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: Beginning of the end?
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, could 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, while the time is short for the Proton.
Proton lifts off on Dec. 21, 2018, with the Blagovest No. 13L 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.
Hall No. 22 at GKNPTs Khrunichev in Moscow used for the final assembly of Proton rockets.
By the middle of 2018, due to the dramatically slowed down rate of Proton launches, its manufacturers fell deeper into the red and needed federal funding to stay afloat. According to the official numbers, GKNPTs Khrunichev lost 23.16 billion rubles in 2017 and asked for a 30-billion infusion of cash from the government. (In 2016, the company still made 1.8 billion in profit.)
At the end of June, the Head of Roskosmos Dmitry Rogozin first acknowledged an ongoing effort to fix the financial situation at Khrunichev and announced plans to accelerate the switch of the Russian launch operations from the Proton to the Angara family. Ironically, Roskosmos exacerbated the company's dept with its penalties for missed production deadlines, even though Russian payloads slated to ride those delayed rockets were themselves years behind schedule and GKNPTs Khrunichev had no room to store large rocket components.
In an effort to raise capital, Khrunichev planned to sell a big part of its campus, located in the hyper-valuable real estate area of Moscow, to private developers. In the process, the company would also dramatically reduce its production capacity and cut its personnel in the Russian capital, shifting key manufacturing operations to Omsk, in Western Siberia. In another cost-saving measure, around 200 people were reported to be marked for layoffs at Proton's launch facilities in Baikonur beginning in the fall of 2018.
According to industry sources, soon after the appointment of Dmitry Rogozin to lead Roskosmos, he dispatched a special commission to Khrunichev to develop a plan for resolving the financial crisis and re-organizing the production of the beleaguered Proton and the new-generation Angara rocket. By the end of June, many experts involved in the effort tended to agree that the manufacturing of the Proton rocket would have to be phased out as soon as possible, so that all the resources could be focused on the long-delayed production of the Angara rockets in Omsk. However, the final decision on the matter had not been made as of the end of June, multiple industry sources said. According to some reports, even if the decision were be made to phase out Proton's production in 2021, instead of the previously planned deadline of 2025, the question still remained of how many of these veteran rockets would still have to be manufactured. A number of Soviet-era launch vehicles continued flying years if not decades after their production had been officially discontinued. In an interview with RIA Novosti published by Roskosmos on June 22, Rogozin indicated that no new orders for the Proton manufacturing were planned and the rocket's future production would be limited to the already signed contracts.
At the beginning of August, Igor Arbuzov, the head of NPO Energomash, said that the serial production of the engines for the Proton rocket at the Permskie Motory factory in the city of Perm would be stopped before the end of the year, unless more rockets were booked in the interim. The factory in Perm built RD-253 engines for the Proton's first stage.
A potential decision to retire the Proton family earlier than previously planned could kill the hopes for building a lighter version of the Proton-M rocket intended to make the Proton family more competitive on the international market.
By the end of July, the anticipated delay with the delivery of the Eutelsat-5West and MEV-1 satellites until January 2019 required GKNPTs Khrunichev to postpone its planned Proton launch from December 2018 to February or March 2019, industry sources said. GKNPTs Khrunichev coordinated the new schedule with the officials at Moscow-based Gazprom, who were preparing the launch of the Yamal-601 communications satellite in February 2019 on a subsequent Proton mission.
Because specialists at Northrop Grumman needed more room than usual to prepare the Eutelsat/MEV payload inside processing building 92A-50 in Baikonur and due to other safety and security factors in overlapping the Russian and international commercial launch campaigns, the processing of the Eutelsat and MEV satellites had to be re-scheduled to follow the operations with the Yamal-601 spacecraft, which at the time, remained on track for launch in February, according to industry sources.
Proton's commercial passengers as of June 2018:
Around the same time GKNPTs Khrunichev was fighting an uphill battle in trying to strike a deal with the start-up Internet company OneWeb to deliver a big part of its future satellite constellation on the Proton rocket, industry sources say. The contract from OneWeb would be the best bet for the struggling Proton to reenter the highly competitive commercial launch market after a series of failures and the flight of its customers.
The second and final mission of the Proton rocket in 2018 successfully delivered the Blagovest-13L satellite for the four-bird constellation of military communications spacecraft to be deployed in geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers above the Earth's surface. The liftoff took place as planned on Dec. 21, 2018, at 03:20 Moscow Time. According to GKNPTs Khrunichev it was the 418th launch for the Proton rocket family and the 104th mission for the Proton-M variant.
Proton missions in 2018: