Angara-A5: correcting mistakes or repeating them?
The carrier of the heavy class “Angara-A5” is an important project for the Russian space sector and for the country’s defense capability. They want to use it, as well as the improved Angara-A5M, which will have a higher carrying capacity, for launching satellites in the interests of the Ministry of Defense. In June, we recall, it became known about the signing of a contract between Roscosmos and the Ministry of Defense for four Angara-A5 missiles.
With commercial exploitation, everything is much more complicated. Flying only once, as part of a test mission in 2014, the rocket, in fact, was not needed by the market. With a launch price twice as high as that of Proton-M, there are practically no prospects of squeezing out a direct competitor in the face of the Falcon 9. By the way, according to the results of the first half of 2020, SpaceX made more rocket and space launches than Russia, Europe and Japan combined.
In this regard, the opinion of the creator of “Angara”, former general director (2005-2012) and general designer (2009-2014) of the Khrunichev Center Vladimir Nesterov is very interesting. He spoke about the prospects of the carrier in an interview with RIA Novosti.
It would be naive to believe that the creator will criticize his creation. Nevertheless, the assessment exceeded the wildest expectations.
“This is the best complex in the world. I say as a man who has been dealing with missiles for forty-eight years, who knows everything about the Chinese, Indians, Japanese, Israelis, Iranians, Europeans and Americans, I say that Angara is the best rocket and space complex in the world. It has only one major drawback, by which Musk surpassed us in his rocket – the recoverable first stage. “
– said Nesterov.
Why is Angara-A5 so good? In short, everyone! (At least according to the former head of the Center, Khrunichev.)
Angara’s first stage engine – RD-191. This is a unique engine in its characteristics. Nobody in the world has ever done this and will not do this for another ten years. RD-0124 at the second stage. He has a specific impulse of 359 units. Not a single designer in the world, even Elon Musk, has ever dreamed of such a figure, ”
– says the ex-leader.
Indeed, there are no complaints about the technical aspects of the Angara: or rather, there were none at the time of the 90s, when they began to create the rocket. Now, kerosene rocket engines are gradually giving way to promising methane engines. The latter is cheap, has a wide raw material base and, unlike kerosene, does not leave combustion by-products in the form of soot.
Methane engines have long and reasonably been considered the most promising direction. It’s not just a concept. Blue Origin recently supplied United Launch Alliance with the first BE-4 methane rocket engine for the advanced Vulcan heavy rocket, a direct competitor to the Angara-A5. Don’t forget about SpaceX’s methane Raptor, which will be installed on the Starship spacecraft and the Super Heavy accelerator. And they also see all these missiles as reusable, which probably never shines for representatives of the Angara family (which, by the way, was correctly noted by Vladimir Nesterov himself).
It can be argued that Angara-A5 is already flying, while promising missiles have yet to be created. In fact, this is only partially true. Flight design tests of the Russian carrier, according to the most conservative estimates, will last until about the mid-2020s. Taking into account the dynamics of “private traders”, by that time it will be possible to expect a full-fledged commissioning of methane Vulcan, New Glenn and even Elon Musk’s Starship.
Irtysh: old Zenit for a new market
In addition to evaluating the Angara, the ex-head of the Khrunichev Center analyzed the prospects for the average Soyuz-5 missile, also known as the Irtysh or Phoenix.
In fact, it is precisely this that should become the main Russian launch vehicle after the decommissioning of the Soyuz missiles. Despite similar names, the new rocket will have practically nothing in common with them, representing in a broad sense the development of the Soviet Zenit. Now “Soyuz-5” is seen as a two-stage medium-class rocket capable of launching seventeen tons of payload into low-earth orbit. This is less than the index of the heavy Falcon 9, but more than, for example, the Soyuz-2.1a. The first stage of the Irtysh will be equipped with an RD-171MV liquid-propellant kerosene rocket engine, which is a development of the RD-171 for Zenit missiles. The second stage will have two RD-0124MS engines.
Outwardly, the rocket will be similar to the Falcon 9. However, the Irtysh will not be able to boast of the returned first stage. And in general, its advantages are not entirely clear, even against the background of old Soviet missiles. “I think that Soyuz-5 will not be due to the fact that no one needs it,” said Vladimir Nesterov about the brainchild of RSC Energia.
It is difficult to say which is more: perhaps the reason is the widespread attention of the media to Soyuz-5 or the media criticism of Angara itself, but in any case, there is some truth in the words of the former head of the Center Khrunichev.
As a reminder, back in 2018, the former head of S7 Space, Sergei Sopov, said that Soyuz-5 is, in fact, a grown and fatter Zenit rocket.
Zenit is a wonderful carrier with excellent technical characteristics, but repeating it at a new technical level, moreover, by 2022, when our competitors will go even further, does not seem to be the most optimal solution. “
Will there be analogs?
In general, the two main Russian carriers of the foreseeable future, Angara-A5 and Irtysh, suffer from similar conceptual problems. Designed with an eye on the 90s, they were largely obsolete long before they were fully operational.
Vladimir Nesterov himself believes that one of the options could be the Soyuz-LNG methane rocket: in the opinion of the head of the Center, Khrunichev, it should be made reusable.
It is not entirely clear how exactly Russian (and not only Russian) specialists will be able to catch up with SpaceX in this direction. After all, the creation of a reusable rocket requires more than just a political decision: it needs technology, funding, years of trial and error, as well as a clear understanding of which market segment can be claimed.
It is important to say that reusability itself is not the key to success, but is nothing more than one of its constituent parts, at least when it comes to promising carriers.
Summing up all of the above, we can say that in order to create a truly successful rocket and expect to get a share of the modern market, Russian developers will have to rethink the approach to missile design.