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Outside View: Russia-Kazakh Space Plan

File photo of the MiG-31.
By Viktor Litovkin, UPI Outside View Commentator
Moscow (UPI) Jan 26, 2006
The Kazakh government and Moscow's Institute of Heat Engineering have signed a contract for developing the Ishim space system that will launch small low-orbit civilian satellites.

The institute has already gained a reputation for its Topol-M new-generation silo-based and mobile inter-continental ballistic missiles, and the Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Incidentally, the Bulava missile was tested successfully on New Year's Eve.

At present, the institute and the Mikoyan-Gurevich aircraft design bureau, which have tackled relatively few civilian projects before, will jointly develop the Ishim system.

Kazakhstan received several dozen MiG-31 Foxhound fighters after the Soviet Union's disintegration. The Military Balance estimates their total number at 43. There are plans to use these planes for orbiting relatively small satellites. Astana also wields 16 MiG-25 Foxbat fighters, which are the MiG-31's predecessors. Each MiG-31 weighs nearly 50 tons.

Still it takes a lot of time and effort to maintain this relatively inactive warplane fleet, whereas Kazakhstan can defend its air space with the help of other military aircraft. Republican leaders now would like to use their MiG-31 planes for implementing various space programs.

Many countries presently offer state-of-the-art technologies making it possible to produce small satellites weighing up to several hundred pounds.

Consequently, these spacecraft can replace their heavier equivalents with a weight between 1,100 pounds and 6,600 pounds. The new satellites can ensure the operation of ground-based meteorological and information systems, as well as those of remote sensing satellites. Moreover, these technological marvels can predict tropical cyclones, ozone anomalies and monitor air pollution and green-house effects.

And, finally, such systems can pinpoint forest fires, facilitate safe navigation and keep an eye on oil and gas pipelines. Russian and foreign schools and universities can use them for distance education, as well as applied and fundamental research.

It would be more effective and cheaper to launch these "portable" satellites aboard modern fighters because the launch of heavy-duty rockets costs up to several hundred million dollars. Such rockets require specially equipped centers, which are also expensive.

Scientists and designers believe that conventional airfields and high-speed planes are enough for orbiting tiny satellites.

With respect to the entire launch sequence, a fighter would go hypersonic and take a 10-ton rocket and its payload (one or several spacecraft) to an altitude of nine to 12 miles. The rocket's engines would then be activated. A three or four-stage solid-propellant rocket attains this after its first stage is jettisoned. The rocket's speed is then fast enough to take the rocket into space.

The MiG-31 fighter is best suited for the job. It has a maximum take-off weight of nearly 50 tons, a 12-mile static ceiling and a top speed of some 1,800 miles per hour (depending on flight loads and modes). However, the MiG-31's zoom altitude is even more impressive. In fact, this warplane can take off and orbit satellites in just about any part of the world, promising substantial science and commercial benefits.

However, the MiG design bureau, which developed this aircraft, must now upgrade it in line with the Ishim program. A special solid-propellant rocket capable of attaining cosmic speeds must also be developed, as well as being able to carry the required number of tiny satellites.

The institute, which has already developed similar rockets, is now implementing this project. The new rocket will resemble a scaled-down Start-1 launch vehicle with new engines. But institute designers believe that any new invention will not resemble its forerunner.

"We are developing the Ishim vehicle right on schedule," deputy general designer of the institute, Lev Solomonov, said. Revamped MiG-31 fighters will be readied for tests by 2007, when the rocket will make its appearance. Various geophysical, weather, environmental and information micro-satellites will subsequently orbit the Earth at different inclinations.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev fully supports this project, which was recently displayed at the Almaty innovation exhibition. STTL of Great Britain, Israel Aircraft Industry, Rafael of Israel, and Finmeccanica of Italy, are all interested in the Ishim space system.

The Kazakh government continues to negotiate with other foreign companies interested in relatively cheap and cost-effective space exploration. These companies would like to launch low-orbit civilian satellites and the Russian-Kazakh Ishim program is thereby gradually turning into an international co-production arrangement.

Viktor Litovkin is a political commentator for the RIA Novosti news agency. This article is reprinted by permission of RIA Novosti.

Source: United Press International

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