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Russia puts off super-rocket, focuses on Angara upgrades

Anatoly Zak, Spaceflight Correspondent
Mar 13, 2015, 15:11 UTC

Sen—Facing significant budgetary pressures, the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, has indefinitely postponed its ambitious effort to develop a super-heavy rocket to rival NASA's next-generation Space Launch System, SLS.

Instead, Russia will focus on radical upgrades of its brand-new but smaller Angara-5 rocket which had its inaugural flight in Dec. 2014, the agency's Scientific and Technical Council, NTS, decided on Thursday, Mar. 12.

The cost-cutting move to halt the development of the super-rocket, which is still on a drawing board in Russia, came just a day after a spectacular test firing in the US of a large solid-rocket booster intended for the SLS.

Both countries planned to use new enormous rockets almost exclusively for human missions into deep space, as such vehicles' capability of carrying around 80 tons of payload to the low Earth orbit far outweighs any commercial or military cargo. As a result, the costly project came under fire in Moscow last year, as the nation faced sagging oil prices and Western economic sanctions resulting from the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine.

In January, the Kremlin appointed new leadership at Roscosmos, which moved quickly to streamline the nation's space effort, previously criticized by observers as unfocused and mismanaged. The veteran of Roscosmos Yuri Koptev, who led the agency during the difficult economic times of post-Soviet transition in the 1990s, returned to take charge of the NTS council, which formulates the Russian space strategy.

On Feb. 24, Koptev oversaw a decision to continue the Russian involvement into the International Space Station, ISS, project until 2024 and then separate the newest Russian modules of the outpost to build the new-generation orbital base. However, the more contentious issue of the super-rocket was postponed until the next NTS gathering on Mar. 12.

While postponing the super-heavy rocket, Roscosmos simultaneously gave a green light to the preliminary development of an upgraded rocket designated Angara-A5V, where "V" likely stands for "vodorod"—Russian for hydrogen.

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The existing Angara-A5 rocket (left) and its planned upgraded version with a hydrogen-powered upper stage (right). Image credit: Anatoly Zak / RussianSpaceWeb.com

By switching upper stages of the existing Angara from kerosene to the more potent hydrogen fuel, engineers might be able to boost the rocket's payload from current 25 tons to 35 tons for missions to the low Earth orbit. According to Roscosmos, Angara-A5V could be used for piloted missions to the vicinity of the Moon and to its surface.

"This is a development of the existing family of Russian versatile and modular Angara rockets," Koptev said in the official statement after the NTS meeting, "Thanks to this standartization, there is an opportunity to optimise federal spending, while reaching all ambitious tasks in the foreseeable future."

Engineers at GKNPTs Khrunichev, which developed the Angara family, previously considered using various beefed up versions of the Angara-5 rocket for manned flights to the Moon. However such tasks would be complementary to the rocket's primary mission of delivering heavy communications satellites and other commercial, military and scientific payloads.