Russian Angara Lifts Off In Test of Post Soviet Era Rocket Technology

Russia’s long awaited Angara booster lifted off today on a suborbital test flight which carried with it the hopes of a revival in the Russian launch industry after years decades of reliance on Soviet era boosters.  The Angara 1.2PP or ML (Maiden Launch) Integrated Launch Vehicle (ILV) lifted off from the far northern Plesetsk cosmodrome on a suborbital trajectory for a 25 minute test flight which saw the second stage and attached dummy payload come back to Earth in the isolated Kamchatka peninsula.

Almost two decades in the making, and following a last minute launch scrub on June 27 which saw Russian President Vladimir Putin demand an answer for the scrub “within the hour.” Today’s launch is of huge psychological significance, but given the tepid pace of its development schedule, it is not at all clear how much longer Russia will have to wait to see its actual implementation as an operation vehicle.

Technologically, the Angara which lifted off today is a single core version of what is ultimately meant to be a modular rocket system in which more cores are added to achieve greater launch capacities equaling that of the highly reliable medium class Soyuz as well as heavy lift Proton. Each rocket core, also called a Universal Rocket Module, is to be powered by a single, mono-chambered RP-1/Lox RD-191 staged combustion engine which comes from the same engine family as the four chambered RD-171 powering the Sea Launch Zenit booster, and the two chambered RD-180 which powers the United Launch Alliance Atlas-V.  In that context, ULA could justifiably take a bow for helping Russia to field its next generation booster, but don’t hold your breath.

Although this was Angara’s first launch, the RD-191 and the URM has a limited flight history in a de-powered version which boosted the first stage of all three of South Korea’s NARO launch vehicle flights.  In that context, the RD-151 engine performed well, although only the third flight was successful, and Russia and South Korea have never reached a consensus on the cause of failure in the second flight.

While today’s launch of a new, all domestic booster is undeniably a significant step ahead for the Russian aerospace industry, it is an open question whether it will prove to be a step in the right direction.  Next week, on July 14, SpaceX is scheduled once again to launch its Orbcomm OG-2 mission after a series of delays. The flight will include another attempt at first stage re-ignition and recovery, an effort which very nearly succeeded on its last flight, which was stymied by bad weather in the recovery zone.  If the next attempt should prove more successful, Russia, like Europe with its own Ariane VI booster, may be looking at a development effort which is on a technological rabbit trail to nowhere.

On the other hand, with the Russian government directly bankrolling its Angara project, and a huge new western launch facility under construction on the Pacific coast at Vostochny, a resurgent Russian aerospace sector may be for at time at least, immune to whatever the faster moving American company accomplishes with the Falcon series of boosters.

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