Russian-Ukranian venture Air Launch has passed the preliminary design stage with its plan to use the Antonov An-124-100 Ruslan heavylift transport as the first stage of a system for placing satellites into low Earth orbit. The project is proceeding into full-scale development, with operations to begin in 2006, says vice president Sergei Mashurov.
Air Launch has secured approval from the Russian space authorities, and conversion of an An-124 for air launches has begun. Russian central aerohydrodynamics institute TsAGI has been contracted to perform dynamic modelling of the Ruslan manoeuvres preceding deployment of the two-stage rocket.
Air Launch promises low-cost launches to a wide range of orbital inclinations. Development and fielding costs are estimated at $125-150 million, with a satellite launch costing $20 million. Talks are being held with Indonesia, which may join the programme and allow use of its equatorial airfields for the Ruslan.
Air Launch, meanwhile, is working on a variant of the Antonov An-30 turboprop, outfitted with remote-sensing equipment developed from Russia's Meteor and Ocean series satellites. When used in conjunction with Earth-observation satellites, the aircraft will provide multi-level Earth surface surveillance and monitoring.
A major shareholder in Air Launch, Russian airline Polyet, has begun testing the modified An-30. Processed imagery from the satellites and aircraft is being offered to Russian oil and gas companies to monitor fields in Siberia.
VLADIMIR KARNOZOV / MOSCOW