Russia Severing Ties With Ukraine on Dnepr, Zenit Launch Programs

Dnepr launch vehicle. (Credit: ISC Kosmotras)
Dnepr launch vehicle. (Credit: ISC Kosmotras)

Roscosmos officials made announcements this week that they would be suspending a joint program with Ukraine to launch Dnepr rockets and were no longer interested in buying Ukrainian Zenit boosters, deepening problems for that embattled nation’s space program and its struggling Yuzhmash factory.

Dneprs are converted SS-18 ballistic missiles that are converted into satellite launchers by Ukraine’s Yuzhmash launch vehicle manufacturer. The boosters are launched by the Moscow-based Moscow-based Kosmotras International Space Company, which is Russian-Ukrainian joint venture.

Russian media report three Dnepr launches scheduled this year will be carried out. However, The Moscow Times reports the future of the venture remains cloudy. It is possible the program will end, or Russia will convert the missiles to satellite launchers without Ukrainian participation.

Dnepr is a light launch vehicle used for launching small satellites. Last year, it launched a record 37 satellites at one time.

Russia has other launch vehicles that can serve the market, including Rockot, Angara A-1.2, and the Soyuz-1.2v. The Angara A-1.2 and Soyuz-2-1v made successful inaugural flights over the past 14 months.

Relations between the two nations are strained as a result of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and its support of separatist rebel forces in eastern Ukraine.

Roscosmos also announced this week that it would stop purchasing Zenit boosters built by Ukraine’s Yuzhmash. The rockets are used by Sea Launch, which is run by RSC Energia, and Land Launch, a joint venture of involving partners from Russia, Ukraine and Kazahkstan. Yuzhmash produces Zenit’s first stage, which is powered by Russian engines.

Roscosmos said satellites that would have been launched by Zenits will be sent into space by Angara rockets. It has long been the plan to use the Angara family of boosters to phase out older Soviet-era rockets, including Zenit and Proton.

The future of the long troubled Sea Launch venture is uncertain. Last year, the company suspended many of its operations because of a lack of launch orders. It had planned to ramp up later this year. Sea Launch has been plagued by launch failures and financial difficulties.

Earlier reports indicated that Angara rockets could be launched from the company’s ocean-going platform, which is towed to an equatorial position ideal for communication satellite launches. However, that effort might involve significant and costly changes to the platform.

RSC Energia, which owns Sea Launch, is being taken over by the government-owned United Rocket and Space Corporation (URSC) in a re-nationalization of Russia’s space industry. URSC is being merged with Roscosmos, which is being transformed into a state-owned company.

In December, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin has said that discussions were taking place with Brazilian officials over operating Sea Launch from that South American country.

Meanwhile, the Dnepr and Zenit decisions will no doubt deepen problems at Yuzhmash. SatNews reports the company ann0unced two-month unpaid vacations last month. Yuzhmash has been struggling with few orders and reportedly owes $150 million in wages and other payments.

The unpaid furloughs came as workers rallied to protest low pay and a lack of work. Since last July, employees had been working only two to three days per week, and were receiving wages amounting to $200 to $300 only once or twice per month.

The problems at Yuzhmash are bad news for several foreign ventures. The company produces the first stage for Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares launch vehicle, which is based on the Zenit. It also produces the fourth stage of Europe’s Vega booster.

A joint Brazilian-Ukrainian venture, Alcantara Cyclone Space, has been working for more than a decade to bring Yuzhmash’s Cyclone-4 rocket to Brazil’s Alcantara Launch Center. There has been little news about that venture in recent months.