Officials in Moscow and Astana are placing a big bet on space technologies with the creation of a new launch pad in Kazakhstan that could pay dividends to both countries and put them on par with the United States when it comes to commercial space launches.
The governments of the two neighboring Caspian region countries officially launched construction of the facility on Wednesday after Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, and Beibut Atamkulov, Kazakhstan’s minister of defense and aerospace industry, signed an agreement.
“For a long time, we have discussed the mission of Bayterek, and what kind of rocket carrier we will use there. Kazakhstan has decided to allocate funds for all ground infrastructures in order to work with the Soyuz-5 rocket,” Rogozin said on Wednesday according to Interfax.
The new site will be dubbed Bayterek, which means “a large rich tree” or “a poplar” in Kazakh. The existing Zenit-M space rocket complex located at the Baikonur Cosmodrome was picked as a location for the new launch site.
With the first launch from the facility slated to occur in 2022, the site will be used to launch the Soyuz-5 carrier rocket, a new medium-class launch vehicle currently being developed by Russia’s Rocket and Space Public Corporation, Energia. The 62-meter Soyuz-5 is a medium-capacity launcher with a takeoff mass of more than 500 tons. It will replace the lighter Soyuz-2 and will be capable of delivering 17 tons to a low orbit – almost three times as much as the latest Soyuz-2.1b can currently deliver.
The history of the Bayterek project dates to 2004 when the leaders of Russia and Kazakhstan agreed to create a space rocket complex “with a high level of environmental safety.”
“The Bayterek project has a long and complicated history – the ups and downs, as well as the changes in rocket carriers, are intertwined with each other,” said Ivan Moiseev, the head of the Institute for Space Policy, according to reports by Ekonomika Segodnya.
Moiseev believes the Bayterek can compete with American space companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin. The low cost of a single launch of a rocket from Bayterek is estimated to be around $56 million, compared to SpaceX’s cost of about $62 million every time it launches its Falcon 9 rocket. The more powerful Falcon Heavy costs even more to launch – around $90 million per launch.
“This project is technically difficult and financially extremely expensive, but, in general, it has excellent perspectives to take a good position in the global market for space launches,” the Moiseev said.
In 2016, Kazakhstan’s government made commitments to finance the creation of Bayterek, while Moscow said it will build the rocket carrier as well as some components for the ground-based complex. Preliminary estimates for the cost of the project were $745 million, including Kazakhstan’s investment of $245 million. In May of this year, Astana announced its intent to increase investment up to $314 million.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan gained control over the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which was used as a launch pad for the most of the Soviet space rockets. In 1994, Russia received Kazakhstan’s permission to use the cosmodrome to launch its heavy-class launch vehicle known as Proton, which operates on a toxic fuel.
In 1999, Russia’s heavy booster rocket launched from Baikonur suffered a malfunction, which detached the engine and parts of the booster, causing them to crash onto the Kazakh steppes. After the accident, Kazakhstan briefly closed Baikonur in a dispute with Russia over clean-up costs and rent for the base. Russia said it would replace Proton with environmentally friendly space vehicles.