Russian Rocket: All Fueled Up, But No Place to Fly
This graphic depicts the launch profile for a Dnepr rocket.
Credit: ISC Kosmotras

In another frustrating foul-up on the path towards converting Soviet-era military missiles into cash-paying satellite launchers, a military-industrial team in Moscow has announced the ?indefinite suspension? of plans to launch an earth resources survey satellite for Thailand.

The reasons: at the last moment, for the second time, overflight permission has been revoked by a country downrange of the launch site. First Uzbekistan, and now Kazakhstan, denied permission for dropping the booster?s spent first stage onto their territories.

?We never thought we?d see a repeat of the Uzbekistan case,? lamented Thongchai Charuppat, director of Thailand?s ?GeoInformatics and Space Technology Development Agency (GISTDA)? which owns the European-built payload. The second denial, he added, was ?worse because the cancellation was made at the last minute," even though "all functional systems were in place and the rocket was fully fueled.?

The rocket, a converted RS-20V ?Voyevoda? (Russian for ?war chief?) known as the SS-18 ?Satan? to the Pentagon, had finished 25 years of alert duty in 2005, and had been stored awaiting a more peaceful assignment. The countdown was underway towards a launch at 1.37 p.m. Thailand time (2:37 a.m. EDT) on Aug. 6. Then the clock stopped.

"We are waiting for the negotiation between the launch company (ISC Kosmotras) and Kazakhstan," he told the newspaper Bangkok Post on Aug. 7. "The problem is not with the satellite, which is now ready to work," he added. No other information has been released in Moscow, where the company?s website has not been updated in more than a year.

War surplus rockets for sale

In what had looked like a ?win-win-win? situation for all concerned, a Ukrainian rocket factory had been acquiring old military missiles from the Russian ?Strategic Rocket Forces? and adding an off-the-shelf upper stage to create a satellite launch capability that they then sold to foreign customers. The project, named ?Dnepr? after the Ukrainian river, had already launched ten such vehicles into orbit, mostly from rented facilities at the Russian government?s space base at Baikonur, now in independent Kazakhstan in central Asia.

In order to lower launch costs even more, and to get more training benefit for the military missilemen, in the past several years launches had also been made from a Russian military missile base near Orenburg, east of the southern Ural Mountains. A test launch of a missile was made in December 2004 and orbital launches followed.

You can?t get there from here

The problem with the current launch — which could be either permanently unfixable, or alternately could be cleared up overnight by appropriate cash transfers between official and/or private Asian bank accounts — stems from the special orbital path of this particular satellite. The satellite, named THEOS (Thailand Earth Observation Satellite), needed to be in what is called a ?sun-synchronous? orbit around the Earth.

In such a path, earth observation satellites maintain a constant angle to illuminating sunlight over their observation regions. This is done by using a near polar orbit — traveling closely to a north-south or south-north track — with a slightly more ?retrograde? slant added in. That extra slant allows the Earth?s equatorial bulge to gently twist the orbital plane of the satellite to the east about one degree per day. This is the same rate that the sun moves against an inertial reference frame in Earth?s 365-day circuit.

As a result, the orbit ?keeps pace? with that daily shift and thus obtain surface images month-by-month that have similar lighting conditions and can be precisely contrasted to monitor real changes. All long-term low-orbit earth observation satellites, military and civilian, use this kind of orbit.

But to get into such a path, the satellite must be carried not on the most efficient eastwards launch trajectory, but initially towards either the south or north pole. This crosses different regions of Earth, including some areas near launch sites that are unaccustomed to jettisoned rocket stages falling out of the sky. And it didn?t help that two years ago a launch of a Dnepr due south from Baikonur crashed to Earth when the first stage failed, leaving a large crater and spraying toxic fuel over Kazakh pasturelands. A subsequent early-in-ascent crash of a much-heavier ?Proton? rocket the following summer did little to endear the Kazakhstan government to Russian rocketry.

To launch from the other Dnepr site in Orenburg Province, an ascent path heading just west of due south would have dropped the spent first stage — still containing significant amounts of leftover fuel — into a desert region of Uzbekistan. But late last year, the Uzbek government refused to grant permission.

Although the ?Kosmotras? company has released no information on what came next, it appears that its engineers redesigned the rocket?s ascent path, shifting it slightly to the right (or westwards) to move the planned impact zone into Kazakh territory, in the Karakiya District of the Mangystau Province in far southwestern Kazakhstan.

After dropping the first stage, the rocket could then shift back onto its desired track. This navigational method, called a ?dog leg maneuver? after the kink in a canine hind leg, is fairly common in rocket science, and it trades a slight decrease in orbital payload capability for a much more environmentally acceptable early ascent path.

Defection of the backup option

But now it seems that even the alternate ascent path is unacceptable, this time to Kazakhstan government officials in Astana, the country?s capital. There could be any of a number of reasons, or a combination of them all.

Perhaps it?s simply an issue of clean-up guaranties, or of insurance, or even of private under-the-table payoffs — or perhaps it?s just national pride. Only days before the scheduled launch, a cynical article in the Moscow Times had criticized ?Moscow?s seeming indifference to Astana?s demands that Russian engineers and space companies drastically change launch procedures at Baikonur for public safety and environmental reasons.? Outraged by the two recent crashes in their countryside, the Kazakhs have demanded a rapid phase-out of hydrazine-fuelled rockets at Baikonur, and although Moscow has signed an agreement to do so, it has made no move in that direction.

The article?s author, satellite technology expert Peter J. Brown, concluded that despite the fuss, ?Kazakhstan seems comfortable in Russia?s orbit,? hinting its complaints may only be for show: ?While Astana goes on shouting that the [hydrazine rockets] must go, its ties to Moscow remain firm.?

In Astana, nationalistic officials may have seen the article — or sensed similar sentiments directly from among Russians they were negotiating with — and concluded they had to get tougher to be taken seriously. Poor Thailand could only watch stunned as its grounded, but fully flight-worthy, observation satellite became the club for Kazakhstan to beat Russia with.

Any solution to this impasse must be navigated on Earth, and not in space, where the trajectory rules are much less clear-cut and the mission trade-offs much murkier.

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