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Scale models of the Foton spacecraft. Click to enlarge Copyright © 2000, 2005 Anatoly Zak


Pre-launch assembly of the Foton satellite. Credit: Roskosmos

Launch of the Foton M2 spacecraft on May 31, 2005. Credit: ESA

Foton M3

Launch of the Foton M3 spacecraft on Sept. 14, 2007. Credit: ESA




A direct descendant of the legendary Vostok spacecraft, the world's first spaceship, the Foton capsule was designed to orbit and return scientific experiments to Earth. According to the spacecraft developer -- TsSKB Progress of Samara -- no other vehicle could provide comparable level and duration of weightlessness for scientific research. The Foton family of satellites was first introduced in 1985 and with the end of the Cold War, its capabilities have attracted considerable number of Western customers. As a result, the program had survived Russia's economic problems of the 1990s and the upgraded vehicle, designated Foton-M, was introduced in 2002.

Foton-M No. 1 mission

One killed in Plesetsk launch failure

Published: 2002 Oct. 15; updated Oct. 16, 17, 18

Russia's first attempt in more than a year to launch a science satellite ended in a disastrous explosion over Plesetsk cosmodrome, killing at least one soldier and injuring eight, six of whom were hospitalized. A dead soldier was identified as a 20-year-old private Ivan Marchenko. According to the Russian press, the fatality and all injuries were caused by falling window frames and other debris of a processing building.

The Soyuz-U rocket carrying Foton-M No. 1 spacecraft started disintegrating some 20 seconds after blastoff and nine seconds later exploded, showering the launch complex and surrounding area with flaming debris. The launch pad was reportedly damaged by a Block D strap-on booster, which separated from the rest of the rocket seconds after blastoff. A forest fire, which started at the site of the rocket's impact on the ground about one kilometer from the pad, was extinguished.

Russian space forces, which operate the Plesetsk facility, conducted the launch on October 15, 2002, at 22:20 Moscow Time. The mission was previously scheduled for October 9. The 6,425-kilogram Foton-M No. 1 was to be the first Russian orbital science mission, since the Koronas-F solar-research satellite entered orbit on July 31, 2001. Since then, an attempt to launch an experimental solar-sailing spacecraft on a sub-orbital trajectory has also failed.

Foton-type satellites, built by TsSKB-Progress in the city of Samara, are based on the Vostok spacecraft and equipped with a capsule, which allows returning life-science and material-processing experiments back to Earth after two weeks in weightlessness. The lost Foton had been the 13th in a series launched since 1985. It carried an array of European, US, Canadian, Japanese and Indonesian experiments with the total mass of 600 kilograms.

The same type of rocket that failed to deliver Foton is also used to launch Russian manned Soyuz spacecraft.

On Wednesday, Oct. 16, Russian officials said the launch of the Soyuz TMA-1 spacecraft, which is to use the Soyuz FG rocket could be delayed, pending the investigation of the Plesetsk crash.

Foton-M No. 2 mission

Russia re-flies science satellite

Published: 2005 May 31

Russia successfully launched a second version of a science satellite, two and a half years after its predecessor was destroyed in a fatal rocket crash.

The Soyuz-U rocket, carrying the Foton-M2 science satellite, blasted off from Site 1 at Baikonur Cosmodrome on May 31, 2005, at 12:00 UT (18:00 local time). After a nine-minute powered flight, the Foton-M2 spacecraft has entered a 303 by 262-kilometer orbit with the inclination 89.9 degrees toward the Equator, where it remained for 16 days before its scheduled landing close to the Russian/Kazakh border.

During the 16-day mission, 39 ESA experiments will be conducted in fluid physics, biology, material science, meteoritics, radiation dosimetry and exobiology.

During the mission European experiments and equipment will be monitored by ESA’s Operations Team at the Payload Operations Centre based at Esrange near Kiruna, Sweden. They will be responsible for receiving, evaluating and disseminating scientific data generated by European payloads on Foton such as the Fluidpac and Agat experiment facilities. During 6 of the 16 daily orbits, the Foton spacecraft will be in a suitable orbital position for Kiruna to receive signals from it. Should any experiment parameters need adjustment, the commands will be sent direct from Kiruna to the specific experiment facility.
The European Space Agency has been cooperating with the Russian Space Agency on this type of scientific mission for 18 years. With 385 kg of European experiments and equipment out of the overall payload of 600 kg, this mission constitutes the largest European contribution that has been put into orbit on such missions.

The Foton-M2 mission provides re-flight opportunities for almost the entire Foton-M1 experiment program lost due to launcher failure on 15 October 2002. Applied research plays a prominent role with heat transfer experiments in the European FluidPac facility, chemical diffusion experiments in the SCCO (Soret Coefficients in Crude Oil), and material science investigations in the Agat and Polizon furnaces. These experiments are expected to contribute, respectively, to new heat-exchanger designs, to more efficient oil exploration processes, and to better semiconductor alloys.

As on previous missions, biological research receives a great deal of attention, this time with the emphasis on fundamental questions about the origin and spread of life forms in the universe. Biopan, which is hosting most of these experiments, is making its fifth scientific flight on a Foton mission. Education is also playing a part in the mission with a germination experiment, which has come from ESA’s student program.
Foton"Foton is one of the very important platforms that ESA uses for experimentation in weightlessness," said Daniel Sacotte, ESA’s Director of Human Spaceflight, Microgravity and Exploration Programs, "and with more than half the total available payload being taken up by European experiments and hardware, this shows the efforts that Europe is making to expand the boundaries of research in space to help improve life on Earth."

The mission is being carried out under an agreement signed between ESA and the Russian Space Agency Roskosmos on 21 October 2003 covering two Foton flights (Foton-M2 and Foton-M3, scheduled for 2007), which will have a combined total of 660 kg of ESA-supplied scientific payloads on board. The agreement also ties in two Russian partner companies: TsSKB-Progress in Samara and the Barmin Design Bureau for General Engineering in Moscow.

"This was the first Foton launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan as all previous launches have been from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia" explains Antonio Verga, ESA’s Project Manager for Foton missions.

(The mission was officially transferred from Plesetsk in August 2004)

"The Foton-M2 reentry module is expected to reenter earth’s atmosphere on 16 June and land in an uninhabitable area near the town of Orenburg, Russia, close to the Russian/Kazakh border. The capsule and the experiments will be recovered within a few hours of the landing. Time-sensitive ESA experiments will be flown back immediately to Rotterdam via Samara and turned over to researchers for analysis at ESA/ESTEC in Noordwijk, the Netherlands."


The Foton-M2 successfully landed on June 16, 2005, at 11:36 Moscow Time near the town of Kustanai in Kazakhstan.

Foton-M No. 3 mission

Published: 2007 Sept. 14

An unmanned Russian satellite, carrying an array of scientific experiments went into orbit for a 12-day mission.

The Soyuz U rocket lifted off from Site 1 in Baikonur Cosmodrome, on Sept. 14, 2007, at 15:00 Moscow Time (11:00 GMT). At 15:08:49 Moscow Time, the Foton-M3 spacecraft separated from the rocket's upper stage, entering a 262-304-kilometer orbit with the inclination 63 degrees toward the Equator.

The 6,535-kilogram Foton-M3 capsule, developed by TsSKB Progress in the city of Samara, Russia, carried 27 scientific payloads with the total mass of 688 kilograms, among them 16 experiments provided by customers outside Russia.

European Space Agency, ESA, sponsored a variety of payloads with the total mass of 400 kilograms, performing experiments in a range of scientific disciplines, including fluid physics, biology, crystal growth, radiation exposure and exobiology.

The spacecraft was expected to spend 12 days orbiting the Earth, exposing the experiments to microgravity and, in the case of a handful of experiments, to the harsh environment of open space.

Towards the end of the mission, the Young Engineers Experiment (YES2) will be deployed from Foton. On September 25, the small 'Fotino' reentry capsule was to be released from the end of a 30 kilometer-long tether to demonstrate the possibility of returning small payloads to Earth at a fraction of the cost of current methods.

One day later, on Sept. 26, 2007, the 2,550-kilogram Foton-M3 capsule was to reenter the atmosphere and land in the border zone between Russia and Kazakhstan.

The mission was originally scheduled for the Fall of 2006. As of 2007, the next Foton mission was scheduled for 2010.

The list of experiments onboard Foton-M No. 3:

Polizon-M (144 kg) 4 experiments on materials science (KBOM, Russia)
Biokont-M (4.6 kg) studies of microgravity and radiation effects on microorganisms producing bioactive elements (TsNIImash, Russia)
Vibrokon-M (10 kg) experiments in heat and mass transfer (TsNIImash, Russia)
Plazmida, Retseptor, Ulitka, Ukladka and Regeneratsia experiments in gravitation and space biology (IMBP, Russia)
Kontur-L (66 kg) experiments with Mongolian gerbils (IMBP, Russia)
GradFlex (55 kg) 2 fluid physics experiments (ESA)
Telesupport (27 kg) assists all payloads onboard (ESA)
Biopan (27 kg) experiments in exobiology and radiation exposure (ESA)
SCCO (32 kg) 4 experiments from ESA/CSA on diffusion effects in crude oil (ESA/CSA)
Biobox (64 kg) 5 experiments on cellular biology; studies of space flight effects on cell growth (ESA)

Biocon (15 kg)

experiments in space biology (Italy)
Eristo/Osteo (66 kg) 3 experiments on bone growth and yeast (CSA/ESA)
Aquahab (18 kg) 2 experiments in biology of water organisms; studies of space flight effects on water organisms (DLR/ESA)
Stone (1 kg) 1–2 meteoritic re-entry experiment (ESA)
Granada (5 kg) growth of several protein crystals (ESA)
Freqbone (7 kg) countermeasures for bone losses in microgravity (B/ESA)
DataLogger (2 kg) Measurement of shocks, temperature and relative humidity (ESA/TsSKB)
Dimac (9 kg) Tri-axial accelerometer system: true DC to 200 Hz (ESA)
Teplo (10 kg) low-g performance of new design heat pipes
YES-2 (36 kg) a students’ space experiment that will test a cable system for a small re-entry capsule

(Source: Roskosmos)

On September 24, 2007, TsSKB Progress announced that Vibrokon and Biobox experiments onboard Foton-M No. 3 were completed. The Teplo unit conducted eight runs and four additional runs were considered. On the night of Sept. 24, ground controllers were planning to upload the program of the YES-2 tether experiment, which would be deployed from Foton-M. On the same day, representatives of TsSKB Progress, TsNIIMash research institute, Institute of Medical and Bilogical Problems of Space Flight (IMBP) and European Space Agency flew to the expected landing site of the reentry capsule of the Foton-M No. 3 spacecraft.

Experimental lander in trouble, main Foton capsule lands flawlessly

Published: 2007 Sept. 25; updated Sept. 26

A European experiment designed to test a new method of returning cargo from space run into problems in orbit.

According to the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, a six-kilogram, 40-centimeter long Fotino capsule started descending from the Foton-M No. 3 spacecraft on Sept. 25, 2007, as scheduled, while remaining connected to the "parent" satellite with a half-a-millimeter-thick tether. According to the plan of the YES 2 experiment, sponsored by the European Space Agency, ESA, the tether would be extended to the length of 30 kilometers below Foton, after which it would be cut off and the Fotino capsule would reenter the Earth atmosphere and land.

However, the unwinding of the tether had apparently slowed down below nominal rate during second phase of deployment. As a result, the tether was ultimately cut off on a command from a timer, when the capsule had reached a distance of only 8.5 kilometers from the "parent" satellite. The further fate of the experimental capsule was not immediately clear. According to the representatives of the Young Engineers Satellite 2, YES-2, experiment, they were still trying to determine the status of the Fotino capsule, as of mid-day September 25, 2007.

According to the flight director of the Foton-M mission Nikolai Sokolov, quoted by the Interfax news agency, the tether started deploying at a rate of five meters per second, instead of nominal 12 meters per second. Sokolov speculated that the capsule could be stranded in orbit, as a result of higher then expected release. During the experiment, Foton-M No. 3 was circling the globe in the 260 by 300-kilometer orbit. A radio beacon onboard Fotino capsule was programmed to be activated, when it descended to the altitude of five kilometers above the Earth surface. Absence of signals from the radio beacon complicated the search for the capsule, Sokolov said.

Foton-M No. 3 lands

In the meantime, the main capsule of the Foton-M No. 3 spacecraft reentered the Earth atmosphere on Sept. 26, 2007, and successfully touched down at 11:58 Moscow Time within a predetermined area, some 150 kilometers south of the city of Kustanai, Russian space agency announced. A search helicopter landed near the vehicle at 12:04 Moscow Time.

Next chapter: Foton-M4

This page is maintained by Anatoly Zak; last update: July 18, 2014