The Next 10 Years: A Story Told in Rockets

This is the first article in a multi-part series on the commercial space landscape over the next 10 years.

The Next 10 Years: A Story Told in Rockets

The Ruskies

Angara Series

I love snowed-in launches! 

The Angara family of rockets were Roscosmos’ planned replacement for the Proton and most variants of the Soyuz rocket series – or at least it was for the first 20 years the Russians spent developing this new product line.  Recently the seller of the Proton rocket, International Launch Services (ILS), announced new variants of the Proton rocket that directly compete with all the variants of the Angara rocket line.  This obviously does not bode well for this design for reasons I will explain, but it’s still worth talking about as it still is (as of today) in active development and flight testing.

Angara is intended to be a flexible design that will leverage common core architecture to provide launch services to medium and large commercial, civil and military space missions.  Originally it was to use a hydrogen-oxygen upper stage for increased efficiency but I believe the development costs [Roscomos and its various contractors do not have a lot of development experience with hydrolox rocket stages] were deemed too high and it was converted to an all kerosene-oxygen system at some point during its long development cycle.  The rocket’s inherent design-flexibility allows it to brute force its way to higher payloads masses even with comparatively low upper-stage efficiency, much the same as the Falcon Heavy.

The Angara design is modular and up to four identical strap-on boosters can be added to the core stage.  These strap-on boosters, unlike the Soyuz and more like the Falcons, use nearly identical tankage and engines as the core stage to which they are attached.  This allows economies of scale to bring down per-unit cost as the driver of capital requirements for rocket fabrication is primarily rocket diameter and not length.

It should be noted however that the massive up-front investment into Soyuz  production was fully amortized decades ago so it’s actually cheaper for the Russians to simply maintain those lines rather than build new ones for Angara despite the two different Soyuz production processes for its boosters and core stage.  Then factor in the costs of setting up second stage production for Angara (which again, was amortized for Soyuz decades ago) and it’s easy to see why cash-strapped Russia has prolonged development of this new rocket.

Two Angara variants have flown a single time each, the Angara 1.2 and the Angara A5.

This is the 1.2 version of the Angara flying out of Plesetsk Cosmodrome in the Arkhangelsk Oblast.

Sadly, I don’t have a lot of faith that development of this rocket family will continue much longer.  Proton and Soyuz are both lucrative money-makers for the Russian space industry (which has been largely re-absorbed back into state agency Roscomos) while Angara will remain a huge money sink for at least 5 more years in my estimation.  With oil prices still well below historic highs and with a shrinking population and skilled work force, the Russian government just doesn’t have the funds to pay for new production lines.  Furthermore, ongoing international commitments to support the ISS are requiring the Russians to maintain Soyuz production lines until the Angara is flying manned missions.  When that will be is anyone’s guess.

Federation Spacecraft
Vaporware until proven otherwise.   Image Credit: Roscosmos

Roscomos recently tested the man-machine interface of this space capsule (read: they tested some screens and g-couches for ergonomic fit and function) but to put that into perspective, SpaceX and Boeing carried out those tests years ago on the Dragon 2 and CST-100.  Both of those capsules have been in development 6 years less than the Federation and are beyond mere CGI illustrations and g-couch installations.  The Russians like to show off the Federation and if it is built, it should be more capable than the Soyuz.  However, they don’t seem to have the money or real requirement to commit to developing it at pace with the rest of the industry so it doesn’t warrant a high word count here.

Proton Family
Proton Medium and Light versions at left.  The current version was re-branded Proton M+      Image Credit: ILS

Since its inception in the 60’s, the Proton has been a heavy-lift carrier rocket for Russian civil, military and commercial launches.  It’s been highly successful in that role though it has had its share of reliability problems – particularly over the past decade.  Khrunichev, the rocket manufacturer, managed to take a fairly sizable portion of the international launch market after teaming up with Reston, VA-based ILS.  That market share has fallen off over the last 5 years due to launch failures and lower-cost rivals entering the market.  Its other drawbacks are that it utilizes an enormous quantity of extremely toxic propellants and is rather over-sized for many modern missions.

Responding to price pressures from the market, Khrunichev/ILS  have come up with two smaller variants of the Proton called Proton Medium and Light.  These rockets have apparently been in quiet development for the last year.  It could be argued that these new variants are at risk of being underfunded as the Angara due to Russian budgetary issues but I think that would be a wrong assessment.

Khrunichev and ILS work together to market this rocket on the fairly capitalistic world market.  This means they make money off every launch that they can directly invest into new products.  Angara has no customers yet beyond unfunded paper projects for Russian lunar space stations and bases.  For another, downsizing a rocket is a much easier engineering problem than growing a rocket or producing an entirely new, clean-sheet design.  Angara is the clean-sheet here while the Proton has been flying (with many different variants ) since 1965.

Soyuz Rocket and Spacecraft Family
An unmanned Progress cargo tug about to dock at the ISS.

The Soyuz directly descends from the first rocket to put a satellite into orbit, the R-7.  As such it has far and away the longest track record of any launch vehicle in the world.  It has proven very reliable and is only one of two rockets to currently carry human beings into orbit.

With Angara and Federation in long-term development hell, the Soyuz carrier rocket and spacecraft will see continued use for at least the next 5 years, if not 10.  Likewise, the Progress (an unmanned Soyuz variant) will continue delivering supplies to the ISS as dictated by international agreement.

I fully believe the Russians are capable of developing and launching manned Federation capsules on Angara A5 rockets, I just don’t believe they have the funds to do it.  This helps ensure that the Soyuz and its many derivative rockets and spacecraft will continue flying for years.  Also working in Soyuz’s favor is the ongoing agreement for Arianespace and ESA to buy Soyuz rockets to fill the medium-lift capacity slot between the Ariane 5/6 and Vega launch vehicles.

Freaking awesome.

Indian Carrier Rockets

Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle
PSLV-C31 rocket launch of IRNSS-1E satellite
ISRO uses the PSLV to launch their regional geospatial positioning system called NavIC out of Satish Dhawan Space Centre.  Image Credit: ISRO  Also, acronym much?

The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) will continue providing launch services to the Indian Space Research Agency (ISRO) and Antrix (the commercial sales arm of ISRO) over the next 10 years.  The PSLV comes in several variants that are mainly just different configurations of the strap-on booster set.  All variants are targeted at the small satellite market for both Indian civil space missions and international sales.

One notable recent use of the PSLV was to send ISRO’s successful (and ongoing) Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) into orbit.  PSLV has also benefited from ITAR waivers granted by the US State Department which has allowed a few US-based companies to launch payloads on these rockets.

Thank you ISRO for this beautiful image of Mars from MOM.
The RLV-TD – Seriously, I’m sick of acronyms but at least it looks badass.
The RLV-TD on the pad before its maiden launch.  Image Credit: ISRO

The Reusable Launch Vehicle – Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD) is an experimental vehicle that is best described as a miniature space shuttle.  It is currently in the research and development phase and has been launched once on a sub-orbital trajectory by an HS9 solid rocket motor.

Although in early development, ISRO is committed to the concept of a fully reusable two-stage-to-orbit system.  Several test launches (each of increasing capability) are planned over the next decade.  If ISRO can pull off a fully reusable first and second stage and maintain their price advantage they could come to dominate at least the lower end of the launch services market.  If RLV can be scaled up and retain full reusability (a much harder task in my estimation), they could up-end the entire commercial launch market**.  The PSLV and GSLV are already the cheapest launch vehicles in their class in the world even without any sort of reusability.  So far, ITAR restrictions have hampered commercialization efforts for Antrix but as noted above, these restrictions are beginning to be waived for Antrix by the American government.  If that trend continues and they develop full reusability then an enormous downward price pressure could be exerted on the rest of the launch services market in addition to the one that SpaceX has ushered in.

**A big IF, granted

This is recorded video from a camera in the aft section of the RLV-TD during its inaugural launch.

GSLV MK II launch at Satish Dhawan Space Centre  Image Credit: ISRO

The Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle MK II is a medium-lift rocket for ISRO/Antrix and can deliver 2,500 kg to GTO.  It’s only launched 10 times and has failed 4.5 times out of 10 (one partial success).   Of the two main launch vehicles currently used by ISRO, the GSLV is more advanced and optimized for large civil and commercial space missions.  The third stage of the GSLV even uses deep-cryo propellants (LH2/LOX) for maximum efficiency.  This makes ISRO one of only a few space entities in the world with this capability.

However, I don’t think this rocket will continue production after the GSLV MK III begins regular successful flights due to reliability and payload limitations of the MK II. The MK II falls in a weird niche with its payload range that I don’t think will provide enough launch contracts to justify continued production in the long run.

GSLV MK II booster production line.  Image Credit: ISRO
GSLV MK III test launch with CARE experiment.  Image Credit: ISRO

The GSLV will provide a lifting capacity of 4,000 kg  to GTO and will likely be used to carry manned ISRO missions into space.  The first (and so far only) launch of the GSLV MK III carried a re-entry capsule experiment onto a sub-orbital trajectory.  The third stage of the rocket used in that launch was inert but future launches will use an LH2/LOX engine with 2.6 times the thrust of the upper stage of the GSLV MK II.

CARE re-entry experiment after splashdown.  Image Credit: ISRO

The next issue in this series will cover current and in-development rockets from the various European entities and JAXA.


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