Russia expects to complete comprehensive tests of its new Angara heavy-lift rocket in 2021, when the vehicle is slated to enter service before replacing the venerable Russian Proton launcher in 2025.
Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, the prime contractor for both Proton and the new Angara family of rockets, says the heavy-lift Angara 5 which debuted in December 2014 will be flight tested again in early 2016 with a real payload, rather than a mass simulator as reported in Russian media.
“We are actively seeking a real customer for the actual payload,” said Andrey Kalinovskiy, general director of Khrunichev. “There are a few technical issues to be resolved, so once we get clearance from the specialists we’ll probably even name the customer.”
The news follows Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval in January of a massive overhaul of the nation’s space industry. The shakeup will establish the new United Rocket and Space Corp. (URSC), which will assume control of Russian space agency Roscosmos and consolidate the holdings of most of Russia’s state-owned space companies, including Khrunichev.
In the meantime, International Launch Services (ILS), the Reston, Virginia-based company that manages commercial Proton missions for Khrunichev, is beginning to market the new Angara family of rockets that is designed to lift light, medium and heavy payloads to orbit. ILS is currently selling the single-core Angara 1 tested in July last year, a vehicle that can launch low Earth orbiting (LEO) missions from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia, ILS President Phil Slack says.
“The only active site capable of launching Angara is Plesetsk, which is very near the Arctic Circle and not really conducive to launching payloads to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO),” he said during a briefing at the Satellite 2015 show in Washington, D.C. on March 17. “That being said, it can be done for payloads going to polar orbit, to LEO, so we are actively looking for single-core version customers for Angara 1 out of Plesetsk, where we can lift 3 metric tons to LEO. We can also potentially use the three-core version, the Angara 3, which has not yet flown, but which would offer 14 metric tons of capability to LEO, so you get to launch several satellites at once for constellations.”
Slack said ILS will not market GTO missions atop the heavy-lift Angara 5 until a new launch site at Vostochny in the east of the country is complete. Russia tested the heavy-lift variant late last year, with the expectation that it will be capable of delivering 25 metric tons to LEO from Vostochny.
“The Vostochny site is to be complete for Angara purposes in the 2021 time frame,” Slack said. “As soon as that’s developed and we have the capability to launch Angara 5 out of that, we’ll begin marketing that commercially also.”
Slack said Khrunichev – the majority owner of ILS – does not plan to drop Proton in 2021, but will overlap service until 2025 as Angara is phased in.
In the meantime, Russian officials say Moscow’s economic woes and the fall in the value of its currency is a mixed blessing for Khrunichev and ILS.
“The overall economic environment in Russia and the impact on ILS and Khrunichev is impossible to deny,” Kalinovskiy said. “At the same time, it is nothing extraordinary. Management is fully aware of the immediate tasks and requirements to streamline and improve efficiency. And we are enjoying a certain degree of government support, to industry and the company specifically.”
Slack said ILS and Khrunichev are using 500 million rubles ($8 million) in government funding allocated this year to increase Proton production efficiency and improve quality in an effort to lower the cost of producing the rocket, which has suffered a spate of mishaps in recent years.
“Over the next couple of years there will be 37 billion rubles in new loans,” to be disbursed in 2015 and 2016 to help pay off existing debt and improve the Proton production line, he said, including a new focus on automation and less human involvement in manufacturing, inspection and test, as well as a reduction in the number of plants and facilities.
“We’re moving toward more streamlined production where metal comes in one door and a rocket booster comes out the other door, and there is less movement around the factory,” he said.
Slack said currency valuation is also having an impact.
“Most of our contracts are designated in U.S. dollars, and most of our costs are in rubles,” he said. “So as the exchange rate goes up, there are more rubles provided for the overall price that we’re paid. But at the same time, when you have a wide change in the currency rate, that will also lead to a change in inflation, and wages will go up, so it’s not a one-for-one benefit. But in the near-term at least there is some benefit, and we’re using these benefits – both planned cost reductions as well as the situation with the foreign exchange rate – to offer more competitive prices to the marketplace.”