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Fregat orbital tug





Above: An artist rendering of the Dvina orbital tug with a duo of spacecraft based on NPO Lavochkin's Karat platform. Credit: NPO Lavochkin

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Russia mulls electrically propelled space tug

As a number of other space powers, Russia developed very promising electric propulsion systems, also referred to as ion engines. Instead of using reactive energy of chemical combustion, electric engines employ electrostatic or electromagnetic force to accelerate propellant and generate thrust in the process. The 21st century electric engines primarily use noble gases such as argon or xenon as propellant, however more radical designs proposed employing solid metals, which would be melted in the engine before converting into a thrust-yielding jets of ions.

The practical development of the electric propulsion technology in USSR traces its roots to the 1920s and 1930s, when Valentin Glushko, a "father" of the Soviet rocket propulsion, experimented with precursor designs at Gas Dynamics Laboratory, GDL. GDL's successor -- Keldysh center -- accumulated a considerable experience in the development of a diverse family of electric engines. Also, since 1971, OKB Fakel has been developing operational electrically powered engines, which made their way to numerous russian satellites. However, due to electric engines’ low thrust relative to their physical size, their role was primarily limited to providing attitude control and orbit correction rather than main propulsion maneuvering. However at the turn of the 21st century, advances in technology enabled the use of electrical propulsion for deep space missions, confirming their long-predicted role as a cornerstone technology in the future space exploration.

In April 2012, Vladimir Rachuk, the head of KBKhA design bureau in the city of Voronezh, said that his company had taken upon the development of electric engines with the use of its own internal resources. (558) On May 15, 2013, the company also announced that it had just won a competition for the federal subsidy of the Ministry of Education and Science aimed to stimulate high-tech development in the country. KBKhA was intended to spend the money in cooperation with Moscow Aviation Institute, MAI, for building the infrastructure to support high-frequency, low-thrust ion engine development and testing.

Russian spacecraft developers, particularly at NPO Lavochkin, paid close attention to the evolution of electric propulsion at home and abroad. At the beginning of 21st century, NPO Lavochkin developed a concept of the Dvina orbital tug powered by electric engines. The work was apparently conducted with involvement of NPO Lavochkin's Kaluga branch. Initial information on the Dvina project was made public in June 2010. In its release, NPO Lavochkin described Dvina as a versatile transport module for inter-orbital missions launched by medium-size and heavy-lifting rockets (apparently, Soyuz and Proton respectively). It was a typical role for an orbital tug, which would be launched into an initial parking orbit along with its payload, after which it would maneuver its cargo to various trajectories.

According to NPO Lavochkin, Dvina could enable long-duration missions, lasting from seven to 15 years and concluding with the removal of payloads from operational orbit. It was a clear reference to communications satellites functioning in the geostationary orbit with an altitude of 36,000 kilometers. This heavily used orbit become contaminated with expired satellites, making its cleanup a necessity in the near future.

Given potential capabilities of electric engines, the Dvina project could be considered as the first step toward the development of the new-generation of propulsion technology in Russia with long-running implications for deep-space exploration and manned spaceflight.

According to NPO Lavochkin, the Dvina module would have two variations designed to be launched by medium-size and heavy rockets. Both versions would be using xenon gas as propellant and use S-band radio communication equipment capable of 40,000-kilometer range -- another clear reference to missions into the geostationary orbit. (410)

Planetary missions

Only few months after the release of the official information on the Dvina electric tug, NPO Lavochkin's presentation identified the Dvina-TM (where "TM" stands for "transport module") as a carrier of Russia's potential most ambitious planetary missions. The Intergelio-Zond probe would be sent into the vicinity of the Sun as early as 2014, the Mercury-P spacecraft (where "P" stands for posadka - "landing") would deliver a lander on the first planet from the Sun as early as 2016 and Sokol-Laplace would carry a lander toward the Jovian moon Europa as early as 2018. (434) Although none of these launch dates were considered realistic at the time, all three missions were on the short list of Russian priorities in planetary exploration in the following decade. If ever implemented, all three spacecraft could spend years in reaching their destinations and, thus, they could benefit from low but prolonged thrust of electric engines.

Documents released during following years hinted that Dvina-TM could also have a designation 14S022 Persei. Avaiable descriptions showed that it would be equipped with eight SPD M-100 electric thrusters.

In addition, early plans for the Russian Mars soil-sample return mission drafted by 2010, also relied on the electrically propelled cruise stage.

Propulsion system

According to the Russian firm OKB Fakel, it developed SPD-140D electric engine for NPO Lavochkin's Dvina-TM module. A special propulsion cluster designed for the project would allow to provide thrust in two perpendicular directions.



Known participants in the Dvina-TM project:

  • NPO Lavochkin: Prime contractor;
  • TsNIIMash: Testing and certification;
  • OKB Fakel: Electric propulsion system;
  • ANO Tekhkom: Avionics;


Depending on the launch vehicle, the Dvina orbital tug would have following specifications (410):

- for medium launcher for heavy launcher
Dry mass of the Dvina platform 1,467 kilograms 1,563 kilograms
Maximum propellant load 781 kilograms 953 kilograms
Maximum electric power supply to payload 7,900 Watt 15,000 Watt
Maximum payload mass 1,117 kilograms 4,861 kilograms

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Writing and photography by Anatoly Zak

Last update: September 5, 2015

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Russian work on electric (ion) engines goes all the way back to Valentin Glushko's project of Gelioraketoplan in 1928-1929. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak

Ion engine

By the end of the 20th century, electric engines, like one on the Artemis satellite (above), were used extensively in space technology around the world. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak


Russia's IntergelioZond solar mission could use Dvina-TM tug for propulsion.


SPD-140D propulsion module developed for the Dvina-TM space tug. Credit: OKB Fakel



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