Space: Red Birds Rising


July 3, 2008: For the third time this year, Russia launched a military satellite. The Proton rocket was used. Including the partial failures, the Proton is having about a ten percent failure rate. The Russian launchers, and Russian launch facilities, are cheaper than those in the West, and nearly as reliable. But these three failures of the Proton rocket are causing some concern among potential customers. But the Proton is still cheap, even if you have to pay more for insurance.

Since the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, the Russian spy satellite program has seen its budget cut year after year. Unable to replace satellites that were wearing out, the Russian satellite fleet dwindled. Currently, only about a hundred birds are in orbit (60 percent of them military), Russia has seen its satellite fleet shrink by over two-thirds since the end of the Cold War. Worse, a shortage of money for satellite design research has meant that many replacement birds sent up in the last decade have been two decade old designs. But in the last five years, more money has gone into updated satellite designs, and now the Russians are launching much more capable birds. This does not mean more Russian satellites in orbit, but more capable and longer lasting ones. The new designs will last ten years or more, compared to about three years for the older birds.

Three years ago, Russia began building a new generation of spy satellites, ones that were closer in capability to Western ones. The U.S. has 4-5 times as many spy satellites in orbit, so Russia has a lot of catching up to do. Even with a recent boost in spending, their space program is only about a fifth the size of the American one.

There's nothing secret about Russian satellite research and development, as they are offering many of their new designs on the international market. By offering long experience, and low prices, the Russians are getting attention from countries that want their own satellites up there, but can't afford the much more expensive Western designs.



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