Soyuz rocket operations in 2021
By the start of 2021, the Soyuz rockets had logged 40 missions without failures -- the latest evidence that Roskosmos' efforts to improve quality control across the industry might have been working. During the same period, the Soyuz rocket family had moved to become the commercial workhorse of the Russian rocket industry, taking over that role from the Proton. However, along with engineering issues, the Soyuz developers had entirely new problems to worry about.
A Soyuz-2-1b rocket lifts off from Vostochny with the fifith batch of OneWeb satellites on March 25, 2021.
Soyuz rockets might face political problems
On April 23, Head of Roskosmos Dmitry Rogozin announced that Russia had to deny a foreign customer a potential launch service. Rogozin portrayed the situation as a sign of popularity of the Soyuz rocket family (which was the only Russian commercial vehicle operating at the time). "When we suddenly had an opportunity this year to launch another spacecraft, we had to refuse a client for the first time in recent years because our physical production capacity is at its limit," Rogozin said after his visit to RKTs Progress, the Soyuz rocket builder. Asked to comment on such an unusual development, an expert familiar with the matter told RussianSpaceWeb.com that, in reality, the "refusal" to launch a commercial payload was most likely caused by the US sanctions scheduled to go into effect on Sept. 1, 2021. Because it takes many months to plan a launch campaign, there was probably not enough time to accommodate a significant cargo on the available rockets, let alone to order a new vehicle before the US ban against Russian launch services would kick in, the source explained.
The US sanctions prohibited the launch of any payload that use American technologies or incorporate US-built components, thus covering the broadest range of spacecraft manufacturers far beyond American shores. Even worse, the ban specifically listed sanctioned companies, including GKNPTs Khrunichev (Proton's manufacturer) and RKTs Progress. Since Khrunichev's Proton has already been de-facto out of commercial competition for a number of years, RKTs Progress was the real victim.
On Dec. 22, 2020, the US Department of Commerce blacklisted 45 Russian and 58 Chinese companies as military suppliers.
Russian sources indicated that some creative ways of bypassing the ban through intermediate companies could be attempted but, more likely, the Soyuz rockets were risking being relegated to providing commercial services to a limited range of clients in the Far or Middle East or private individuals, such as space tourists.
Soyuz launch campaigns continue
In February 2021, during the pre-launch coverage of the Progress MS-16 mission, Deputy Director General at TsENKI Ruslan Mukhamedzhinov said that a total of 12 launches of the Soyuz rockets had been planned from Site 31 in Baikonur in 2021. In March, Head of Roskosmos Rogozin also promised at least six Soyuz rocket launches from Vostochny.
On February 16, Roskosmos announced the arrival of a Soyuz-2-1b rocket and two payload fairings at the Vostochny Cosmodrome. At the time, components for three more Soyuz-2-1b rockets and two payload fairings were at the launch site. The vehicles were apparently allocated to OneWeb missions. The assembly of the first rocket was scheduled to begin on February 24.
In addition, components for three more Soyuz-2-1b rockets and one Soyuz-2-1a were stored at the vehicle assembly building. Two 1b rockets for OneWeb missions were already assembled booster stages and two disassembled vehicles for the Meteor and Luna-25 missions were stored in separate stages. At the time, the Ionosfera and Kondor-FKA satellites also had a chance to fly before the end of 2021.
February 2: Soyuz-2-1b launches an ear in the sky
The Russian military personnel in Plesetsk performed the country's first orbital launch of 2021 in the late hours of February 2. A Soyuz-2-1b rocket delivered a semi-classified satellite known as Lotos-S1 or 14F145. It was the fifth addition to the Liana constellation performing electronic intelligence from space for the Russian armed forces.
February 15: Soyuz-2-1a launches Progress MS-16
The 77th Russian cargo supply flight to the International Space Station, ISS, lifted off on February 15, with the unusual task of discarding the veteran Pirs Docking Compartment, SO1, from the Russian Segment of the outpost, to make way for the long-awaited MLM Nauka module later in 2021.
February 28: Soyuz launches first Arktika-M satellite
Russian personnel at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan performed an inaugural launch of the Arktika-M meteorological and remote-sensing satellite on Feb. 28, 2021. Derived from the Elektro-L series of weather satellites, the Arktika spacecraft will be used primarily for meteorological observations of the strategically important northern Russian frontier from a highly elliptical orbit stretched above the northern hemisphere of our planet.
After a 48-hour delay by a technical problem, Russian personnel at Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, successfully launched a Soyuz-2-1a rocket on March 22, 2021, delivering the CAS-500-1 remote-sensing satellite for South Korea and 38 hitchhiker payloads from 18 countries in three different sun-synchronous orbits.
March 25: Soyuz launches fifth OneWeb cluster
The deployment of the Internet-delivery satellite constellation for the UK-based OneWeb company resumed in 2021 with the launch of a Soyuz-2-1b rocket carrying a fresh batch of 36 satellites. Originating from Russia's Vostochny Cosmodrome, the fifth OneWeb mission lifted off on March 25, at 05:47 Moscow Time.
The first Russian crew exchange aboard the International Space Station, ISS, in 2021, came at a critical junction in the operation of the outpost's Russian Segment. Lifting off on April 9 on a Soyuz-2-1a rocket, the crew members of the Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft were prepared to support the arrival and integration of the MLM Nauka module with the ISS during the 65th and 66th long-duration expeditions on the ISS.
April 26: Soyuz launches sixth OneWeb cluster
The deployment of the OneWeb Internet constellation continued from Vostochny Cosmodrome with the second launch in 2021. A Soyuz-2-1b rocket carrying a fresh batch of 36 satellites for the UK-based company lifted off on April 26. The mission increased the number of spacecraft in the network from 146 to 182.
Summary of launches in the Soyuz rocket family in 2021 (as of May 7, 2021 ):
Soyuz-2-1b with Arktika-M1 satellite lifts off on Feb. 28, 2021. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos