Space: The Russian Gold Mine


May 7, 2012: The Russian commercial satellite launching company ILS (International Launch Services) recently used a Proton rocket to put a six ton Eurostar E3000 type communications satellite into a high (geostationary transfer) orbit for Abu Dhabi. This was the 76th launch for ILS and the 376th use of a Proton rocket. In the last two decades Protons have earned Russia over $6 billion putting foreign satellites into orbit, especially high orbits. This latest effort was the 14th Eurostar E3000 satellite launched by a Proton rocket.

There are two Proton designs, the older Proton K and the much updated Proton M. In March the last Russian Proton K launch vehicle successfully put a military surveillance satellite into orbit. Originally designed as an ICBM in the 1960s, but never used that way, the Proton proved better at launching satellites. Proton is actually a launcher system that can be configured with three or four stages and different types of booster rockets to put different types (and weights) of satellites into orbit. Proton K could put 20 tons into low orbit and 5 tons into the highest (stationary) orbits. Current Protons cost nearly $70 million to build and launch. These use a lot of 1960s technology. The new model, the Proton M, replaces all the 1960s stuff and is basically a new rocket design. The Proton M has been in service 11 years and made 61 launches so far.

Overall, nearly 90 percent of Proton launches have been successful, although the success rate has been higher in the past few years. Proton's owner, Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, is developing a new, and cheaper, heavyweight rocket, the Angara. This rocket was supposed to enter service by 2006, but first flight won't take place until next year. Meanwhile Proton M has taken over the work of putting satellites into high orbit until Angara is finally ready.

The most used launcher is the Russian R-7 (Soyuz), which has launched over 1,600 times. The Soyuz is a much smaller rocket which can only put 6.4 tons into low orbit.





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