Dnepr Launch Operations Could Return to Baikonur

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PARIS — The Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr rocket, whose operations were moved from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in 2006 to a new site in Russia to avoid conflicts with authorities in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan over launch debris, may be forced to return to Baikonur because of similar issues with neighboring Uzbekistan, according to the Swedish Space Corp. (SSC).

Dnepr launch services provider ISC Kosmotras of Moscow and its partners have invested substantial resources in a hotel and launch installations at the new Yasny launch site in Russia’s Orenburg region 120 kilometers west of Orsk. Russian authorities have long stated their desire to relocate as many space-launch operations as possible onto their own territory.

Since late 2007, however, the launch of Thailand’s Theos optical Earth observation satellite has been on hold due to
Uzbekistan’s concern about debris from Dnepr’s first stage falling on its territory. Similar Kazakh concerns in the past have delayed launches from Baikonur.

SSC announced April 23 that it has signed a contract with Kosmotras for a June 2009 launch of its two formation-flying Prisma satellites. Staffan Persson, SSC’s Prisma project manager, said April 24 that the launch is slated to occur from Yasny but would move to Baikonur if the dispute with Uzbekistan over rocket debris is not
resolved quickly.

Persson said Swedish authorities had considered a launch aboard India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, but were discouraged by U.S. export regulations. India has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and for this reason the U.S. government has in most cases denied permission to launch U.S. satellite hardware aboard Indian rockets. The Prisma satellites contain U.S. components.

U.S. and Indian authorities say the relationship between the two countries is improving, but winning approval to export U.S. satellite parts to India remains difficult.

Dnepr, a converted SS-18 ballistic missile launched from an underground silo, also is considered less expensive than India’s rocket, according to industry officials.

The two Prisma satellites, which weigh a combined 290 kilograms, are likely to be launched with the French government’s 150-kilogram Picard solar-science satellite aboard the same Dnepr vehicle.

Francois Buisson, Picard program manager at the French space agency, CNES, said April 24 that a final contract has not yet been signed for the launch but that the Dnepr is the most likely choice. CNES launched its Demeter Earth sciences satellite, which uses the same Myriade skeletal structure as Picard, in 2004 aboard a Dnepr and reported being satisfied with the vehicle’s performance.

Thailand’s Theos satellite, meanwhile, remains in limbo, awaiting a Dnepr launch from Yasny. The Theos program was budgeted at about 6 billion Thai baht ($192 million).

The 750-kilogram Theos is designed to operate in a sun-synchronous orbit for five years. It carries an optical imager capable of taking pictures with a ground resolution of 2 meters — meaning objects of that size and larger can be distinguished — with a swath width of 22 kilometers.

One of its features is an ability to swivel off-nadir up to 50 degrees in either direction, with image quality guaranteed
for angled shots that are within
30 degrees of nadir.

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