The project of the new Russian rocket is ultra-progressive: a recoverable first stage, a methane engine that will save the stage a hundred times, and not several times, like Elon Musk's. Because of this, the cost of one launch is promised at $ 22 million: half the price of SpaceX. Alas, despite all the progressive features, by the time of the first launch, scheduled for 2026, our rocket will inevitably and hopelessly become obsolete. As, however, and her "spiritual father" Falcon 9. Despite this, the emergence of the project "Cupid" is a good sign for the national cosmonautics. Let's try to figure out why.
Cupid and Falcon 9: obvious similarities
In the Western press, Roskosmos's plans for a new rocket are commented on with articles with telling headlines: Roskosmos showed the planned Amur rocket - and it looks very much like someone. " And this time the media are very close to the truth. All the main Amur solutions that distinguish it from modern Russian rockets can be found at SpaceX.
The most noticeable of these differences, immediately striking, is the widened head fairing, which stands out sharply on the rocket. It is easy to see from the sketches that the Amur has a fairing noticeably wider than the main part of the rocket - with a diameter of 5, 1 meter and 4, 1 meter, respectively. Similarly, a dozen years ago, the Falcon 9 was made, in which the diameter of the main part is 3, 7 meters, and the fairing is 5, 2 meters. The widened fairing allowed the Falcon to launch into space more voluminous structures or even a cluster of relatively voluminous satellites with different orbits. With Amur, Russian missiles will have the same capabilities.
It also has deployable landing legs and trellised landing rudders. The rudders, as you might guess from the name, will steer the first stage when descending into the atmosphere in order to land exactly at the given point of the cosmodrome. Legs will allow the rocket not to fall during landing, and the thrust of the center of the five first-stage engines will allow it to dampen its speed before landing.
At first glance, this is the first difference. Yes, Amur plans to return its first stage on tail landing in the same way as the Falcon 9. But unlike the American original, it has only five engines, not nine. However, if we take a closer look, we will understand that the number of engines would have been closer to the American rocket if Russian developers had not made their current noticeably smaller.
The Amur's weight is only 360 tons, and the Falcon 9 is 549 tons. The payload in the reusable version of the "Cupid" will output up to 10.5 tons, and the "Falcon" (as the name of the SpaceX rocket is translated) in the reusable version will output 15.6 tons (however, Falcon 9 1.0 put into orbit exactly 10.5 tons, but this early version has not been flying for a long time).
It can be seen from this that we are faced with a creative copy of the Falcon 9 concept, and not a thoughtless borrowing. Thus, there is a second difference between the two missiles in that the Amur is closer to the Soyuz in size. It is a medium rocket, not a heavy one like the modern Falcon 9 FT (latest modification) or its Russian counterpart Proton.
Why did the Russian side choose smaller sizes, because, as you know, with an increase in the size of a rocket, the cost of removing its load should technically fall (economies of scale)? Probably, the fact is that if you make a copy of the Falcon 9 with the same capabilities, then such a rocket will look too good against the background of the light versions of the Angara: after all, it is a one-time use, and its launch costs more than that of the Proton (price the latter - at least $ 62 million).
And Roskosmos does not really want to close the Angara project: a lot of money has been invested in it, and the expensive infrastructure on Vostochny is designed, among other things, for it. If the project is simply curtailed, a question may even arise at the top: why was it with great difficulty brought to mind in 2014-2020, if, after the start of the Falcon 9 flights with a reversible first stage, a disposable rocket was in principle an outdated idea?
In addition to its size, Amur differs from its American elder brother by one positive detail: the RD-0169A methane engines, which are now being developed at the Voronezh Chemical Automatics Design Bureau. The Falcon 9 has kerosene engines: when Musk entered the space industry, he and the key SpaceX engineers had very little experience, they had no time for exotic methane engines, so they chose to develop the most constructively simple Merlin kerosene engine.
However, the very concept that reusable rockets require carbonless methane engines was also voiced by SpaceX many years ago. The company, in contrast to the Voronezh "KB Khimavtomatika", has already tested such an engine - only many large sizes, for Starship. For Falcon, methane engines do not - and below we will tell you why.
The advantages of methane over kerosene are enormous. It does not form soot when burned, so rocket engines can run on it much longer than on kerosene. Because of this, the first stage of Falcon 9 is not planned to be launched more than ten times in the future, and they want to send the first stage of Amur into space up to 100 times.
Alexander Bloshenko, Roscosmos executive director for advanced programs and science, notes that earlier objections to methane rockets are untenable. We are talking about statements like "liquid methane, when burned, gives 1, 6 times less energy than kerosene of the same volume." As Bloshenko notes: "These statements do not correspond to reality - when cooled to ultra-low temperatures, the liquefied gas is compacted enough to use tanks of standard volumes."
It turns out that "Cupid" will borrow from Falcon not only the landing of the first stage on the tail, legs and a widened (up to more than five meters) head fairing. The fifth clearly borrowed element will be the supercooling of fuel components to ultra-low temperatures. In the 21st century, Elon Musk first began to use it several years ago. Due to this, he was able to place more fuel in the Falcon 9's tanks and, as a result, raise its payload.
Of course, in the USSR during the time of Sergei Korolev - starting with the R-9A - deep supercooling of propellant components was already used for a number of missiles. But modern Russian missiles were either created without Korolev, or come from the R-7, a design from the era when he did not yet use supercooled fuel.
Therefore, before the "Amur" - in the same "Angara" - Russia in the XXI century had no attempts to use supercooled fuel. But this did not bother anyone, since the Western space players did not have supercooled fuel, and people know little about the history of Russian cosmonautics - and not all. We do not care about those omissions, the fact of which we do not know, and that is exactly what happened with the non-use of deep supercooling of rocket fuel in Russia.
Now the situation has changed: Musk, just half a century after Korolev, introduced deep hypothermia in the West and, due to the tendency of Russian leaders to copy Western models, finally forced us to return to our own past. One cannot but rejoice: in the end, if it were not for a native of Africa, we would have flown without supercooling the fuel - that is, with a reduced payload.
Why nothing will come of the Amur project - and why, in spite of this, it is extremely useful
Representatives of Roskosmos, speaking about the project of a new rocket, uttered very important words: "… The decisions are aimed at increasing the competitiveness of the product being created."
Competitiveness.It is clear from this that the rocket is not being created “just like that”, like the Angara - by inertia - but so that it can compete with other aircraft on the launch market. Roskosmos can compete there only with SpaceX - simply because all other market players make rockets much more expensive than ours and fly only through government orders or lobbying ties (in the case of the American military, in some places it turns into outright corruption).
The problem is that Amur is not competitive. Yes, its launch is 2.5 times cheaper than Falcon's today, but … The first launch of the Russian methane rocket is scheduled for 2026. Anyone who monitors the space industry and does not work at Roscosmos is well aware that by 2026 Musk will have a Starship flying. SpaceX honestly admits that, against the background of Starship, Falcon's are so uncompetitive that with the start of flights of the new carrier, the Falcon 9 will have to be curtailed. And this is understandable.
After all, the planned price of Starship launches is in the region of fifty million dollars for launching at the first stage and in the region of several million dollars for launching at subsequent stages of improving the design. Starship also has methane engines, and as its 100-fold full reusability is confirmed, the price of its launches will inevitably fall. It is quite obvious that in the future it will drop below $ 22 million for the launch announced for the Amur.
Only Amur will launch 10.5 tons into space in a reusable mode, and Starship - 100 tons (at the first stage, then they plan to increase the load). Amur will have structures and satellites launched into space in a five-meter diameter fairing, while Starship will have a nine-meter-diameter hull with an internal living volume of more than 800 cubic meters (like the ISS). There is no scenario in which Amur would be competitive in the commercial market with Starship.
Why is Roskosmos, despite this, planning a new rocket only partially reusable - which is obviously worse than fully reusable structures such as Starship? The most likely answer: Roscosmos has not yet understood who Musk is, and they expect the Starship project to fail.
Why they think so there is understandable. The "starship" is so different from all existing rockets in terms of its design and methods of braking in the atmosphere that it looks like an alien dreadnought to a conservative person in the space industry. People who have fought for decades to reduce the cost of flights by 5% and have always believed that disposable media are the cheapest, cannot instantly rebuild their thinking under the onslaught of such an insignificant thing as rational arguments.
Therefore, the Russian state space corporation will believe in Starship exactly when it starts regular flights. Therefore, Russia has spent billions of dollars on the development of the Angara and plans to spend another $ 0.9 billion on the development of the Amur. However, it is not a fact: the Federal Space Program does not provide for funding for the Amur, so it is not entirely clear whether it will actually be designed or whether it is just part of the Roskosmosov policy to imitate rapid innovation activity.
And yet, the very talks about the Amur project at the official level are extremely useful. They show that faced with the obvious superiority of a competitor, our officials are at least in principle ready to start copying his decisions. This is a huge plus: such a moral readiness to recognize the superiority of an opponent will help us a lot in the 2020s and 2030s, when - sooner or later, but inevitably - Russia will have to copy Starship.