In March 2018, Proton won "intent to contract" from UK-based Effective Space to launch a pair of Space Drones satellites. Click to enlarge. Credit: ILS
|Proton in 2018: Restoring confidence
A noticeably shortened flight manifest planned for the Proton rocket in 2018 is comprised almost exclusively of Russian federal payloads, whose successful launches, along with their primary missions, should restore confidence among international customers in the reliability of Russia's commercial workhorse shaken by a string of problems in the previous years. However, it would take a lot of luck to fulfill even a small part of that schedule.
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Proton lifts off on June 8, 2017, with the EchoStar-21 satellite.
Only one Proton mission of 2018 was dedicated to the launch of foreign commercial payloads -- Eutelsat-5 West and MEV-1. However, sources familiar with the matter said that the two satellites being built by Orbital ATK would not be ready for launch until at least fourth quarter of 2018 or, more likely, the first quarter of 2019.
The remaining Proton manifest still included an impressive list of up to five federal payloads, but it is deceptive due to tenuous chances to fly for the majority of these missions before the end of the year. The first of them -- the Blagovest-12L military communications satellite -- was scheduled for liftoff on March 22, which is very possibly the only Proton mission with a solid launch date in the course of the entire year. By the end of January, the mission was re-scheduled to April 4, but was expected to drift further.
The launch of the Spektr-RG observatory, previously expected in September of 2018, is widely believed to be impossible until the Spring of 2019. The launch of the latest version of the Elektro-L weather satellite, famous for its spectacular images of the Earth, is officially scheduled for October 22, but if, history is any guide, the mission has plenty of time to slip into 2019. Finally, the launch of the MLM Nauka module to the International Space Station, ISS, is officially set for December, but in reality, it is even less likely to take place until well into 2019. One remaining uncertain item on the 2018 Proton manifest is an unidentified military payload, which has been floating in the Proton's manifest for a couple of years and could be postponed beyond 2018.
Planned Proton missions in 2018 (as of January 2018):
On March 12, International Launch Services, which markets the Proton rockets outside Russia, announced an "intent to contract" from the UK-based company Effective Space to deliver a pair of Space Drone satellites on a Proton-M/Briz-M variant in 2020. The duo was apparently designed to hitchhike into space along with a yet-to-be-identified primary payload installed on a ring adapter above the Space Drone pair. However the March 12 announcement made no mention of the primary payload for this mission. Moreover, an expert familiar with the space business told RussianSpaceWeb.com that "intent to contract" indicates that the final commitment to fly the Space Drone pair still depends on some undisclosed factors, such as finding a primary customer for the mission by a certain deadline. Alternatively, ILS could launch the hitchhiker payloads alone but it would probably sharply diminish the profit from the mission.
Unlike a typical communications satellite usually released in the Geostationary Transfer Orbit, GTO, the Space Drone duo will be delivered directly into the Geostationary Orbit, GSO, from where the siblings will maneuver to aging or ailing satellites in orbit in order to extend their life. Space Drones can take responsibility for the attitude control of the host spacecraft, whose own propulsion system has either failed or depleted its propellant supply.
Each Space Drone was reported to weigh 400 kilograms and measuring 1 by 1 by 1.25 meters. The satellites are equipped with "non-intrusive" docking systems and an electric propulsion system. Effective Space promised to launch as many as six Space Drone spacecraft annually for a variety of missions to extend the life of host spacecraft or to remove space junk, such as defunct satellites from high-demand positions in orbit.
The rendering of the Proton's payload adapter for the Space Drone mission appeared to show an interface designed to accommodate up to four such satellites on a single launch. Obviously, the economics of any mission-extension spacecraft depend heavily on the opportunities to share rides into orbit with large primary payloads, which carry the main burden of the launch cost.
RD-0210 (top, left) carried by a crane during production at Voronezh Mechanical Plant circa 2016. RD-0212 engines can be seen on the background.
On April 2, Roskosmos State Corporation announced that the Voronezh Mechanical Plant, VMZ, had completed the inspection of 58 engines for the Proton-M rockets and 16 engines for the Soyuz rockets, which were returned to the company in 2017 for checks due to quality control problems. At the time, two more batches of engines had remained to be inspected, according to Roskosmos.
The State Corporation also said that serious efforts had been put into improving quality control problems at VMZ and other rocket propulsion companies. In addition, new equipment had been procured that allows to reduce risk associated with human errors in the production process, Roskosmos said.
The first mission of the Proton rocket successfully delivered the Blagovest-12L spacecraft for the four-bird constellation of military communications satellites deployed in the geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers above the Earth's surface. The liftoff took place as scheduled on April 19, 2018, at 01:12 Moscow Time (06:12 p.m. EDT). According to GKNPTs Khrunichev, it was the 417th launch of the Proton rocket.
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