April 4, 2009

Russia To Disclose Plans For Next-Generation Spacecraft

The Russian space agency is set to announce development plans on Monday for a next-generation manned spacecraft.

Roscosmos is expected to name the ship's primary developer, which has competed to win government money for the project.  The new spacecraft should become operational towards the end of the next decade, and will replace the esteemed Soyuz capsule, the three-seat craft that has carried Russian cosmonauts into orbit for some forty years.

Although Roscosmos has not publicly disclosed details about the upcoming announcement, it has quietly released its requirements for a future manned transport system to the nation's space industry.

As a result, some hints about the ship's likely design and its possible missions have been revealed.   For instance, the new spacecraft, currently known only by the acronym PPTS, for Prospective Piloted Transport System, would be capable of reaching low-Earth orbit or entering orbit around the Moon.

In disclosing the technical specifications for the proposed spacecraft, Russia has also given a glimpse of its future space program.

The Earth-orbiting version of the spacecraft would weigh 12 ton, carry a crew of six in addition to 500kg of cargo.  Its lunar version would weigh 16.5 tons, have four seats and be able to deliver and return 100 kg of cargo.  The unmanned cargo version of the spacecraft would be required to carry 2,000kg or more into orbit around the Earth, and return at least 500kg back to the surface.

Roscosmos has reserved the option of a reusable crew module, on the assumption that a cone-shaped capsule could fly as many as 10 missions during its 15-year lifespan.

Although the most capable version of the ship seeks to support lunar missions, "intermediate" configurations aim to complete a variety of other tasks.  For instance, Roscosmos wants the future developer to assess the possibility of sending the spacecraft into high-inclination orbits extending towards the poles, a place typically occupied only by Earth-observation and spy satellites.

When in Earth's orbit, the requirements call for the new ship to be able to fly 30-day-long autonomous missions.  It must also be able to stay no less than a year in space when docked at the International Space Station, or to a possible future Russian space station.

The Soyuz spacecrafts currently serve as "lifeboats" for the International Space Station, but have to be replaced every six months because of potential deterioration of some of the ship's systems.

In addition to docking to the International Space Station, the new ship must be able to service unmanned vehicles in space and remove pieces of space junk from their orbits.  It must also be able to conduct unspecified military tasks.  The ship's lunar version would be capable of flying 200 days or more in space when docked to a space station in orbit around the Moon.

A number or Russian media reports have pointed to recent studies examining the possibility of a lunar orbital station, or LOS.  Such a station might also serve as a hub for lunar modules, which could deliver crews from lunar orbit to the Moon's surface.

The 200-day mission requirement likely gives some evidence about Russia's plans to ultimately construct a permanently occupied lunar outpost, similar to NASA's lunar base developed as part of its Constellation initiative.

Aleksei Krasnov, who leads the manned space flight directorate at Roscosmos, said recently during an interview with the ITAR-TASS news agency that the future spacecraft could be the "core" technology for a future mission to Mars.

Krasnov's remarks were likely in reference to the role the spacecraft might play as a delivery and return vehicle for the large complex that would be necessary to conduct a manned mission on the Red Planet.

In recent years, Russia and Europe considered the possibility of jointly developing a next-generation vehicle together, but the two sides could not reach a final agreement on the project.   Europe will now separately pursue upgrading its  robotic ATV space freighter to a manned ship, with help from some Russian technology.

According to a BBC News report last month, Roscosmos has already completed a tender for a new rocket to carry the future manned spacecrafts into space.  And while the agency has postponed the announcement of the winner until after April 6,  a BBC report cited many unofficial sources familiar with the matter who said that Samara-based TsSKB Progress would lead the development.

The launch vehicle is believed to feature a three-booster first-stage, with each booster having powerful RD-180 engines, burning a mix of kerosene and liquid oxygen.

The second stage will likely use a pair of RD-0124 engines, the same currently in use on the Soyuz-2 rocket.
Since both stages of the future launcher would be equipped with the newest existing power plants, the costs and risk to the overall initiative will be reduced significantly.

By the time the new Russian spacecraft would enter into service, around 2018, the Soyuz family will have spent more than half a century in service.


Image Credit: Wikipedia


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