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After six decades, Russia will build its final Proton rocket this year


A Russian 3-stage Proton rocket blasts into the sky in 2000.
Enlarge / A Russian 3-stage Proton rocket blasts into the sky in 2000.

NASA

Russia’s main space corporation, Roscosmos, said it is in the process of building four more Proton rockets before it shuts down production of the venerable booster.

In a news release, Roscosmos said the four rockets are on an assembly line at the Khrunichev State Space Research and Design Center’s factory in Moscow’s Fili district. After their production is complete, these four rockets will be added to its present inventory of 10 flight-ready Proton-M rockets. (The news release was translated for Ars by Rob Mitchell.)

Russia said it plans to launch these remaining 14 Proton rockets over the next four or five years. During this time frame Russia plans to transition payloads, such as military communications satellites, that would have launched on the Proton booster to the new Angara-A5 rocket.

The final flight of the Proton rocket will bring an end to a long-running era. The first Proton rocket launched in 1965, nearly 57 years ago, amid the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States. Variants of the Proton rocket have launched 426 times, with about a 10 percent failure rate.

Notably, the Proton rocket has launched elements of four separate space stations—Salyut 6, Salyut 7, Mir, and the International Space Station. But the rocket, with a lift capacity of 23.7 metric tons to low Earth orbit, had come under increasing competition for commercial launches. As a result, whereas the Proton booster once launched 10 or 12 times a year, the flight rate has fallen to three or fewer missions a year since 2015.

International demand slackened, in part, due to a series of high-profile failures. At the end of 2010, one Proton rocket plunged into the ocean because too much propellant had been mistakenly loaded into its upper stage. In 2013, another vehicle performed a fiery dance seconds after liftoff because flight control sensors were hammered into the rocket’s compartment upside down. (The spectacular disaster is worth watching.)

These technical problems arose just as competitors, particularly SpaceX with its Falcon 9 rocket, undercut the Proton on cost and offered better reliability. This reduced costs for satellite operators through lower insurance premiums.

With the Angara-A5 rocket, Russia hopes to recapture some of this international satellite launch market. However, it depends on whether Russia can reduce production costs of the Angara-A5 rocket from $100 million per launch to $57 million by 2024, the country’s stated goal.

Even this ambitious target for the fully expendable rocket probably won’t help Russia too much in the competition for commercial launches, however. SpaceX has already demonstrated that it can re-fly its Falcon 9 booster for less than $30 million.



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