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This cover of a vintage sci-fi story provides a great metaphor for the Bion project.
Previous chapter: Scientific satellites
Tracing its roots all the way back to the legendary Vostok spacecraft that carried the first man into space, the Bion series of satellites can orbit multiple live animals, plants and life-science experiments and then return them safely to Earth for analysis.
The Russian term "biologichesky sputnik" (biological satellite) apparently came into wide use following the launch of the Kosmos-110 spacecraft on Feb. 22, 1966. It was a modified Vostok capsule designated 3KV No. 5, which orbited the Earth for 22 days with live dogs Ugolek and Veterok onboard, in preparation for a long-duration manned mission. Along with dogs, the satellite carried cells of yeast, blood cells, and live bacteria.
By the time, Soviet cosmonauts did not spend more than five days in space and this long-duration mission reportedly revealed multiple problems with dog's health, first of all related to their muscle and bone structures. (637) As a result, Soviet scientists at the Institute of Biological Problems of Space flight, IMBP, in Moscow proposed a whole new program of life-science experiments aimed to advance fundamental understanding of space biology rather than to prepare a particular mission. On Jan. 13, 1970, the Soviet government officially endorsed the program. Just six months later, severe post-flight adaptation problems for the crew of long-duration mission onboard Soyuz-9 underscored potential practical application of such a project.
The task of building a dedicated biological satellite was given to the TsSKB design bureau in the city of Samara. TsSKB's engineers decided to modify for the purpose the Resurs-F imaging spacecraft, which itself was a descendant of the Vostok and Voskhod manned capsules. Like its predecessors, Resurs-F featured a large spherical reentry capsule and a single service module. A total of 17 experimental prototypes had to be build during the development and test program, which included helicopter drops to ensure safe operation of many delicate systems onboard the future bio-satellite. (623)
Between 1973 and 1997, a total of 11 biological satellites designated 12KS were launched on Soyuz rockets from Plesetsk, carrying 40 different live species. Six missions carried monkeys. However, initially, these purely scientific missions were hidden among classified launches within the unanimous Kosmos series, lumped together with top-secret military spacecraft.
Only in 1985, the official Soviet publication provided an overview of the biological space flight program with basic details on various missions. (2) Additional details were revealed a year later (71):
With the first signs of Gorbachev's Glasnost policy in 1986, biological missions started being publicly identified as Bion, (71) however only the last was officially designated Bion-11 and was not given a Kosmos name. As it transpired, the Bion project featured many technical challenges and engineering feats. In the aftermath of each Bion missions, post-flight research was conducted immediately after the touchdown and right at the landing site in specially designed field laboratories. (623)
Drama of Kosmos-2044 (Bion-9)
The 12KS No. 9 spacecraft was launched under name Kosmos-2044 in September 1989 and proved to be the most arduous mission in the program. Its main passengers were two monkeys. Just two days in the mission, the food delivery system for one monkey failed prompting calls to return the spacecraft home early. However it was decided to continue the flight and increase the supply of juice to the animal, while monitoring its condition carefully. As all telemetry and video showed no sings of concern in the animal, the flight continued as planned. However during the reentry maneuver, the braking engine failed to fire a prescribed time, sending the spacecraft toward landing near the town of Mirny in the extremely remote Siberian region of Yakutiya, instead of nominal landing in Kazakhstan.
The descent module touched down in the midst of thick taiga forest and in the bitter cold with temperatures minus 25 degrees C. Mission officials sent urgent wires to local medical officials and military units pleading for help in the search for the spacecraft and preventing its overcooling. Improvised rescue teams managed to cut through the forest, then started small fires around the capsule and covered it with soldiers' overcoats.
The professional recovery team arrived to the landing site whole 20 hours after the touchdown. As it turned out, all animals except for guppies fish survived the ordeal. The loss of fish indicated that the temperature inside the capsule had fallen below 12 degrees. The monkey that had already been on the thin diet during the flight now displayed signs of extreme weakness, however medical help at the landing site saved the animal. (637)
The international participation in the Bion project involved scientists from countries-members of the Soviet bloc (within the Interkosmos initiative), including Bulgaria, Hungary, East Germany, Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, as well as from US, France, West Germany, the Netherlands, Canada and China.
Among biological organisms known to be carried on Bion missions were:
The IMBP institute identified fields of research as studies of biological effects of microgravity, artificial gravity, and microgravity combined with high doses of ionizing radiation. According to the organization, the Bion program made important contributions not only into fundamental life sciences but also into the development of practical medical techniques supporting manned space flight. The Bion missions also had long-running implications for the future of space flight, including the development of the base on the Moon and the expeditions to Mars, first of all in helping to develop counter-measures against harmful effects of weightlessness and space radiation on humans. (636)
With the long interruption of the Bion program in the 1990s and in the first decade of the 21st century, the IMBP still managed to conduct a number of life-science experiments onboard a pair of retrievable Foton-M satellites, even though the main focus of those missions were material-science studies.
The Russian life-science research program in space was to be revived in the second decade of the 21st century with the Bion-M satellite. It was conceived to fly in orbit for as long as six months, giving biologists considerably longer time for exposure of their experiments to weightlessness and space environment comparing to missions onboard its predecessors. The Russian space program for the 2006-2015 approved three Bion-M missions with the first reaching the launch pad in 2013. (623)
Known specifications of the Bion (12KS) satellite (637):
Life-science experiments onboard Foton-M satellites (636):
Next chapter: Bion-M satellite
Writing and photography by Anatoly Zak; Last update: May 26, 2013
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The actual reentry capsule of the Voskhod (3KV No. 5, Kosmos-110) satellite which apparently gave rise to the Russian term "biologichesky sputnik" (biological satellite.) Dog's cabin can be visible in the center of the picture. Copyright © 2011 Anatoly Zak
A dog inside the cabin of Kosmos-110 satellite. Copyright © 2011 Anatoly Zak
Dogs that flew onboard Kosmos-110 satellite. Credit: IMBP
A Bios experiment package designed to accommodate rats is being loaded into a test version of the Bion satellite at the IMBP institute in Moscow sometimes before 1985. Credit: IMBP
Landing site during one of the early Bion missions. Credit: IMBP
A monkey named Bion which flew onboard Kosmos-1514 in 1983, the first Soviet mission to carry this type of animal into orbit. Credit: IMBP
A pair of monkeys during preparation for flight onboard Bion satellite at the IMBP research institute in Moscow. Credit: IMBP
A Bion satellite during pre-launch processing in Plesetsk. Credit: IMBP