Space: Russia Reorganizes and Revives

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April 21, 2011:  In 2010, Russia had its most active year in space since the Cold War ended in 1991. In 2010, Russia used 31 satellite launchers to put 23 Russian and 20 foreign satellites in orbit. The Russian satellites included six classified military missions (probably spy satellites).

Last year, 24 of the launches were at Kazakhstan's Baikonur space port, while the six classified launches were at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in the far north (near Archangel). One launch was from an old ICBM base in the south (near Orenburg). These launches use old R36 (SS-19) ICBMs to put lightweight satellites into orbit.

But Russia's largest satellite launch site is still in Kazakhstan, for the moment. Founded in 1955, by the Soviet Union, Baikonur was long the main satellite launch facilities for the Russians. But after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Baikonur found itself in the newly minted Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan. There, it has became more expensive and difficult for the Russians to use. Russia has leased the Baikonur complex from Kazakhstan since 1991, but this led to disputes over lease terms, and the danger to locals from launch accidents.

The Russians need the Baikonur launch site, as it is very efficient for some types of launchers (geostationary, lunar, planetary, and ocean surveillance missions, as well as all manned missions). But having your main launch site in a foreign country was seen as untenable. So the Russians are building a replacement site to the east, in Russian territory. The new launch center in Amur, Vostochny, will be operational by 2015, and all manned space programs will be moved to there by 2020. At that point, the Russians will abandon Baikonur. Vostochny used to be Svobodny 18, an ICBM base that was shut down in 1993 as part of the START disarmament treaty. Amur was ultimately selected because of weather (it averaged only 50-60 overcast days a year, had a dry climate and calm winds) and the absence of earthquakes. The first launches are not expected until 2016. Military launches will largely remain at Plesetsk, in northern Russia.

 


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