National news in brief

Prime Minister of Kazakhstan Serik Akhmetov visited a specialised centre for registering cars and issuing driving licenses in Astana on Dec. 4. The first centre was opened in September of this year as a pilot project on the order of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Since the launch of the centre, about 4,000 driving licences have been issued and over 17,000 vehicles registered. Similar centres are operating in Almaty, Karaganda and Aktau and are planned for Taraz, Pavlodar, Petropavlovsk, Taldykorgan and Kyzylorda in the future.

Kazakhstan will gradually reduce Proton carrier rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome and end them in 2025, an official from Kazkosmos, the country’s National Space Agency, said on Dec. 4. Kazkosmos Deputy Chairman Meirbek Moldabekov said Kazakhstan had signed an agreement with Russia on the reduction. The Proton family of rockets was developed in the 1960s and first launched in 1965. The current model, the Proton-M heavy launch vehicle, was designed to deliver satellites and automatic spacecraft to a near-Earth orbit and outer space. It uses toxic heptyl and nitric oxide as fuel and has been criticised by environmentalists. The Proton series would eventually be replaced by a new launch vehicle known as the Zenit LV, which is currently undergoing an upgrade process that will last until 2018, the official said. But this will not mean the end of Proton launches in 2018, as the Zenit would need to “learn to fly,” he said. According to Moldabekov, the Proton is Baikonur’s “workhorse,” and the port will be useless if Proton operations shut down. Baikonur is the world’s first and largest operational space facility. It launched the first manned spacecraft and the first satellites in history. All of Russia’s manned space missions are now launched from Baikonur, which is under lease to Moscow by the Kazakhstan government until 2050 for an annual fee of US$115 million.

A distillation unit invented in Kazakhstan will be used in the search for life on Mars, said Boris Pilat, one of the authors of the project. According to the scientist, the distillation unit will be used by two Russian expeditions, one to Phobos, a natural satellite of Mars, and one to Ganymede, a satellite of Jupiter. The equipment will be used to demineralise water samples. According to Pilat, mineral impurities could prevent equipment from analysing organic compounds in samples taken during the expedition. The expedition to Phobos is scheduled for 2018 and the Ganymede expedition for 2022. The inventors are planning to present two versions of the distillation unit to their Russian partners. The different versions are required because of the different goals of the two missions. Samples of soil with water will be taken on Phobos, while on Ganymede, the space vehicle will have to drill into ice. The demineralisation technology is based on the use of dialysis. Two semipermeable membranes that release colloid solutions from low-molecular compositions are used in the device. According to Pilat, salt ions will be removed from the solution with the help of an electric field. The scientists are now working on making the device smaller. They have already reached an acceptable size, but their Russian colleagues think that it would be perfect if the device was the size of a matchbox. The invention has been patented in Kazakhstan.

Kazkosmos and Roskosmos, the national space agencies of Kazakhstan and Russia, have agreed to develop a programme of further cooperation to 2030, including the development of joint projects at the Kazakhstan-based Baikonur Cosmodrome. The agreement was reached during the visit of Oleg Ostapenko, head of Roskosmos, to Astana on Nov. 26. In particular, the two sides dwelt on launching a KazSat-3 communications satellite in 2014. They also broached the subject of launching KazEoSat-1, a remote sensing satellite, in 2014. Baikonur is closer to the equator than other launch sites, a situation that facilitates geostationary orbit or orbits less inclined to reach the International Space Station (ISS). This privileged geographic placement enables the launch of more significant payloads. The cosmodrome has been rented out to Moscow since 1994 for an annual fee of US$115 million. The surrounding town accommodates over 70,000 people, 37 percent of whom are Russian citizens. About 4,000 Russians live in Kazakhstan almost permanently on business trips to facilitate space launches. The town budget receives over 1 billion roubles a year from the Russian federal budget. Roskosmos spent over US$33.3 million in 2012 to maintain infrastructure and space facilities at the cosmodrome.