Kazakh space officials say they are going to wind down Russia’s access to its Baikonur cosmodrome as far as the Proton launch vehicle is concerned. Baikonur is situated well within Kazakhstan’s borders. The plan is to end launches of the Proton satellite-launching rocket system by 2025.
Kazcosmos, the state organisation which supervises the vast site, says that Kazakhstan has already signed an agreement with Russia on the planned reduction.
The Proton rockets were developed in the 1960s and first launched in 1965. However, the Proton rocket is a ‘dirty’ craft in terms of modern launchers because it uses highly toxic Heptyl and Nitric Oxide and is much criticised by environmentalists. Recent rocket failures have resulted in multi-million dollar penalties being levied on Russia.
Local environmentalists have long complained about the damage done by rocket launches and studies have shown bird-life and animals have died as a direct result of launches and there are allegations that human cancers have resulted from the toxicity of the rocket fuel.
Proton itself is due to be fully replaced by the Zenith rocket family. The Zenith version 3SL rockets (are already being used by the Sea Launch consortium, while the less powerful Zenith 2 craft is also launched from Baikonur (as ‘Land Launch’). The Zenith family use a combination of RP1 fuel (a highly refined form of kerosene) which is considered less of an explosion hazard and with a fraction of the toxicity and carcinogenic risks of hydrazine, and Liquid Oxygen.
However, Russia’s lease on the Baikonur launch facility, and all its attendant business, runs until 2050 and Kazakhstan receives an annual lease payment of $115 million.
Baikonur is a vast site, measuring almost 100 km in diameter (the site actually measures 90 km East to West, and 85 km North to South (it can be viewed on Google Earth) and contains dozens of launch pads including those used for Russia’s space industry, and assorted missile silos some of which were destroyed as part of the Russia-USA missile reduction agreements. Russia’s Sputnik satellites were launched from Baikonur and the site is home to the massive Vostok rockets used for manned space flight. Baikonur was also to be the launch site of Russia’s rival to the USA’s Space Shuttle.