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Wednesday, 19 April, 2000, 08:29 GMT 09:29 UK
Space rockets to fire from plane
The giant Ruslan will carry the rockets
By BBC News Online's Damian Carrington

A Russian company planning to launch satellites into space from rockets dropped out of planes has said it will be ready for its first mission in 2003.

Ruslan facts
Max civilian payload - 120 tonnes
Length - 69 metres
Wing span - 73 m
Max speed - 865 km/h
Runway required - 3,000 m
Entered service - 1985
Crashes - Four
A rocket containing the satellite would be flown to an altitude of about 10 kilometres by the world's biggest cargo plane, the An-124-AL Ruslan. It would then be jettisoned and parachutes would deploy to steady it. Finally, in mid-air, its engines would ignite.

The idea could make it much cheaper to put satellites into orbit, as it avoids the need for the fuel-hungry first stages which blast rockets off the Earth's surface.

US company Boeing announced in March that it was developing a similar programme using modified 747-400F jumbo jets. An air launch system called Pegasus already exists, though it can only deploy small satellites.

Russian expertise

"It's a very interesting idea and is technically feasible, although certainly not straightforward," said Professor Ken Pounds, Head of Physics and Astronomy at Leicester University, a UK centre of space expertise.

Professor Pounds told BBC News Online: "It ought to be cheaper, not least because the Russians are doing it and their costs are much lower. And remember, the Russians have still launched more satellites over the years than the rest of the world put together."

Ariane 5
Ariane 5: First launch exploded
The Russian plan, begun in 1997, is being developed by Air Launch Corp and a dozen other companies in Russia and Ukraine. These include Energiya, the builder of the Mir space station, and Ukraine's Antonov design bureau.

"According to our business plan, the first launch will be in 2003," said Anatoly Karpov, chief executive of Russian cargo airline Polyet.

He added a very ambitious objective: "A few years after that we could be making five to eight launches a week."

Middleweight contender

A modified Ruslan would launch non-military satellites of up to 3.5 tonnes, according to the company, with two-stage Progress rockets boosting them into orbit.

This payload weight is less than the heaviest current satellites. The ground-based Ariane 5 rocket can launch up to 6.8 tonnes and Sea Launch, which uses an former oil rig as a launch pad, can launch 5.25 tonnes.

The Pegasus air launch system, from US company Orbital, uses three-stage Pegasus rockets carried up to 12 km by an L-1011 Stargazer. The system was first used in 1990 and Orbital claim 25 successful missions, with three failures.

However, the maximum payload is just 0.5 tonnes and costs are "approximately half the cost of equivalent ground-based launchers", more expensive than Air Launch's claimed cost.

Costs and competition

Mr Karpov said Air Launch would charge less than $6,000 per kilogram - a cost of $24m for a four-tonne satellite. This is far below the rate demanded for standard launches of around $30,000 per kilogram. Sea Launch is believed to cost up to $9,000 per kilogram.

Sea Launch
Sea Launch: Second launch failed
Mr Karpov acknowledged the coming competition from Boeing, but said: "Once the sector gets going, there will be plenty of demand and plenty of work for everyone."

Analysts estimate 1,800 satellites will be launched over the next 15 years and that a market worth up to $15 billion a year could be carved out of a total launch market of $120bn.

However, placing satellites safely into orbit remains a very difficult task and innovation in this area more often begins with failure than success, as Ariane 5 and Sea Launch disasters showed. The space industry will be watching this space.

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See also:

22 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Successful launch for Ariane
12 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Crashed rocket is bitter blow
09 Dec 99 | Sci/Tech
The roaring business of rockets
10 Dec 99 | Sci/Tech
Ariane soars to success
15 Nov 99 | Sci/Tech
Japan's rocket hopes explode
30 Sep 98 | Sci/Tech
Rollercoaster ride into space
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