Russia’s brand new Angara rocket is set to perform its maiden flight on Friday, representing the first new technology addition to Russia’s space fleet since the breakup of the USSR.
In the making since the early 1990s, Angara rockets were designed to be launched from the Plesetsk cosmodrome in north-western Russia, to decrease the dependence of Russian space sector on the Baikonur cosmodrome – formerly in Soviet but now in Kazakh territory.
Versions of the launcher for Baikonur, as well as for the newly built Vostochny space port are also planned.
"This is the first launch vehicle that has been developed and built from scratch in Russia," said Igor Lissov, an expert with trade journal Novosti Kosmonovatiki. "Everything else we have is a modernisation of our Soviet legacy."
The Angara launcher is based on a modular approach and allows building different version of the launcher for various payload sizes. The prototype Angara 1.2PP is expected to perform a suborbital test flight to verify the concept. Unlike the workhorse Proton rocket, which Angara is set to replace, the new rocket is not powered by toxic hydrazine fuel but by a more environmentally friendly mix of liquid oxygen and kerosene.
Work on Angara began after the breakup of the Soviet Union when Moscow lost the maker of its Zenit and Dnepr rockets as well as the Baikonur launch site, based respectively in the newly independent republics of Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
It has been suggested the ongoing Ukrainian crisis has prompted Russia to focus on production of domestic launchers as instable relations between the countries may threaten its space business.
"We are, unfortunately, not even strong enough to dictate our will to Ukraine so this (project) decision was made already way back in 1993, with awareness that our former Soviet allies can ditch us at any moment," Lissov said.
The new rocket is a centrepiece of a space industry reform begun by President Vladimir Putin in December that includes building the new Vostochny launch pad in Russia's Far East.
"Angara's entry into operation will guarantee Russia's access to low-Earth orbit and the country's independence in the field of space exploration," Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told the government daily Rossiskaya Gazeta this month.
A potential commercial rival to Arianespace of France and Californian-based SpaceX, the modular launcher is designed to carry military and civilian payloads of up to 25 tonnes.
Its heavier cousin Angara 5, set for a test launch next year, is to replace Russia's workhorse Proton rocket which has suffered an embarrassing litany of failures.
But both rockets are made by the same builder, the Khrunichev space centre, leading to fears that Angara - named after a Siberian river - will suffer similar troubles.
"There is absolutely no guarantee that Angara, which is built by the same industry, by the same company, by the same people will be immune to these problems," said Anatoly Zak, editor of the industry website Russianspaceweb.
"Twenty years of development is over but we are at the very beginning of the flight testing."
Years of strapped budgets when many experts quit the space industry have led to long project delays and ballooning costs from Angara. "It became extremely overpriced," Zak said.
The Angara rockets will probably become commercially competitive only in another decade, he said, if launched from Vostochny, closer to the equator, where less energy is needed to carry payloads into geostationary orbit.
The medium-lift version, Angara-3, is due to complement the Soviet-era Soyuz - currently the only rocket ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station from Baikonur.