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EgyptSat-2 spy satellite
A Russian rocket launched a new-generation surveillance spacecraft Wednesday designed to give the Egyptian military a powerful "eye in the sky."
Previous chapter: Launch of Egyptsat-1
Above: Egyptsat-2 satellite also known as 559GK or Misrsat-2. Copyright © 2013 Anatoly Zak
In 2007, the Egyptian government made its first attempt to acquire its own high-resolution surveillance satellite with the launch of the Egyptsat-1 spacecraft built in Ukraine. However the satellite failed prematurely after more than three years of operation. Although Egypt apparently continued working with the Ukrainian KB Yuzhnoe design bureau on a follow-on project, Cairo received a bid from Moscow to supply a state-of-the-art "eye in the sky". In 2009, after around four years of negotiations, Egypt awarded a contract to Russia for the development of a high-resolution imaging satellite. In Moscow, the project was officially handled by Rosoboroneksport, the government-owned company specialized in exports of military technology. However the actual development of the spacecraft was delegated to RKK Energia based in Korolev near Moscow and renown around the world for its leading role in the nation's manned space flight. The company also built the ill-fated BelKA imaging satellite in cooperation with the former Soviet republic of Belarus.
RKK Energia's new imaging satellite was originally known as E-Star, but it was eventually re-christened Egyptsat-2, as a parallel name-sake effort between Egypt and Ukraine had been delayed from 2013 to at least 2015.
RKK Energia based the E-Star/Egyptsat-2 design on its latest concept of an imaging satellite designated 559GK. In turn, the 559GK satellite derived from RKK Energia's experience during the development of the Yamal-100 communications satellite. It was the company's first spacecraft platform whose electronics and other systems were hardened to function in the vacuum of space, rather than inside failure-prone pressurized compartments, thus dramatically increasing the satellite's operational life span. RKK Energia also relied on the flight control system originally developed for the new-generation Yamal-300 satellite to build Egyptsat's computer brain.
The satellite was equipped with SPD-70 electric engines with a thrust of 40 mH and power of 700 Watts. Engines used xenon gas as propellant to enter its operational orbit and to conduct orbit corrections. This propulsion system was developed at OKB Fakel in Kaliningrad. Also, the Moscow-based NII KP design bureau reported that it had developed reaction wheels for Egyptsat's orientation system.
The Technologia enterprise based in the Russian city of Obninsk and the part of RT-Khimkompozit holding in cooperation with NPP Tais developed thermal control panels for Egyptsat-2 integrated with the satellite's body. RT Khimkomposit reported spending just two months after receiving the assignment to assemble the structure.
In its overall architecture, the 559GK satellite appeared similar to the latest-generation Earth-watching satellites developed in the West, such as Pleiades. Like Pleiades, the one-ton Egyptsat-2 was assigned for launch on the Soyuz-U rocket into a 700-kilometer orbit, even though this rocket could deliver almost four times more payload into a comparable altitude.
Russia's new capabilities
According to its official specifications, the one-ton 559GK satellite could discern details as small as one meter on the Earth's surface. In addition to regular photos, the satellite's optics could produce infrared imagery.
RKK Energia said that the satellite's camera could snap individual images as well as stereo pairs, conduct continuous shooting along its flight path and function in a cartographic mode. According to the company, the spacecraft promised to double the resolution capabilities of existing Russian satellites and hinted at some new techniques in electronic processing of imagery.
RKK Energia sub-contracted the development of the satellite's powerful optics and its data downlink system to OAO Peleng and NIRUP Geoinformatsionnye Sistemy in Belarus. The European consortium EADS Astrium (currently Airbus) was also involved in the payload development.
In December 2011, the German company MT Aerospace reported a delivery of a light-weight structure made out of carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer, CFRP, for a reflecting telescope of the Egyptsat-2 satellite. The flight version followed a development prototype, which MT Aerospace supplied to RKK Energia previous August.
Russia also apparently trained Egyptian engineers to control the satellite from a ground station near Cairo. The Moscow-based NPK BARL concern announced the completion of the center in October 2011.
The total price tag for the Egyptsat-2 project was rumored to be around $40 million. The development of the satellite coincided with a major political upheaval in Egypt; however, the nation's military clearly managed to fully fund the project.
In case of success of the Egyptsat-2 project, more satellites of this type could be built, including a version for the Russian government. A similar strategy of marketing to foreign customers enabled Russia to fund a number of advanced space projects. For example, a Korean contract for the development of the KSLV-1 rocket directly benefited Russia's own Angara program, while the government of South Africa agreed to purchase its own version of Russia's new-generation Kondor radar satellite.
Road to the launch pad
As of 2012, the launch of Egyptsat-2 was expected in September 2013. The Soyuz-U rocket for the mission arrived to Baikonur on July 19, 2013.
In August 2013, RKK Energia displayed a full-scale mockup of the Egyptsat-2 satellite at the Moscow Air and Space Show, MAKS, while Egyptian officials were on hand for talks with their Russian counterparts. A leaflet circulated at the show promoted a constellation of similar satellites with three different imaging payloads and capable of delivering highly detailed, medium-resolution and overview imagery depending on the altitude of their orbits.
At the time, RKK Energia officials said privately that the launch of Egyptsat-2 would have to be postponed until 2014. Still, as late as October, the delivery of the satellite to the launch site was scheduled for November 14 and its launch on December 23, 2013. According to industry sources, RKK Energia completed the thermal vacuum testing of the satellite around the same time.
By November 2013, official Russian media reported that the launch of Egyptsat-2 had been postponed until April 2014. The spacecraft was shipped to Baikonur at the end of February 2014. Its final pre-launch processing was taking place a RKK Energia's Site 254. The fully assembled Soyuz rocket with the spacecraft was rolled out to the launch pad at Site 31 on April 13, in preparation for launch on April 16, at 20:20 Moscow Time.
Above: A Soyuz rocket with Egyptsat-2 satellite shortly after rollout to the launch pad at Site 31 on April 13, 2014.
Above: A Soyuz rocket with Egyptsat-2 satellite around one hour before launch on April 16, 2014.
Egyptsat-2 enters orbit
The launch vehicle was carrying a Russian-built Egyptsat-2 satellite designed to provide high-resolution imagery for the Egyptian military and other government agencies in the country.
The spacecraft was successfully delivered into its planned orbit 520 seconds after liftoff.
The development and launch campaign for Egyptsat-2 has been conducted largely in secret. Only one visual of the operational spacecraft was released to the public by its manufacturer RKK Energia after the successful launch. Notably, in its post-launch press-release, the company avoided the use of name Egyptsat-2, instead identifying the satellite as a "spacecraft for optical-electronic observation developed for the foreign customer."
RKK Energia announced that the satellite had been inserted into a 720 by 440-kilometer orbit with an inclination 51.6 degrees toward the Equator. Its ground facility established control over the satellite at 21:52 Moscow Time, the company said. Western radar detected two objects in orbit with similar parameters, probably representing the satellite and the third stage of the Soyuz-U launch vehicle. The satellite was expected to use its own propulsion system to enter a final operational orbit.
According to the BARL enterprise, one of the contractors in the Egyptsat-2 project, the satellite established reliable communications with ground control during its first orbit after the launch and the analysis of the telemetry indicated that all onboard systems had been working well. The main and backup flight control modes were also tested, BARL said in its press-release.
In the meantime, OAO Aveks, which built electrical system of the satellite and its propulsion control system announced that it had confirmed the successful operation of its hardware by April 22.
The BARL Enterprise then announced that first images from the satellite had been received on April 29, 2014, and on May 5, two pairs of photos taken on April 30 had been released.
According to the official information, from April to August 2014, Egyptsat-2 was expected to use its SPD-70 electric propulsion system to circularize its orbit at an altitude of 720 kilometers. The Western radar data did confirm that beginning on May 1, 2014, the satellite started slowly raising its orbital altitude. By the end of June, the spacecraft was orbiting the Earth in a 685 by 714-kilometer orbit, nearly completing its planned orbital ascent, according to estimates by a Russian space observer Igor Lissov.
On July 14, the head of RKK Energia Vitaly Lopota told the official Interfax-AVN news agency that the preparations for the demo tests of the satellite had been underway and for the transfer of the whole system to the customer. "All systems of the satellite and its operational modes had already been tried and the quality of delivered images had exceeded our boldest expectations," Lopota was quoted as saying.
In February 2015, an assistant to the Russian president Yuri Ushakov was quoted as saying that the deployment of the E-STAR system for Egypt had been completed previous December. The satellite was formally transferred to an operator on Jan. 1, 2015, industry sources said. Rumors about Egyptian interest in the second such satellite were also circulating at the time.
In April 2015, rumors surfaced on the Internet that the EgyptSat-2 either completely failed in orbit or experienced attitude control problems. There were no official confirmation or denial from the official sources, but if the satellite was lost, it would functioned only one year out of 11-year life span in its technical specifications. It would also repeat an ill fate of its Ukrainian-built predecessor, which had also failed prematurely.
According to industry sources, an expected dual failure in the flight control system rendered the satellite completely inoperable. The spacecraft apparently stopped reacting to commands from the ground, despite all efforts of mission control.
By the end of April, the official Russian media confirmed the loss of the satellite citing unnamed sources. A report by the Interfax news agency said that both flight control computers onboard the spacecraft failed within 15 seconds of each other on April 12, 2015. According to the Izvestiya daily, the satellite failed on April 14.
Known specifications of the 559GK spacecraft (as of 2011):
Known contractors in the 559GK (Egyptsat-2) project:
Article and photography by Anatoly Zak; last update: April 25, 2015
Page editor: Alain Chabot; last edit: April 16, 2014
All rights reserved
The 559GK satellite. Credit RKK Energia.
The 559GK satellite in folded position. Credit RKK Energia.
The 559GK satellite unfolding its solar panels in orbit. Credit RKK Energia.
Exploded view of the 559GK satellite. Credit RKK Energia.
A prototype of the 559GK satellite. Credit RKK Energia.
The imaging system for the 559GK satellite developed by the Peleng company in Belarus. Credit RKK Energia.
A full-scale mockup of Egyptsat-2 (559GK) satellite. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2013 Anatoly Zak
During the Moscow Air and Space Show in August 2013, an Egyptian delegation conducted talks with the Russian firm RKK Energia, which built Egyptsat-2. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2013 Anatoly Zak
Egyptsat-2 during prelaunch processing. Click to enlarge. Credit: RKK Energia
A Soyuz rocket with Egyptsat-2 satellite around half an hour before liftoff on April 16, 2014. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
A Soyuz-U rocket with Egyptsat-2 satellite lifts off on April 16, 2014. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
View of Melbourne, Australia, taken on April 30, 2014, and published on May 5. Click to enlarge. Credit: RKK Energia.
Photo of Taylor Bay on Lake Eildon in Victoria, Australia, taken on April 30, 2014, and published on May 5. Click to enlarge. Credit: RKK Energia.