Space: Russia Delivers

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October 22, 2012: On October 14th a Russian Proton satellite launcher put a 2.7 ton Intelsat communications satellite into high (stationary) orbit. What was unusual about that is the failure, two months earlier, of a Proton rocket to put a similar satellite into orbit. After such failed launches it is normal for the next Proton launch to only carry Russian birds. But Intelsat (the largest corporate owner and operator of communications satellites) was so confident that the Russians had the situation under control, that they booked the next available Proton launch. This is a big boost for Russian satellite launch operations, which many feared had caught the same disease (poor quality work and inept leadership) showing up in other Russian defense industries.

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 80 launches. Since the Proton entered service in the 1960s it has been used for 380 launches. In the last two decades Protons have earned Russia over $6 billion putting foreign satellites into orbit, especially high orbits.

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 61 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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