Angara-A5 before test launch, December 2020
The Russian rocket and space industry remains on the list of world leaders, but its performance is far from desired. So, in 2020, our launch vehicles flew only 17 times – significantly less than in previous years. At the same time, the total number of launches in the world has grown significantly, which further reduces the share of the Russian industry in the overall statistics.
In 2020, the world cosmonautics performed a total of 114 launches of carrier rockets of all current types. 104 starts were recognized as successful. In general terms, last year slightly surpasses 2019, when 102 launches took place, of which 96 were successful. At the same time, 2020 is generally similar to 2018 with its 114 starts and 111 successful launches.
In the past year, the Chinese space industry has been the most active. China has completed 39 launches, of which 35 were recognized as successful. The second place was taken by the United States with a minimum margin – 37 starts and 34 successful missions. The third line is occupied by the enterprises of “Roskosmos”, which performed 17 launches, incl. one test. All Russian starts were successful. Other countries and international organizations were unable to cross the 10 launches line last year.
Last year’s only launch of Proton-M, July 30
Once again, the American company SpaseX showed great success. It has completed 25 launches of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle over the past year – all successful. In the second place among the carrier rockets are products of the Soyuz-2 family – Soyuz-2.1a / b and Soyuz-ST-A. It is also necessary to note 11 successful launches of the Chinese Changzheng-2 missiles of three modifications.
On December 14, 2020, the most important event in the history of Russian cosmonautics took place. An Angara-A5 launch vehicle with a Briz-M upper stage and a mass and size payload model took off from the Plesetsk cosmodrome. This would be the second launch in the framework of flight design tests of a new heavy launch vehicle. The launch was recognized as successful, which allows further testing and brings the start of full-fledged operation closer.
The completion of the operation of the Proton-M rockets is nearing, and the number of their launches is gradually decreasing. Last year only one Proton-M flew. On July 30, such a rocket was launched from Baikonur and put two communication satellites into geostationary orbit.
Soyuz-2.1a with the Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft, April 2020
The main work was again taken over by carrier rockets of the Soyuz-2 series. Their launches were carried out from the beginning of February to the end of December. Roskosmos conducted six launches at the Baikonur cosmodrome, and the same number was performed from Plesetsk. On December 18, the only launch from Vostochny took place, and in December two were performed at the site of the Guiana Space Center.
The Soyuz-2.1b carrier rocket was most actively exploited – eight launches throughout the year. Depending on the characteristics of the mission and the payload, the upper stages “Fregat” and “Fregat-M” were used with it. The Soyuz-2.1a missiles performed only five flights and delivered spacecraft to the ISS in four. Twice the missiles were carried by the manned “Soyuz-MS” and twice by the cargo “Progress”. As before, carriers of the Soyuz-ST-A specialized modification were launched from the Kuru cosmodrome.
With the exception of the experimental Angara-A5, all Russian launch vehicles last year delivered various cargoes to orbits. Thus, within the framework of the ISS program, four missions were carried out with cargo in the form of manned and cargo ships. The task of all other launches was the launching of spacecraft.
Rocket “Soyuz-2.1b” with the satellite “Glonass-M” on the transporter, March 2020
Some of last year’s launches were for military or dual purposes. During the year, Soyuz-2 sent into orbit two Glonass-M / K navigation satellites, one apparatus of the Tundra unified space system, and a Meridian-M communications satellite. It is also necessary to note the launch of the only experimental nanosatellite platform “Era-1” or “Cosmos-2548”.
Several times Russian launch vehicles have put into orbit a whole range of domestic and foreign vehicles. So, on September 28, Soyuz-2.1b with the Fregat unit sent three new Gonets-M communication satellites into space, and with them 19 Cubsats from seven countries, including several domestic products. On December 3, the Gonets-M system grouping was replenished in a similar way, and the experimental Eru-1 was brought out. Last year’s only “Proton-M” carried two satellites of the “Express” series.
In 2020, with the help of Russian missiles, the full deployment of the OneWeb satellite constellation began. On February 7 and March 21, 34 vehicles were simultaneously sent into orbit into orbit. Another 36 were withdrawn in mid-December.
Launch of OneWeb satellites on Soyuz-2.1b rocket, February 7, 2020
It should be noted that the plans for the withdrawal of OneWeb satellites have not been fully implemented. During the year, it was planned to carry out 12 launches with 30-36 satellites on each rocket. However, the general crisis phenomena of the past year and the processes of temporary bankruptcy of OneWeb led to a sharp reduction in plans. However, in the near future the launches will be resumed and, probably, will allow catching up with the previously adopted schedule.
Reasons for reduction
Against the background of a number of competitors, the activities of the Russian rocket and space industry last year looks very worthy. However, in dynamics, Roskosmos’s indicators look worse and show a downward trend. The observed negative processes have several main reasons of various kinds.
State structures, first of all, the military department, are always stable and profitable customers for the space industry. In developed countries, launches of military satellites make up a significant part of the total number of launches. This trend is also observed in Russia, however, the volumes of army orders remain small. Last year, our military took out only five spacecraft, including one experimental.
Russian cosmonautics retains a leading role in the International Space Station program. Last year, there were 11 flights to the ISS, and 4 were carried out using Russian technology. At the same time, the appearance of several new spacecraft led to some reduction in the load on Progress and Soyuz. For comparison, in 2019, out of 14 missions, 7 were provided by Russian ships.
Soyuz-ST-A launch from the Kuru cosmodrome, December 29, 2020
In recent years, there has been a steady growth in the commercial launch market associated with general advances in launch vehicles and spacecraft. Competition between market participants is intensifying, lobbying and other specific factors are taking place. As a result, the structure of the market is changing, and a significant share goes to just one commercial contractor.
It should be noted that the numerical and financial indicators of the Russian cosmonautics last year could have been significantly higher. Previously, it was planned to conduct 12 commercial launches in the interests of OneWeb, but due to its problems, it was possible to complete only 3. If the customer company did not interrupt its activities, then Russia would be able to complete 25-26 launches – and accordingly increase its revenues.
The events of the past year and its results in general can be considered another manifestation of the well-known trends observed over the past several years. The space launch market is constantly growing, both with new customers and with the participation of developing contractors. At the same time, all enterprises in the industry are aimed at making profits and are taking all available measures.
The Russian space industry understands this situation, as a result of which new projects are being developed and proposed. Roskosmos enterprises create and test promising launch vehicles, and also work out the appearance of the next generation complexes. Unfortunately, the real results of these works will be obtained only in the foreseeable future. How the situation in the field of space launches will change by this time is unknown.