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|Khrunichev promises surge of Proton launches in 2019
Proton lifts off with Luch-5V and KazSat-3 satellites in April 2014.
Aleksei Varochko, the head of GKNPTs Khrunichev, which builds Proton rocket family, announced that his company "can" launch up to 10 Proton rockets in 2019. "Thanks to the supportive measures from the Roskosmos State Corporation, GKNPTs Khrunichev is gradually entering the planned workload at both (launch vehicle) production sites in Moscow and in Omsk. In 2019, we are expecting an increase of activities in launches of heavy class rockets: (we) can perform up to 10 Proton launches and also conduct one more test flight of the Angara-5 rocket," Varochko was quoted as saying in a press-release published by Roskosmos.
The announcement did not specify any payloads slated for launch on Proton in 2019 and its wording indicated only a potential rather than the solid promise for 10 flights of the rocket. The Proton's publicly known flight manifest in 2019 does have a backlog of at least eight long-delayed federal launches and two potential foreign missions. However given the most recent history of Russian launch activities, it will be an uphill battle for Roskosmos to launch even half of these missions during the same year. Still, it appears that Proton has a reasonable chance to exceed its flight rate of only one or two launches in 2018 and match or even beat its rate of four launches in 2017.
At the beginning of November 2018, GKNPTs Krunichev announced that it would stockpile eight newly manufactured Proton rockets by the end of the year and one vehicle had already been shipped to Baikonur for pre-launch processing.
Planned Proton missions in 2019 (as of October 2018):
By November 2018, Proton's flight manifest for the following year faced more delays, leaving the launch of the Spektr-RG observatory (scheduled for Spring) as the rocket's first mission of 2019. (Proton was still expected to launch the third Blagovest satellite on Dec. 21, 2018). In the meantime, the dual commercial launch of the Eutelsat-5 West-B and the Mission Extension Vehicle, MEV-1, previously planned in 2018, continued slipping. On November 16, GKNPTs Khrunichev announced that the Eutelsat/MEV mission was expected in the "first half of 2019." The press-release quoted Andrei Pankratov, Deputy Director General for External Economic Activities at Khrunichev, as saying that fit checks of the transfer system between the launch vehicle and the spacecraft were scheduled for the middle of December 2018. "We hope that the result would be the confirmation of the mechanical and electric compatibility of the launch vehicle and the spacecraft," Pankratov said.
Industry sources explained that Pankratov had referred to the tests of a new low-shock payload adapter with a diameter of 1,666 millimeters built by the European company RUAG. It will be installed on top of the Briz-M upper stage and serve as an interface between the rocket and its payload during the ascent to orbit, before releasing the satellites at the end of the mission. The device had already been flown on other launch vehicles, but it would be used on Proton-M for the first time. Delays with fit checks between the adapter and the upper stage and payload separation tests, which had to be completed between five and six months before launch, required postponing the Eutelsat/MEV mission to the second quarter of 2019.
As of the first week of December 2018, the exact launch date for the Eutelsat/MEV payload was apparently yet to be determined, but a source familiar with the matter estimated that the mission could realistically lift off in May 2019. Due to May Day and Victory Day holidays in Russia on May 1 and May 9 respectively, the launch campaign would probably have to take a break during that period and plan the liftoff around the middle of the month.