Sunset and Sunrise Zenith
In December 2017, the last launch of the Zenith rocket, the assembly of the Ukrainian Yuzhmash, is to take place. A significant part of the components was supplied from Russia and in 2014 deliveries ceased. The last rocket has been stored at Baikonur for three years, and the rocket’s story almost stops there. However, private astronautics can give hope for the revival of the rocket ...
The Zenith missile was born on the order of the military, for whom the average Soyuz (7 tons per low near-earth orbit (NOO)) was weak, and the heavy Proton (20 t per NOO) was excessive. So they began to create an intermediate, maximally automated rocket, which outputs 14 tons to LEO, and belongs to the class of medium-sized missiles, although it is capable of performing some of the difficult tasks, especially if it is launched from the equator.
The new rocket has absorbed the experience of creating previous Soviet rockets: a monoblock design (without side carrots), advanced even by modern estimates digital control system, an automatic launch preparation system that has not yet been achieved even in SpaceX and Blue Origin.The rocket was equipped with the most powerful and one of the most advanced liquid rocket engines in history - oxygen-kerosene RD-171, with a thrust of up to 800 tons.
The Zenith was unified with the side blocks of the extra-heavy rocket “Energy”. Due to this, in the 90s it was possible to maintain the production technology of engines RD-170/171. On the contrary, the oxygen-hydrogen RD-0120 150 t, which stood on the central block of “Energia”, was not in demand after the termination of flights of the extra heavy rocket and was irretrievably lost.
The high energy characteristics of Zenith and the adaptability of preparation for launch, which initially interested the military, were excellent for the commercial project Sea Launch, born in the 90s. Then the post-Soviet cosmonautics desperately survived without government funding, and actively switched to commercial overseas orders. Initially, an industrial consortium from Russia, Ukraine, the United States and Norway participated in the project. The idea, which the space and shipbuilding giants began to implement, was beautiful and elegant. The project participants created a sea floating platform that allowed Zenits to be delivered to the Pacific Ocean at the equator and launched from there.
At the end of 2016between RSC Energia and the Russian private company S7 Space Transport Systems (a subsidiary of S7), an agreement was signed to sell the floating launch site Sea Launch. The cost of the purchase was not reported exactly, but according to the owner of S7 Vladislav Filev, it cost about $ 150-160 million. The deal has not yet been closed, because the US State Department has not yet given permission to transfer the ships for which there is American technology to the new owner.
The Sea Launch project (“Sea Launch”) was the last echo of the romantic dawn of cosmonautics, when various original options for facilitating access to space were being worked out: air launches, shuttles, explosions, and other exotics crushed by the simplicity of conventional rockets.
Starting from the equator saves a significant mass, if run on a geo-transfer orbit. This orbit is necessary to achieve a geostationary orbit in the equatorial plane. This orbit is in demand for telecommunications commercial tasks that bring the most revenue in space. The geostationary satellite flies at a distance of about 36000 km, and makes a revolution around the Earth in 24 hours.Moving in the equatorial plane, the satellite as it hangs above the Earth due to the equal angular velocity with the surface. Having occupied the “point of standing” the satellite can survey the planet from a single angle or work as a repeater and TV broadcast antenna.
To launch into a geostationary orbit it is most advantageous to have a spaceport at the equator. The farther from the equator the launch, the more fuel the upper rocket will take to change the orbital plane. And any ton of the upper rocket stage turns into dozens of tons of the lower one. Therefore, with the standard flight pattern from Baikonur, the 700-ton “Proton” takes 6.4 tons of payload (3.2 tons) to the geo-transition, and the 460-ton “Zenit” from the equator - 6.3 tons (direct deduction at GSO - 2.8 tons).
A small increase in speed when starting from the equator adds another rotation of the Earth, due to the greater angular momentum. Compared with Baikonur, the difference is only 130 m / s m / s, i.e. at the equator, the gain is insignificant, let me remind you: about 7900 m / s are required to enter orbit. Another ocean launch is more profitable than Baikonur. no need to worry about waste steps. They just fall into the water, while at Baikonur they must be collected in the Kazakh steppe and disposed of.
Theory and practice of missile launches
In general, the energy prospects of Sea Launch looked good, but it did not work well with the economic ones. Although the price in the early 2000s was quite attractive for customers: almost 2-2.5 times cheaper than the European Ariane-5 (although it ran twice as much), or 1.5 times less than the similar Ariane-4. From 1999 to 2014, 36 Zenit flights were made, the maximum frequency per year reached 6 launches.
In the same years, “Protons” made 10–12 launches per year, just a year, on average, 20 commercial launches were carried out by all operators, and the majority into a geostationary orbit. Demand did not increase and was cyclical, and the Sea Launch project could not win a serious market share. In addition, the reliability of the “Zenith” pumped up - from 36 starts 3 accidents. It was assumed that several rockets would be launched from a floating platform for each exit to the sea, but this never happened - always rolling because of one.
Sea Launch went bankrupt in 2009. By that time, former participants had lost faith in it, and the project was kept afloat in the direct and figurative sense only thanks to the Russian RSC Energia. She almost went into full possession of the cosmodrome, but together with the Ukrainian “Yuzhmash” she owed the American Boeing about more than $ 300 million, and paid for parking in the port on the California coast.After being interested in the S7 project, the issue of RSC Energia’s debts was resolved thanks to a non-trivial barter scheme - Boeing received manned space in the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which were resold by NASA.
End of Zenith
The rapid entry into the commercial market of SpaceX with a cheap Falcon-9 rocket and the Russian-Ukrainian aggravation in 2014 ceased all cooperation in the production of rockets. In “Zenith” more than half of components from Russia: RD-171 engines, control system, accelerating blocks. Replace them Ukrainian “Yuzhmash” is not able to. But without the “Zenith” and record engines RD-171 remain without work, and the termination of their production is fraught with loss of technology.
But what now to launch from the floating cosmodrome, if the missiles are not made, and there is no hope for the resumption of Russian-Ukrainian cooperation?
In 2015, after the successful testing of the Angara modular missile, it was said that it was possible to adapt its average modification A3 for a sea launch. But the cost of reworking the platform was too high - “Angara A3” consisted of three blocks, and would not be suitable for a launching table, designed for a monoblock “Zenith”.Using the light monoblock “Angara A1” is unprofitable — too weak for serious geostationary orders. The same problem was with other Russian oxygen-kerosene rockets. By the way, American Falcon 9 or Atlas 5 would stand up much easier.
2016 RSC Energia took on the development of the new Soyuz-5 rocket (Phoenix, Sunkar), which should become a competitor to the Falcon 9 and, in fact, is a modernized and fully Russian copy of Zenit based on RD- 171. A new rocket is promised to be made in 5 years. Even if they meet the deadline (which is hard to believe, to be honest), before commercial use it will take several test launches, which will take two years to complete. All this time, the cosmodrome will be inactive and incur losses, which will have to be compensated by raising the price of future rockets. According to some data, Sea Launch's operating costs amount to $ 30 million per year (perhaps it was before mass layoffs), and in 7 years they will exceed initial expenses of $ 160 million, excluding investments in the development of the project.
Where and what to fly from the Pacific Ocean?
Meanwhile, competition in the international launch market is now even sharper than ten years ago thanks to SpaceX and their legged rockets. And on the way more Indians and Blue Origin from the creator of Amazon.com.Only China is still fenced off from the world space rocket market by US sanctions, but is looking for a way out of the blockade, and is considering the option of its own sea launch site. The market of geostationary satellites is still the same - less than 20 launches per year, and there is a tendency to decrease this number.
In the spring of 2017, the expected, but a sudden event happened - S7 signed an agreement with Yuzhmash to resume the production of Zenit. From the outside, everything looked quite good: the S7 could acquire engines and other components from the Russian Energomash, and build missiles on the Yuzhmash. Those. Russian private trader would act as an intermediary depoliticizing the production of missiles.
The response of Roscosmos was swift and unequivocal - Ukraine will not receive any rocket engines! Probably, the founder of S7, Vladislav Filev, was hoping for a different answer, but Roskosmos turned out to be a hostage of the political situation, and could answer nothing else. The news in the Russian media about the revival of the Ukrainian “Zenith” sounded too resonant.
"Russian private rocket"
Half a year in S7 remained silent, but not wasted time. The solution was found to be no less trivial than with Boeing’s debts.Now Roscosmos will remain faithful to the word, and Ukraine will not receive any components for Zenit. But “Yuzhmash”, so will resume production of its part of the rocket. Only the final assembly process will change. Now “Zenith” will be made ... in the United States, which is unexpected for the Soviet rocket.
Sea Launch platform is historically based in the port of Los Angeles, the same place as the company's headquarters. From the very start of the international project, Zenits were assembled in California, and were delivered in parts: two rocket stages from Ukraine, a booster from Russia, a fairing from the United States, like most satellites. The rocket was going on the ship before the platform went out to sea.
Now, in the same or in an additional hangar, we will have to carry out not only the final, but also the intermediate stage of the rocket assembly: the rocket engine and the control system will be combined with the Ukrainian steps.
In fact, S7 borrows the experience of the American company Orbital ATK, which also buys rocket engines in Russia, the rocket body and tanks in Ukraine, and collects the American Antares private rocket at the Wallops cosmodrome.
That is, from the operator of the S7 rockets, it actually becomes the manufacturer.Russian private rocket made in the USA from Ukrainian and Russian parts is a triumph of globalization.
It does not reveal how much this complication will affect the cost of launching the new Zenith, but it will have to compete not only with the US with the Falcon 9 at the price of $ 62 million, but also with the Russian Proton at the price of $ 65 million. And a further price reduction from competitors to $ 45 million in the reusable version of Falcon 9, and the lightweight version of the “Proton Medium”. S7 representatives voiced a price of $ 65-76 million for Zenit, and even earlier representatives of RKK Energia reported that the project required at least 4 starts per year to reach payback.
Will it be possible to find customers and achieve Sea Launch payback with the help of Zenit in such conditions?
S7 can help expand the rocket markets and the emergence of new orders that could be intercepted from competitors. For example, OneWeb, Telesat, Leosat and Boeing companies will need to launch several thousand satellites for Internet broadcasting to low orbits if their projects are successfully implemented, although the equator will not give them any benefit. Probably S7 feeds hopes for a revolution in microsatellite manufacturing and a significant increase in demand for launches, as well as orders from Roskosmos,that in the current political situation, to put it mildly, it’s utopian, in relation to Zenit.
One of the means of increasing the demand for rockets should be another project of the company "S7 Space Transport Systems" - the so-called. “Orbital cosmodrome”. The company's representatives do not cover the details of the project, but it can be assumed that this is a manned station that carries out commercial orders for launching and servicing spacecraft. Although the economic benefits of the proposed space launch site are even less obvious than the sea one.
Vladislav Filev, even before entering the space business, proved to be a prudent and talented businessman. Resolving the issue of the resumption of production of Zenith shows that it is also being developed in the missile theme, and, to all appearances, is its sincere enthusiast. If everything goes well, in a few years the resurrected green Zeniths will break the silence of the Pacific Ocean, and we will have the thrilling competition of several talented rocket makers: Jeff Bezos, Ilon Mask and Vladislav Filev.
Everyone has a rich business experience and powerful production potential of their countries behind their backs. This is not even a competition between Russia and the USA, but the good old Soviet space race VS VS USA. Must be interesting! If everything goes well ...
Prepared for Forbes.ru
Published in the author's edition.
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