• Reuters


Russia was to debut its first new design of space rocket since the Soviet era in a launch from its own territory on Friday, aiming to end its reliance on the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and on foreign suppliers.

More than two decades in the making, the Angara-1.2PP’s maiden flight will test Russia’s ability to turn around a once-pioneering space industry that is struggling to recover from a brain drain and years of budget curbs.

Work on the Angara began after the break-up 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.

“This is the first launch vehicle that has been developed and built from scratch in Russia,” said Igor Lissov, of space industry journal Novosti Kosmonavtiki. “Everything else we have is a modernization of our Soviet legacy.”

While Russia continues to use Baikonur under a lease deal with the Kazakh government, Angara will blast off from within its borders at the northern Plesetsk military cosmodrome. It is due to follow a suborbital flight path across Russia’s Arctic coastline.

For some industry insiders, the crisis in Moscow’s relations with Kiev over its annexation of Crimea and a separatist rebellion in the eastern Ukraine proves Russia’s need to produce and launch its rockets domestically.

The new rocket is a centerpiece of a space industry reform begun by President Vladimir Putin in December that includes building a new launch pad in the Russian 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 earlier this month.

A potential commercial rival to Arianespace of France and California-based SpaceX, the modular launcher is designed to carry military and civilian payloads of up to 25 tons.

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 Center, leading to fears that Angara — named after a Siberian river — will suffer similar troubles.

Unlike the Proton, powered by toxic hydrazine fuel, Angara’s use an ecologically cleaner mix of liquid oxygen and kerosene.

Its 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.

Years of strapped budgets when many experts quit the space industry have led to long project delays and ballooning costs from Angara. Anatoly Zak, editor of the industry site Russianspaceweb, said Angara rockets will probably become commercially competitive only in another decade.