Sunday, November 15, 2015

Russia to Launch the First Satellite for Its Newest Early Warning System

A Soyuz-2.1b carrier rocket (archive photo). Credit: AFP PHOTO-/AFP/Getty Images

Russia is readying a Soyuz-2.1b rocket to launch the first satellite of its newest early warning system called EKS (meaning Unified Space System). The spacecraft, named Tundra, will be blasted off at 3:00 a.m. EDT (7:00 GMT) on Tuesday, Nov. 17, from the Site 43/4 at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, located in Northern Russia.

The satellite will be delivered into a highly elliptical geosynchronous orbit, called Tundra orbit. It features a high inclination, usually near 63.4 degrees and an orbital period of about four minutes less than a solar day. A satellite placed in this orbit spends most of its time over a chosen area of the Earth. Tundra provides higher elevation angles than can be offered by a geostationary orbit.

The Tundra spacecraft was built by the RKK Energia company, a Russian manufacturer of spacecraft and space station components. The satellite is probably based on the USP bus, used mainly in the Yamal spacecraft series. The payload was provided by the Central Science and Research Institute "Kometa". The satellite will be operated by the Russian Aerospace Defence Forces (VKO).

Little is known about the Tundra satellite. Information released by the Russian media and government sources indicate that the spacecraft will feature two deployable solar arrays and will replace the US-KMO and US-K satellites of the previous early warning Oko program. Western analysts believe that it could carry also a secure emergency communications payload to be used in case of a nuclear war. The new system could have a true look-down capability and will detect missiles launches from the sea as well as from the U.S. territory.

The EKS system will consist of satellites able to identify ballistic missile launches from outer space and complement early warning radars. The development of the program started in 2000. The Russian Ministry of Defence awarded in 2007 a contract for the EKS system to RKK Energia with a first test launch planned in 2009. Several problems, changing requirements and a court case delayed the first mission to Nov. 17, 2015.

"Everything is going according to the schedule, approved by the Russian defense minister. We are practically ready to put the first satellite in high-elliptic orbit in November," said Maj. Gen. Oleg Maydanovich, chief of the VKO Space Command, as was reported by Sputnik News in June.

Currently the are six Tundra satellites planned to be launched until 2020. Next Tundra mission is scheduled for 2016. The exact date is yet to be announced.

The previous Oko system, started in 1970s, is described as outdated and is planned to be replaced by EKS as soon as possible. Oko has currently two types of satellites: US-KMO in geosynchronous orbits, with an infrared telescope to identify ballistic missile launches and US-K in molniya orbits, with optical telescopes and infrared sensors. The last satellite for the Oko system, designated Kosmos 2479, was launched on Mar. 30, 2012.

The Soyuz-2.1b rocket that will be employed in Tuesday’s launch is an upgraded version of a three-stage carrier Soyuz-2 booster. The 151 feet (46.1 meters) tall launch vehicle with a total mass of 672,000 lbs. is designed to put satellites into variety of orbits. The Soyuz-2.1b is capable of putting up to 18,100 lbs. into a low Earth orbit (LEO), 10,800 lbs. into a sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) and 7,170 lbs. into a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO). The first launch of this version took place from Plesetsk on July, 26, 2008 with a classified military payload.

This launch vehicle uses four RD-107A engines for liftoff, burning for about 2 minutes. The first stage, 88.9 feet (27.1 meters) long and 9.7 feet (2.95 meters) in diameter, is equipped in one RD-108A engine. The rocket’s second stage has a length of 22 feet (6.7 meters) and is 8.7 feet (2.66 meters) in diameter. The 2.1b version has an upgraded engine RD-0124 with improved performance to the second stage.

For Tuesday’s mission, the Soyuz-2.1b rocket will be used in a configuration with a Fregat-M third stage. This upper stage is 4.9 feet (1.5 meters) long and has 11 feet (3.35 meters) in diameter. Its S5.92 engine burns for about 18 minutes. Fregat-M is responsible for the orbital insertion of the satellite. However, it could be also used as an escape stage to send space probes into interplanetary trajectories. Fregat stages are currently used as the fourth stage of some Soyuz-FG launch vehicles.

The Russian Aerospace Defence Forces are also in the middle of preparations for its next launch scheduled for Dec. 2. The mission that will be conducted from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan will send the Garpun military communications satellite atop a Proton-M booster, into a geosynchronous orbit (GSO).

Russia has launched 21 orbital missions in 2015 so far, more than any other country. It plans eight more launches by the end of the year.

Tuesday’s liftoff will be the third Soyuz-2.1b/Fregat launch this year and the sixth mission from Plesetsk in 2015.

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