17:57 GMT +320 July 2018
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    Yuri Zaitsev

    One of the key results of the current year so far is the agreement to extend Russia's lease of the Baikonur space centre in Kazakhstan until 2050. The agreement did not come easy. It would be appropriate to recall here the repeated statements made by Russian Defence Ministry Sergei Ivanov that prime attention in developing space centres had to be focused on Russia's Plesetsk complex. According to Ivanov's remarks during an inspection tour of the northern site last November, from 2005 Plesetsk would launch not only light and medium-weight carrier rockets (as has been the practice until now), but also heavy ones. "Russia must have independent access to space," he emphasised.

    Some media took this remark as meaning that from 2005 Russia would refuse to use the Baikonur space centre. The minister had to explain that his comments only applied to military launches. "I referred only to military space activities, not all Russia's space efforts. If we're talking about military space activities, then in the longer-term, but not within the next three to four years, only later, I do not rule out Plesetsk launching all spacecraft in the interests of the Defence Ministry." Experts believe that, even with new Angara and Rus carriers in service, Russia will be able to move to Plesetsk no more than 80% of its military launches. As regards civilian space activities, Yuri Koptev, director-general of Rosaviakosmos, believes the implementation of both Russian and international space programmes is impossible without Baikonur. "Even if tomorrow we create infrastructure and new rockets for Plesetsk, there are laws of celestial mechanics which say that the orbit now used by the International Space Station, which is expected to operate at least until 2014-2015, can be reached from Baikonur alone," Koptev said. "Rosaviakosmos is of the opinion that Baikonur should keep the status of Russia's leading space centre. Its technological capabilities afford orbiting an aggregate payload of 1,500 tonnes a year, or around 40% of the handling capacity of all the world's space centres." Apart from the lease period, another question that needed addressing before the agreement was signed was the money. Under the old contract, the rent was set at $115 million a year. Kazakhstan's proposal was: either increase the sum, or pay Astana a percentage on commercial launches from Baikonur. To this a member of the Russian delegation remarked: "When you hire a car, do you give the owner a percentage of your earnings from transporting the cargo and passengers? You do not pay double for one and the same thing." At the negotiations themselves, officials claim the issue of increasing the rent was not even raised.

    Even so, Russia is ready and willing to share with Kazakhstan its earnings from joint projects carried out at Baikonur. One such possible project is the Baiterek space and rocket complex, based on the Russian Angara carrier rocket. This is a very resource-intensive scheme intended for the longer term and calling for massive investment. If Astana contributes to it in cash, it will be entitled to expect a proportionate share of receipts from the launches.

    During the negotiations, Kazakhstan said it was ready to take part in the project and put $200 million on the table, the exact amount needed to set up the complex base (without carrier rockets and infrastructure for preparing and launching them). The Kazakh side's financial contribution will carry the project through in a relatively short time and help to tackle a series of other problems, including environmental ones.

    Kazakhstan has repeatedly complained that Baikonur launches rockets employing toxic fuel components (primarily Proton class carriers). Russian specialists have made great efforts in recent years to improve the fuel's ecological performance and minimise its negative effects on the environment. To a considerable extent this has been achieved. Replacing the Proton with the ecologically clean Angara will fully resolve the problem.

    In addition to that, thanks to Baikonur's better geographic location (it is closer to the equator than Plesetsk), the Angara will be more effective there than when launched from the northern Russian space centre (a move that has not been ruled out either). As the Angara is upgraded, its payload capacity may be appreciably increased through the addition of more booster sections and brought to 28-30 tonnes. This will enable Russia to lead the beckoning market of commercial launches into the most attractive geostationary orbits, especially for communications satellites. For the sake of comparison, the Proton's current payload capacity is 2.6 tonnes, whereas the Angara's is 5 to 6 tonnes, even without new booster sections.

    Last but not least, the Angara was being developed as an all-purpose rocket and, depending on the number of booster stages, could be categorised as light, medium or heavy. But in early 2003, the Defence Ministry - which first suggested its development -stopped using the lighter-class Angara in its launches from Plesetsk in the near future. It believes that other tried-and-tested Russian carriers Soyuz, Kosmos-3M and converted Rokot and Strela carrier rockets can easily replace it. Baikonur, however, is designed for launching Angaras of all classes, including the lighter one. This, in a way, will resolve the conflict with Lockheed Martin, which has the rights to market the Angara internationally. Moreover, the American company subsidised the Khrunichev Centre with $68 million for the Angara project, on condition that the debut launching of the lighter class Angara took place before the end of 2003.

    Accordingly, it can be concluded that Russia's Plesetsk space centre will be used to launch rockets carrying spacecraft for the Defence Ministry and under federal space programmes, which fully accords with legal and military realities, and Baikonur, where Russia is to remain for another fifty or so years, will be responsible for commercial launches.

    RIA Novosti

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