By Olga Zakutnyaya
The recent launch of a new European rocket poses questions for Russia’s space launch market.
The inaugural launch of the new European VEGA rocket was successfully performed on February 13, 2012, from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. Apart from demonstrating its overall technical capability, it also delivered into orbit a bundle of spacecraft which included the LARES satellite, intended to be used to study the effects of general relativity, the experimental AlmaSat-1 to test an array of new technologies, and a bunch of small CubeSat picosatellites carrying out experiments designed by researchers from leading European universities.
VEGA’s successful maiden flight has already stirred some concerns about the future of the Russian launch market. Being so far the biggest player, with 32 launches carried out in 2011, 28 of which were successful, Russia is hoping to retain its position. However, the growing diversity of rocket launchers needs to be studied very carefully.
The new European rocket was developed for light-lift vehicles, to complement the Ariane-5 and Soyuz, which performed its first flight from Kourou last October. VEGA, which is approximately 30 meters tall, is capable of delivering a payload of 300—2500 kg into different orbits from equatorial to Sun-synchronous with altitudes of up to 700 km. This line of three machines could probably cover the majority of European needs in future. “There no longer is a single European satellite which cannot be launched by a European launcher service,” said Jean-Jacques Dordain, Director General of ESA, meaning European operator Arianespace.
The closest match to VEGA is the Russian conversion Rockot launcher, which is just over 29 m tall, is capable of delivering up to 1950 kg into a 200 km high orbit. Its first flight from Plesetsk was launched in 2000, which was followed by 15 other launches. However, its most recent launch attempted in February 2011, ended in failure due to malfunction of its upper stage – the Breeze booster. The payload (the geodetic satellite Geo-IK-2) was not delivered into the intended orbit. Since then, no new launches have been attempted, although several launches have been planned for 2012.
As VEGA’s officials announced prior to the launch, the new rocket will be sold commercially for about 32mln euros (25 million for the launcher delivered to Arianespace plus 7 million incurred by the operator in marketing and service expenses), or 42mln US dollars, given two launches per year. Should the number of launches go up to four, the price could drop correspondingly. The current price for the Rockot, despite an increase from the initial 14mln dollars due to the crisis, is still significantly lower. The Rockot launcher is being promoted on the European markets by Eurockot Launch Services GmbH, which is a joint venture between Germany’s EADS Astrium and Russia’s Khrunichev Space Center. Some experts point out that thanks to the large German stake, the Rockot’s position will remain string. However, it’s not always the money that matters.
While Rockot uses toxic liquid propellant components, VEGA is composed of three solid-propellant stages. Its upper module can use liquid propellant (and actually incorporates components provided by the ‘Yuzhnoe’ Design Bureau), but the developer intends to replace them with European-made equivalents, thus making VEGA completely self-sufficient.
Currently, another two launches have been planned for VEGA in 2014—2015. The new rocket will loft Sentinel 2B and Sentinel 3B for the GMES (Global Monitoring for Environment and Security) program. As it happens, two Sentinel launches (the first one of which is expected to take place in 2013) are still being planned for Rockot.
Another prospective Russian rocket for light-lifts is Soyuz-2.1v. which will presumably begin flight tests from Plesetsk this year. It will be able to deliver up to 2,8 ton into a low-Earth orbit (200 km), and its estimated cost is still lower than VEGA’s. Then there is a heavier Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr rocket, which is cheaper as well, although its use of toxic propellant components may threaten its future. The launcher failure in 2006 and the subsequent pollution of the nearby land (rocket’s stages crashed 150 km away from Baikonur) led to significant safety concerns. Actually, the AlmaSat-1 was initially planned for launch by the Dnepr, but was delayed until VEGA was ready.
Apart from the commercial and institutional launches, Russia has long boasted its monopoly on manned flights, with Soyuzes and Progress (launched on Proton) as the principal craft delivering cosmonauts and cargo to the International Space Station. While the Soyuzes are still the most reliable manned spacecraft, other space players have been rapidly developing their own cargo ships. European ATVs (Automated Transfer Vehicles) have successfully performed two flights in 2008 and 2011, and two more are planned, the first one to follow in early 2012. Then, Japanese HTV (H-II Transfer Vehicle) unmanned cargo spaceships successfully docked to ISS in 2009 and 2011. Both of the two can lift more than twice as much payload as Progresses, although not as frequently.
The US has chosen a different way of dealing with the ISS maintaining, handing over the development of new space vehicles to the private sector. The first example was the Dragon, a spacecraft with a re-entry module, launched by the Falcon 9 rocket, both developed by SpaceX company under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Having performed its first successful flight (COTS Demo Flight 1) and recovery in the end of 2010, the spacecraft have had to undergo two more test flights (possibly combined in one), in particular, to dock with ISS, before it could begin its routine operations under its existing contract with NASA. The initial intention to launch those flights in 2011 did not come to fruition, and the launch was finally scheduled to February 7, 2012. However, it was delayed as more engineering work was needed.
It seems that the space is becoming increasingly competitive. While there is no immediate danger to the Russian position in the next few years, the more distant future will certainly see other players entering the market. If Russia wants to remain the main player in this field, new steps need to be made to enable it to retain this position.