- Parabolic Arc
- March 20, 2023
Fun with Figures: The Rise and Fall of the Commercial Proton Booster
by Douglas Messier
Russia recently marked the 25th anniversary of the entry of the Proton rocket into the international commercial marketplace. On April 8, 1996, a Proton-K booster with a DM3 upper stage launched the Astra 1F geosynchronous communications satellite built by U.S.-based Hughes for Luxembourg’s SES from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The flight would mark the first of more than 100 commercial Proton launches marketed and overseen by U.S.-based International Launch Services (ILS). The Proton became a major force in the launch market, orbiting satellites for more than 50 companies representing 25 countries. The rocket earned a substantial amount of hard currency for Russia during a period when the nation’s economy struggled after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Yet, the venerable booster would fade during the late 2010’s amid strong competition from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, a string of embarrassing failures, a changing launch market, and a moving-slower-than-the-glaciers-are-melting effort to replace it with a new booster that burns cleaner propellants.
On this first installment of Fun with Figures, we will track the rise and fall of the Russia’s commercial Proton rocket.
A Good Start
Proton-M, which debuted in 2001, is a heavy-lift rocket capable of launching up to 23,000 kg (50,706 lb) to low Earth orbit, 6,920 kg (15,256 lb) to geosynchronous transfer orbit, and 3,250 kg (7,165) to geosynchronous orbit. Proton-M is comparable to such boosters as the Delta IV Heavy, Falcon 9 and Long March 5.
Proton-M’s large payload capacity made the rocket popular with builders of geosynchronous communications satellites. The rocket has also launched modules to the International Space Station (ISS) and will launch the European-Russian ExoMars mission next year.
For this analysis, we will divide the flights between the launches of foreign commercial satellites handled by ILS and domestic Russian missions, which included government and commercial payloads.
PROTON LAUNCHES OF FOREIGN COMMERCIAL SATELLITES, 1996-2000
|Year||Total Proton Launches||Foreign Commercial Launches||Foreign Commercial Successes||Foreign Commercial Failures||Foreign Commercial Partial Failures|
Of the 189 Proton launches between 1996 to 2020, a total of 102 or 54 percent were foreign commercial flights conducted by ILS.
FOREIGN COMMERCIAL PROTON LAUNCHES, 1996-2020
Proton was less successful in its 87 domestic launches, which made up 46 percent of the 189 missions.
DOMESTIC PROTON LAUNCHES, 1996-2020
Proton achieved an overall success rate of 91 percent for all launches during the 25-year period.
PROTON LAUNCHES, 1996-2020
Since its first launch in 1965, Proton has flown more than 400 times with an 89 percent success rate.
ALL PROTON LAUNCHES, 1965–2020
Year by Year
The year 2000 was the busiest one with 14 launches. Six of the flights were commercial ones handled by ILS.
Proton hit its peak from 2008 through 2015. The booster launched 79 times for an average of just under 10 flights per year. The 45 foreign commercial launches made up 57 percent of the total during those eight years.
There was a sharp drop off in commercial launches toward the end of that 8-year period, with three flights in 2014 and four in 2015. Foreign commercial Proton launches had dipped even lower in previous years, but they had always recovered. This time, they didn’t.
Proton would launch only 15 times from 2016-20, with seven flights carrying foreign payloads. The rocket had no foreign commercial launches in 2018 and 2020.
The Raise of SpaceX
The fading of Proton reflected strong competition from SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 rocket, which captured an increasing percentage of commercial launches with significantly lower prices.
There was also a global shift away from Proton’s bread and butter, the geosynchronous communications satellite, toward large constellations deployed into low and medium Earth orbits.
PROTON LAUNCHES, 1996-2020
Proton’s reputation was also damaged by serious quality control problems that affected the entire Russian launch industry. Proton suffered 9 launch failures and one partial failure in the 10 years between 2006 and 2015. The booster was left grounded for as long as a year at a time. Insurance rates for Proton flights soared.
The most embarrassing failure came on July 1, 2013, when a Proton-M nose dived at the Baikonur Cosmodrome shortly after liftoff. The booster broke apart and exploded in mid-air before crashing into the ground in an enormous fireball. Officials blamed a sensor that was installed upside down.
The crash contaminated Baikonur with Proton’s toxic nitrogen tetroxide and unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine propellants, necessitating an extensive cleanup of the affected area.
In September 2016, ILS introduced two less powerful variants of the booster using fewer engines known as Proton Medium and Proton Light in an effort to compete with SpaceX. The following March, officials introduced a 5 meter payload shroud to supplement the 4 meter version already in use.
Although ILS secured several orders for Proton Medium, development of the variant was placed on indefinite hold in September 2018. Customers were rebooked on the more powerful Proton-M rocket.
The Angara Cometh…Eventually
Russian officials said they suspended work on Proton Medium because they were weighing a speedier transition to the long-in-development Angara booster.
Angara is a modular family of rockets capable of launching light, medium and heavy payloads. Additional boosters are attached to the URM-1 first-stage core to increase payload capacity. Angara rockets are powered by RP-1 and liquid oxygen, which are much cleaner than Proton-M’s fuels.
Development of Angara has taken almost a quarter century. The Russian government approved the program in 1997, the year after commercial Proton debuted. Angara was a low-priority program that limped along with little funding as the heavy-lift rocket it was designed to replace, Proton-M, made millions launching foreign satellites.
Russia worked with South Korea’s space agency, the Korean Aerospace Research Institute (KARI), to develop Angara. The Naro-1 booster featured the URM-1 core stage powered by a lower-thrust variant of Angara’s RD-191 engine known as the RD-151. A Korean-developed upper stage was used during three flight tests.
The first Naro-1 launch failed in August 2009 due to an anomaly in the second stage. The second launch failed in June 2010; the Joint Failure Review Board did not come to a conclusion about the cause of the accident.
Naro-1’s third launch was the charm when the rocket placed the Science and Technology Satellite 2C into orbit in January 2013. It was the first successful domestic orbital launch for South Korea, and the final flight of the joint Naro-1 program with Russia.
On July 9, 2014, the first Angara launch was conducted from Russia’s northern Plesetsk Cosmodrome. The successful suborbital flight of the Angara 1.2PP came 17 years after the official go-ahead for the program.
An orbital flight test of the heavy-lift Angara A5, which is designed to replace Proton-M, followed in December 2014. But, it took another six years, until December 2020, before another Angara A5 launch was conducted.
Picking Up the Pace
Angara rockets are expected to fulfill domestic launch needs for a range of payloads. It is not clear whether the rocket will have a significant presence in the international launch market due to its high cost, expendable nature, and strong foreign competition. ILS continues to market the light Angara 1.2 variant and Proton.
Thus far, Angara rockets have been launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia. There is no launch complex at Baikonur Cosmodrome capable of handling Angara boosters.
Roscosmos is building an Angara launch pad at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East. Construction of the spaceport has been plagued by corruption and years of delays that have impeded full use of the facility.
Russian launch schedules are hard to predict, so it’s unclear exactly when Proton will be phased out entirely. Wikipedia shows six Proton launches scheduled for 2021-22.
FUTURE PROTON LAUNCHES
|July 2021||Nauka||ISS module||Roscosmos|
|2021||2 Space Drones||Satellite life extension||Astroscale|
|December 2021||Elektro-L No. 4||Domestic communications satellite||Roscosmos|
|August 2022||Rosalind Franklin rover||Mars rover||ESA/Roscosmos|
|December 2022||Elektro-L No.5||Domestic communications satellite||Roscosmos|
The list include two launches of foreign satellites. The Space Drones were developed by Effective Space Solutions of Israel, whose intellectual property was acquired by Tokyo-based Astroscale last year.
There are also the launch of the Nauka module to ISS later this year and the European Space Agency’s Rosalind Franklin rover to Mars next year. The launch of two domestic geosynchronous communications satellites is also on the manifest.
Wikipedia schedule for Angara shows 11 launches through 2029, including three later this year. One of those flights will be the maiden launch of the Angara 1.2. The booster will carry the KOMPSAT-6 Earth observation satellite for the Korean Aerospace Research Institute.
FUTURE ANGARA LAUNCHES
|Launch Year||Launch Vehicle||Payload(s)||Purpose||Agency/Company|
|2021||Angara A5||Luch-5M||Domestic communications satellite||Roscosmos|
|2021||Angara A5||Ekspress-AMU||Domestic communications satellite||Russian Satellite Communications Company|
|2021||Angara 1.2||KOMPSAT-6||Earth observation||Korea Aerospace Research Institute|
|2022||Angara 1.2||Gonets-M 17, Gonets-M 18, Gonets-M 19||Domestic communications||Gonets SatCom|
|2022||Angara 1.2||Gonets-M 20, Gonets-M 21, Gonets-M 22||Domestic communications||Gonets SatCom|
|2023||Angara A5M||Orel||Uncrewed test flight of new crew vehicle||Roscosmos|
|2024||Angara A5M||Orel||Crewed test flight of new crew vehicle||Roscosmos|
|2024||Angara A5||Spektr-UV||Ultraviolet space telescope||Roscosmos|
|2028||Angara A5||Spektr-M||Millimeter wavelength space telescope||Roscosmos|
|2028||Angara A5||NEM-1||Core of Russian Orbital Space Station||Roscosmos|
|2029||Angara A5M||Orel||Crewed lunar flyby||Roscosmos|
The other 10 missions are all domestic ones. They include three flight test of the new Orel crew vehicle, which is designed to replace the venerable Soyuz transport. Orel will be capable of carrying astronauts to the moon.
Another notable launch will be the NEM-1 module, which will form the core of the Russian Orbital Space Station (ROSS). NEM-1 was originally scheduled to be attached to ISS.