Rockets of Today

ANGARA (Ангара) and AMUR (Аму́р) — Russia, 2014

We are now getting into launch systems sufficiently new that their commercialization is becoming speculative, and their per-flight costs are not clear. This one is not yet available for hired flights, but the company to sell flights on it is in place.

Some years back, the Russians decided that they had too many product lines going on in rocketry, and decided to make a single new model to replace several old ones in the middle size categories. Furthermore, they wanted every part to be Russian, including the ground infrastructure, so there would be no dependency on other countries such as Ukraine or Kazakhstan. This is that new model, and its goal is to cover a wide range of uses through modularity. (It’s named after a river — an odd choice but hardly a unique one, as witness the Ukrainians’ retired “Dnipr”, and apparently now becoming a trend with “Irtysh” and “Yenisei”. The Angara name is also used by a commercial airline.)

Its “URM-1” (for Universal Rocket Module) first stage can be stacked together horizontally, giving it up to four full-sized side boosters (or even six in some early plans) to accomodate a range of payload weights. These boosters burn kerosene, as does the second stage, all with single gimballing nozzles. The RD-191 engine is the ancestor of the RD-181 used in the Antares, which has a shallower throttling range than the original. The “URM-2” second stage will apparently be made in different sizes. They started by copying the “Block I” upper stage of the Soyuz 2.1b, and for multi-booster variants they fattened the tanks while keeping the same four-nozzled RD-0124A engine. For single-core Angaras they will use skinnier tanks, but the exact design is not finalized yet as far as is publicly known, and we don’t know if it will be as narrow as the Soyuz stage, or an in-between size that would better fit the booster core. The optional third stage is a hypergolic “Briz” for now, but they are moving away from hypergolics because of the environmental hazards, and a fancier hydrogen burner known as “KVTK” is in the development pipeline. Meanwhile they’re trying it with the “Block-DM” upper stage from the Proton, which uses kerosene, apparently due to environmental protests about the use of hypergolics. On its initial test flight this stage, which is nicknamed “Persei” (or Perseus), failed to perform its second burn. Another variant is called “Orion”; that one succeeded. All these variations cover a huge range of payload sizes, from less than four tons on the most basic Angara to the mid twenties on the five core versions. A three core version would be possible too, but is not yet included in current plans.

Many variations are proposed but not yet built: for instance, an “A-5V” with a big hydrogen-burning “KVRB” (or “URM-2V”) second stage, and the KVTK on top. (The V stands for vodorod (водород), Russian for hydrogen.) With four side boosters, this layout would stretch the payload capacity to 35 tons... which is awkward because some of the missions they’re planning need about 38. They later thought they could get that setup to 40 tons, but then that idea got shelved in favor of the much bigger Yenisei rocket, which would surround a fattened Angara core with six Irtysh boosters. (See the Zenit / Irtysh / Yenisei article in the “Shuttle Era” section.) They also considered using propellant crossfeed, and giving the A-5V a fourth stage. There was even talk of making a reusable soft-landing version, and the RD-191 is indeed designed to survive several uses... but as far as I know it remains just talk. The official Russian plan for reusability is to work on it in the 2020s for use in the 2030s. And I figured, maybe once the Angara’s issues are worked out, it could be a good platform for that... though the Irtysh would be at least as good a starting platform, as the original Zenit it’s based on was designed to move toward this goal from the beginning, even before SpaceX was founded.


In late 2020 they announced a plan for this future reusable rocket, and it’s not going to have any relation to either Angara or Irtysh, except that it shares the latter’s 4.1 meter tank diameter. The plan is to have five methane-burning engines, and Falcon-like landing legs and grid fins. They’re naming it Amur (Аму́р). They hope to lift 10.5 tons for just $22 million. Much more than either the Angara or the Irtysh, this would directly replace the Soyuz. If it does, that might not leave much for the smaller versions of the Angara to do, and not much more for the Irtysh either, except as a side booster on the superheavy Yenisei. But for this to happen, they first need to build the RD-0169A methane engine. (This would presumably be a variant of the RD-0162/0164 which they have been working toward since 2002 — a medium pressure staged combustion design in two sizes.) This engine is being built not by Energomash but by KB Khimavtomatika (КБ Химавтоматики), or Chemical Automatics Design Bureau.

A decade to get there sounds about right, though ideally they hope to fly it by 2026. After their years-long campaign of disparaging reusability in general and SpaceX in particular, this blatantly SpaceX-inspired design ended up getting enough negative public reaction that they would prefer to just not discuss it for a while. The Amur will get its own section if and when they make some progress on it, as will the Yenisei.

Is Amur the name of a river? Yes, it is — the one along the border with China, known as Hēilóng Jiāng (黑龙江, “Black Dragon River”) on the other side. The Amur would take off from Vostochny near the headwaters, and land near the mouth of the river, so the name is highly appropriate in this case. The Angara would launch either from there, or from Plesetsk (northeast of Petrograd) for polar orbits.

The Angara is still barely out of the test-flight stage, with no commercial payloads yet, only what appear to be military ones, after several flights with dummy payloads. And they sure do seem to be taking a very relaxed schedule, with test flights spaced years apart. Apparently they’ve been having considerable logistical trouble with getting these rockets built, as well as difficulty fighting destructive vibrations when they finally manage to fire one up. Even the launch pad refit is behind schedule. The whole program is seeing its costs spiral ever upwards.


Another part of the same general modernization is the ongoing construction of the new cosmodrome at Vostochny in Amur Oblast, which is supposed to take over a fair fraction of the work now being done at Baikonur, in order to keep it on Russian soil when orbital inclinations permit. It’s just a short drive from an older cosmodrome named Svobodny (Свобо́дный), an old missile base which was used from 1997 to 2007 for small launches, then deemed unsuitable for further expansion. Vostochny now supports Soyuz launches, they’ve done an Angara launch there, they say they’re adding a Yenisei pad (despite the fact that the current Roscosmos budget is far too small to build the Yenisei), and eventually the Amur will get one or more. They are considering naming the place after Putin. According to some activists, the construction is riddled with theft and corruption, which would make putting Putin’s name on it entirely appropriate.

And speaking of corruption, the head of Kruchinev (which makes the Angara), formerly the head of launch vehicles and ground infrastructure at Roscosmos, Vladimir Y. Nesterov (Нестеров), was accused of large-scale embezzlement — not for the first time in his career — and then suddenly died for unstated reasons a few days later... one of many suspiciously timed deaths among those who displeased Putin in 2022, three of which came just a few days before this one. Apparently it was he who had spearheaded the Angara project.

Dmitri Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos since 2018 and a former Deputy Prime Minister for Defense and Space under Putin, is one named by activists as appearing to line his own pockets with agency money. He was already under financial sanctions and persona-non-grata status by the USA and EU for his prominence in the Crimean annexation. He’s also loudly belligerent toward the west, racist toward the east and Russia’s minorities, highly militaristic, and all in all a pure fascist. He seemed to be doing his best to ruin future collaboration with NASA in areas like the ISS. In 2022, Putin finally fired his ass, with the replacement being the new Deputy Prime Minister for Defense and Space, Yury Borisov, who sounds like much less of an asshole. (I have no idea if that move is a promotion or a demotion.)

diminishing role

They do intend to carry human beings on the Angara at some point... or did once. And the Russian government once planned to use the Angara to help construct the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway out by the moon, which like the International Space Station was (at least in some plans) intended to be a joint international effort. They have now rejected collaboration on that, and instead signed an agreement to team up with China on lunar stations and bases. But whatever their ambitions, the program to build the Angara is apparently mired in budget cutting, despite that the whole purpose of having such a flexible rocket system is to be an affordable fallback for the larger and heavier rockets whose budgets got cut entirely, such as the Energia and the Proton. Apparently morale is not good, and the political decision to try to make the Angara do the job of larger rockets led to a lot of conflict and bitterness. If they build the Yenisei, that will make it a lot easier to do lunar missions to compete with the USA’s Artemis program... maybe just in time to see Artemis finally be cancelled because SpaceX’s Starship is doing everything it does at a tenth of the price.

After the cold war, it was US policy that the Russian space program should not be allowed to wither away, because then skilled rocket engineers might start finding employment with minor countries who want to have ICBMs. Apparently that worry was a big part of the reason why the International Space Station got built. Now that something like a cold war is back on again, I don’t know if such a policy still applies. If it does, it’s now failing, because the price competition from SpaceX is now causing Russian aerospace companies to see building orbital rockets as unprofitable, and they’re turning their focus more toward satellite construction, which is where the money is now. So if you’re the dictator of a developing country and want to develop an ICBM, this may be an excellent time for hiring experienced rocketeers... if it wasn’t already because of the collapse of Yuzhmash in Ukraine after the Crimean invasion of 2014.

The news lately is that the Angara program is in trouble, and may be losing out to the rival proposals for some missions, notably those carrying live passengers. The Russian government is apparently feeling nervous about putting too many eggs into the Angara basket, as said basket is now looking a bit fragile. The Irtysh looks like it could do about anything the Angara can do, with more capacity for less money. If the Angara program had gone well, they would have replaced the Zenit with a three-booster version, but now the opposite may happen. And the Amur might well be the last one standing. Will the Angara manage to even do ten missions before it’s obsolete? It sure isn’t making a strong start, especially with the Persei failure. (The military satellite on the second single-stick launch also failed, though the rocket isn’t at fault for that one.)

And yet, despite its dreadfully slow and late progress... it’s still shown more real-world advancement than any other new Russian launch system. The Irtysh sounds good, and the Amur sounds better, but when are we going to see any actual hardware for either one?

Angara 1.2 (no side boosters): mass 172 t, diam 2.9 m, thrust 1920 kN, imp 3.3 km/s, staged combustion (kerosene), payload 3.8 t (2.2%), cost unknown, record 2/1/0 through 2023.
Angara A5 (four side boosters): mass 760 t, diam 2.9 m (8.9 at base), thrust 9600 kN, imp 3.3 km/s, staged combustion (kerosene), payload 24.5 t (3.2%), cost unknown, record 0/4/0 through April 2024.
[Show stages] (all variants)
Stage name URM-1 URM-2 * Briz-M KVTK (future)
Role (pos) count core (1|S) ×1|3?|5 upper (2) kick (3), opt kick (3), opt
Diameter (m)   2.90     3.60 *   4.10
Liftoff mass (t) 142    39.7 22.2
Empty mass (t)  9.7  4.8  2.4
Fuel mass (t) ~36    ~9.6 ~6.6
Oxidizer mass (t) ~96    ~25.3  ~13.2 
Fuel type kerosene kerosene UDMH hydrogen
Engine RD-191 RD-0124A Lavochkin
Power cycle staged staged gas gen closed expander
Chamber pres. (bar) 258    157    98   59  
Ox./fuel ratio   2.63   2.63   2.00
Thrust, vac max (kN) 2090     294    19.6 69  
Thrust, SL initial (kN) 1920    
Spec. imp, vac (km/s)   3.30   3.52   3.20   4.54
Total imp, vac (t·km/s) 438    90.3 64.2