The end of Proton rockets begins

Russia’s Khrunichev Plant will soon end production of Proton rockets, a true legend of our eastern neighbors’ space sector.

The first rocket launch of this family took place more than half a century ago – in 1965. By September 2019, a total of 420 launches of the Proton family rocket had been conducted.

Proton rockets have a high payload capacity – up to nearly 24 tons to low Earth orbit (LEO) and more than 6.5 tons to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO). It was the Proton rocket that carried two important elements of the Russian section of the International Space Station (ISS) – the Zarya (November 1998) and Zvezda (July 2000) modules. In the near future, a Proton rocket is expected to carry the large Russian MLM module Nauka (currently scheduled for launch in November 2020). Since 1996, the Proton rocket has also been offered commercially – most often to launch heavy telecommunications satellites into geostationary orbit.

The latest – and as it turns out, the last – version of this rocket is called Proton-M. The first flight of this version took place in 2001. This rocket was a popular carrier of large telecommunications satellites to GEO in the previous decade. The record payload of this type was the ViaSat-1 satellite with a launch mass of 6740 kg (this is not the heaviest satellite ever to orbit GEO. That satellite is currently Telstar 19V, launched in 2018 using a Falcon 9 rocket).

Disasters, competition, contamination

Of course, the Proton rocket’s long service has not been without accidents. About 50 Proton launches have ended in failure. The most spectacular disaster was the failed Proton-M flight in July 2013. Often, poor manufacturing quality of the rocket was responsible for the disasters and failed launches.

In 2016, it seemed that the Proton rocket had many more years of service ahead of it. There were even proposed development versions of this rocket, more suited to changing requirements in the market. The commercial operator of these rockets, ILS, proposed Proton Light and Proton Medium versions.

In recent years, unreliability has not been the only issue weighing on the Proton rocket. This rocket is less and less chosen because of the new generation of launchers that effectively compete with Proton. Certainly the Falcon 9 rocket has taken away much of the market previously served by Proton rockets. The European Ariane 5 rocket, which has a very high level of reliability, has also taken away much of the remaining market.

In addition, the Proton rocket is powered by extremely toxic fuel. The area near the launch pad of these rockets was contaminated with several hundred tons of various chemicals, including kerosene, heptyl, and amyl. Kazakhstan (on whose territory the Baikonur Cosmodrome is located) has often protested Russia’s excessively slow actions in cleaning up the areas around the launch pads as well as around the sites of the first stages.

End of Proton rocket service

In recent years, the frequency of Proton rocket launches has noticeably decreased. There have been increasingly frequent reports that the service of these rockets is coming to an end. In mid-September 2019, news emerged that Russia’s Khrunichev Plant would soon end production of Proton rockets. These plants will build 11 more rockets and the long history of Proton family rockets will end there.

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