Russian space program facing challenges ahead of ambitious 2023

by Justin Mooney

In the new year, Russia plans to launch its first probe to the Moon since 1976, debut a new member of the Soyuz rocket family, and launch the new Soyuz GVK resupply spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS).

2022 proved to be a slow year for the Russian launch cadence, with one Proton-M launch, two launches of the new Angara rocket, and 19 launches of the Soyuz rocket. Compared to 2021, when Soyuz launched 22 times, launching 11 commercial payloads, this marks a turn in the international launch market which Soyuz once held a grasp on.

Angara 1.2 Begins Operations

The first Angara flight of the year, an Angara 1.2, launched a mystery payload to orbit on April 29, 2022. Not much is known about the payload, with the only concrete fact being the payload was designated Kosmos-2555 after successfully reaching orbit. While there were multiple possibilities for what the payload onboard was, the most likely was a radar satellite intended for use by the Russian military.

The satellite, believed to be MKA-R at launch, shared a naming scheme and satellite bus with two 6U CubeSats, MKA-N 1 & 2, which were previously launched on a rideshare mission aboard a Soyuz-2.1a in July of 2017. Those satellites were deployed in an orbit slightly different than planned and ultimately failed to establish communications with ground stations.

Angara’s second flight of the year, also an Angara 1.2, launched on Oct. 15, 2022. This second launch of the year launched a mystery payload as well, being designated Kosmos-2560 after reaching orbit.

The payload was initially suspected to be a small military optical reconnaissance satellite designated EMKA-3, but post-launch reports suggest that the payload is part of a different series of satellites and is designated EO MKA No. 3.

Kosmos-2560 is associated with two previously launched satellites: Kosmos-2551, which was launched aboard a Soyuz-2.1v rocket in Sept. 2021, and Kosmos-2555, launched on the first flight of the year. Based on reports that Kosmos-2560 is EO MKA No. 3 and that Kosmos-2551 and 2555 were deployed into similar orbits with similar levels of mystery surrounding their launches, it is likely that Kosmos-2551 and 2555 are actually EO MKA No. 1 and No. 2, respectively.

All of Angara’s launches thus far have taken place from Russia’s Plesetsk Cosmodrome, but Russia also plans to launch the Angara family of rockets from the Vostochny Cosmodrome. Construction has been underway since 2019, with plans to support an Angara launch as early as the fourth quarter of 2023.

Soyuz Loses Grasp on Commercial Launch Market

This year, only two Soyuz rockets launched commercial payloads. The first commercial launch of the year was on Feb. 10, launching 34 OneWeb satellites to a near-polar low Earth orbit. Further OneWeb launches were planned aboard Soyuz, but those launches were ultimately canceled as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Soyuz launches from French Guiana on the OneWeb #13 mission, the last OneWeb flight on Soyuz before the Russian invasion of Ukraine halted the partnership. (Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace)

Despite Russia’s invasion and sanctions placed on Russia by the United Kingdom, whose government owns a 42% share of OneWeb, reports surfaced in March 2022 that OneWeb was scheduled to launch satellites from Russia. This launch was canceled by Russia after the British government refused to comply with Russia’s demands for the launch.

The second commercial launch of the year launched on Aug. 9, carrying the Khayyam satellite for Iran, as well as 16 CubeSats for various institutions and universities.

Not much is known about the satellite, but it appears to be a modified version of the NPK Barl-built Alpha-ES Earth observation satellite. The satellite has a mass of 650 kg and a linear resolution of 0.73 meters. Designed to have an active lifetime of five years, the satellite is equipped with four solar panels deviating from the design of the Alpha-ES.

Soyuz-5 to Debut in 2023

The Soyuz-5 project is led by the Progress Rocket Space Centre and supported by the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, the JSC Makeyev Design Bureau, as well as RSC Energia, and it’s financed by Roscosmos.

After the loss of the Zenit 3 rocket due to Russian conflicts with Ukraine, the decisions not to develop the Angara A3 rocket and to launch Angara A5 from Plesetsk and Vostochny, the launch site previously used for the Zenit launch vehicle at Baikonur Cosmodrome sat empty. The Proton Light and Medium rockets were initially proposed to take the launch site, but due to Kazakhstan’s desire to phase out the toxic hypergolic fuels used by the Proton family of rockets, the Proton Light and Medium rockets were canceled, and a replacement was needed.

Render of Soyuz-5 carrying a next-generation crew spacecraft. (Credit: Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation)

As proposed in 2016, the Soyuz-5 rocket would be able to use existing engines and reuse the tooling needed to build the Proton rockets. Initially conceptualized as a two-stage rocket, the Blok DM-03 third stage currently used on Proton could be added for launches to geostationary orbit. The first stage is also planned to be used on a future super-heavy launch vehicle, Yensei.

With tanks measuring 4.1 meters (13 feet) in diameter, the tooling previously used to build Proton rockets could be reused, thus cutting development and manufacturing costs. While wider than Zenit rockets, which measure 3.9 meters (12 feet) in diameter, the wider stages would allow for more propellant to be loaded onto Soyuz-5 while still being the same height as Zenit rockets.

The first stage of Soyuz-5 will be powered by the RD-171MV, a derivative of the RD-171M used on the Zenit 2 and 3. The RD-171MV is built completely with Russian components and features a new attitude control system. The engine section of the first stage will be slightly smaller than the rest of the stage, measuring 3.68 meters (12 feet) in diameter, allowing for compatibility with the existing Zenit pad and support infrastructure.

The second stage will be powered by two RD-0124MS engines, with each engine sporting four nozzles. Derived from the RD-0124 currently in use by the Soyuz-2 and Angara rockets, the two engines would feature eight nozzles around the base of the second stage.

Luna 25 Readying for Launch

Luna 25, previously known as the Luna-Glob lander, is a planned lunar lander mission by the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos). It will be the first probe to land at the lunar South Pole, landing near the Boguslavsky crater. It was renamed from the Luna-Glob lander to Luna 25 to emphasize the continuity of the Soviet Luna program of the 1970s.

The Luna 25 spacecraft during testing. (Credit: RIA News)

While initial mission plans called for both a lander and an orbiter, the current Luna 25 mission consists only of a lunar lander, with the primary mission of demonstrating and proving the landing technology. The lander will carry 30 kg of scientific instruments, including a robotic arm for collecting soil samples, as well as possibly drilling hardware.

The spacecraft is composed of two parts, the propulsion element, based on the Fregat stage, and the scientific element, which will carry nine scientific instruments. Two other payloads were initially to fly with Luna 25, but the Swedish LINA-XSAN payload launched on the Chinese Chang’e 4 mission in 2019, and an ESA payload was removed from the flight due to sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Soyuz GVK Slated for Debut NET 2023

The Soyuz GVK is a Russian uncrewed cargo spacecraft currently under development and is planned to replace the Progress cargo spacecraft. Like the Progress spacecraft, Soyuz GVK is based on the crewed Soyuz spacecraft, but Soyuz GVK will be capable of returning cargo to Earth, while Progress burns up in Earth’s atmosphere at the end of its mission.

The only other spacecraft currently able to return cargo to Earth is SpaceX’s Dragon cargo spacecraft. Soyuz GVK will be able to launch 2,000 kg of cargo and will be able to return 500 kg to Earth.

While official information states a debut no earlier than 2023, the lack of any recent updates also suggests the possibility of further delays or otherwise questions the status of the program.

(Lead photo: The Progress MS-19 spacecraft departs the International Space Station. Credit: NASA)

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