Russia's next-generation rocket is a decade old and still carries dummy payloads

Zoom in / Technicians assemble an Angara A5 rocket at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia's Far East.

Roscosmos

By some measures, Russia's flagship next-generation missile program – the Angara – is now three decades old. The Russian government approved the development of the Angara missile in 1992, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union led to a long-term economic stagnation.

It has been almost 10 years since Russia launched the first test flights of the Angara aircraft. The heavier version of the Angara rocket family – the Angara A5 – is about to make its fourth flight, and as with the previous three launches, this mission will not carry an actual satellite.

This next launch will mark a milestone for the embattled Angara rocket program because it will be the first Angara flight from the Vostochny cosmodrome, Russia's newest launch site, in the far east of the country. Previous Angara launches were launched from the military-run Plesetsk cosmodrome in northern Russia.

All dressed up and nowhere to go

Technicians at Vostochny have refueled the upper stage of the Angara A5 rocket and will soon install it on the rest of the rocket, the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, said on Wednesday. The Angara A5 spacecraft will move to the launch pad a few days before liftoff, currently scheduled for next month.

The Angara A5 rocket is supposed to replace the Russian Proton launch vehicle, which uses toxic propellant and is launched only from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Angara launch pads are located on Russian territory. Until a few years ago, Proton was a competitor in the global commercial launch market, but the rocket lost ground due to reliability issues, competitive pressure from SpaceX, and the fallout from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

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Russian officials once described Angara as Proton's successor in the commercial market. Now, the Angara will only serve the Russian government, but it is doubtful that the government will have enough demand to fill the Angara A5's heavy bolt capacity on a regular basis. According to RussianSpaceWeb.coma website run by veteran Russian space reporter Anatoly Zak, said the Russian government did not have any satellite ready to fly on board the Angara A5 launch vehicle coming from Vostochny.

Ultimately, the Angara A5 could take on the responsibility of launching a constellation of large satellites that require Proton rocket capability. But that's a small number of flights. Proton has been launched three times in the past two years, and there are approximately a dozen Proton launch vehicles remaining in Russia's inventory.

Russia is planning a next-generation spacecraft, Orel, which officials claim will begin launching on an Angara A5 rocket in 2028. There is no evidence that Orel might be ready for test flights within four years. So while the Angara missile is finally flying, albeit at a weak rate, there are not many payloads Russia can put on it.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the Angara rocket launch pad at the Vostochny Cosmodrome last year.
Zoom in / North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the Angara rocket launch pad at the Vostochny Cosmodrome last year.

Russia's economic problems may explain some of the delays that have plagued the Angara program since 1992, but the Russian space program has long suffered from chronic underfunding, mismanagement, and corruption. “Angara” is the only missile that Russia has developed from scratch since the 1980s. The Russian government chose “Khrunichev”, one of the oldest space companies in the country, to supervise the “Angara” program.

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Finally, in 2014, Russia launched its first two Angara test flights, one with a lightweight version of the missile called Angara 1.2, and the other with the heavy-duty Angara A5, consisting of five Angara rocket cores integrated into a single core. rocket.

The Angara A5 can place up to 24.5 metric tons (about 54,000 pounds) into low Earth orbit, according to Khrunichev. The expendable rocket has enough power to launch modules for a space station, or deploy the Russian military's largest spy satellites, but in 2020, each Angara A5 rocket reportedly cost more than $100 million, far more than a Proton.

The smaller Angara 1.2 rocket has flown twice since 2014, but both missions delivered functional satellites into orbit for the Russian military. The larger Angara A5 was launched three times, all with dummy payloads. The last Angara A5 launch in 2021 failed due to a problem with the Persei rocket's upper stage. The Orion upper stage scheduled to fly on the next Angara A5 mission is a modified version of the Persei, which is modeled after the Block-DM upper stage, a design whose roots go back to the 1960s.

Essentially, the Angara A5 flight will allow engineers to test changes to the upper stage and allow Russia to activate a second launch pad at Vostochny, which has itself been mired in corruption and delays. Medium-lift Soyuz rockets have been launching from Vostochny since 2016.

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