On Wednesday, the Russian space company Roscosmos revealed plans to develop a new “Amur” rocket.
The booster will be powered by new and undeveloped rocket engines that burn methane. Just as importantly, Russia wants to build a reusable first stage for the first time. And Roscosmos is targeting a low price of just $22 million for a launch on Amur, which is advertised to deliver 10.5 tons to low Earth orbit.
“We want our missile to be reliable, like a Kalashnikov assault rifle,” said Alexander Bloshenko, Roscosmos’ executive director for advanced programs and science.
Perhaps what is most striking about the design of the Amur rocket is how much it resembles a smaller version of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which can lift about twice as much payload into orbit.
The resemblance starts at the top, with a wider fairing than the core of the missile. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket has a 5.2-meter-diameter chargeline, and the proposed Amur design has a 4.1-meter diameter. Both missiles have a set of grid fins at the top of the first stage and landing legs at the base. Instead of using nine engines like the Falcon 9, the Amur booster will use five RD-169 engines.
While the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage is designed to either return to its launch site or land downward on a drone ship, the Amur booster will launch from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in eastern Russia and land downward, possibly at a site to be built along the sea of Okhotsk. For now, Russia has no plans to land the booster at sea, due to the often harsh conditions in the Sea of Okhotsk.
Roscosmos said the booster’s development costs will not exceed $900 million, and that each initial Amur phase will be designed to fly 10 missions during the initial testing phase. If this sounds familiar, in terms of commonality, SpaceX’s goal is to fly a Falcon 9 first stage for the tenth time by 2021.
This all sounds good, especially its competitive price of $22 million, which is low for a medium-lift booster like Roscosmos and its contractors can provide. It is important to note that the Russian space leader, Dmitry Rogozin, has announced a number of ambitious space projects in recent years and has subsequently taken no action to ensure that they are implemented.
Moreover, even under Roscosmos’ most optimistic time frame, Amur would not be ready to fly until 2026. This is a long time for a rocket development program and it is hard to say what kind of market the booster will enter. For example, if SpaceX can live up to its plans to build a fully reusable Starship launch system, that vehicle could launch 10 times as much as Amur for a comparable cost, or less. This would apparently make it difficult for the Amur booster to increase Russia’s share of the commercial satellite launch market.
Reacting to the Amur missile on TwitterSpaceX founder Elon Musk said: “It’s a step in the right direction, but they really need to aim for full reusability by 2026. A bigger rocket would also make sense for literal economies of scale. The goal should be to reduce the cost per usable ton.” in orbit or it will serve a niche market at best.”
List image by GK Launch Services