Space: The Pride of Ukraine

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September 19, 2013: On August 31st a Russian Zenit 3SLB rocket put an Israeli communications satellite into orbit from the Soviet era Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan. The 3.5 ton Amos 4 will provide video and high-speed Internet service across Russia and the Middle East. Despite reliability problems with the older (and more powerful) Proton launcher, the Zenit 3SLB is a new design and more reliable so far. The three stage, 471 ton rocket can lift up to 3.7 tons into a high (GTO) orbit. First use was in 2008, and all five Zenit 3SLB launches have been successful. All Zenit models have had a success rate of 84 percent for 81 launches. The first was in 1984, when Zenit was still a two stage rocket in development. The three-stage Zenit 3 series first went up in 1999, and has been constantly improved since then. There are several models, mainly for different size cargoes or types of orbit. The largest versions can put 13.7 tons into low orbit or 5.1 tons into high (GTO) orbit.

Zenit series was designed and developed by Yuzhmash, a Ukrainian company that used to be part of the Soviet era space program. In addition to being very reliable, the Zenit 2 (last launched in 2004) was one of the least expensive at getting a satellite into orbit (about $3 million per ton into low orbit).

Yuzhmash was one of the Soviet era defense and high-tech operations Ukraine inherited after the Soviet Union collapsed. At first (in the 1990s) Ukrainian defense firms scrambled to stay in business as government contracts disappeared and cooperation and coordination with other Soviet firms had to be rebuilt. The Zenit rocket had actually been designed in the late 1980s but then shelved when the Cold War ended. Yuzhmash was and is the largest manufacturing company in Ukraine and run by a man who later became president of Ukraine in 1994. Yuzhmash had been active in the design and construction of ICBMs and all manner of large rocket technology since the 1950s. Because of its size and importance to the Ukraine economy, Yuzhmash was able to convert to largely civilian products and that allowed space and defense work to be revived by the late 1990s. Relationships were rebuilt with other Soviet era firms in Russia and the other 14 new countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union. In the satellite launching business nothing succeeds like success at reliably putting satellites into orbit.

 


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