In December 2014 Russia carried out its 400th Proton rocket launch, to put another Yamal communications satellite in orbit. This also marked half a century of using the Proton rocket. The Russian commercial satellite launching company ILS (International Launch Services) uses Proton rockets for putting heavy satellites into high orbits, mainly for foreign customers. So far ILS has carried out over a hundred such lunches and earned Russia over $6 billion. While the Proton isn’t perfect, it is competitive when it comes to price and reliability.
There would be more Proton failures were it not for the ingenuity of Russian engineers. In 2012 Russian satellite engineers managed to rescue a Yamal telecommunications satellite that was placed in the wrong orbit by a Proton launcher. This demonstrated to prospective customers how resourceful and effective the Russians can be. In this case the last stage of the Proton, carrying the Yamal 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 meant that the useful life of the Yamal-402 (about 15 years) was reduced about 30 percent. Still, that’s a lot cheaper (by over $100 million) than building another Yamal-402 and launching it.
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 since 2001.
Overall, nearly 90 percent of the 75 Proton M launches have been successful, although the success rate has been lower recently. This has put pressure on Proton's owner, Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center to complete development of the new and cheaper heavyweight rocket, the Angara. In July 2014 Russia conducted the first successful use of Angara. This is the first such new rocket developed since the Cold War ended. Back in the early 1990s the Russian space program collapsed from lack of funding. In the last decade Russia has poured a lot more money into their space program and the Angara launch is another result. This rocket was supposed to enter service by 2006, but first flight didn’t take place until now because of numerous technical problems that had to be fixed. The Angara was launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, which is 800 kilometers north of Moscow. This test used the smallest version of Angara (1.2PP) and carried a 1.4 ton suborbital test payload. The larger version (Angara A5) can carry 24.5 tons into low orbit (compared to 3.8 tons for the 1.2PP) and up to 7.5 tons for higher orbits (which 1.2PP cannot reach.)
The Russians need some good news from their heavy launcher program, because the last decade has been full of disappointments. In July 2013, at the Soviet era Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan, a Russian Proton-M rocket exploded ten seconds after launch, destroying three Glonass (Russian GPS) satellites it was carrying. The cause was quickly found and it appears to be criminal negligence by space program workers and managers. This disaster cost Russia over $200 million and further blemished the reliability of Russian satellite launch services. The satellites, being state property, were not insured so the total loss comes out of the government budget.
This 2013 accident dumped 600 tons of fuel and tons of rocket components on the launch complex. Cleaning all this up took over two months. This latest failure gave the Proton a success rate of 88 percent (for 388 launches). Western launchers tend to be 5-10 percent more reliable but a lot more expensive.
The Russians soon revealed that they had discovered the cause of that Proton-M failure: the installation of a sensor upside down, which caused the rocket control system to believe the rocket was going in the wrong direction. The rocket then tried to adjust for the incorrect sensor signal and began behaving erratically and crashed. There were supposed to be visual inspections of all installed equipment and the investigation then turned to finding who had not done their job. The government frequently fires or prosecutes those responsible for disasters like this. During the Soviet period (1921-1991) those responsible for this sort of thing would often be executed or imprisoned.
Meanwhile the most used launcher is the Russian R-7 (Soyuz), which has launched over 1,800 times. The Soyuz is a much smaller rocket which can only put 6.4 tons into low orbit.