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Science and Technology

Unfulfilled Orbit: Angara-A5 Launch Faces Unexpected Halt


Benjamin Hughes

April 9, 2024 - 09:58 am


Setback in the Stars: Russia's Angara-A5 Rocket Launch Abruptly Halted

In an unexpected turn of events that signals further challenges for Russia's space endeavors, the nation abruptly aborted the launch of its most recent rocket, the Angara-A5, just moments before its scheduled takeoff. This cancellation adds yet another chapter to the country's increasingly beleaguered space program.

Last-Minute Cancellation Shrouds Angara-A5 in Mystery

The Angara-A5 rocket was poised for liftoff at noon from the Vostochny Cosmodrome, positioned near Russia’s Far Eastern border with northeastern China. This momentous event was being broadcast live to the world via the Roscosmos YouTube channel when, suddenly and without prior warning or explanation, the launch was ceased. As of now, details surrounding the cause of cancellation and a timeframe for a subsequent launch attempt remain undisclosed by Russia’s space corporation, Roscosmos.

A Series of Unfortunate Events for Angara

This botched launch would have marked the fourth embarkment of the Angara-A5 since its inception in 2014 and the first undertaking since the late 2021 mission failure, where it did not accomplish its targeted orbit. The preceding launches took place at Plesetsk, a historically artifact spaceport used predominantly for military assignments, situated near the Arctic Circle. Alternatively, the Vostochny Cosmodrome, which was inaugurated in 2016 and serves as Russia’s premier commercial launch facility, boasts the infrastructure capable of accommodating heftier payloads.

The Kremlin's Space Ambitions Rely on Vostochny Launches

Harnessing Vostochny's capabilities for launching the Angara-A5 is pivotal to the Kremlin's strategic vision, with the primary objective being to transition away from the Proton series—older generation rockets launched from Baikonur, a Soviet-era cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Despite the dissolution of the USSR, Russia has maintained the use of this facility. The commendable intent to utilize Angara's A5 at Vostochny was underscored by the head of Roscosmos, Yury Borisov, who last month, in a meeting with President Vladimir Putin, referred to it as signifying strength in Russia's terrestrial space infrastructure.

The Dawn of a Heavyweight Rocket: Angara-A5's Key Capabilities

As the first new heavy Russian rocket introduced in over three decades, Angara-A5 can carry a substantial payload of up to 24,500 kilograms to low-Earth orbit; this area is notably where Elon Musk’s SpaceX has established its constellation of over 5,500 Starlink communications satellites. In terms of capacity, the Angara-A5 is on par with SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. However, there's a crucial difference: whereas Musk’s rocket is designed for reuse after its mission, the Angara-A5 has been engineered for a single use.

Military Might and International Competition

The A5 is not solely bound for civilian missions but also holds significant military value, forming part of an expansive Russian program focused on the development of a family of new rockets, collectively labeled under the Angara moniker. Nonetheless, this fleet of launch vehicles faces criticism for being antiquated in comparison to foreign rockets that have surged ahead in technological advancements. Pavel Luzin, a visiting scholar at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, emphasized this perspective in his analysis shared by the Jamestown Foundation earlier this year. Luzin iterated, "This family of launch vehicles has been in development since 1995 and was old-fashioned even before its operational status." Despite its shortcomings, Angara-5 is poised to be the sole heavyweight Russian rocket available for imminent deployment, with an emphasis on military space applications.

Russia's Declining Dominance in Space Exploits

Historically, Russia maintained its clout as a dominant participant in space launches. However, this prestige has been considerably eroded, with the nation now trailing behind the United States and China concerning the number of rocket launches and satellites. Since 2022, Roscosmos has observed a marked exodus of its foreign clientele. Borisov has projected a grim outlook that, by the year 2030, Russia could potentially descend to seventh place in the space services market on a global scale, effectively moving down from its current fourth-place standing.

Aiming for an Ambitious Recovery in Launch Activities

Despite recent setbacks, Roscosmos is resolute in its mission to revitalize and is targeting a significant increase in its launch frequency. Borisov disclosed in an interview with the Russian-language ProKosmos website that the corporation aspires to more than double the annual number of its rocket launches, aiming for over 40 this year.

For access to real-time updates and further insights into this unfolding story, interested readers can visit Roscosmos YouTube Channel for broadcasts and announcements pertaining to the Angara-A5 and other space-related activities.

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Where Russia's Space Aspirations Stand After the Angara-A5 Delay

As the dust settles over the abrupt cancellation of the Angara-A5 launch, questions loom large regarding Russia's position in the global space race. The past victories and the ambitious plans for future dominance are now juxtaposed with a series of impediments that threaten to keep Russian cosmonautic ambitions firmly grounded.

Repercussions of Repeated Delays

The repeated postponements and launch failures cast a long shadow over the Russian space program's reputation. With international competitors like SpaceX innovating reusable rockets that lower the cost of access to space, Russia finds itself in a race not only against time but technology as well. The Angara-A5 maiden flight at Vostochny was meant to project the might and progress of Russia; instead, it has conveyed a message of uncertainty.

Analyzing the Angara-A5's Capabilities in the Modern Space Era

In the era of privatised space travel and exploration, the Angara-A5 symbolizes Russia’s efforts to keep pace with the global market. Its payload capacity is an impressive feat and demonstrates a significant technological milestone for the Russian space agency. However, questions about its viability in a market that favors innovation and cost-effectiveness over sheer power remain unanswered.

The Shift from Soviet-Era Relics to New Horizons

Borisov’s comments about the necessity to upgrade from the aging Proton series to the Angara are indicative of a broad, strategic move to not only modernize but to assert autonomy in space endeavors. The Proton rockets have served well but carry the weight of a bygone era. Phasing out the dependency on Baikonur Cosmodrome is also symbolic of shedding old alliances and dependencies.

Starlink and the International Space Station: Markers of Success

While the Angara-A5 is a potent weapon in Russia's space arsenal, especially when seen against the backdrop of SpaceX’s Starlink program, it is notable that SpaceX has successfully carried out multiple missions to the International Space Station (ISS), highlighting a cooperation model between private and public space sectors. SpaceX’s achievements underscore the transformative nature of the space industry where collaboration is key, something Russia will have to consider in its future strategy.

The Future of Russia's Space Program Amid Global Competition

In light of all factors considered, the abortive launch signifies more than just a technical difficulty—it exemplifies the hurdles that Roscosmos must overcome to reclaim its heritage as a space pioneer. Arduous as the journey may be, the coming decade will be decisive for Russia's space legacy. The goal to escalate launch activities to over 40 per annum is indeed a commendable objective, yet executing this plan successfully in the competitive sphere will require both technological finesse and strategic ingenuity.

In conclusion, while the sky may be the limit for space exploration, the Angara-A5’s future launches will be scrutinized under a global lens. Roscosmos’s response to this setback, and its subsequent actions, will be pivotal in determining the trajectory of Russia's cosmic conquests. Whether Russia will soar to the stars or remain earthbound is a tale yet to unfold.