two-year gap in August, followed by a second successful flight in November during which a Dnepr orbited a record 32 satellites. Dnepr had been grounded while the two partners that jointly operate the converted SS-18 Satan missile — Russia and Ukraine — worked out a new cost sharing arrangement.
The year also saw only the second orbital launch of the Strela booster, whose first flight took place a decade earlier in 2003. While Strela is derived from the same SS-19 ballistic missile as the Rockot, it is designed to be cheaper because it has fewer modifications and can be launched directly from a missile silo instead of a fixed pad. There is very little information about Russia’s plans for the Strela booster.
Lost at Sea
A rocket program with significant Russian involvement had a mixed year. Sea Launch suffered a significant failure in February when a Ukrainian-built Zenit 3SL fell into the ocean shortly after launch from its floating platform in the Pacific. The cause of the failure was traced to the first stage hydraulic power supply unit (BIM).
The failure was a major blow for Energia Overseas Ltd., the Russian majority owner that led Sea Launch out of a bankruptcy. The company needs three Zenit launches per year to be profitable, a goal made more difficult by the three failures and one partial failure Sea Launch has experienced in 35 launches since 1999.
The Zenit booster successfully returned to service in August with the launch of a Sea Launch Zenit 3SLB from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. The flight was conducted by Space International Services, a Russian company that markets the service under the name Land Launch. All six Land Launch flights conducted at Baikonur have been successful.
Third Time’s a Charm
Russian rocket maker Khrunichev was a partner in the first successful launch by South Korea in January. The KSLV-1 (Naro-1) rocket successfully lifted off from the Naro Space Center. Khrunichev supplied the rocket’s first stage, which was based on the new Angara rocket the company is developing for use in Russia.
It was the third and final attempt to launch the KSLV-1 rocket. During the first launch, the Khrunichev first stage and Korean-built second stage worked as planned, but the payload shroud failed to separate. The second launch attempt failed for reasons the Russians and Koreans could not agree upon.
Having learned from the experience, South Korea is now embarking on a program to develop its own domestic launch vehicle. Meanwhile, Khrunichev has gained valuable flight experience for the upcoming maiden flight of its Angara booster.
The Road Ahead
The year 2014 will see significant efforts to consolidate the Russian space program under the new United Rocket and Space Corporation. For a sector that employs 250,000 people and operates at only about 40 percent capacity, that effort could be extremely painful. Tens of thousands of people will likely lose their jobs as the consolidation advances.
Russia also plans the first launch of the new Angara booster in May. The Angara 1.2 will be the first in a modular family of boosters capable of lifting payloads ranging from 2 metric tons to 40.5 metric tons into low Earth orbit. The Angara — which has been under development since 1995 — is designed to eventually replace the Proton, Zenit and other boosters and bolster Russia’s independence in space by freeing it from dependence on Ukrainian rockets and suppliers.
This year will see continued progress on Russia’s new spaceport in the Far East. Vostochny is designed to end the dependency of the nation on the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which ended up in the independent nation of Kazakhstan when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. Plans call for the first launch to take place from Vostochny in 2015, with the first human mission three years later.
Russia also made progress on facilitating deep space exploration. Engineers continued design work on a new Soyuz transport replacement that will be capable of carrying six cosmonauts and undertaking deep-space missions to the moon and beyond.
The other major effort to develop a heavy-lift rocket capable of sending the new spacecraft beyond low Earth orbit. The details of this plan are not clear, but it could involve the development of a booster similar to the giant Energia launch vehicle that was used to orbit the Soviet space shuttle Buran in the 1980′s.
If these efforts are successful, Russia might accomplish something the Soviet Union was never able to accomplish: sending cosmonauts to the moon and beyond.
CORRECTION: Article was updated on Jan. 7 to reflect a successful Soyuz launch that was inadvertently left out of the original tally.