Angara-5 lifts off on Dec. 23, 2014. Image credit: Russian Ministry of Defense

Jun 10, 2015 Angara to enter commercial market

Sen—Russia's new-generation space launcher will carry a communications satellite for the government of Angola next year. The AngoSat spacecraft will ride an Angara-5 rocket into geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers above the Equator during the launch currently slated for the end of 2016. The decision to launch AngoSat means that the second mission of a brand-new rocket will also be its first commercial assignment. The move propels the vehicle right into the midst of the hyper-competitive international market of satellite launch services.

During its maiden voyage last December, the Angara-5 carried a dummy cargo, which was not designed to separate from the rocket's Briz-M upper stage.

Although a previous plan called for launching the second Angara-5 in the same configuration as it was during its inaugural launch, the introduction of the AngoSat satellite also prompted a switch from Briz-M to another space tug called Block-DM. Both Block-DM and the AngoSat are being built by the Russian firm RKK Energia based in Korolev near Moscow. Although the company is primarily known as the developer of manned spacecraft, it had also built the Yamal series of communications satellites. This experience helped RKK Energia win a contract for the AngoSat in 2009. The agreement included the development of the satellite itself as well as the construction of a ground station near the Angolan capital Luanda. As a backup, the satellite could also be controlled from RKK Energia's facility in Korolev. The full-scale development of the satellite started at the end of 2012. AngoSat was designed to beam television broadcasts and telephone communications via Ku-band and C-band transponders. With a mass of around 1,400 kilograms, it is a relatively small spacecraft compared to a typical commercial communications satellite heading to the geostationary orbit.

RKK Energia previously hoped to launch AngoSat on a Zenit-3SLB rocket from the Sea Launch ocean-going platform, which the Russian company also owns. During its ride to orbit, AngoSat was to be paired with a similar Energia-100 satellite, which the company was developing for its subsidiary Energia-Telekom. Energia-100 was designed to provide the Ka-band communications.

However, the Sea Launch venture practically collapsed in 2014, in the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea and the subsequent war in Ukraine. The conflict between two former Soviet republics froze the construction of Zenit rockets in Ukraine, leaving an already financially troubled Sea Launch without its carrier. The Sea Launch platform and its flight control vessel, Odyssey, are still based at their home port of Long Beach, Calif., however RKK Energia has been looking for a less expensive and more politically suitable home for its ocean-going assets.

The decision to move AngoSat to Angara might signal that even Sea Launch owners and the Kremlin, which likely backs them financially, no longer rely on the venture. Moreover, to convince the government of Angola to move AngoSat from an operational Zenit rocket to what essentially amounts to a high-risk test launch, Russia probably had to offer a hefty discount to sweeten the deal.

During its first flight on Dec. 23, 2014, Angara-5 performed seemingly well, even though there were some questions surrounding the operation of the Briz-M upper stage during the mission. Ironically, Briz-M was the only part of the rocket, which was inherited from Angara's predecessor—the Proton rocket. Unlike Briz-M fueled with highly toxic unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide, RKK Energia's Block-DM burns safer liquid oxygen and kerosene, the same propellant employed on all other stages of the Angara-5 rocket. As a result, the preparation of the rocket at its launch site in Plesetsk should actually be easier than the launch compaign for its first mission. However, despite all pre-launch calculations and simulations on the ground, the exact flight dynamics of the Angara-5 rocket and its new upper stage can only be reliably validated in flight, as the most recent example shows.

On April 28, a Soyuz-2 rocket failed to deliver the Progress M-27M spacecraft bound to the International Space Station (ISS). Although the Soyuz-2 series have completed a total of 41 successful missions to date, this time, the third stage of the rocket apparently disintegrated in flight due to unforeseen dynamic loads introduced by the Progress cargo ship, which previously rode a slightly different Soyuz-U rocket in all but one previous mission.

Beyond the launch of AngoSat-1, the Angara-5 has no prospective customers on the international market in 2016, as all commercial payloads bound to the geostationary orbit had already been assigned to their launchers. However, GKNPTs Khrunichev, the developer of both Proton and Angara rockets, could still win contracts for Angara in 2018, or even in 2017. The company also started marketing its light-weight Angara-1.2 rocket to prospective customers for a mission in 2017.

The manufacturing of the second Angara-5 rocket is currently underway at PO Polyot in the Siberian city of Omsk with completion scheduled for November. The Angara family is expected to remain in flight testing mode until at least 2020, with only a pair of rockets coming off the production line annually during this period. As the production rate for the Angara rumps up in the first half of 2020s, the Proton rocket will be slowly phased out with its final mission expected no earlier than 2025, after 60 years in service.