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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Rocket to Take Off by 2003

Having overcome a major engineering hurdle, local space engineers have begun designing a low-cost rocket that will launch satellites into low-Earth orbits after having been dropped from a transport plane.

Blueprints for the rocket will be completed this year and the new two-stage Polyot rocket is to be manufactured and launched into space as soon as mid-2003, said Anatoly Karpov, president of the Moscow-based Air Launch Corp.

Karpov said the corporation will charge as little as $5,000 for each kilogram of payload, just 40 percent of what Western launch companies charge.

Robert Ivanov, Air Launch's deputy general designer, said Tuesday that designers had solved a key problem on how to drop the 100-metric-ton rocket from a transport plane.

Initially, the corporation's engineers had planned to build an 80-ton rocket and drag it out from the hold of an An-124-100 Ruslan cargo plane using a set of special parachutes, he said at a news conference.

However, it turned out that the largest parachutes available could pull only 20 tons out of an airborne plane, the designer said. Also, the corporation decided last year to increase the lift-off weight of the rocket from 80 tons to 100 tons to boost its cost-efficiency, Ivanov said.

"We were in a dilemma of whether to use five parachutes and face the risk of them getting caughtup in each other or to find a safer way of dropping the rocket," Ivanov said.

Rather than struggle with parachutes, the corporation chose to develop a new technology to push the rocket out of the plane, he said.

This boils down to having air pressure push the rocket out of the plane, Ivanov said. He said the rocket will be put in a special container that will be integrated into the plane.

Ivanov said air pressure will be swiftly raised inside the container to literally push the rocket out into the sky at the appropriate time. Simultaneously, the plane will reach the top of a swift upward maneuver, when gravity is minimal, to ease the dropping of the rocket, he said.

The rocket will be able to deliver a payload of up to 3 tons to polar orbits of about 200 kilometers and up to 4 tons to equatorial orbits also of about 200 kilometers. Ultimately, the rocket will also be able to launch up to 400 kilograms to geostationary orbits, Ivanov said.

Air Launch vice president Sergei Mashurov said in a recent interview that his corporation needs some $120 million to complete the Air Launch project. He said his company is negotiating with U.S., European and South Asian investors to have them shoulder the costs, but would not provide any names.

Mashurov said each Polyot launch will be priced at around $20 million with a potential demand for up to 11 launches every year. Mashurov said the costs of the project will be recovered in as little as four years if 11 launches are sold annually.

The corporation, which was set up in May 1999 by Polyot airlines and the Design Bureau of Chemical Automatics, which are both based in Voronezh, central Russia, has just sent out technical requirements to its contractors and the latter are already at work on the project, Ivanov said.

Among these contractors is rocket space corporation Energia of Korolyov, outside Moscow, which is to design and assemble the entire rocket and the launch container, Ivanov said. Energia is also to provide a low-temperature engine for the launcher's second stage, he said. The first-stage engine will be provided by the Kuznetsov Scientific Technical Complex of Samara, central Russia, Ivanov said in a telephone interview.

The Antonov design bureau of Kiev, which designed the Ruslan plane, is responsible for converting two of these cargo planes to accommodate Polyot launch containers, Ivanov said.

Also the Pilyugin Scientific Production Bureau of Automated Engineering of Moscow is designing and will manufacture control systems for the rocket, he said. TsSKB-Progress of Samara will integrate spacecraft into the rocket, Ivanov said.

Mashurov said he expects the would-be Air Launch system to win a decent share of the market for light-weight spacecraft launches. He said some 1,800 of such craft are expected to be launched between 2000 and 2015 for a total of anywhere between $10 billion to $15 billion.