Space: Baikonur Blues


October 18, 2011: Russia and Kazakhstan have worked out their differences over Russian use (for testing Russian ICBMs) of Soviet era Baikonur space center. Two years ago, Kazakhstan banned Russian ICBM launches at Baikonur, claiming they were two dangerous. The plan was to turn Baikonur into a big cash cow via commercial launches. Last year, 24 Russian commercial launches were at Baikonur, while the six classified launches were at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia (near Archangel). One launch was from an old ICBM base in the south (near Orenburg). These launches use old R36 (SS-19) ICBMs to put lightweight satellites into orbit.

But Russia's largest satellite launch site is still in Kazakhstan, for the moment. Founded in 1955, by the Soviet Union, Baikonur was long the main satellite launch facilities for the Russians. But after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Baikonur found itself in the newly minted Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan. There, it has become more expensive and difficult for the Russians to use. Russia has leased the Baikonur complex from Kazakhstan since 1991, but this led to disputes over lease terms, and the danger to locals from launch accidents. These disputes have now been settled.

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. So the Russians are building a replacement site to the east, in Russian territory. 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. The first launches are not expected until 2016. Military launches will largely remain at Plesetsk, in northern Russia.




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