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Russia to launch its biggest rocket

Anatoly Zak, Spaceflight Correspondent
Dec 22, 2014, 16:23 UTC

Sen—After more than two decades of tortuous development, Russia's most powerful space vehicle to date will make a historic maiden launch on Tuesday.

The liftoff of the Angara-A5 rocket is scheduled for 23 December, 2014, at 08:57 Moscow Time (05:57 UTC) from the nation's military launch site near Plesetsk, north of Moscow. 

During its inaugural mission, the 773-ton Angara-A5 will carry a dummy cargo. The three-stage rocket is expected to demonstrate the capability to deliver a satellite into geostationary orbit with an altitude of 36,000 km above the equator.

Reaching this destination is critical for the deployment of most communications and weather-watching satellites. The same orbit is also a home of military early-warning satellites scanning the Earth's surface for infra-red signatures emitted by ballistic missiles and other powerful jet engines.

The introduction of the Angara-A5 will mark full independence of the Russian military and civilian space program from former Soviet republics in its launch capability. The rocket was designed to incorporate hardware built inside the Russian Federation and its launch pad is located within the Russian territory.

The new vehicle should eventually replace the Proton rocket, currently the workhorse of the Russian space program, which can only be launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Russia pays more than $100 million annually for the rent of the former Soviet space base. 

In addition to its role as a carrier of military and commercial satellites, Angara-A5 is also expected to launch Russia's next-generation piloted spacecraft and space station modules. For this purpose, the Russian government promised to build another launch facility for Angara rockets at the new Vostochny space center in the Russian Far East.

Vostochny, located almost on the same latitude as Baikonur, will further increase Angara's capabilities, currently hampered by the extreme northern location of its only operational launch pad in Plesetsk. The original decision to base Angara at existing facilities in Plesetsk was dictated largely by post-Soviet economic collapse. The financial problems combined with many technical challenges ultimately dragged the Angara project almost a decade behind its original development schedule.

The Angara family of rockets was designed around a modular architecture enabling Russia to build launchers with different payload capacity by varying a number of standard boosters. The light version of the Angara, featuring a single first-stage rocket module, flew a successful suborbital test mission in July.

All but one rocket stage comprising the Angara series use non-toxic kerosene as fuel, and liquid oxygen as oxidizer.