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Space: Those Resourceful Russians
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December 17, 2012: Russian satellite engineers managed to rescue a telecommunications satellite (Yamal-402) that was placed in the wrong orbit by a Proton launcher on December 8th. The last stage of the Proton, carrying the satellite, stopped its engines a few minutes early and left the satellite out of position. Russian engineers devised a plan to use the satellite’s engines (used to maintain orbit) to move the bird higher and into its proper orbit. This worked but the fuel used means that the useful life of the Yamal-402 (about 15 years) will be reduced about 30 percent. Still, that’s a lot cheaper (by over $100 million) than building another Yamal-402 and launching it.

The Russian commercial satellite launching company ILS (International Launch Services) uses Proton rockets for putting heavy satellites into high orbits. So far ILS has carried out 82 launches, and the recent incident with the Yamal-402 demonstrates to prospective customers how resourceful and effective the Russians can be. Since the Proton entered service in the 1960s it has been used for 382 launches. In the last two decades Protons have earned Russia over $6 billion putting foreign satellites into orbit, especially high orbits. While the Proton isn’t perfect, it is competitive when it comes to price and reliability.

There are two Proton designs, the older Proton K and the much updated Proton M. Originally designed as an ICBM in the 1960s, but never used that way, the Proton proved better at launching satellites. Proton is actually a launcher system that can be configured with three or four stages and different types of booster rockets to put different types (and weights) of satellites into orbit. Proton K could put 20 tons into low orbit and 5 tons into the highest (stationary) orbits. Current Protons cost nearly $70 million to build and launch. These use a lot of 1960s technology, which gets the job done and is cheap. The new model, the Proton M, replaces all the 1960s stuff and is basically a new rocket design. The Proton M has been in service 11 years and made 63 launches so far.

Overall, nearly 90 percent of Proton launches have been successful, although the success rate has been higher in the past few years. Proton's owner, Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, is developing a new and cheaper heavyweight rocket, the Angara. This rocket was supposed to enter service by 2006, but first flight won't take place until next year. Meanwhile Proton M has taken over the work of putting satellites into high orbit until Angara is finally ready.

The most used launcher is the Russian R-7 (Soyuz), which has launched over 1,600 times. The Soyuz is a much smaller rocket which can only put 6.4 tons into low orbit.

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