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Russian Design for a Reusable Rocket Sure Looks Familiar

Conceptual images of Russia’s upcoming Amur reusable rocket.
Conceptual images of Russia’s upcoming Amur reusable rocket.
Image: Roscosmos

Roscosmos is moving ahead with plans to build Russia’s first reusable rocket. Glancing at the design, it appears the Russian space agency doesn’t feel the need to reinvent the wheel, given the vehicle’s uncanny resemblance to the SpaceX Falcon 9.

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Roscosmos signed a contract with the Progress Rocket Space Centre to sketch out a preliminary design for the Amur-SPG reusable rocket, reports Russian news agency TASS. The inaugural launch is planned for 2026, when the methane-powered rocket will take off from the Vostochny spaceport in eastern Russia. Roscomos is hoping for individual launch costs no greater than $22 million, with the total cost of developing the system at around $880 million.

As Ars Technica space reporter Eric Berger rightly pointed out in a recent tweet, the new design seems uncomfortably recognizable.

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“Russia has clearly decided that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em with its new design for a reusable booster,” he wrote. “Alas, no flights until at least 2026 means it will be at least 15 years behind the Falcon 9. Russia is lucky SpaceX doesn’t innovate, hah.”

This design, even if preliminary, is clearly inspired by the first and only reusable rocket currently in existence, the SpaceX Falcon 9. In addition to borrowing SpaceX’s overarching design strategy, the reusable rocket will feature landing legs, a faring, and grid fins similar to those seen on the Falcon 9. The reusable second stage will land at predetermined landing pads in eastern Russia and be carried back to the cosmodrome, either by a heavy Mi26 transport helicopter or by rail, according to Roscosmos.

Alerted by Berger’s tweet, Elon Musk responded with words of support, but he also offered some unsolicited advice.

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“It’s a step in the right direction, but they should really aim for full reusability by 2026,” tweeted the SpaceX CEO. “Larger rocket would also make sense for literal economies of scale. Goal should be to minimize cost per useful ton to orbit or it will at best serve a niche market.”

Indeed, Amur will have a lift capacity of 11.6 tons (10.5 metric tons) to low Earth orbit (LEO), and its second-stage will consist of a non-recoverable, single-use engine. That said, a larger version is also being planned for the future, with a lift capacity of 13.8 tons (12.5 metric tons) to LEO. By comparison, the Falcon 9 can carry a payload of 25 tons (22.8 metric tons). So Musk’s points are well taken, including the remark about the rocket not being completely reusable. SpaceX is currently working on exactly this, with its upcoming Starship.

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Amur won’t be a carbon copy of Falcon 9, however. As TASS reports, the Russian design calls for a wider rocket at 13.5 feet (4.1 meters), compared to the 12.1 feet (3.7 meter) diameter of the Falcon 9. And instead of nine Merlin engines, Amur will be powered by five RD-0169A methane-oxygen engines, which are currently in development. At the launch pad, Amur will stand nearly 180 feet tall (55 meters), compared to the 208-foot-tall (63.3-meter) Falcon 9.

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Russia did a similar thing during the 1980s, coming up with a reusable orbiter that was upsettingly similar to NASA’s Space Shuttle. Called Buran, the spacecraft only flew once, but it used a single Energia rocket (as opposed to the two solid rocket boosters and external fuel tank used by the Space Shuttle), which in hindsight might have actually been a better idea, from a safety perspective.

George is a senior staff reporter at Gizmodo.

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DISCUSSION

Quite aside from the head start SpaceX has on this concept, there’s at least two other US companies going bigger than this right now. Blue Origin at least has Methelox engines that are through the development phase, and a theoretical rocket in the New Glenn. Whether or not the New Glenn ever flies is still way up in the air (hyuck hyuck) but they’re light years ahead of Russia in that respect.

And then there’s the replacement for United Launch Alliances’s Delta IV, the ULA Vulcan Centaur. It is designed to use Blue Origin’s Methelox engines and solid rocket boosters, and will significantly out perform the Roscosmos idea being presented here.

But at the current pace of things SpaceX’s Starship will make all of them obsolete, as long as the project doesn’t fail completely. Which is not beyond possibility. Things may not be going as fast as Elon wants, but let’s be honest with ourselves here; they’re developing at a breakneck pace without too many fuckups. Right now I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if SpaceX has a Starship in orbit by Christmas next year.

On the other hand, I would equally not be surprised if Starship SN8 does a massive belly-flop into Texas early in December. It’s a radical new idea. But Elon’s last radical new idea in rockets had a rough start, and is now one of the most reliable and the most inexpensive launch option in the world.

It’s a new space race, kiddies. Right now it looks like the hare is winning.