Thursday, November 16, 2017

More Rocket Shenanigans, Parts Problems at KB Yuzhnoye & Skyrora's Plan for a Scottish/ Ukrainian Spaceport

          By Chuck Black

For those who don't believe the hype from the Ukrainian government and others that the Ukrainian space industry is capable of rebuilding facilities rendered inoperative after the 2014 Crimean Crisis or remaining competitive in the face of growing challenges from low cost NewSpace launch providers like SpaceX, you may be right.

Here are four news reports which support your view:

A Soyuz rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Ukraine has no indigenous launch capabilities but instead depends on facilities provided through the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and others.  Photo c/o Ars Technica.

  • The tests on the RD-861K engine, the Ukrainian built rocket engine expected to be used as the 2nd stage of Maritime Launch Services (MLS) proposed Canadian launched, Cyclone 4M rocket, are expected to resume this month, after a short break to assess tests performed in October, 2017. 
But there remain questions over whether the final engine can be built in useful quantities using domestically sourced, Ukrainian technology.
As outlined in the November 14th, 2017 RussianSpaceWeb post, "Ukraine resumes testing of the RD-861K engine," the earlier test also acted as sales aids to validate the program to potential investors and foreign buyers.
According to the post: 
The resumption of the tests should also boost the morale inside the beleaguered Ukrainian rocket industry, which has faced many problems after the breakdown of its ties to Russia in the wake of the annexation of Crimea in 2014. 
In particular, the Ukrainian propulsion systems depended on supplies of Russian structural materials and hardware. 
Experts familiar with the matter say that the RD-861K engine is almost ready for operational use, but its development and serial manufacturing still faces serious challenges due to lack of resources, personnel and propellant components. 
The engine burns hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide (carcinogenic hypergolic propellants) which are not currently produced in Ukraine and have to be imported from China. 
There are also problems with the production of new components for the engine, which forced engineers to recycle parts from older units and caused several delays in the latest tests. 
The post goes on to state that, "one industry source told that KB Yuzhnoye (the rocket designer) had been able to line up domestic suppliers of the structural materials necessary for the RD-861K program."
But according to others: 
... the production of the turbine for the RD-861K still depended on the EP742 heat-resistant alloy that KB Yuzhnoe had procured from the TsNIIMV material science institute based in Korolev, Russia. 
Each turbine in the RD-861K engine is certified to operate in up to a dozen live firings before being replaced.
Theoretically, a similar material for the turbine could be acquired elsewhere, but it would need to go through its own tests before being certified for use on the engine, an expert familiar with the matter said.
The Ukrainian-built version of the RD-120 engine (on the left) will be a basis for the next generation RD-870 engine (right), planned for use in the Cyclone 4M. As outlined in the September 19th, 2017 RussianSpaceWeb post, "RD-870 could become Ukraine's first booster engine," the RD-870 engine is "intended to propel the first stage of the Tsyklon-4M (Cyclone-4M) rocket' and "will be based on a Soviet-era second-stage engine but redesigned to lift the rocket off the launch pad", instead of firing in the stratosphere." The RD-120 was developed at NPO Energomash in Moscow, but built in the Ukraine by KB Yuzhnoye (design) and Yuzhmash (manufacturing), except for its combustion chamber, which was "supplied by a manufacturer in Samara, Russia." The RD-870 is yet to be built. Graphic and photo c/o Anatoly Zak.

  • The second stage of the Cyclone 4M rocket isn't the only stage with potential sourcing problems. There are also concerns over the Zenit rockets, which are intended to serve as the basis for the first stage of the Cyclone 4M.
Sea Launch, a multinational launch provider which, until 2013 used a mobile maritime launch platform for equatorial launches of commercial payloads on specialized Zenit-3SL rockets, has plans to revive the mothballed service.
But they'd prefer not to use the Zenit because those rockets are getting hard to come by.
As outlined in the November 15th, 2017 Russian Space Web post, "Sea Launch seeks help from Roskosmos, proposes new applications,"  Sergei Sopov, the director general of the S7 Group which owns Sea Launch, has sent a draft of a potential cooperation agreement to Roskosmos head Igor Komarov. 
The latest plea for cooperation would open the Sea Launch platform to Russian satellite developers, who until now have relied almost exclusively on launch vehicles based in Kazakhstan or Russia. 
But it would also include, "the development of a new-generation cargo ship which could lift off from the Sea Launch to re-supply manned orbital stations."  
Cyclone 4M configuration, including the listing of the engines required for the program (four RD-870's and one RD-861K). The November 9th, 2017 SpaceQ post, "Maritime Launch Services Targets May 1 to Begin Construction at Nova Scotia Spaceport," quoted MLS CEO Steve Matier as saying that the work remaining on the rocket is more of a simple "integration of parts. Some of them are already done, but the work that Yuzhnoye is doing right now is essentially all the design work for integration of these known quantity and proven heritage components into the vehicle itself." Graphic c/o MLS
This new rocket would likely be a variation of the next generation Russian medium class launcher which, as outlined in the November 13th, 2017 Russian Space web post, "Preliminary design for Soyuz-5 races to completion," will be known as the Soyuz 5, and is expected to replace the Zenit rocket.  
The first prototype for the new rocket is expected to be tested in 2022. 
The five or more year development period is typical in programs of this type and would certainly have to be duplicated in the Ukraine, where the existing RD-120 engine used in the Zenit second stage, would need to be upgraded to the RD-870 engine which is supposed to comprise the first stage of the Cyclone 4M.
If the Russians are taking five years or more to replace Zenit rockets and having trouble sourcing them now, what makes the Ukraine think that it will be able to source rockets for new Canadian customers?
And how specifically would the Ukraine propose to take any less time to develop a new rocket engine? What's so special about their development process?
As of now, no one knows.
A Soyuz booster is assembled prior to a crewed flight to the International Space Station. As outlined in the August 20th, 2015 Spaceflight New post, "Russia to build new eco-friendly Soyuz-5 rocket by 2022," the proposed new rocket should be able to solve all the problems associated with the previous rocket model. This suggests a certain "fuzzyness" in the design parameters and indicates that there is much work still to be done before the design is finalized. Photo c/o Bill Ingalls / NASA.

  • Speaking of Russia, it's worth noting that Roscosmos has a plan to compete with SpaceX, but that plan likely isn't going to work.
As outlined in the November 13th, 2017 Ars Technica post, "Russia has a plan to compete with SpaceX—but it has a flaw," the Russian rocket corporation, NPO Energia, has fast-tracked development of a new medium-class launch Soyuz 5 vehicle in the hopes that it to be able to remain competitive with the existing SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket. 
But of course, five years from now, the Falcon-9 rockets are expected to be much more capable, reusable and able to launch nearly on demand for far less than the $60Mln US ($76Mln CDN) currently being charged.
So the Soyuz 5 won't be able to compete when it rolls out in 2022, because SpaceX will have advanced with its capabilities. 
Is the Ukrainian Cyclone 4M able to compete with current SpaceX rockets? Nothing in the published specs indicate that it can. And when the actual Cyclone 4M rocket is finally rolled out, the indications are that it will be as far behind as the planned Russian Soyuz 5.
Pavel Botsula, the head of design in Dnipro (oddly enough, the same city where both Ukrainian based KB Yuzhnoye and  Yuzhmash have their HQ's), with Mikhail Andrievskiy, the head of propulsion system department at Dnipro and Daniel Smith, the business development manager at Edinburgh, UK based Skyrora. Photo c/o ROOM.

  • But if all else fails, there are plans to relocate components of the Ukrainian space program to Scotland. 
As outlined in the  October 25th, 2017 ROOM post, "Firm announces plan to launch rockets from Scotland," Edinburgh & London UK based Skyrora, a privately-funded launch vehicle developer with a research and development hub in Ukraine, has announced "plans for entering the small satellite launch market during the Reinventing Space conference taking place in Glasgow, Scotland, this week."
The article quoted Skyrora business development manager Daniel Smith as stating that “Scotland is an ideal place from which to operate. Its launch suitability, strong manufacturing history and the fact that Glasgow, in particular, is a leading city within the European space sector are all positive factors.
Over the summer, "Skyrora worked with a research and development hub in the Ukraine and with individuals that have experience on a number of major Ukrainian space projects," and visited the Shetland Islands off the north east coast of Scotland as part of their search for a launch site. 
The 15th Reinventing Space Conference was held in Glasgow, Scotland from October 24th - 26th, 2017. It focused on "novel applications that are becoming commercially viable as space technology improves. These include space tugs; space tourism; satellite refueling; debris removal; debris exploitation; manufacturing in orbit; real-time video from space; space mining; etc."
Of course, as outlined in the September 11th, 2016 post, "Ukranian Based Yuzhnoye Design Office Eyeing a Canadian Spaceport for its Cyclone-4 Rocket," what the Ukrainians really need isn't a good location or strong manufacturing.

What they really need is money (and lots of it) to help fund their ongoing development and build out the final product. Any suggestions that Ukrainian rockets are capable of flying now, with only a little bit of "integration" to fit together existing parts is obviously in error, given the facts of the situation.

But the first country willing to provide money, lots and lots of money, will get a spaceport, eventually.

For better or for worse.
    Chuck Black.

    Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

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