Russia Plans To Launch Tiny Space Plane Off Back Of High Flying M-55 Research Jet

The new development comes amid a general surge of interest in air-launched space access concepts, especially in the United States.

Alex Beltyukov via Wikimedia

As we took the time to explore in depth recently, the U.S. government has long been interested in the potential applications of a reusable manned and unmanned spacecraft, as well as a mothership aircraft to help loft them into orbit. Now, Russia is reportedly developing its own new unmanned spacecraft that will hitch a ride into the upper atmosphere on the back of a modified high-altitude research plane before blasting into space.

Russia's state-run media outlet RIA Novosti published concept art of the spacecraft, known by the acronym MLD, and an infographic showing a typical mission on Feb. 4, 2019. The story does not say what MLD stands for and does not mention the Myasishchev M-55 Geophysica research plane, also known by the NATO reporting name Mystic-B, by name, though the infographic clearly depicts it as the mothership.

The International Scientific Optical Network (ISON), which the Russian Academy of Sciences manages through the Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics, is reportedly leading the development of the MLD, on behalf of Russia's space agency Roscosmos. RIA Novosti did not say what the specific mission or missions for the spacecraft might be or why ISON, which is responsible at present for around 30 terrestrial telescopes at 20 observatories in 10 countries, was in charge of the project.

The MLD concept art shows a rocket-like central fuselage with a delta wing configuration. There are two vertical stabilizers pointing up from the edge of each wingtip. The spacecraft is supposed to be reusable, according to RIA Novosti, but there is no obvious internal payload bay for releasing objects into orbit.

ISON

A cutaway artist's conception of the MLD reusable spacecraft.

The spacecraft will use old Russian-made components, including the same 14D30 rocket booster found in the upper stage of a Briz-M space launch vehicle as its primary means of propulsion, Yuri Bakhvalov, ISON's director, told RIA Novosti. Based on the dimensions of the Briz-M, the MLD is a diminutive craft that is significantly smaller than the U.S. Air Force's secretive X-37B unmanned space shuttle and is downright tiny compared to the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) in-development XS-1 reusable spacecraft.

The infographic shows that the mothership will be based on the M-55 and carry the spacecraft on top of its fuselage. This aircraft would carry it to an appropriate altitude, possibly between 80,000 and 100,000 feet based on other known two-stage-to-orbit concepts. The Geophysica's normal service ceiling is 70,500 feet.

Once there, the MLD's rocket motor would fire and it could either travel at hypersonic speeds of around Mach 7 in the upper atmosphere at altitudes of more than 500,000 feet or actually fly into space and enter a shallow, rapidly degrading orbit, according to RIA Novosti. At the conclusion of its flight, the MLD would re-enter the atmosphere if it had gone into space or otherwise begin gliding closer to the ground. At a certain altitude, it would deploy parachutes and drift the rest of the way down to the ground where personnel could recover the unmanned spacecraft. ISON claims the design would be reusable for up to 50 flights.

ISON

An infographic showing the proposed flight profile for the two-stage-to-orbit system consisting of a modified M-55 mothership and the MLD spacecraft.

There is no information on what modifications this 1980s aircraft might need to perform this mission. A mothership configuration with smaller craft mounted on top of the fuselage is notoriously complex and potentially dangerous, with a significant risk that the vehicle on top will crash into the launching aircraft, destroying them both. The small size of the MLD could help mitigate any potential hazards.

It's also not clear whether the plan might call for restarting production of the Geophysica or another similar aircraft. Myasishchev only ever built five of these slender-wing, twin-boom aircraft, including a two-seat M-55UTS trainer version.

Since the end of the Cold War, the Russian Air Force has used these planes officially for high-altitude research purposes, including flights over the Arctic and Antarctic regions. The M-55 is roughly analogous in its basic mission to NASA's ER-2 and WB-57F aircraft, which are derived from the U-2 and RB-57F high-altitude spy planes, respectively. 

Leonid Faerberg via Wikimedia

A Myasishchev M-55 Geophysica.

Though we don't know what ISON's or Roscomos' plans are for the MLD, the two-stage-to-orbit concept, in general, has a number of broad benefits. This includes providing a more flexible launch option compared to traditional space launch rockets and without the associated costs to maintain launch sites and related infrastructure. The modified M-55 could have the range to rapidly reposition to new locations or simply launch the spacecraft well away from where it took off, offering even more flexibility.

But the size of the MLD suggests it will have a very limited payload capacity and may not be capable of reaching high enough altitudes to place even small satellites in a stable orbit. This could still be valuable for scientific research and perhaps offer a way to readily flight test materials and other systems related to the development of or hypersonic vehicles. American space-launch firm Generation Orbit is offering a similar service to the U.S. government and other customers using its GO-1 air-launched hypersonic vehicle

The MLD may also be capable of short-notice, short-duration orbital or suborbital intelligence gathering missions either with a releasable payload or with sensors fixed in place on the spacecraft. The ability to launch the MLD in an unpredictable manner over denied areas could make this attractive for the Russians, who still lack a robust spy satellite capability. But it seems unlikely that the MLD would be able to provide anywhere near the same kind of space-access capability as the larger X-37B or the even bigger future XS-1. 

For the U.S. government, these sorts of rapid, flexible space launch concepts are increasingly attractive given ever-emerging threats to its critical space-based assets. Russia, as well as China, are developing and fielding increasingly capable anti-satellite weapons, including terrestrial and air-launched interceptors and potential dual-use "killer satellites," which you can read about more here

Russia's MLD may even be capable of acting as another anti-satellite system, physically smashing into an opponent's objects in space or otherwise carrying payloads to blind, jam, or destroy those targets. It could also simply serve a stepping stone to larger and more capable reusable spacecraft that could actually perform a wider array of missions or expand Russia's already significant presence in the international commercial space launch market.

This is also not the first time a Russian firm has proposed using the M-55 as a space launch platform, either. In the late 2000s, Myasishchev pitched an updated M-55, known as the M-55X, paired with a much more ambitious manned, reusable spacecraft, known as the Cosmopolis XXI, or C-21. As with the MLD, the M-55X would carry the C-21 up into the stratosphere, at which point it would rocket into space.

The C-21 was officially described as a space tourism vehicle, similar in general concept to Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo and bearing something of a general outward resemblance to Soviet spaceplane concepts, such as the BOR-4 and MiG-105. NASA also tested similarly shaped "lifting bodies" and the Sierra Nevada Corporation is now in the process of developing their own spacecraft, known as Dreamchaser, which has a broadly similar planform.

Virginia-based Space Adventures subsequently took over the development of the C-21, eventually renaming the vehicle Explorer, in cooperation with Myasishchev and Roscosmos. This same company is known for offering trips to the International Space Station (ISS). 

There is no indication that a real prototype of the C-21/Explorer spacecraft ever got built and the only related pictures show what are clearly full-scale models, not air- or space-worthy craft. In 2010, Space Adventures abandoned its plans for Explorer completely, citing growing costs

A Russian firm called BestRussianTour.com is still promoting the M-55X/Explorer as a space tourism option that "is almost ready." Still, the MLD and its M-55 mothership could leverage some of this past experience with the C-21/Explorer.

Space Adventures

A low-quality image of a mockup of the C-21/Explorer spacecraft being hoisted on top of an M-55 sometime prior to 2010.

via BestRussianTour.com

An artist's conception of an M-55 carrying the C-21/Explorer.

ISON has reportedly received 25 million Rubles – around $381,250 at the time of writing – in funding from the Proekt-Technika corporation for the MLD's development, as well as another 35 million Rubles – some $533,750 – from the Skolkovo Foundation

Founded in 2010, the Skolkovo Foundation is a Russian government-funded non-profit and technology incubator with its main site being the Skolkovo Innovation Center in Moscow. Proekt-Technika is a major Russian manufacturing concern and supplier to Russia's Ministry of Defense. It is particularly notable in this case because individuals who had worked on the Buran Soviet space shuttle program founded the company in 1990. 

ISON says it needs at least another 280 million Rubles, or $4.27 million, to complete the second stage of development work, and expects that money to come from a combination of outside investors and Skolkovo grants. It's not clear if this includes funds required for the adaptation of the M-55-based mothership.

ISON has five MLD flight tests planned for 2023, according to RIA Novosti. It will certainly be interesting to see if this new system comes to fruition and how the Russians ultimately decide to employ it.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com