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Successor to Energia rocket mulled
During 2013, Russian space industry was gearing up for a highly anticipated tender of the nation's space agency, Roskosmos, to develop a super-heavy launcher for manned space program. The powerful rocket with a payload of at least 70 tons would launch a new-generation manned spacecraft to the lunar orbit or to the Lagrangian points near the Moon. The project would parallel the development of NASA's already approved super-heavy rocket known as Space Launch System, SLS. Along with two Russia's leading rocket manufacturers -- TsSKB Progress and GKNPTs Khrunichev -- RKK Energia, the nation's key developer of manned spacecraft, proposed an architecture of a super-heavy launcher.
Previous chapter: Proposals for a super-heavy rocket from TsSKB Progress
Above: Russian engineers at RKK Energia proposed this vehicle to launch the next-generation manned spacecraft beyond the Earth orbit. Copyright © 2013 Anatoly Zak
Although RKK Energia is primarily known today as a prime contractor for the Soyuz manned spacecraft and the Russian segment of the International Space Station, the company has also retained its expertise in rocketry since the days of Sputnik. Until today, RKK Energia's production plant assembles the Block-DM rocket stage, a part of the Zenit and Proton rockets. In addition, as a prime developer of the next-generation manned spacecraft, RKK Energia would obviously have a lot of say in the debate on the architecture of the future ship's launch vehicle.
In August 2013, RKK Energia confirmed that it was participating in preliminary studies of a super-heavy launcher conducted within the industry. In an interview to the semi-official Interfax news agency, the president of RKK Energia Vitaly Lopota expressed hope that the work in the United States on the SLS rocket would influence the strategy and the timeframe for the development of a similar Russian vehicle. Lopota also suggested that the agency's decision on the super-heavy launcher would take into the account proposals (from RKK Energia) to involve Ukraine and Kazakhstan. In 2012, RKK Energia revived its Sodruzhestvo concept from 1990s, envisioning a coalition with two former Soviet republics in order to share the price tag and experience in the development of a costly super-heavy rocket. Despite clear economic advantages of the proposal, the Sodruzhestvo had proven hard to sell to the Russian government due to political disagreements with Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
RKK Energia's super rocket
While the leadership at RKK Energia was dealing with political and financial problems of the future super-heavy rocket, the company's engineers worked on a possible architecture of the giant rocket. During 2013, they conceptualized a four-stage vehicle capable of delivering around 79 tons to the low Earth orbit.
The 2,400-ton rocket would be propelled from the launch pad by five boosters, each equipped with a single RD-171M engine, upgraded from an existing propulsion system on the Zenit rocket. Due to an apparent increased propellant load and a lower thrust of the center (core) stage during the ascent, four strap-on boosters would consume their fuel and separate first.
Following the separation of the core stage, the third stage would ignite its single RD-191V engine. Borrowed from the first stage of the Angara rocket, the RD-191V engine would have to be upgraded for optimal performance in the vacuum of space, hence, letter "V" in its name, which stands for "vysotny" or "high-altitude." A major feature of such an engine would be an extendable nozzle that would unfold into its operational position immediately after the separation of the core stage and moments before firing.
Peculiarly, three stages of the proposed rocket were expected to have a diameter of 4.1 meters matching key dimensions of the Proton rocket. As a result, existing factory equipment at GKNPTs Khrunichev in Moscow currently manufacturing Protons could be easily reconfigured for the next-generation super rocket. At the same time, 4.1-meter stages would likely require costly air transportation to the future Vostochny launch site in the Russian Far East. Although GKNPTs Khrunichev routinely transports Proton stages to Baikonur Cosmodrome, such a trip to the Russian Far East would probably be impossible without a major upgrade of railway lines, tunnels and other infrastructure, as well as stopping and diverting head-on traffic -- hardly a realistic proposition. The railway limitations was a key reason why the diameter of the cancelled Rus-M rocket, first proposed for deployment in Vostochny, was restricted to 3.8 meters.
Cryogenic upper stage
The engine firing of the third stage would be concluded with a release of an 89-ton stack including the PTK NP spacecraft with a crew of four along with a space tug loaded with cryogenically cooled liquid hydrogen fuel. The stage would be equipped with a dual propulsion system likely deriving from the RD-0146D engine. It would also feature an extendable nozzle. With its first firing, the space tug would insert its payload into an initial parking orbit around the Earth, however it would remain attached to the PTK NP spacecraft for a much more energetic maneuver to escape the Earth orbit. Depending on the destination, the second firing of the space tug could send the PTK NP spacecraft on a deep-space mission to the lunar orbital station, Lagrangian points or even to visit an asteroid.
Read (and see) much more about the history of the Russian space program in a richly illustrated, large-format glossy edition:
Known specifications of a super-heavy rocket proposed by RKK Energia in 2013:
Next chapter: Energia-5KV rocket
The first stage boosters and the core stage of the proposed rocket would be powered by the RD-171 engine. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
To propel the upper (third) stage of the proposed rocket, the RD-191 engine would have to be upgraded to work in vacuum. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak