Russia’s ageing Proton ‘retired’

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Proton-M rocket's lower portion being rotated to vertical. The mobile service tower (in the background) will roll up to the rocket and “embrace” it with its service platforms. Photo: Wiki-Creative Commons/Pavel Kolotilov

Dmitry Rogozin, the new head of Roskosmos State Corporation for Space Activities, has confirmed in an interview with RIA Novosti that Proton, the great Russian workhorse rocket, will no longer fly. This is part of the restructuring plans of the Russian rocket and space industry announced by Rogozin, which also includes beginning to identify priority near-Earth orbit experiments in the autonomous Russian segment of the International Space Station (ISS).

The Proton rocket is an expendable launch system used for both commercial and Russian government space launches, and was first launched in 1965.

As the space race between the United States and Russia grew, Proton was originally conceived as a rocket to fly two-person crews around the moon.

Today, its launch capacity to low earth orbit (LEO) is about 22.8 tonnes and to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) about 6.3 tonnes. Modern versions of Proton were in use until recently, and it remained one of the most successful and most versatile heavy lifters in the history of spaceflight.

The decision to retire it immediately is perhaps driven by a string of recent failures, largely due to technical oversight and management problems, and the emerging stiff competition from low-cost alternatives such as SpaceX’s Falcon.

All Protons were built at the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Centre plant in Moscow, transported to the Baikonur Cosmodrome, brought to the launch pad horizontally and raised into vertical position for launch. The plan was to retire Proton by 2030 and replace it with the Angara rocket.

Angara is currently under development and has undergone only two test flights since 2014. With the recent announcement on retiring Proton, the production of Angara is likely to be speeded up.