mal comments on a post from last year:
Well, there’s nothing wrong with current Russian commercial space program such – they are launching OneWeb satellites now and there’s a Korean one thats supposed to go on Angara. SpaceX does have more launches but thats because they launch their own Starlink constellation and Russian Sphere is not there yet (Russia needs to invest more in Space Simulation chamber for payload testing and development, they are building 2500 m3 one which is better than current 1800 m3 or even European 2400 m3, but no match for destroyed USSR one at 8,000 m3 or American at 20,000 m3).
On market pricing, Russians still dominate. Proton market price is \$65M/22 tons to LEO, or \$2,950/kg. Reusable Falcon price is \$50M/15 tons (due to fuel return requirements), or \$3,330/kg. Russians are cheaper and more efficient due to more stages on Proton vs Falcon.
For space tourism, Soyuz is more reliable, has a kitchen and a toilet, and ticket price of probably \$30M/seat (\$80M NASA price). Russians were charging \$20M per seat a decade or so ago, even with inflation and upgrades i don’t see Soyuz pricier than \$30M. It is also good at orbital mechanics so its fast to ISS. Current NASA contract pays \$100M/seat to SpaceX (\$2.4 billion/6 launches/4 seats each). I’m sure it will be cheaper in the future, but I don’t see them beating Soyuz prices for a decade.
In the near future though, this is going to change. Starship is huge and will dominate cost per kg. At that scale, opportunity cost of return fuel will be minimized and reusability will finally make economic sense. With refueling capabilities, Starship will dominate local space, and Russia doesn’t really have anything comparable. The good news is Starship is a fairly simple construction (a flying steel grain silo) so Russia should be able to just copy it. No shame in that.
So to answer your question. Aside from marketing hype and propaganda, current Russian commercial space offerings are highly competitive with US. In the near future, when Starship will be able to deploy any satellite on any orbit in local space and keep deploying them by the 100’s and 1,000’s, Russia will not be competitive anymore. Starship is a game changer. In the far out worlds, asteroid belts etc., chemical gas burners such as Starship will hit the limits of physics and Russian nuclear electric plasma accelerators will dominate the deep space.
I like to say, this is the biggest irony on Earth. Elon Musk, electric car guy, invented the best gas burner. Russia, known as planetary gas station, invented the best electric space propulsion system.
He talked of more recent progress here.
At an international expo ‘Archimedes’ in Moscow Keldysh Center (Russian research institute) demonstrated experimental device for radiation of waste heat into space. Device is dedicated to thermal regulation of spacecraft. I’m not sure if it’s a panel or fiber based one, or maybe even a droplet (panel is worst, fiber is OK, droplet is the future).
And speaking of the devil, it looks like Russians solved the droplet dispersion problem back in 2017. This guy solved it, to be exact.
Topic starts at around 6:20. To recap for non Russian speakers. Any moron can build a nuclear reactor and launch it into space, its easy to do. So why then the largest single power unit in space is about 20 kW? Because while producing electricity in space is easy, dissipating waste heat is not. Space is like a giant thermos that insulates well. The only way to get rid of heat is through radiation. Conventional way is radiator panels, but it’s extremely inefficient as their size requirement grows two orders of magnitude faster with power level increase. Past few hundred kW, those panels will weigh more than all the rest of the spacecraft put together.
To improve heat radiation efficiency, we must move from 2D panel to 3D geometry. Hence the droplets, as small droplets maximize surface area to volume (mass) ratio. This will allow for orders of magnitude lighter cooling systems and therefore high power output (nuclear reactors are very light compared to the weight of the cooling system they require). The droplets are made as you pass diffusion pump oil through an atomizer basically.
However, there is a problem. Small droplets accumulate static charge by picking up free electrons from space. This causes them to repel from each other and that makes collecting them back after they cooled off very difficult, and this results in coolant mass loss. That was the problem with Kaplya-2 experiment on the International Space Station back in 2014. There were a number of proposals put forward (external electromagnetic fields, plasma feed to neutralize the droplets etc) but they are all cumbersome, unreliable, or require expendable materials which makes them unsuitable for years long operation.
A simple, robust, and permanent solution to the problem is to illuminate the droplets with UV light at around 140 nm wavelength. This will trigger photoelectric effect that will kick off the excess electrons from the droplet. Unlike external electric field, there is no danger of over-ionizing the droplets and stripping too many electrons which will cause the same repulsion problem. No complex control is needed. All it takes is about a dozen UV lamps and those will condition the droplets for easy collection and minimize coolant losses.
The rejoinder is that local space is commercially attractive (Starlink is the obvious one… perhaps passenger and cargo transport, if the more optimistic projections pan out).
The tons of money made from this can be recycled into more ambitious projects.
Can the same be said of deep space? Asteroid belt mining has been often speculated about. But most resources are very cheap – and have been becoming much cheaper relative to the size of the world economy.