Over the last few days Russian officials have spoken of their plans to develop a new generation of medium and heavy lift space rockets to support the Russian space programme.
Russia has made to previous attempts to design and build heavy lift space rockets rivalling in power the US Saturn V.
The first was the N1 rocket, development of which was launched by the famous Soviet designer Sergey Korolyov in the 1960s.
This launcher had it ever been completed would have provided the USSR with a launcher roughly comparable in power to the Saturn V. However the project was underfunded and its development was rushed, and it experienced a severe setback when its Korolyov its chief designer died unexpectedly in 1966.
There is still disagreement about the viability of the N1’s design. Its four attempted launches all ended in failure, and the project was always controversial.
However there remains a school of thought that N1’s cancellation in 1974 was premature, and that it was cancelled at precisely the moment when the problems which had previously beset the programme were finally close to being solved.
The second Russian attempt to create a heavy lift space rocket was technically successful, taking the form of the Energia rocket system which conducted two successful flight tests in 1987 and 1988, the second carrying the Soviet Buran space shuttle on an unmanned mission.
Had this programme proceeded it would have provided the USSR, and then Russia, with a heavy lift rocket more powerful than the N1, and more modern and efficient than the Saturn V. However the programme was cancelled in 1991 with the fall of the USSR.
There has apparently been some discussion in Russia of simply reviving the Energia heavy lift rocket as Russia’s new heavy lift rocket. However a review of this option has concluded that because of technological advances it would cost 30% less to develop an entirely new three stage rocket than to revive Energia.
In part this is undoubtedly connected to Russia’s plan to develop a new medium lift rocket – to be called Feniks (“Phoenix”)
to replace the existing Soyuz rockets, which Russia uses for its current manned flights, as well as a new family of Angara rockets for various missions, of which the largest – Angara-5 – is being given priority
The Angara rockets are due to replace the Proton rocket, which is Russia’s current medium lift rocket used for unmanned payloads.
Both the Soyuz rocket
and the Proton rocket
are elderly designs, having their origins in the 1950s and 1960s, and it is understandable that the Russians are giving priority to replacing them over the more futuristic heavy lift rocket, which will be needed for far fewer missions.
Orbital tests of the Feniks rocket are expected to begin in 2022 prior to its full entry into service in 2025. It is planned that it will be able to deliver payloads of 17 tonnes into near earth orbit or 2.5 tonnes into geostationary orbit.
Angara-A5, the first rocket of the Angara family to be tested, had its first flight test in December 2014, which was successful. Here is film of its launch from Russia’s Plesetsk cosmodrome in Russia’s Far North.
Angara-A5 can deliver a payload of 24.5 tonnes to near earth orbit and (depending on the second stage launch vehicle) payloads of between 3.0 tonnes and 7.5 tonnes into near earth orbit
It seems that the new heavy lift rocket will take technology from the new Feniks and Angara rockets, which in turn draw on technology developed in the 1970s and 1980s for the Energia rocket.
Feniks is expected to be operational by about 2025, whilst the new heavy lift rocket – capable of delivering payloads weighing 100 tonnes into near earth orbit, or of 20 tonnes into lunar (moon) orbit – will follow 10 years thereafter in 2035, though if tests of Feniks go well it could be that this will be brought forward.
Apparently there are two slightly different designs for the heavy lift rocket, Energia 5V-PTK (liftoff mass of 2,368 tonnes) and Energia-5VR-PTK (launch mass of 2,346 tonnes).
The total cost of the programme, including development of the heavy lift rocket and construction of the infrastructure to launch it from Russia’s new Vostochny cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East, is estimated at 1.5 trillion roubles (roughly $26 billion).
It remains to be seen whether this project will be realised but after much discussion it seems that a programme going forward has been finally agreed and is now forging ahead.