A project, “Launch Vehicle Upper-Stage Liquid-Propellant Rocket Engine,” has been nominated for the State Prize of Ukraine this year. This illustrates the achievements of the Dnipropetrovsk-based rocket-making Pivdenne Design Bureau and Pivdenmash factory. As long ago as February 2004 they signed a contract with the Italian firm Avio on the development, manufacture, and supply of a sustainer engine for the fourth stage of the European launch vehicle Vega. The characteristics of the Ukrainian-designed engine far outstrip those of its foreign analogues. The Vega rocket made its first successful test flight on February 13 this year. This lays the groundwork for further Ukraine-European Union cooperation in the aerospace industry. Here follows what Volodymyr KONOKH, Candidate of Sciences (Engineering), a department chief at the Pivdenne Design Bureau, told The Day about the work of Dnipropetrovsk rocket makers.
Why did the Europeans choose none other than the Ukrainian engine?
“The point is that every country or a group of countries that form an association, such as the European Space Agency (ESA), wants to have carrier rocket to launch various-purpose satellites into outer space. The ESA has a heavy launch vehicle, Ariane 5, capable of putting an up-to-18-ton payload into orbit. They made a deal with Russia to use a medium launch vehicle, Soyuz-ST. But it is sometimes necessary to put lightweight satellites into orbit. So the ESA needed a light-class carrier rocket. They opted for the Vega which is capable of putting 2 to 3 tons into a low orbit. The Italians had manufactured solid-propellant engines for the first three stages, but they needed a fourth-stage engine, the so-called upper-stage rocket, to put every satellite into a certain orbit – for a rocket very often caries several satellites. When the Vega was first test-flown on February 13, 2012, it put 9 satellites, 2 big and 7 small ones, each weighing up to 1.5 kg, into orbit. These satellites were designed and made by universities in Poland, Italy, Hungary, Rumania, and other European states. Our engine was brought into action three times and put all these satellites into orbits with great precision.
“The ESA had certain demands: on the one hand, they needed an engine, and, on the other, the latter was to have specific characteristics. The most important of them is thrust impulse which characterizes trouble-free functioning. The higher the specific impulse is, the heavier payload can be carried. And when they began the search, they saw that the choice was limited, although engines are produced in the US, Japan, China, Russia, France, Germany, and, naturally, Ukraine. Our engine suited them owing to many characteristics. Russia also has this kind of engines, but they have a lower specific impulse, which is major downside. So they turned to the Pivdenne Design Bureau. They first did so back in 1997, and we signed a serious contract in 2004. The contracted batch was small, but the demands to our products were very high. We used four units to conduct tests which confirmed the engine’s characteristics and reliability. We tested the rocket stage, the engine and its components for vibration strain and many other parameters. We conducted firing tests of the engine as part of a rocket stage at a German factory. All the work was finished in 2010, and, at last, we installed our engine at the first Vega rocket.”
As is known, the Europeans make very serious environmental demands. Are they worried that our rocket engines often use toxic fuels?
“As far as I know, they plan to use a methane and oxygen engine in the future. The Russians are developing this kind of engine in Voronezh. We have no experience of working with methane. We use oxygen and kerosene in some engines, but the Europeans prefer methane as a promising rocket fuel. This direction is ‘in vogue’ now, but the Russians have not yet launched a methane-propelled rocket. I think it is a matter of distant future. Statistics prove that it takes 8 to 10 years to develop a new rocket engine. The Russians have been developing this engine for several years on end, for this requires a lot of money. Anyway, our engine will be in demand for the time being, all the more so that it is reliable and not so expensive.”
Has this engine been used in other rockets before?
“It is good for upper-stage rockets of any launch vehicles. Similar units were installed at Satan strategic missiles – the latter was a ‘father’ of sorts, while what can be considered the ‘grandfather’ was the Moon rover engine, the E block, which was designed in Dnipropetrovsk as part of the Soviet manned lunar program. As is known there was no manned flight, but the know-how remained behind. Our engine differs from its predecessors by having a pressurized fuel feed system, upgraded camera and automatic devices, and high energy-to-mass characteristics. Incidentally, it weighs a mere 14.2 kg and is fully manufactured at the Pivdenmash factory.”
Who designed this engine?
“It is a project of our rocket engine design bureau. Until recently, the project was managed by Volodymyr Shniakin, deputy general designer of the Pivdenne Design Bureau and chief designer of rocket engines and installations. Unfortunately, he died this year. Among the designers are Volodymyr Shulha, deputy chief designer of the rocket engine design bureau; Volodymyr Pereverziev, chief specialist at the same bureau; Viktor Kovalenko, chief of the bureau’s theoretical section; Viktor Piniahin, deputy general designer of Pivdenne; Pivdenmash specialists; as well as Serhii Zasukha, deputy director general of the Ukrainian State Space Agency. It is not easy to create a rocket engine, for this involves a huge number of calculations. One must know for sure how the engine will behave in the conditions of outer space, high and low temperatures, different loads and vibrations.”
How many European countries are taking part in the Vega project?
“At the moment, it is seven European Union states whose flags you can see on the rocket’s body. Unfortunately, there is no Ukrainian flag among them because an Italian firm, Avio, concluded a contract with them. So the Ukrainian engine is considered to be part of the project’s Italian segment. Italy and France are the key partners, with their financial stakes being 58.4 and 25.3 percent, respectively. The share of the rest of the participants – Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Sweden – is far smaller: 6.9 to 0.6 percent. Launches are carried out by Ariane Space which also deals with launching other carrier rockets – Ariane 5 and Soyuz-ST. Vega rockets are launched from the Kourou space center in French Guiana near the equator.”
Can Vega rockets become rivals to the Ukrainian carrier rocket Tsyklon-4 which is planned to be launched from the Brazilian equatorial space center Alcantara?
“No. Although the Tsyklon-4 is also a light-class vehicle, it is still closer to the medium class. It is far more powerful than the Vega and thus belongs to a different ‘weight category.’”
What are the Europeans saying in their comments on your designs?
“They show restraint, but, on the whole, the characteristics of the engine we are supplying for the Vega raise no doubts because they are very good. Flight tests were to show everything. We tried to nominate our project for the State Prize a year ago, but Kyiv said: ‘We won’t consider this until it flies.’ The same applies to our foreign partners because ‘you don’t count your chickens before they are hatched.’ But, on the whole, there were very goof comments after the Vega had flown.
“There was a shimmer of skepticism in some Russian media because they consider Russian-made engines the best. I must say it is not an unfounded statement, for they have such important design bureaus as Energomash and Khimavtomatika which have designed such unique engines as, for example, RD-180 and RD-0120. Even the Americans are writing rave reviews about the engines designed 30 years ago. Yet the leading Russian rocket engine designers have esteemed very highly the characteristics of our engine and they think that its creators deserve the State Prize of Ukraine in Science and Technology.”
How can you then explain a series of accidents with Russian rockets?
“The main cause is deteriorated workmanship. Besides, there is no more discipline and strict control as before. A situation like this is a bane for rocket engineering. Everything should be done conscientiously, and no flaws are acceptable in this work. Our launches are usually successful, but it would be still a good idea to touch wood. The staff continues to age in this sector, and young people are reluctant to be employed due to low wages. It is good that Pivdenmash still employs the old and very experienced personnel who are doing their best. To retain the potential, the sector, especially the factory, needs serious governmental funding. The Pivdenne Design Bureau earns money on its own, without waiting for charity from the state. We are doing intellectual designing work and executing foreign orders for the most part. We cooperate with the entire world – the US, Europe, Russia, even Africa. Things are harder for the factory, for it translates our designs into metal.”
The previous government announced plans to reform the rocket and space sector. What has been done to this end?
“Practically nothing. Instead, there has been so much chat about the necessity to make rocket engine production a self-sufficient industry because rocket engines – both solid-propellant and liquid-propellant – are in great demand on the worldwide commodity market. As far as I know, the government has drawn up some decisions to this effect, but it is not so simple. The trouble is it is very difficult to break the production chain. The process involves metal casting, impact molding, electroplating, etc. Obviously, no acceptable solution has been found so far. In any case, things remain as they used to be.”