Better late than never: why the development of the Yenisei launch vehicle was stopped

Better late than never: why the development of the Yenisei launch vehicle was stopped
Better late than never: why the development of the Yenisei launch vehicle was stopped
17 September, 17:53TechnologyPhoto: Фото:
Russian engineers quite rightly decided to revise the initial design of this rocket in favor of more modern technologies and solutions that imply its final reusability.

Victor Kuzovkov

The development of the Yenisei super-heavy launch vehicle has been stopped in Russia. The technical design of this rocket has been discontinued, as announced by Dmitry Baranov, General Director of the Progress RCC. True, there was an essential reservation in the message: according to him, after some clarifications, "the work can be resumed." It is noteworthy that the work (design, and not the whole complex of work on the creation of the rocket) was planned to be completed very soon, literally in October-November of this year, and their stop literally a step away from completion immediately caused a flurry of what can be called "conspiracy analytics".

Of course, different versions of the "all-fencing" appeared at once. The most popular ones sound something like this: "they sawed money, they want a new budget", "they could not do anything, so they closed it in order to play for time", "the SOVIET DEFINITION was not enough" (just like that, in capital letters), etc. After explanations appeared, based on last year's message from D. Rogozin that the project would be revised in favor of switching to methane rocket engines and, in general, to more advanced technologies, even a funny version appeared about the lobbying of the topic by the almighty Russian gas workers - they, they say, already there is nowhere to sell gas, so they "pressed where necessary." Of course, due to the small volumes of gas required, the latest version sounds like a curiosity, no more, but still this also characterizes the level of controversy that has arisen.

So, what is the Yenisei super-heavy rocket? As the name implies, this is a rocket designed to launch into space (into low-earth orbit or beyond) the largest payload possible. So, the STK LV (super-heavy launch vehicle) of the first stage, that is, this very "Yenisei", should put about 112 tons of payload into a low reference orbit. This is a lot: the Soviet launch vehicle Energia could put only 100 tons of payload into this orbit (which, however, is also a lot). The second stage STK launch vehicle, made on the basis of the Yenisei, the three-stage Don rocket, was supposed to deliver a payload weighing 140 tons to LEO. According to experts, such payloads allowed Russia to successfully implement all relevant space programs, including possible flights to the Moon, Mars, orbiting the nuclear space tug Nuclon, to participate in possible space security programs, in particular, in protecting the Earth from possible impact of an asteroid, and so on.

Work on the project began in 2017, and the first launch, according to the plan, was to take place in 2028. To be more precise, the project was officially launched by a decree of V. Putin in 2018, but a little earlier, preliminary work was carried out to assess its prospects, and the development of the RD-171MV engine, which formed the basis of the rocket, began.

From the very beginning, the project had critics who insisted that it was easier to revive the Soviet launch vehicle Energia. Their main argument was that it has a history (albeit small) of successful launches, that is, the rocket itself is quite successful, reliable and capable of solving the tasks set for the industry. The documentation for this rocket is available, and the replacement of the cooperation that took place in the Soviet era fits well into the now fashionable topic of import substitution. Therefore, there was probably a significant amount of truth in this criticism, but nevertheless it was decided to create a new rocket. Import substitution, so completely, so to speak...

And at first everything went well... But a few days ago, the already mentioned news destroyed the picture of the successful implementation of the next state program, and taking into account the cost of such initiatives, each of us had the right to ask a reasonable question - “What the hell is it ?!”. I don't want to get bogged down in amateur conspiracy theories, and the official explanations are so streamlined and specific that it is rather difficult to understand anything. And the use of the expression "can be renewed" assumes that the continuation and execution of the program were in question and no one guarantees anything to us at all.

Someone will say that it is for the best. We are a poor country, we have no time for fat, we can do without super-heavy missiles. Moreover, there is the Angara rocket in one of its incarnations, namely the Angara-A5, which belongs to the heavy class and is capable of solving at least part of the tasks that were supposed to be assigned to the Yenisei.

This is partly true - we are indeed a poor country. And "Angara-A5" is actually able to put into orbit or even send a rather large payload to the Moon. And yet another thing is obvious - by abandoning the creation of a super-heavy rocket, we are becoming critically dependent on a number of tasks. And from whom - from the Americans! Those who no longer want to see us in joint (primarily with Europeans) space exploration programs, for example, in the lunar program. And then, with such a development of events, they will take the last away from us - the development of a private segment of space programs has already led to a critical (for us) reduction in the cost of space launches in the United States. Elon Musk, who for a long time was called a swindler or a rogue, suddenly brought the project of reusable launch vehicles to its logical conclusion, and it turned out that our positions in the market of commercial launches, which until recently seemed unshakable, were greatly shaken. And we cannot continue to ignore this “scammer” - he himself is actively developing the rocket launch industry, and the entire American rocket and space sector forces us to invest huge forces and funds in the development and search for new ways to reduce the cost of their projects.

Actually, this is most likely the reason for the halt (we hope, temporary) of the program for creating a Russian super-heavy launch vehicle. The key reason is the desire to convert Yenisei from kerosene to methane. For a person far from astronautics, this really sounds like a conspiracy between Gazprom and Rosneft. But the reason is much deeper, and if we try to define it with just one word, we come to the word "reusability".

As you know, a space launch vehicle is forced, in addition to the payload, to drag into space (or rather, towards it) a huge amount of fuel and oxidizer. For example, the Yenisei, putting 112 tons of payload into orbit, was supposed to weigh 3167 tons. And the lion's share of this mass falls on fuel and oxidizer. In this case, it is kerosene and oxygen, but in general, various options for the "fuel-oxidizer" pairs are possible. The "hydrogen-oxygen" pair is considered the best in terms of specific impulse, and in many heavy-class rockets this pair is used, suffice it to recall the American "Space Shuttle" or "Energy" from the USSR. But hydrogen has a drawback - a low specific gravity, which is why rockets based on it turned out to be very large.

Kerosene, which is also often used for launch vehicles, is almost twice as dense as liquefied hydrogen. That is, almost twice as much (by weight) fuel can be loaded on the same volume, which promises a significant gain in terms of engine operation time and payload weight. And even with a lower specific impulse, the use of turpentine sometimes turns out to be more profitable. And working with turpentine is much easier than with liquid hydrogen, which should not be disregarded either.

But turpentine has a drawback, which was not paid much attention to before. The fact is that when it is burned, a certain amount of soot is formed. It would seem a trifle, but at the enormous pressures that occur in the combustion chambers of rocket engines, even soot can turn into an abrasive that destroys the working surfaces of the units. This means that this fuel is not very suitable for reusable launch vehicles. No, it is still possible to provide about five starts of the kerosene engine, but then it becomes too risky.

Methane as a fuel is deprived of this deficiency. And it is no coincidence that it is gradually becoming the fuel that the space industry is equal to. In any case, the Americans took this path, thus killing several birds with one stone - this is reusability, and the convenience of working with fuel, and, in general, low operating costs. At the moment, they have created two engines of the required dimension and thrust, namely, the Blue Engine-4, or BE-4, and the Raptor. In Russia, at the Voronezh KBKhA (Design Bureau of Chemical Automatics), their analogue, the RD-0162 methane engine, was created. They have largely similar characteristics, although there is one important difference - American engines are already in serial production, while the fate of the Russian development at the moment is not fully known to the author. The Russian RD-0162 and the American BE-4 are designed for 25 launches, while the Raptor even promises a rare "longevity" - up to 50 launches into space.

On the basis of their engines, the Americans create a whole complex of launch vehicles of different classes: Vulcan Centaur, New Glenn, Super Heavy Starship. And the latest American novelty is especially interesting in our case ...

The Super Heavy Starship rocket, belonging to the same class of space heavyweights as the Yenisei, will be powered by Raptor engines. The declared characteristics in terms of cost and operating costs of this engine are impressive - it is assumed that it costs 12.5 times cheaper than the Russian RD-180, and due to its reusability, its operating costs will be 330 (!) Times lower than that of our engine. Yes, we know that comrade Elon Musk can "bend" a little in order to slightly demoralize competitors. And yet, we can already admit that he does not lie very much, his forecasts and assessments, for the most part, tend to come true.

And this is just one of the nodes of the future American super-heavy rocket. Which, let me remind you, will be completely reusable. With all the ensuing consequences in the field of the cost of goods put into orbit ...

That is, we can assume that the cost of launching the "Super Heavy Starship" over time may turn out to be almost ten times lower than that of the "Yenisei" made according to a one-off scheme. And if so, we are guaranteed a colossal lag behind the United States and its partners in almost all key areas of space activity, except, perhaps, launching small satellites into low-earth orbit. And the question of revising the project in favor of more modern technologies and solutions that imply the final reusability of the Russian missile is by no means idle, but completely urgent.

This is the case when the miser pays twice. Or maybe three times. Or ten times... And no matter how skeptical we are about D. Rogozin, in this case Roskosmos should be supported and breathed a sigh of relief - better late than never.

Although this "never" has not yet been removed from the agenda. After all, it is said - "can be renewed." It may not be. Alas, we cannot completely rule out the option of abandoning the super-heavy launch vehicle project - if the offices decide that the task is too tough for us, then it will most likely simply be quietly "merged". To avoid management risks, so to speak. Or, to put it simply, in order to avoid responsibility and cover for yourself a place where it is so comfortable to sit in bureaucratic chairs.

But I don't even want to think about such an option….

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