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by Olga Zakutnyaya
Moscow (Voice of Russia) Jan 23, 2013
Only 12 Proton-M launches were approved by Kazakhstan for 2013 instead of the planned 17. The decision has put the future of Russian-Kazakh space cooperation under further threat. What does fate have in store for the famed launch pad in the near future?
It seems the status quo, which has survived in the space world for several decades, is to face an imminent challenge. Once again, Baikonur cosmodrome, Russia's main launch pad, is at the centre of the conflict. Kazakhstan has refused to approve the limit of 17 Proton launches that Russia asked for in 2013, allowing only 12, even fewer than in 2012. Russia's response could be to reduce the annual rent paid to Kazakhstan for the site.
Proton-M, currently the heaviest launcher in the Russian space programme, provided 10 of the 24 launches in 2012 (plus an additional Proton-K launch, also from Baikonur).
Its capabilities could only be replaced by Angara, which is still-under-development. Moreover, as Russian space officials have announced, no launch pads for Protons are available other than those at Baikonur.
Should the available number of launches diminish, a good deal of the contracts with launch operators will come under threat of termination or penalty sanctions.
One apparent reason for the decision could be the Proton rocket's toxic propellant, perhaps a legitimate bargaining point. Last year also saw two failures, in August and December, fortunately, they occurred in space and had no impact on the environment. As a result, the next Proton launch was postponed until at least the end of March.
Few however doubt that the real cause of the tension is Russia's apparent future withdrawal from Baikonur. Kazakhstan is concerned about the future of the space port after the new Vostochnyi cosmodrome is up and running, which may be as soon as 2015.
Moreover, Vostochnyi also threatens Baiterek, the joint Russian-Kazakh endeavour at Baikonur, which was initially intended mainly for Angara launches. If Russia builds Vostochnyi, there will be no reason to maintain another launch pad incurring additional rental costs.
Russia has also announced that it is going to make more use of its northern Plesetsk cosmodrome, and launch the majority of state satellites from there, rather than Kazakhstan.
The conflict follows a statement by Talgat Musabaev, head of the Kazakh space agency, in early December 2012, blaming Russia for failing to follow the Baiterek agreement and calling for Proton launches to be cut. As the dispute heats up, both sides will have to make decisions with long-term consequences.
Although its future might have appeared certain until 2050, Baikonur may not perhaps remain Russia's primary space hub after the Soviet Union's demise. Sooner or later, it has to be replaced. On the other hand, Kazakhstan does have a usable cosmodrome, but who will use it?
One possible partner is Ukraine, as news of Kazakh limitations on Proton launches emerged, it was announced that Ukraine is ready to consider joining the Baiterek project with its Zenit launcher. The possibility could be discussed during a meeting of the two countries' space leaders in late January.
Meanwhile, Russia's first 2013 launch from Baikonur is scheduled for February 5, when Soyuz-2.1a, equipped with the Fregat booster, will deliver six Globalstar telecommunication satellites into orbit.
Source: Voice of Russia
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