The launch of the first Angara-A5 in December 2014. (credit: Roscosmos)
Russia’s next-generation piloted spacecraft Federatsia, slated to fly Earth orbital and lunar missions in the 2020s, is getting a new rocket, the third in eight years. The rocket is also supposed to serve as a test bed for Russia’s SLS-class heavy-lift rocket, the development of which has been significantly accelerated in spite of Russia’s hard economic times. The latest changes are symptomatic of poor long-term planning and have brought to light conflicting opinions about the priorities of the country’s space program.
When the Federatsia project was started in 2009, the plan was to launch the spacecraft with a brand new rocket (Rus-M) from the new Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East. In late 2011 the Russian space agency Roscosmos abandoned Rus-M in favor of the Angara-A5 rocket, which had been under development for almost 20 years, but ultimately debuted only in 2014. Originally scheduled to fly only from the military Plesetsk Cosmodrome, the rocket would now get a new pad at Vostochny and orbit an uncrewed version of Federatsia in 2021, with the first crewed mission in 2023 (see “The status of Russia’s human spaceflight program (part 2)”, The Space Review, February 27, 2017).
The latest change in plans came when President Vladimir Putin held a meeting with top space officials at his resort in Sochi on May 22. While construction of the Angara pad at Vostochny will go ahead for uncrewed flights, the rocket will not be human-rated. Instead, Federatsia will rely on a new rocket called Soyuz-5 that inherits much technology from the Ukrainian-built Zenit rocket and will be launched from the existing Zenit pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. This will cause Federatsia’s schedule to slip by about one year. The new rocket should also fly commercial missions from Baikonur as well as the Sea Launch platform, and its first stage will go on to become a strap-on booster for Russia’s future heavy-lift launch vehicle. That should now see its first flight in 2027–2028 rather than 2035 as earlier planned.
Angara (named after a Russian river) traces its roots back to the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991. Concerned about its reliance on Baikonur in the now independent nation of Kazakhstan, the newly formed Russian Federation began looking at alternative ways of sending its payloads into space. One was to build a successor for the venerable Proton rocket that would be based at Russia’s own launch site in Plesetsk and be capable of launching 24 tons into low Earth orbit (LEO). Official government approval for the rocket came in September 1992 and, in August 1995, the contract to build it was awarded to the Moscow-based Khrunichev Center, the manufacturer of the Proton rocket.
After initially focusing on a custom-built rocket to replace Proton, Khrunichev completely changed its strategy in 1997 by turning Angara into a family of modular launch vehicles that could replace most of Russia’s aging rocket fleet. The difference in payload capacity was largely achieved by varying the number of first stage modules (known as URM-1, powered by the liquid oxygen/kerosene RD-191 engine). The three variants that survived the early planning stages were Angara-1.2 (with a single URM-1 module; 3.5 tons to LEO) , Angara-A3 (with three URM-1 modules; 14 tons to LEO) and Angara-A5 (with five URM-1 modules; 24 tons to LEO). Unfortunately, the project suffered seemingly endless delays, mainly due to problems with the construction of the launch pad at Plesetsk, which had to be adapted from infrastructure already built for a canceled Zenit pad.
The persistent delays experienced by Angara were probably one of the reasons why Roscosmos initially opted for the totally new Rus-M rocket to orbit Federatsia and other payloads from Vostochny. By fielding a new launch vehicle, Roscosmos also hedged itself against potential technical problems that might ground the entire Angara family once it became operational. The decision also satisfied corporate interests: Rus-M would be designed and built jointly by two other major players in the Russian space industry, RKK Energia in Korolyov near Moscow and the Progress Rocket Center in Samara. However, by late 2011 it was becoming clear that Russia could not afford the luxury of having two 20-ton class boosters and Rus-M was scrapped in favor of a human-rated version of Angara-A5 (known as Angara-A5P), which would get a new launch pad at Vostochny. The eastern cosmodrome offers more launch azimuths than Plesetsk in Russia’s northwest, including those traditionally used by crewed missions. Plesetsk is mainly used for sending military payloads into high-inclination orbits.
The Angara family made its long-awaited entrance into the Russian rocket fleet in 2014. The lightweight Angara made a suborbital test flight from Plesetsk in July and the Angara-A5 saw its inaugural mission in December, inserting a dummy payload into geostationary orbit. It looked as if the program was finally gaining momentum, but the Angara pad at Plesetsk has stood idle ever since. One of the main reasons has been the slow transfer of the rocket’s production from Khrunichev in Moscow to the PO Polyot factory in Omsk (Siberia), which was absorbed by Khrunichev in 2007. The move was needed because the rocket requires production techniques different than the Proton currently manufactured at Khrunichev. The delay in starting the serial production of the rocket is one of the factors that have significantly driven up its cost, making it less attractive for commercial customers: so far only one has signed up. Moreover, Angara-A5’s performance has not quite lived up to expectations, making it necessary to build an uprated version of the first stage engine (RD-191M), which first needs to be tested. The modified version of Angara has been called Angara-A5M and will have a LEO capacity of 27 tons. Angara-A5 is supposed to completely replace the Proton rocket by 2025.
Aside from its production and performance problems, Angara still has no launch pad at Vostochny. The goal is to launch the first rocket from the eastern cosmodrome in late 2021, which requires the facilities to be ready by mid-2021. These timelines look very optimistic. While a site for the pad has been selected (not far from the existing Soyuz pad), construction is yet to begin. Excavation work should now get underway next spring, after the end of the harsh Russian winter. Roscosmos is still looking for a new prime contractor to lead the work because construction of the Soyuz facilities at Vostochny was marred by lengthy delays and widespread corruption. In fact, not even all of the infrastructure for the Soyuz rocket is ready yet. Although enough of it was in place to launch the first Soyuz rocket from Vostochny in April 2016, largely under pressure from the Putin administration, the next one will be launched no earlier than this November.
Due to the country’s economic problems, cosmodrome development has seen significant budget cuts in recent years. A long-term eight-year budget for cosmodrome development has reportedly been slashed from an original 1 trillion rubles ($17.3 billion) to 340 billion rubles ($5.9 billion), based on current exchange rates. More than 70 percent of that has been allocated to the further expansion of Vostochny. The final approval of the budget has been dragging on for nearly two years because of differences between Roscosmos and the Russian government and is now expected in the coming weeks.
The reduction of the cosmodrome budget was one of the key items on the agenda during the May 22 Sochi meeting chaired by Putin. The number of Angara pads was reduced from four (two each at Plesetsk and Vostochny) to two (one each at Plesetsk and Vostochny). Ministry of Defense funds earmarked for the construction of the second pad at Plesetsk will be diverted to building the Vostochny pad. In return for that, the military will be allowed to launch their payloads from the pad, a change from earlier intentions to orbit only civilian payloads from Vostochny. In a further cost-cutting move, Angara will share the rocket assembly and spacecraft integration buildings already built at Vostochny for the Soyuz rocket.
The originally-planned second Angara pad at Vostochny was intended for a further upgrade of the rocket called Angara-A5V. This will have a cryogenic liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen third stage to increase its LEO capacity to 37.5 tons. Roscosmos sanctioned its development in March 2015, mainly to compensate for the expected absence of a heavy-lift launch vehicle (HLLV), with a capacity of 70–100 tons to LEO, until the 2030s. One of Angara-A5V’s tasks was to send Federatsia on circumlunar missions in a dual-launch scenario, with no fewer than four launches required to assemble all the hardware needed for a human lunar landing mission. At the same time, Angara-A5V should help clear the path to the heavy-lift rocket by using the same cryogenic stage intended for the HLLV. Angara-A5V is still expected to fly sometime in the second half of the 2020s (the latest announced date being late 2027), but since it will incorporate the same changes as Angara-5M, the latter is getting priority. Both versions of the rocket will be able to fly from the same pad.
The high cost of Angara, its continuing technical problems, and possible uncertainty over the timely availability of its Vostochny pad have conspired to end its role in the Federatsia project. According to Roscosmos head Igor Komarov, a total of 180 billion rubles ($3.1 billion) has been saved by canceling the second Angara pad at Vostochny and maintaining human spaceflight operations at Baikonur with the Soyuz-5 rocket.
The Soyuz-5 methane rocket and the Feniks project
When Federatsia’s new rocket was announced as Soyuz-5 following the May 22 Sochi meeting, the name initially caused quite some confusion. A rocket bearing the same name had first been showcased by the Progress Rocket Center (RKTs Progress) at the Paris Air Show in June 2013. RKTs Progress, based in Samara, is the manufacturer of the workhorse Soyuz family of launch vehicles, which now consists of five rockets (Soyuz-2.1v, Soyuz-2.1a, Soyuz-2.1b, Soyuz-FG, Soyuz-ST) flying from a total of four launch sites (Baikonur, Plesetsk, Vostochny, Kourou) and carrying payloads ranging in mass from roughly 2.8 tons (Soyuz-2.1v) to 8.2 tons (Soyuz-2.1b). Although presented under the same brand name, Soyuz-5 was a totally new two-stage rocket intended to eventually replace the existing Soyuz fleet (except for the lightweight Soyuz-2.1v) and fly solely from Vostochny. The main novelty was the use on both stages of engines burning liquid oxygen and methane. Methane is cheaper, ecologically cleaner, and offers slightly better performance than the traditional kerosene used by the current Soyuz rockets. Russia is not a newcomer to the field of methane engines, having tested experimental versions since the mid-1990s.
In its basic iteration (known as Soyuz-5.1) the rocket would have a LEO capacity of 9 tons. It would orbit the same types of payloads as Soyuz (satellites, cargo vehicles, crewed spacecraft) and was billed as a potential competitor to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 on the commercial launch market. Soyuz-5 could also be turned into a modular rocket family by adapting the number of first-stage modules and the upper stage configuration. Other versions were known as Soyuz-5.2 (16.5 tons to LEO) and Soyuz-5.3 (26 tons to LEO). That made Soyuz-5 a potential competitor for the Angara family, but RKTs Progress stressed that the main focus was on the nine-ton class Soyuz-5.1. One downside of the plan was that Soyuz-5 required a new pad at Vostochny, unless the existing Soyuz-2 pad was irreversibly modified.
The Soyuz-5.1 liquid oxygen/methane rocket. (credit: RKTs Progress)
Soyuz-5 began as an RKTs Progress study, but in 2013 it was included in a Roscosmos research program called “Magistral-Oblik,” one part of which was aimed at studying future launch vehicle concepts. With that it entered what the Russians call the “scientific research” (Russian acronym: NIR) phase, the first of many phases leading up to the possible implementation of a Russian space project. In April 2015, the preliminary Soyuz-5 plans were officially presented to Roscosmos, which subsequently decided to include the development of a new nine-ton class medium-lift launch vehicle in the Federal Space Program for 2016–2025, a crucial policy document that outlines objectives and planned funding levels for all Russian government-funded civilian space activities over the next decade. In 2016–2017 the space agency would formulate technical specifications (“technical assignments” or TZ) for the new rocket, following which a tender would be announced for actual development work (“experimental design work” or OKR). That would get underway in 2018, culminating in a first launch no earlier than 2025. Roscosmos promised to allocate 30.79 billion rubles ($535 million) for the OKR phase in the 2018–2025 period. The OKR phase (but not the rocket itself) was given the name “Feniks” (“Phoenix”). While there was no guarantee that RKTs Progress would get the Feniks contract, the prospects for that looked promising.
A new role for Feniks
Little was heard of Feniks until December 2015, when an anonymous space official quoted by the TASS news agency suddenly associated the name with a rocket having a launch capacity of 17 tons, much more than what had been announced before. The first stage, employing the same RD-171M engine as the Zenit rocket, would later serve as a building block for Russia’s heavy-lift launch vehicle, according to the report. Several days later the link between Feniks and the heavy-lift launch vehicle was confirmed in a television interview with Dmitri Rogozin, the deputy prime minister for the defense and space industry, and the highest-ranking politician for space. He reminded viewers that the Zenit first stage had similarly acted as a strap-on booster for the Soviet-era Energia heavy-lift rocket and added that President Putin had “persistently urged Roscosmos to move in that direction”. Other space officials reiterated this objective of Feniks the following months, with some situating the desired payload range “between 9 and 15 tons”. It is not known for sure what payload capacity was mentioned in the final version of the Federal Space Program 2016–2025 passed by the Russian government on March 17, 2016, the full contents of which have not been made public. Press reports now talked about a sum of 29.3 billion rubles ($509 million) allocated to OKR Feniks, with ground tests of the rocket to be completed by 2025.
One can only surmise that the apparent change in direction for Feniks came after two meetings that President Putin held with space officials in November 2015 to hammer out the details of the ten-year budget. The higher performance of the medium-lift rocket would make it easier to turn its first stage into an element of the HLLV and thereby help speed up the latter’s development. It also allowed the rocket to fill the payload niche earlier occupied by the Zenit rocket and its Sea Launch version. A Roscosmos chart released in April 2015 had shown the agency still counting on the Ukrainian KB Yuzhnoe design bureau and its affiliated Yuzhmash factory to continue production of the Zenit into the 2020s. By now, however, the ever-deteriorating relations with Ukraine and the dismal financial state of the Ukrainian company had probably dashed those hopes for good.
In the first months of 2016, several companies were said to be vying for the Feniks contract. RKTs Progress no doubt continued to promote its Soyuz-5 methane-fueled boosters (with emphasis presumably shifting from the Soyuz-5.1 to the more powerful Soyuz-5.2 variant) and the Khrunichev Center may have dusted off its old plans for the Angara-A3. Both companies had also studied HLLV concepts, but both the Soyuz-5 and Angara families were difficult to scale up to HLLVs without significant modifications to both the rockets and the launch infrastructure.
Any of these proposals stood little chance against plans that RKK Energia had been working on since at least 2010–2011 to essentially recreate the Zenit/Energia family of the 1980s with updated technology. These included a wide variety of Zenit reincarnations (with provisional names such as Energia-K and Energia-1K) capable of orbiting between 15 and 20 tons from Baikonur or Vostochny. One idea floated in 2012 was to fly uncrewed shakedown missions of Federatsia from the Zenit pad at Baikonur before the Angara-A5 infrastructure at Vostochny became available.
In May 2016, Roscosmos offered Kazakhstan to fly the rocket on uncrewed commercial missions from the Zenit pad at Baikonur as part of a joint Russian-Kazakh venture called Baiterek (Kazakh for “poplar”). Established in 2004, Baiterek’s initial goal was to end launches of Proton rockets with their toxic propellants by building a launch pad at Baikonur for the ecologically clean Angara-A5. Nothing ever came of that because of the excessive cost of a new Angara pad and Russia’s decision in 2011 to commence Angara operations at Vostochny. A subsequent deal to jointly operate the Zenit from the rocket’s existing pad was thwarted by the Russian-Ukrainian crisis in 2014. Now Roscosmos approached Kazakhstan with a similar proposal for the new medium-lift rocket. The idea was for the Russian side to bear the cost of building the launch vehicle and for Kazakhstan to pay for the modifications to the Zenit launch infrastructure, including the single remaining Zenit launch pad (a second one was destroyed in a Zenit pad explosion in 1990) and its assembly building. Roscosmos planned to entrust marketing of the rocket to International Launch Services, which provides launch services for the Proton rocket.
The new launch vehicle was announced as Sunkar (Kazakh for “falcon”). It was reported that RKK Energia would become the prime contractor for the launch vehicle, with RKTs Progress and the Khrunichev Center acting as the main subcontractors, a clear sign that no alternative options for the medium-lift launch vehicle were being weighed any longer. RKTs Progress would be responsible for the actual manufacturing of the launch vehicle since RKK Energia’s own production facility can only handle the construction of Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, Blok-DM upper stages, and small satellites. For the same reason, the Progress factory also built the core stage of the Energia launch vehicle back in the 1980s. Khrunichev (in co-operation with NPO Lavochkin) was to provide the rocket’s payload fairing.
Comparative data for Sunkar (left) and Zenit-3SL (right). (credit: Space Research & Technologies magazine)
Sunkar has a slightly better performance than Zenit (17 tons vs. 14 tons to LEO), mainly thanks to an increased propellant load and an increased thrust of the second stage. The increased propellant load is achieved by lengthening the first stage by more than four meters. The diameters of stages one and two have been widened from 3.9 to 4.1 meters, the maximum size that can be transported by rail. The first-stage engine is a slightly modified version of Zenit’s RD-171M, a liquid oxygen/kerosene engine with four combustion chambers and a sea-level thrust of 740 tons. Built by NPO Energomash, it is the most powerful rocket engine in the world. It is the progenitor of the dual-chamber RD-180 installed on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V and the single-chamber RD-191 and RD-181 that propel the Angara rockets and Orbital ATK’s Antares.
Although the production line for the RD-171M was closed down several years ago, an alternative proposal to fit Sunkar’s first stage with two RD-180 engines was turned down. The modified RD-171M (called RD-171MV) has the same performance as its predecessor, but will consist solely of Russian-built components (a result of Western-imposed sanctions) and will be somewhat lighter, in part through the use of 3-D printing techniques. NPO Energomash is also studying an even more powerful four-chamber engine (RD-175) with a sea-level thrust of 933 tons that could fit in Sunkar’s first stage. The second stage is powered by a pair of RD-0124M liquid oxygen/kerosene engines instead of Zenit’s single RD-120. Designed by the Chemical Automatics Design Bureau (KBKhA) in Voronezh (part of the Energomash conglomerate since 2015), the RD-0124M is a slightly modified version of the RD-0124 that has been extensively flight-tested on the third stage of the Soyuz-2.1b and the Angara family. The design of Angara’s third stage and Sunkar’s second stage will be unified to the maximum extent possible.