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What's really behind the latest revival of Russia's smaller, cheaper space station concept?
According to the plan approved by Roskosmos in February 2015, the creation of the Russian station would start with the separation of three newest Russian modules from the Russian segment of the ISS (bottom center) in 2024. Two earliest Russian-built ISS components -- the Zarya Control Module, FGB, and the Zvezda Service Module, SM, will remain in place, enabling propellant delivery with Progress cargo ships (center) and the eventual controlled deorbiting of the outpost.
On December 15, 2014, answering questions from journalists at the end of an annual press-conference, the head of Roskosmos, Oleg Ostapenko said that the agency had been considering options for the development of the High-Latitude Orbital Station, also known by its Russian abbreviation as VShOS. According to Ostapenko, the new space station would enable to monitor more than 90 percent of the nation's territory (thanks to the higher inclination of its orbit toward the Equator than that of the ISS). In the future, the station would also serve as a foundation for the Russian lunar exploration program, Ostapenko said. The orbital outpost could function as a permanently inhabited facility or as a fully automated spacecraft with periodic visits by the crew, according to Ostapenko.
Peculiarly, the Earth-orbiting station concept seemingly contradicted a recently proclaimed Russian strategy to explore the Moon. During his introduction to the event, Ostapenko himself called the Moon the first priority for the manned space program. Obviously, building such a station would divert resources and time from any lunar expedition, observers said.
As often happens in human space flight, the projects are driven forward by reasons other than those officially announced. Industry sources familiar with the situation explained that the decade-old concept to follow the ISS with a small Russian station had received a new impetus in the past few months due to a combination of technical, political and financial problems.
At the heart of the latest plan is the botched construction of the Multi-purpose Laboratory Module, MLM, the Russia's next big piece of the International Space Station, ISS. After many years of delays, the price tag for the MLM project ballooned to one billion rubles, however the all-but-completed module had to be grounded until at least 2017 due to severe quality control problems during its manufacturing at GKNPTs Khrunichev in Moscow. Repairs of the module were estimated at another billion rubles and GKNPTs Khrunichev was expected to cover this cost from its own reserves. However, the nearly bankrupt company came back with an announcement that it already owed around a billion Euro and would not be able to pay for the future work. Even if repaired and successfully launched, the MLM module, which would have taken more than two decades to build, could arrive at the ISS on the eve of its retirement.
As an alternative, Russian space officials came up with a new scheme to build a whole new station around the MLM, instead of launching it to the ISS. The project with an estimated price tag from four to five billion rubles would cover a five-year delay in the construction of the ISS. The new Russian station would also utilize all future modules of the Russian segment, which were expected to follow MLM to the ISS, such as the Node Module, UM; the Science and Power Module, NEM; an Inflatable Habitat, and the OKA-T laboratory.
Thanks to its orbit, overflying most of the Russian territory the station could focus on remote-sensing tasks, such as testing of the Earth-watching space sensors. As the Russian national asset, it would be free of restrictions for military experiments imposed on the activities of the ISS.
Politics of high-inclination orbit
The new space station would also conveniently fulfil the political goal of providing a purpose for the costly expenditure on the Soyuz launch pad in Vostochny. After a marathon construction of the behemoth facility in the remote region of the Russian Far East with the arbitrary goal of launching a space mission in 2015, the lack of purpose for the project finally dawned on Kremlin officials.
In the absence of a new-generation spacecraft, Roskosmos apparently started looking at the possibility of launching old Soyuz spacecraft on its namesake rocket from Vostochny. However, in order to reach the ISS, the spacecraft would have to climb into orbit over a vast stretch of the Pacific Ocean, requiring a whole fleet of rescue vessels stationed along its ground track in case of emergency. In contrast, the north-bound launches to a prospective high-latitude space station would be heading over the mostly open tundra of the Russian Far East.
The last and possibly most important factor prompting the Kremlin to urgently review the concept of an all-Russian space station is the latest ruble collapse. It is already clear that the current economic downturn could postpone if not outright kill all the lunar dreams in Russia. The money foes will likely bind Russian cosmonauts to the low Earth orbit for as long as two decades.
As of 2014, the launch of the MLM module was set for 2017, however it envisioned its docking at the ISS. Should the Kremlin decide to build a whole new station around it, the ill-fated spacecraft would have to be grounded again. First off all, it would have to be modified to function as the core of the future station, instead of just an addition to an existing Russian segment, which is already in place to provide the new arrival with flight control, power, life support and communications.
At the time, the deadline established by the Kremlin for the first manned launch from Vostochny is 2018 and recent Russian documents revealed a plan to launch an unmanned OKA-T laboratory on a Soyuz-2 rocket at that time. It is conceivable that OKA-T could be re-purposed as an early component of the high-latitude space station and even provide a temporary shelter in the low Earth orbit for visiting Soyuz crews. However, even under the most optimistic and simplified scenarios, few believe that the new scheme could lift off before 2020s.
Naturally, developers hoped to time the beginning of the VShOS construction at the end of the ISS mission, however, as of beginning of 2015, the fate of the international project was yet to be decided. For the sake of planning, the authors of the VShOS concept considered two scenarios tied to the ISS deorbiting either around 2020 or around 2024.
Roskosmos approves ISS split
On February 24, 2015, the Scientific and Technical Council, NTS, at Roskosmos, the main planning body at the agency led by a newly appointed chairman and the former head of the agency Yuri Koptev, formally endorsed the Russian participation in the ISS program until 2024. It would be followed by the separation of Russia's newest modules from the ISS to form the new national space station. As previously reported on this site, the initial configuration of the station would include the Multi-purpose Module, MLM, the Node Module, UM, and the Science and Power Module, NEM. Notably, the original Russian ISS component -- the Zvezda Service Module, SM -- was not included in the plan, thus ensuring that its propulsion capabilities would be available for deorbiting of the outpost at the end of its operational life.
The official press-release of the agency published late at night Moscow Time on Tuesday (February 24) said that members of the NTS had reviewed the Concept of the Russian human space program until 2030 and beyond. According to the statement, the Concept was based on two key strategies:
"The Concept calls for the use of the ISS until 2024; then, there is a plan to form the Russian orbital base out of the modules separated from the ISS. The configuration of the MLM module, the UM module and the NEM module enables to build the prospective station with the task to gurantee access to space for Russia," Roskosmos said. "Russia will consistently explore the Moon with robotic spacecraft from its orbit and from the lunar surface. At the turn of the 2030s, there are plans for transition to human flights to the Moon," the statement continued.
"The detailing of the plan and taking of final decisions is planned after the summary of reports by heads of space industry companies during follow-up meetings of the Council," Roskosmos said.
The statement then quoted Yuri Koptev as saying: "The human space flight is a part of Russia's general space strategy and today we have determined the main vector -- via ISS, the development of the lunar program in the Earth orbit to deep space missions. And this is most important: Russia now got the agreed point of view. The NTS approved key points of the Concept of the Russian space program until 2025. We took into the account possible funding changes and the program will have to be implemented with respect of the agency's overall goals, including development of the entire spacecraft fleet. The issue of development of launch vehicles for sending payloads to high orbits, for exploration of the Moon and for further exploration of space, will be reviewed in detail during the next NTS meeting in March. We directed to prepare a detailed document (on the issue) taking into account overall relations within the industry."
Yuri Koptev was still at the helm of what was then called Rosaviakosmos, when in 2001, he first publicly disclosed plans to build all-Russian station after the retirement of the ISS.
Speaking at the Russian Duma (parliament) on May 19, 2015, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin promised within a week to deliver proposals to the president on the development of a new-generation space station as the cornerstone of Russia's manned space program. Around the same time, Yuri Koptev was quoted as saying that Russia would offer the future space station as a cooperative project to its partners in the group of countries known as BRICS, which along with Russia also included Brazil, India, China and South Africa.
According to industry sources in the second half of 2015, Roskosmos and its main human space flight contractor -- RKK Energia -- worked on the new technical requirements for the future components of the Russan ISS segment, so they could eventually form the core of the new Russian Orbital Station, ROS. It would initially include MLM, UM and NEM1 modules. At the time, Roskosmos officials publically hinted that the agency had endorsed the project. However, given the simultaneous work to extend the operation of the ISS until 2028, the separation of the Russian components could be postponed respectively.
During planning for the Mir-2 space station in the 1980s, engineers considering launching the outpost into an orbit with an inclination of 64.85 degrees, which could be accessed by transport ships departing from Plesetsk. These studies were put at the foundation of the work on the VShOS facility in 2014.
One of major problem engineers would face in preparing manned missions to the high-inclination orbit would be finding appropriate landing zones for descent modules of Soyuz spacecraft. It was deemed impossible to find a large enough landing zone on the Russian territory, which could provide not just open and flat area for the nominal touchdown, but also for an emergency descent in the so-called ballistic mode (without use of aerodynamic control during the reentry), which could put the crew capsule as far as 600 kilometers away from the primary landing site. Only endless steppes of Kazakhstan provide such a flexibility, however the high-latitude trajectory of the future station imposes additional restrictions on the landing trajectory.
In case of an emergency onboard the outpost at a wrong time, the crew and its mission control could face a dilemma either waiting for the right landing window, or making an orbit-correction maneuver, which would put the Soyuz on a right descent path to the landing zone. In any case, the new 64.85-degree orbit would increase a risk for the crew, when compared to the return from the current ISS orbit with an inclination 51.6 degrees toward the Equator. Obviously, the political issue of Russian dependency on Kazakhstan would also remain. Only the introduction of the new-generation spacecraft, whose descent module would have higher maneuvering capabilities during landing could radically improve the situation.
Plans for the post-ISS Russian Orbital Station, ROS, stuck in limbo, as the nation's space program has faced budget cuts in 2016. Although the industry has now completed formulating the overall design of the future station, the cash-strapped Roskosmos was yet to approve the formal technical assignment for the development of ROS as of June 2016. The addendum to the Federal Contract, which would fund further development work on the project, has not been issued either.
The ROS project stalled despite being formally approved by three strategy documents governing the current Russian space program: The 10-year Federal Space Program from 2016 to 2025, known as FKP-2025; The Strategy for Russian Piloted Space Flight until 2035 and the Concept of the Russian Piloted Space Flight.
Despite current funding problems, the key Russian manned space flight contractor, RKK Energia, continues low-level work on the ROS concept, including two new modules, in addition to three earlier components already in active development.
As of the middle of 2016, the official ROS schedule still called for the launch of the Multi-purpose Module, MLM-U, before the end of 2017, followed by the small Node Module, UM, in the second half of 2018. Both of these components are in high readiness for flight. The newly developed Science and Power Module, NEM-1, is currently slated for launch at the end of 2019, however its development status is unclear. All three modules will be docked to the Russian segment of the ISS first, before separating at the end of its life span to form the ROS.
In addition, RKK Energia completed formulation of concepts for two extra modules: the Transformable Module, TM, and the Airlock Module, ShM. As of the middle of 2016, they were tentatively scheduled for launch at the beginning and the end of 2024, respectively, if Roskosmos ever approve and fund their development. Peculiarly, the pair is currently also slated to go to the ISS first, probably, taking into account the outpost's anticipated operation until 2028. The extension of the ISS life span might also give Roskosmos some breathing room to sort out its funding problems, before giving the full go ahead to the ROS project.
According to the current ROS concept, the new Russian station will have a truly unlimited life span, thanks to the possibility to replace any of its modules. (It is practically impossible with the current ISS architecture.) The new Russian station is also designed to operate either as a permanently inhabited outpost or as a periodically visited facility. Russian strategists also hope that the new station will inherit the international nature of the ISS project.
On Aug. 10, 2016, RKK Energia finally received the formal technical assignment from Roskosmos for the ROS complex. The document approved the inclusion of the Node Module and the NEM module into the future station, however the Airlock Module was re-named into the Module-Shipyard, MS, which had similar specifications, but was geared more toward assembly work outside the station.
The biggest revision was the absence of the MLM module in the project, which had previously served as the key element of the whole architecture. Instead, Roskosmos prescribed the development the Power Module, EM, with an ambitious, if not unrealistic set of specifications, industry sources said.
Interestingly, previous revisions of the project did contain the Power Module, which would be launched on the Soyuz-2-1b rocket, with a payload of eight tons to the low Earth orbit. Possibly, Roskosmos hoped to replace the MLM module, partially inherited from the Soviet-era TKS space tug, with the smaller, cheaper new-generation vehicle.
In the next step toward the development of the ROS complex, RKK Energia worked on specifications for the Technical Proposal of the project, but as of the end of October 2016, the process was yet to be completed. The company had also failed to secure funding for this phase of the work. According to industry sources, there were serious doubts about Roskosmos' ability to fund both the manned lunar program and the development of the orbital station. As of the end of 2016, the lunar exploration effort still retained its highest priority status as mandated by the Kremlin in 2013 during the high time for the oil prices.
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Written and illustrated by Anatoly Zak; Last update: May 15, 2017
Editor: Alain Chabot; Edits: December 16, 2014; August 11, 2016; November 9, 2016
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The MLM module was proposed to become a core of the future station. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
Likely configurations for a fully assembled, low-cost successor to the ISS proposed by the Russian space industry in 2014. The facility includes the MLM module (top), a Node Module (center), an Inflatable Habitat (left), a Soyuz spacecraft (background); Docking and Airlock Compartment (right) and the OKA-T free-flying laboratory (bottom). Copyright © 2014 Anatoly Zak
Under this scenario, a specialized Node Module, UM, with six docking ports (right), links up with the MLM module, after its departure from the Russian segment of the International Space Station. During its stay at the ISS, the MLM would be outfitted with a radiator and a small airlock, which were originally launched into orbit with the MIM1 module. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2015 Anatoly Zak
Alternatively, a Node Module, could be added to the front of the MLM module. The configuration would free another port for Soyuz ships, however it would require to reconfigure the MLM's docking port from active to passive design. This scenario could be used if the MLM would form the new station without its prior launch to the ISS. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2015 Anatoly Zak
The NEM1 science and power module docks at the high-latitude space station. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2015 Anatoly Zak
A piloted Soyuz spacecraft docks at the nascent post-ISS space station. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2015 Anatoly Zak
The OKA-T spacecraft might join the future station. Credit: RKK Energia
East-bound trajectory from Vostochny to reach the ISS would overfly the Pacific, while north-bound flights to the future Russian station would pass along the Russian landmass. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2007 Anatoly Zak
Most modules of the all-Russian space station would be launched on Soyuz-2-1b rockets from Vostochny. Credit: Roskosmos
The new Russian station could eventually include a pair of identical NEM modules. Copyright © 2017 Anatoly Zak