Dnepr Launch Stalled By Rocket-Debris Cleanup Negotiations

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PARIS — The launch of the two Swedish Prisma formation-flying satellites and the French Picard solar-science spacecraft aboard a Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr rocket has been further delayed, to February, because of ongoing negotiations on rocket-debris cleanup between Russian launch authorities and the government of Uzbekistan, Swedish and French officials said.

The delays suggest that Russia’s planned development of the Yasny spaceport, in Russia’s Orenburg region 120 kilometers west of Orsk, still has not overcome the same rocket drop-zone issues that have long complicated Russia’s relations with Kazakhstan, which is home to Russia’s large Baikonur Cosmodrome spaceport.

Officials from organizations planning to use the Dnepr rocket in the next two years say it remains unclear when ISC Kosmotras of Moscow, which commercializes the vehicle, will be able to definitively close Dnepr’s facilities at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan anytime soon.

Kazakh authorities, who lease the sprawling Baikonur site to Russia, regularly raise the rocket-debris issue. Russian officials have said they would like to reduce their dependence on the Baikonur facility, which is home to Russia’s Proton rocket and also serves as the launch base for Soyuz manned flights, in favor of launches from Russia’s own territory.

Russia’s Roskosmos space agency on Oct. 17 published a summary of Yasny development that said development of the launch base will entail building, almost from scratch, a city of 30,000 people. The Russian federal government has estimated that the Yasny project will cost 400 billion Russian roubles ($13.9 billion).

Heightened launch activity at the Baikonur facility already has delayed the launch of Germany’s TanDem-X Earth observation radar satellite to late December, a delay which has had the domino effect of pushing Europe’s Cryosat-2 polar ice-observation satellite launch into February.

The launch delays have increased the cost of the TanDem-X and Cryosat-2 missions and will give German TanDem-X program managers less time to operate the satellite with Germany’s TerraSAR-X spacecraft, launched in June 2007.

The German Aerospace Center, DLR, and Germany’s Infoterra company, owned by Astrium Services, joined forces to finance TerraSAR-X and TanDem-X, whose data is designed for government and commercial markets. Once TanDem-X is launched — the current schedule is for a Dec. 24 liftoff from Baikonur — it will be operated at distances between 200 meters and several kilometers from TerraSAR-X to collect stereo images.

Dnepr’s launch of the 150-kilogram Picard and the two 145-kilogram Prisma satellites from Yasny had been scheduled for last spring, and then faced successive delays as Russia and Uzbekistan continued to debate rocket-debris issues.

France’s Picard satellite has faced its own schedule details because of computer component-related issues but is now on a path that would have permitted a launch this fall, according to Francois Buisson, Picard program manager at the French space agency, CNES.

In an Oct. 9 interview, Buisson said CNES has been assured by Kosmotras that a regulatory go-ahead for Dnepr activity would be delivered in time for a February launch of Picard. But Buisson said CNES will not ship Picard until it has been formally notified that all the launch clearances have been received.

Swedish Space Corp. authorities have assumed the same position. Staffan Persson, Prisma’s program manager, said he wants to avoid being in a position similar to that of Thailand’s Theos Earth observation satellite.

Theos managers switched from the Russian-German Rokot vehicle to a Dnepr launch from Yasny following multiple Rokot schedule slips in 2007. But the Thai satellite was forced to wait in storage for months because of the Russian-Uzbek conflict and was not launched until October 2008, nearly two years later than scheduled.

“Our current plans are that we will ship the satellites in January for a four-week launch campaign,” Persson said Oct. 8. “We don’t want to ship in advance and then find ourselves in a position of waiting for launch approval. Kosmotras is doing its best, and we now think the February date will hold.”