Tsyklon-4M (Cyclone-4M) prepares a move to Canada
Ukrainian space engineers are finalizing the design of a prospective commercial space launcher for a speedy development based on extensive engineering heritage of the Antares, Zenit and Tsyklon (Cyclone) rockets. The newly designed vehicle, to be based in Canada, is being positioned as a highly competitive player in the small satellite launch market, costing its passengers $45 million per shot.
Preliminary architecture of the Tsyklon-4M launcher. Credit: MLS
Tsyklon-4M (Cyclone-4M) rocket at a glance:
Despite the difficult economic situation inside the country and a very competitive launch market worldwide, the Ukraine-based KB Yuzhnoe design bureau began work on the preliminary design of a new launch vehicle in 2016. The architecture of the proposed two-stage Tsyklon-4M (Cyclone-4) rocket is built around the first stage booster derived from the US Antares and the Ukrainian Zenit rockets and burning liquid oxygen and kerosene. Both stages for Tsyklon-4M were developed and produced in the Ukrainian city of Dnepropetrovsk, the home of KB Yuzhnoe. The Antares is operated by Orbital ATK from a spaceport on the Wallops Island, Virginia, to launch the Cygnus cargo ships toward the International Space Station, ISS.
Origin of the idea
In 2015 and 2016, KB Yuzhnoe began looking at various applications for the Tsyklon-4 rocket, which was in an advanced stage of development for a Ukrainian-Brazilian joint venture. Originally the rocket was to be based in Alcantara, in the equatorial region of Brazil, well suited for launches to the geostationary orbit. However, in 2015, after more than a decade of work, the Brazilian government unilaterally exited the deal due to a host of political and financial reasons, which reportedly included pressure from Russia.
The collapse of the Tsyklon-4 joint venture prompted KB Yuzhnoe to seek new partnerships that would give Tsyklon-4 a new launch pad and, in the process, enable the country's space industry to survive the economic transition, very much like the Russian space industry had done during the 1990s.
Ironically, the violent breakup between Russia and Ukraine in 2014, opened new opportunities for Tsyklon-4. The conflict between the two former Soviet republics essentially grounded the leading low-cost launchers of small satellites -- Dnepr and Rockot. At the same time, Russia's new-generation light-weight Angara-1 rocket was continuously delayed, while the European Vega was too expensive for many small satellite operators. Although the US-based SpaceX attempted to fill the void with its competitive prices, the company's Falcon-9 rocket is often oversized for many small-satellite missions. It left the Indian PSLV rocket as the one vehicle well-suited for that particular market niche.
Suddenly, it looked promising for KB Yuzhnoe to re-target Tsyklon-4 from equatorial orbits to the near-polar orbits frequented by small satellites, such as those comprising future remote-sensing constellations.
Looking for a new home
After the breakup of the Ukrainian-Brazilian venture, the Ukrainian space agency, GKAU, delegated to KB Yuzhnoe the search for a new home base for Tsyklon-4. In a March 2017 interview with the UNIAN news agency, Deputy Head of GKAU Vladimir Mikheev said that the company had considered more than 10 different countries for a new spaceport. Experts reportedly looked at such exotic places as Pacific islands and various locations across the United States. In the end, despite the political re-alignment of the Ukrainian government from Moscow toward Washington, US sites were all rejected due to high cost and potential political issues. The election of Donald Trump, a self-styled populist with isolationist tendencies, drove the last nail into the coffin of a US-based launch site for Tsyklon-4.
Instead, developers explored the possibility of putting the rocket in Canada, not unlike a circa 1990s plan to base Russia's light-weight Start booster in Churchill, Manitoba.
The home of a large Ukrainian diaspora, Canada maintained good relations with Ukraine and the Canadian political climate looked much more favorable for an international venture. After several trips to Canada and meetings with local authorities, including fishing and environmental regulators, experts at KB Yuzhnoe focused their attention on the coast of Nova Scotia on the east coast of Canada.
On Sept. 1, 2016, the Ukrainian space agency gave formal permission to KB Yuzhnoe to proceed with the development of a joint venture for the Tsyklon-4 rocket in North America.
However, in order to adapt Tsyklon-4 for its new role in the new economic and political environment, Tsyklon-4 was drastically re-designed. The original booster stage of the rocket with a diameter of three meters, which was inherited from the Soviet Tsyklon-2 and -3 launchers and the R-36 ballistic missile, was abandoned in favor of Zenit's and Antares' 3.9 meter caliber still in production and using non-toxic propellant.
Not coincidently, the newly adopted diameter of the first stage precisely matched the caliber of the upper stage developed for the old Tsyklon-4. This new combination became the basis of the new architecture dubbed Tsyklon-4M, even though the rocket more resembled Zenit than Tsyklon.
On March 7, 2017, Ukrainian engineers made a presentation of the Tsyklon-4M concept rocket at a closed-door meeting in Dnepropetrovsk. The work on the project was reportedly delegated to a team led by the son of the Designer General at KB Yuzhnoe, who had previously overseen the successful work on the Antares.
While retaining the diameter of 3.9 meters inherited from Zenit and Antares, the new first-stage booster of the 39-meter-tall Tsyklon-4M will be shorter to optimize it for its new role. According to original plans, the first stage of the new rocket was to be propelled by four modified RD-120 engines borrowed from Zenit's second stage, replacing the Russian-built RD-171 propulsion system on the first stage of the Zenit.
Unlike its static position on the second stage of Zenit, two out of four main engines will be attached to the first stage of the future Tsyklon-4M via a special gimbal mechanism, enabling the pair to tilt slightly away from vertical axis and, thus, steer the rocket in flight.
The second stage for Tsyklon-4M will be borrowed from the "old" third stage of the Tsyklon-4 rocket. It will use a hypergolic (or storable) propellant. Although both of its components are toxic, they remove all time limitations of easily evaporating cryogenic propellants. As a result, the upper stage can be restarted multiple times and operate in space almost indefinitely, performing elaborate maneuvers.
The payload fairing for the new rocket will also be borrowed unchanged from Tsyklon-4.
Given the advanced level of development and proven reliability of all key components of the proposed rocket, Tsyklon-4M has a good chance of success in the industry, whose history is littered with failed commercial ventures. The biggest challenge for the company would be developing the first stage engine and building the rocket's launch site largely from scratch.
Read much more about the history of the Russian space program in a richly illustrated, large-format glossy edition:
A preliminary architecture of the Tsyklon-4M rocket. Credit: KB Yuzhnoe
A production line of Tsyklon rockets at Yuzhmash plant in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, circa 1990s. Credit: KB Yuzhnoe
The Ukrainian-built version of the RD-120 (11D123) engine will propel the first stage of the Tsyklon-4M rocket. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
The RD-861K engine developed for the third stage of the Tsyklon-4 rocket. Copyright © 2005 Anatoly Zak
Scale models of Zenit and Tsyklon-4 (right) boosters. Copyright © 2005 Anatoly Zak