Space: Russians Leaving Kazakhstan


April 24,2008: Russia building a new satellite launch center ("space port" or "cosmodrome") in the Far East, in Amur Province, just north of Manchuria. This will replace the Central Asian space port at Baikonur. Four years ago, Russia began launching all of its military satellites from its Plesetsk facility, near the Arctic circle. While Plesetsk's location is good for some types of launches (high inclination, polar, and highly elliptical orbits), the place is frozen most of the year, and more expensive to operate because of the climate. Plesetsk is currently the world's busiest launch center, and has averaged about 35 launches a year since 1966.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the other major launch site, Baikonur, has been in the newly minted Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan, where it has become more expensive and difficult to use. Russia has leased the Baikonur complex from Kazakhstan since 1991, but this has already led to disputes over lease terms, and the danger to locals from launch accidents. The Russians need the Baikonur launch site, as it is very efficient for some types of launchers (geostationary, lunar, planetary, and ocean surveillance missions, as well as all manned missions). But having your main launch site in a foreign country was seen as untenable.

The new launch center in Amur, Vostochny, will be operational by 2015, and all manned space programs will be moved to there by 2020. At that point, the Russians will abandon Baikonur. Vostochny used to be Svobodny 18, an ICBM base that was shut down in 1993 as part of the START disarmament treaty. Amur was ultimately selected because of weather (it averaged only 50-60 overcast days a year, had a dry climate and calm winds) and the absence of earthquakes. Construction won't begin for two years, and first launches are not expected until 2016. Military launches will largely remain at Plesetsk.

Since the 1990s, the ICBM silos at Vostochny have been used by retired ICBMs to launch lightweight satellites. The nearby town, which used to house the missile base families, has been kept in good repair and is being expanded to accommodate a population of over 25,000. The new cosmodrome will depend on the Trans-Siberian railroad for moving equipment and supplies in.


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