With 1,806 launches to its credit, the most recent a military satellite launched from Plesetsk on June 7th, the Russian Soyuz remains in a class all by itself. In all likelihood it will remain that way. Anatoly Zak reports on Russianspaceweb.com today that engineers at Tsskb Progress in Samara, which manufactures the Soyuz booster, are considering a future “Soyuz 5″ launch vehicle powered by engines burning methane rather than kerosene.
It is interesting to note that a “lite” version of the Soyuz, designated the Soyuz 1 is directly related to an ongoing engine controversy in the United States. The first Soyuz 1, which is powered by a single, legacy NK-33 engine is currently at Plesetsk undergoing further tests before it makes a planned first flight scheduled for later this year. Russia has been trying to build the case to restart production of the NK-33 in order to provide a long term future for the lighter, less expensive version of its historic launcher which does not include the familiar four strap-on first stage boosters.
The NK-33 has already been given new life in a renovated version modified by Aerojet and labelled the AJ-26, where it recently made history by powering the first launch of Orbital Science Corporation’s Antares booster. Concerned that the existing stock of 40 year old engines would run out, OSC reportedly sought to acquire the larger RD-180 used on the ULA Atlas V, for future versions of the Antares, only to be denied due to an alleged exclusive access provision negotiated by United Launch Alliance. The issue is currently being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission.
According to a report in Space New today, events have taken a new turn with an announcement coming out of the Paris Air Show that newly named Aerojet-Rocketdyne can supply new engines if OSC is willing to sign. No doubt supporters of the Soyuz -1 hope it will do just that.
While today’s story on the Soyuz 5 is hardly definitive, as various Russian design bureaus frequently put forward new launch proposals which are never developed, the focus on a methane based engine indicates some interest in this largely unexplored but very appealing fuel selection that, according to comments made by Elon Musk late last year, is also drawing notice from SpaceX.