With funding now a major consideration, Russian space enterprises are selectively focusing on more lucrative sectors of the industry

Richard Heart / Moscow

Funding shortages have forced Russia's space industry into a general decline, but the largest enterprises have managed to find market niches and stay in business.

The leading Russian space organisations are concentrating their efforts on the International Space Station (ISS) and launch vehicles as those sectors have proved to be the most lucrative.

The ISS is a budget priority and this year Russia's aviation and space agency Rosaviakosmos is to spend Rb2.9billion ($99 million) to fulfil the country's obligations. Heavy parliamentary lobbying allowed Rosaviakosmos to raise its space budget for this year by Rb1.1 billion, which is to come from "extra income". Higher than expected oil prices are making these extra funds possible. The government's Rb7.7 billion funding for national space programmes in 2001 is twice that of 2000.

The Russian space industry has exploited the launch service market to its advantage. Although Russian launch vehicles are of relatively old design, they are reliable, inexpensive and perform adequately. During the Soviet era, up to 100 launch vehicles were fired yearly, which enabled manufacturers to perfect their construction. Today, the rate has dropped to 20-30 launches annually, half of which are for the federal space programme.


The major Russian launch vehicle manufacturers have now teamed with their Western counterparts to sell launch services. The Proton, so far the most successful Russian launch vehicle on the international market, is available via an International Launch Services joint venture between Khrunichev Space Centre, RKK Energia and Lockheed Martin. Unlike other Russian launch vehicles, the Proton is a heavy booster capable of deploying large communications satellites into geostationary orbit. Launching such satellites is the most lucrative segment of today's space market and, depending on the mission, a Proton flight costs $70-90 million, with Lockheed Martin reaping 15% of the fee. The rest is distributed to almost 100 Russian and Ukrainian companies that supply components for the Proton. Over the past few years the volume of income from Proton commercial launches has exceeded the national space budget.


In 1999, the Russians began commercial launches of the medium-lift Soyuz-U launch vehicle, a derivative of the long-serving R-7 developed in the 1950s. The rocket is available on the market through Russian-Franco Starsem joint venture, formed by TsSKB Progress (25%), Rosaviakosmos (25%), Aerospatiale (35%) and Arianespace (15%). The Soyuz-U differs from the basic R-7 design, originally developed for deploying crew and automatic supply vehicles into low orbit, in having an additional upper rocket stage - either the Ikar or the Fregat, often referred to as boosting blocks - to reach higher orbits. A Soyuz flight sells for $40 million. Sales have been poor: there have been 10 commercial launches, including deployment of the low-orbit GlobalStar communications and Claster-2 scientific satellites.

Discussions are being held at governmental level on setting up a Soyuz launch site in the Kourou Space Centre, French Guiana (Flight International, 24-30 July). Such a move would require a $250 million investment. It is believed, however, that higher transport costs - for delivery of launch vehicles from Samara in central Russia to French Guiana - will be offset by a more convenient geographic location, allowing better use of the rocket's capability. The matter will be discussed at a European Space Agency session in November.

Also up and running is Russian and Ukrainian involvement in Sea Launch, a joint venture with Boeing. The medium-weight Zenit-SL launch vehicle is built by Ukraine's NPO Yuzhnoye, to which Russia's RKK Energia supplies the DM-SL upper stage, an improved version of the DM3 developed for the Proton. When Boeing chairman Phil Condit visited Moscow recently, the venture's participants discussed joint marketing of the conventional Zenit's flights from Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

While efforts to increase the commercial use of heavy- and medium-lift launch vehicles have been at least moderately successful, similar moves for lightweight launch vehicles have not. The substantial demand forecasted for deployment of micro satellites has failed to materialise, but a number of Russian companies continue to pursue the original targets. The first Russian light launch vehicle to become available was the Kosmos-3M, developed in the mid-1960s by Krasnoyarsk-based NPO PM, and is being produced at Omsk-based NPO Polyet. A first commercial launch took place in 1995 and flights are offered at $12-16 million each. Unlike other launch vehicles, this one is marketed by the Russians, namely the Rosoboronexport arms-trade agency. So far, demand has been low. Only twice has the rocket carried commercial piggyback micro satellites in addition to main payloads.

In the past 10 years Russian companies have created a number of launch vehicles from converted intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The missiles are widely available because they are being withdrawn from service in accordance with Strategic Arms Limitation (SALT) treaties. Vehicles presently on the market are the Start 1, Rokot and Dnepr (a joint development with Ukraine). Another, the Strela, will be ready in 2002. Also available are the Shtil and Volna vehicles, which will be launched from submarines.

When these programmes were initiated, it was believed that annual demand would be at least seven to 10 flights. The maximum, however, has been one to two flights a year. A threat facing the production of these launch vehicles is that the SALT treaty requires the destruction of redundant ICBMs by 31 December 2007, including those models that served as prototypes for the Rokot, Dnepr and Strela.

Most of the new rocket designs are upgraded variants of successful designs already in revenue service, the only serious exception being the Angara family with payloads ranging from 2t to 30t (into low orbit). Initiated by Russia's defence ministry in 1994, the project has received almost no state funding since. In 1999, however, Khrunichev reached agreement with Lockheed Martin, under which the US company purchased the right to market the Angara on the international market for $60 million. It is understood this money will supplement Khrunichev's own investments in development and flight testing.

In parallel, Khrunichev is making a sustained effort to improve the Proton. The Proton-M is already operational with a Breeze-M upper stage, capable of sending a higher payload into geostationary orbit than that achieved by the DM3. Khrunichev is developing an even more efficient upper stage based on cryogenic fuels, called the KVRB.


Rocket science

Unlike Khrunichev's projects, TsSKB Progress has been more successful at acquiring state funding for its new designs, most notably the Soyuz-2 derived from the Soyuz-U. Yet government funding was insufficient for the company to keep up its initial schedule, causing repeated delays of the first flight - now set for 2003.

Another variant of the rocket, the Yamal, is being developed jointly by TsSKB and RKK Energia. Its commercial variant, the Aurora, is to be offered for launches from Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. The project is estimated to cost $300 million, with the required funding expected to come from Australia's Asia-Pacific Space Centre, supervisor of the project.

The manned space flight sector has been another attractive market for Russian companies as it draws both state and commercial finance. From 1993 to 1999, half of the funding for Russian manned programmes came from flights of foreign astronauts to the Mir space station. Between 1995 and 1999 US astronauts had seven long stays on the station, bringing Russia $400 million in revenue. Europe also sent envoys and provided money.

Commercial activities allowed Russia to complete two Mir modules and keep the station operational until last March. It also provided some of the cash needed to fulfil Russian obligations on the ISS - most notably completion of the SM Zvezda core module and the Pirs docking module. The latter will fly in September to provide additional docking points for vehicles and facilities for spacewalks. Paid launches have permitted RKK Energia to upgrade the Soyuz crew vehicles and the Progress M1 automatic supply vehicles.

Having two forms of funding allows Russian manufacturers to continue sufficient production of launch vehicles, crew and automatic supply vehicles to support the ISS. But it has been insufficient to permit timely completion of non-critical elements of the Russian segment, such as the Universal docking module, scientific power platform and two science modules. Their completions have been repeatedly postponed and are planned for 2003-07.

In addition, RKK Energia and the US SpaceHab company are developing the Enterprise module for multimedia services and scientific experiments, while Khrunichev and Boeing are working on the CSM module. These two are competitors not only because of their similar functional capabilities, but also as there is only one spare docking point available on the Zarya ISS core module. Both teams plan to deploy their modules in 2003, although they may join forces and produce one.

The vast Russian expertise in manned space has reportedly been purchased by China for application to the Shenzhou manned spacecraft and a national space station. It is possible that the two countries could join forces on their creation.

Limited success

Russian companies are present on the communications satellite market, but with moderate success, partly because of the insufficient state funding for technology development and national communications programmes. In the last two years, the four communications satellites Russia has deployed - two Express-A, a Gorizont and a Ekran-M - fell considerably behind Western designs. The number of transponders on the Gorizont and Ekran is eight and two respectively, which makes commercial use of their services questionable. Calculations based on the current tariffs for space communications show that the investments into deployment of an Ekran-M, worth Rb205 million, will take nine years to pay off, but guaranteed in-orbit lifetime is just three years.

Kosmicheskaya Sviaz (Space Communications), the state agency offering such services, recently said it can no longer afford such "business". Its head, Boris Antonyuk, asks: "How can we commit to launching a satellite with three-year guaranteed lifetime and break-even period of nine years? We are often questioned on the reason to continue such a business by state officials and the Ministry of Communications." These concerns forced Russian manufacturers to use relatively cheap imported transponders. The Express-A, for instance, carries 18 transponders, while a Boeing 601 satellite has room for 30-40.

NPO PM, the leading developer of the platforms for Russian geostationary satellites, is set to use a considerable quantity of Western systems on its newest designs to make them competitive. So far NPO PM has won only one foreign order, from the European telecommunication satellite organisation Entelsat, which purchased the SESat satellite with 18 transponders.

Russia's federal space programme for 2001-05 calls for development and deployment of the Express K1, K2 and K3 "fixed communications and TV" satellites (deployment should start in 2002); the Express-1000 communications satellites for regional communications (deploying in 2004); the Triada mobile satellite communications system (from 2004); the Yamal-200 and Yamak-300 fixed communications system (beginning in 2005); and the Gals-R direct TV broadcast system (with deployment from 2003). As the limited budget does not provide enough funding for all these, a large part of the required financing will come from "non-budgetary sources".

In the last few years Russia has lost its standing in the market of providing Earth imaging services. Early on, Russia made some strides in this field after the Sovinformsputnik company won a governmental permit to sell 2m-resolution images taken by Kometa satellites. But sales waned after the US Government allowed sales of images with resolutions of 1m and 0.5m. In 1999, the US-built Ikonos satellite, capable of taking pictures with 1m resolution and sending them via a data link, was deployed.

Last year the Israeli EROS A-1 with similar capabilities was deployed atop the Russian Start 1 launch vehicle. These advances made the Kometa no longer competitive, with its poorer resolution and the need to process the onboard cameras' film on Earth once a typical 45-day mission was completed. Early this year the Russian Government decided to give some former military systems "dual use" status, in a move to regain market share.

The condition of the national satellite systems - including global positioning, meteorological and scientific - continues to deteriorate. Reportedly, only seven to nine satellites in the GLONASS global-positioning constellation remain serviceable. Deployment of Uragan-M satellites with longer operational lives is planned. Meanwhile, talks have been under way with China on a joint use of the system, for which GLONASS was recently given the status of a "dual-purpose" system.

Weather satellites

The Russian meteorological grouping accounts for two low-orbit Meteor satellites deployed in 1991 and 1993. A more advanced Meteor-3M is to be deployed in November, followed by the Elektro-2, destined for a geostationary orbit. Efforts on scientific satellites are limited to completion of the Spekr-RG (astro-physics observatory) and Koronas-F (for studies of Earth-Sun connections), work on which began 10-15 years ago. The Koronas-F is to fly this year and the Spektr-RG in 2006.

Russia will probably keep its positions in the launch vehicle and manned space markets as funding is coming from state budget and commercial services. The increasing attention of President Vladimir Putin's administration to national defence issues gives hope that some military and dual-use projects will generate funding to maintain the GLONASS global-positioning system, and develop competitive Earth observation systems. Prospects for other sectors of space activities are far less hopeful.

Source: Flight International