Russia to test next-generation spacecraft

Space chief says Russia may consider manned mission to Mars after 2035 but criticises budget being given to his agency.

    Russia has a lease on the Baikunor cosmodrome until 2050 but plans to build a new launch pad in the Far East [EPA]

    Russia is to test a next-generation spacecraft, build a new cosmodrome and even consider a manned mission to Mars after 2035, the nation's space chief has said.

    While outlining the ambitious plans, Anatoly Perminov also said that his space agency's current budget was not enough to finance breakthrough projects and that China might soon overtake Russian space technology.

    "The markets are always won by those who have money," Perminov, the head of Roskosmos, told politicians in the upper house of parliament.

    "But the finance ministry's policy doesn't allow us to complete projects aimed at winning the foreign market."

    Perminov was addressing parliament a day after the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first human spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin, on April 12, 1961.

    He said that Russia would start building a new launch pad in Russia's Far East this year, called Vostochny.

    Officials have said the first launches from Vostochny are expected in 2015.

    Russia is now using the Soviet-built Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for all its manned space flights and a large share of its satellite launches.

    Russia has a lease on Baikonur until 2050 and has paid around $115m to Kazakhstan in rent under a 2004 agreement.

    The Plesetsk launch pad in Russia's north has mostly been used for launches of military satellites.

    Asked by politicians about prospects for a human flight to Mars, Perminov said it made little sense at today's level of technology.

    "It's absurd to go there using the spacecraft and rockets that we have today," he said.

    Perminov said a manned mission to Mars could only be launched around 2035 after new nuclear engines are developed.

    Soyuz replacement

    Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, said on Tuesday that the country's space programme would remain a key government priority, but sceptics said the nation has done virtually nothing to develop a successor to the 43-year-old Soyuz spaceship.

    Russia has used the Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, whose designs date back to the 1960s, to send an increasing number of crew and cargo to the International Space Station.

    They will become the sole link to the space outpost after the mothballing of NASA's shuttle fleet this summer.

    Some cosmonauts have warned that while Russia stands to reap short-term benefits from its monopoly in ferrying crews and supplies to the space station, it could quickly fall behind America after the US builds a new-generation Orion spaceship.

    Russian officials have set a tentative launch of a new spacecraft to replace Soyuz for 2015, but cosmonauts and industry watchers have said its development has barely begun.

    Perminov said Russia will need to make at least 15 successful unmanned launches of the new craft, named Rus, before it can carry crew into orbit.

    He said the programme of unmanned tests will take about two years and conceded that Russian spacecraft still depend on imported electronics. 

    "We have to acknowledge that imported components account for 65-70 per cent of electronics in the spacecraft launched last year and those set to be launched this year," he said.

    Perminov's rare high-profile complaint about the space agency's budget comes amid rumours of his imminent sacking which have marred the official celebrations of Gagarin's maiden orbit and drawn attention to a string of embarrassing setbacks in recent months.

    Two high-ranking space officials were fired after three high-tech GLONASS navigation satellites crashed into the Pacific Ocean after a failed launch in December.

    Last week, Sergei Ivanov, Russia's deputy prime minister, abruptly announced that Perminov would soon be past the retirement age at 65, indicating that he might leave soon, news agencies reported.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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