Russia Reviews Bids For New Moon-Bound Space Rocket

The Russian space program is looking to send a rocket carrying cosmonauts to the moon by 2018, BBC News reported.

The Russian space agency (Roscosmos) reported that the future rocket would be able to transport a payload three times heavier than Russia’s veteran Soyuz spacecraft, including twice the number of crew, and use environmentally friendly propellants.

The unnamed rocket project should carry its first manned spacecraft in 2018, Russian space officials said. They hope to coincide its launch with NASA’s plans to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020 under its Constellation program.

Russia has struggled to emerge from its post-Soviet economic crisis and has fallen behind during the 21st Century version of the Moon race, with the U.S., Europe, China, India and Japan all having declared their intention to explore the Moon.

Roscosmos has only just begun its lunar program, while NASA recently unveiled its first prototypes of U.S. rockets and spacecraft for lunar expeditions.

Additionally, the Russian government committed in 2007 to moving its main space launch site from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to Vostochny in Russia’s Far East.

Roscosmos quietly began soliciting proposals from the industry last year to develop a brand-new rocket that could support lunar expeditions. All major Russian space firms reportedly vied for the government contract to build the vehicle.

So far, several Russian space officials hinted that they were close to choosing a proposal for the spacecraft construction at the beginning of 2009.

“We have a bidding procedure, under which we made a request for proposals and now will be reviewing those proposals to determine a prime developer, based on the most interesting project from the cost-effectiveness point of view,” said Alexander Chulkov, head of the rocket and launch facilities directorate at Roscosmos.

The agency’s major requirement for the future manned rocket is for it to be able to carry no less than 20 tons to low-Earth orbit, with the maximum capacity of about 23 tons.

The Soyuz capsule, which Soviet and Russian cosmonauts have been riding to orbit since 1967, weighs around seven tons. NASA says its future Ares-I rocket for the next-generation Orion spacecraft will be able to lift a total of 25 tons.

The rocket will also require non-toxic propellants such as kerosene or liquid hydrogen on all stages of the vehicle.

The industry will be free to design the general architecture of the future rocket, Chulkov added.

He added that while Roscosmos has its own opinion about the configuration of the rocket, there would likely be some distance between what they want and what might be available.

Once a prime developer is chosen, Chulkov said it would clear the way to the preliminary design phase of the rocket, which would take around a year to complete.

The Russian space agency said it would employ a single prime developer for the rocket, but rumors have circulated that the contract would distribute various responsibilities for the project among several major rocket builders.

Rocket firms that would likely be included in that list are TsSKB Progress in Samara, the developer of the Soyuz rocket, and KB Mashinostroenia in Miass, a chief developer of submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

The industry sees this as good news since the workforce building Russian rockets today will remain employed.

A new rocket capable of carrying manned spacecraft is but a single component in the array of hardware that will be required to land humans on the Moon.

Experts say a separate heavy lifting vehicle would be needed to carry the lunar landing module and the rocket stage to propel it from the Earth orbit toward the Moon.

But while the U.S. space agency began development of its titanic Ares-V rocket with a payload capacity target of 145 tons, Russian space officials have indicated a much lower appetite for payload tonnage.

“In the field of heavy-lifting rockets we have”¦ the yet-to-be-flown Angara rocket, while the requirements for the next-generation rocket are within the same category,” said Chulkov.

The Angara rocket is expected to make its maiden flight in 2011, but has been under development since the mid-1990s. It will soon be capable of carrying as many as 35 tons into low-Earth orbit, although some of its derivatives could lift between 40 and 50 tons.

The Angara-7 vehicle would require up to four launches to accomplish a single lunar expedition, according to documents from the Khrunichev enterprise, developer of the Angara rocket.

NASA, by contrast, can rely on one Ares-I rocket and one Ares-V for each Moon landing.

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