Friday, November 25, 2011

Russian's help MSL reach orbit

RD-180 test at Marshall Spaceflight Center
Tomorrow's scheduled launch of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) wouldn't be taking place without the help of the Russian company NPO Energomash. How so?  NPO Energomash builds the RD-180 engine that powers the first stage of MSL's Atlas V launch vehicle. Why is a Russian engine used on an American launch vechicle?

The short answer is that the Russian's are better at producing LOX / Kerosene burning engines than anyone else in the world. NPO Energomash had developed the high effeciency four chambered RD-170 engine for use on the strap-on boosters used on the Soviet Energia rocket. The two chambered RD-180 was later developed from the RD-170.

In the early 1990's General Dynamics Space Systems Division (now part of Lockheed Martin) was shopping around for an engine for their upgraded Atlas rocket program and purchased the rights to use the RD-180 engine. Since the Atlas launch vehicle would support US government launches, it was arranged for the RD-180 to be co-produced by Pratt & Whitney. While Pratt & Whitney has certified that it can produce the RD-180, to date all production has taken place at NPO Energomash in Russia. The engine is currently sold by a joint venture called RD AMROSS.  The purchase price for 101 engines was reportedly a Billion US dollars.

In a weird coincidence Energia's strap-on boosters later became the Zenit rocket, which launched Russia's failed Phobos-Grunt Mars probe on November 9.

The question for the day, how many RD-180's does the Atlas V use?  Post a comment if you know.