Zenit to launch Angosat

A Russian spacecraft developer solicited a Ukrainian company to provide a rocket for a commercial satellite launch in 2017. It became the first Russian-Ukrainian space cooperation agreement reached after Moscow had annexed Crimea in 2014. The launch currently scheduled for July 15, 2017, could also mark the revival of the Ukrainian-built Zenit rocket.


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The Angosat satellite is based on RKK Energia's Yamal platform.

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RKK Energia of Korolev, Russia, entered negotiations with KB Yuzhnoe of Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, on a potential deal to launch a satellite for Angola on a Ukrainian-built Zenit rocket. Under the proposed plan, the Angosat-1 satellite would ride the last fully assembled Zenit rocket still remaining in Baikonur. The mission is seen by industry insiders as the first step in the resumption of Zenit missions, which if successful, will eventually shift from Baikonur to the Sea Launch ocean-going platform based in Long Beach, California.

In September, RKK Energia struck a deal with the Russian airline group S7 to bankroll the revival of the Sea Launch venture, which remains mothballed in the wake of severe financial problems and the political fallout from the Russian-Ukrainian conflict of 2014. However even with the new investments, it would take at least 18 months to get all the necessary approvals for the reactivation of the Sea Launch vessels in California.

In the meantime, RKK Energia is completing the development of the Angosat-1 satellite under a commercial agreement with the government of Angola. The spacecraft, which is based on the company's Yamal platform, is currently expected to be ready for launch in July 2017. It was originally designed to be delivered into orbit via Sea Launch, but after the financial collapse of the venture, RKK Energia considered switching the mission to the second test launch of the Angara-5 rocket. However, after endless delays with the introduction the Angara's new production line in Siberia and with the new hope to revive the Sea Launch, RKK Energia revisited the Zenit option.

One caveat with the proposed plan is that the Zenit rocket currently stored at Site 42 in Baikonur was originally procured by the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, for the launch of the Spektr-RG astrophysics satellite. However, in an interview with the Izvestiya daily published on Oct. 20, 2016, Sergei Lemeshevsky, the head of NPO Lavochkin, which develops Spektr-RG, said that the company had considered switching the mission from Zenit to the Proton-M/Block DM launcher. Adapting the Spektr-RG to a new booster could delay the mission by at least nine months, however, some industry sources see the move as a smoke screen for possible technical problems with the Spektr-RG itself, which would push back the launch anyway leaving already purchased rocket without any job in the near future.

In the meantime, the Zenit rocket in Baikonur has already overstayed its operational warranty and will require refurbishment by a Ukrainian team before it can be used one way or another. With the proposed plan to re-configure the rocket for the launch of Angosat-1, it is still unclear how long it would take for KB Yuzhnoe to re-certify this Zenit for launch. However, immediately after the signing of the deal between RKK Energia and S7 in September, Ukrainian space officials said that they would be open to cooperation with the Russians on the Sea Launch venture.

In December 2015, the Ukrainian team supported the last launch of the Zenit rocket with the Russian Elektro-L2 satellite from Baikonur. By all accounts, the rocket performed flawlessly.

According to industry sources, at the beginning of October, Roskosmos hosted a meeting of all interested parties involved in the use of the Zenit rocket, which included Ukrainian representatives, and which resulted in the signing of a joint protocol. This preliminary agreement still needs political approval in both Russia and Ukraine, but if it goes ahead, it could see a Russian order for as many as 12 Zenit rockets.

By November 2016, engineers at KB Yuzhnoe had already begun work on the integration of the Angosat satellite with the Zenit rocket in anticipation of a launch contract, whose draft was also in the works, industry sources said. Apparently, in an effort to simplify political decisions on the matter, the S7 company (with good connections in the Kremlin) served as the main customer for the launch, with all other participants, including Ukrainian contractors, under its legal umbrella. Still, the agreement on such a mission looked almost unthinkable just a few months ago.

By December 2016, the KB Yuzhnoe design bureau in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, began full-scale preparations for the launch of the Angosat satellite, which was officially set for July 15, 2017.

2017: Political problems delay Angosat mission

On Feb. 20, 2017, the S7 airline announced that it had obtained a license for space activities in Russia. The document gave the S7 airline a permission to operate the Zenit-M rocket, whose launch was planned during 2017, the company said. However, at the same time, industry sources told that all the work on adapting the only completed Zenit rocket for the launch of the Angosat satellite had to stop due to lack of necessary permissions from Moscow.

The management of the S7 airline sent a letter to KB Yuzhnoe in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, promising to resolve political problems and resume preparations for the mission as soon as the approval from the Kremlin is secured. However, the delay in the work would likely require to postpone the launch of the Angosat satellite previously scheduled for July 15, 2017, until September of the same year.

The Russian-Ukrainian cooperation on the Angosat mission coincided with another flareup of violence in the border regions between the two former Soviet republics.

The political problems between Russia and Ukraine also stalled plans at Roskosmos to order the production of three new Zenit rockets in Ukraine, industry sources said.

(To be continued)

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The article and photography by Anatoly Zak; Last update: February 22, 2017

Page editor: Alain Chabot; Edits: October 24, November 11, 2016

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A Zenit rocket lifts off from Baikonur with the Elektro-L2 satellite on Dec. 11, 2015. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos




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