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Proton delivers second Garpun

On December 13, 2015, a Proton-M rocket delivered the second classified satellite in the Garpun series. Like its American and European siblings, Garpun (harpoon) is essentially a communications satellite for other satellites. According to Russian sources, the Garpun spacecraft was designed to relay information from military reconnaissance satellites in the low Earth orbit to ground control stations. (383)

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The appearance of the Garpun satellite had not been disclosed but it could resemble one of the Luch satellites.


The satellite designated 14F136 Garpun was developed at ISS Reshetnev in Zheleznogorsk, likely as a replacement to a previous-generation Geyzer/Potok spacecraft for the nation's Command and Relay System, GKKRS, apparently also known as Rassvet (dawn).

With an estimated mass of 2.4 tons, Garpun enables the transmission of strategically important information from low orbits to its government and military users in near-real time, even when the spacecraft gathering data flies out of direct contact with ground stations in Russia. Such new-generation Russian military satellites as Pion and Lotos for electronic intelligence, as well as the Persona optical reconnaissance satellites likely use Garpun's capabilities. Since they were all developed in a roughly same timeframe, the spacecraft in the low orbit could be equipped with specialized antennas designed to track Garpun in the geostationary orbit in order to relay large amount of data to ground antennas located out of their direct view.

Theoretically, with a constellation of three Garpun satellites evenly spread in the geostationary orbit, low-orbiting satellites could maintain uninterrupted communications with ground control. For example, Russian satellites could gather intelligence data over North America while being simultaneously able to downlink information and receive commands from the ground.

Garpuns were expected to be deployed in the same three orbital positions in the geostationary orbit that had been registered by the USSR in mid-1980s for a previous-generation Potok military data relay constellation: 13.5 degrees West, 79.8 degrees East and 168 degrees East longitude over the Equator.

Flight profile

Based on the available information, it is possible to conclude that the delivery of the Garpun satellite involves four firings of the Briz-M upper stage and a direct insertion of the payload into geostationary orbit. The Proton rocket lifts off from Site 81 in Baikonur under power of six engines and heads east and slightly north to align its flight path with an orbit inclined around 51 degrees toward the Equator. The first stage separates around two minutes into the flight and falls in the Karaganda Region in Kazakhstan at drop zones No. 25 or 15.

Moments before separation, four engines of the second stage ignite and fire through a lattice structure connecting the two boosters, until separation.

The second stage propels the vehicle until around 5.5 minutes into the flight and following its separation crashes at drop zone No. 310 in the Altai Mountains on the border of Russia and Kazakhstan. The same drop zone also receives fragments of the payload fairing, which is discarded seconds after the separation of the second stage.

The powered flight then taken over by four vernier thrusters and one main engine of the third stage, which fires until 9.5 minutes into the flight. Upon separation over Siberia, the third stage reenters the atmosphere and fall into the Pacific Ocean east of Japan.

After the separation from the third stage, Briz-M fires its engine for the first time to enter an initial parking orbit around 19 minutes into the flight.

The Briz-M re-ignites its engine twice to enter transfer orbits. The maneuvers stretch the apogee (highest point) of the parking orbit to a target altitude of 36,000 kilometers above the Earth's surface. For the next five hours the stage and its cargo climb passively. Upon approaching the apogee over the Indian Ocean, the Briz-M initiates its third and final engine firing to deliver Garpun into its target orbit. Few minutes later, the satellite should separate from the stage, more than nine hours after leaving Baikonur. The stage will then likely conduct a separation maneuver to enter a safe burial orbit.

First Garpun lifts off in 2011

In January 2008, General Vladimir Popovkin, the commander of the Russian space forces at the time, promised the launch of the first satellite associated with the Garpun network at the beginning of 2009. The mission was later known to be scheduled for Sept. 15, 2011. In the first half of September 2011, the launch was expected on September 18, however by September 15, the mission had its final delay to September 21.

The launch of the first Garpun also became a return-to-flight mission for the Proton rocket, following an accident a month earlier. It was also the fourth mission for the vehicle in 2011.

The liftoff of the Proton-M launch vehicle with a Briz-M upper stage took place as scheduled on September 21, 2011, at 02:47:00 Moscow Summer Time (18:47 EDT on Tuesday) from Pad 24 at Site 81 in Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Just few minutes after the liftoff, the official RIA Novosti news agency released a statement from a Ministry of Defense spokesman confirming the successful launch and saying that at 02:52 Moscow time the Titov Chief Test Center had began tracking the mission. According to official statements, the rocket was carrying a military payload.

The launch vehicle was expected to follow a standard ascent trajectory to release the upper stage with its payload at 02:57 Moscow Time, followed by three firings of the Briz-M and the separation of the satellite at 11:48 Moscow Time, Russian space agency said.

The NORAD radar detected the object associated with the launch in a 404 by 35,586-kilometer orbit with an inclination 48.6 degrees toward the Equator, apparently in a transfer orbit, still on its way to an operational position.

Several hours after the launch, the official Russian media confirmed that the satellite, designated Kosmos-2473, had reached its planned orbit.

Within 24 hours after the liftoff of Kosmos-2473, ISS Reshetnev company in Zheleznogorsk declared the launch a success, confirming that it had developed and built the spacecraft.

Kosmos-2473 was stationed in the geostationary orbit at 79.8 degrees East latitude over the Equator.

Soyuz problems delay Proton launch with second Garpun satellite

Tower

According to original plans, the second Garpun satellite was expected to follow its predecessor within a year, however the spacecraft did not reach the launch pad until 2015.

First indications about the upcoming launch of the second Garpun satellite came in March 2015, when the Russian government posted a request for bids to deliver the 14F136 No. 12 article onboard Ilyushin-76 aircraft to Baikonur Cosmodrome and the subsequent return of a transport container back to the manufacturer, ISS Reshetnev, in Zheleznogorsk.

As of October 2015, the Proton mission with the Garpun satellite was planned for the night from December 1 to December 2, 2015. The rollout of the vehicle was scheduled for November 28. However by November 25, a technical problem required, pushing the launch to December 10. According to some unconfirmed reports, the delay was required to ensure that the classified payload launched during this mission would not be affected by a fault that led to the premature demise of the Israeli Amos-5 satellite around November 21, 2015. Both, Amos-5 and the second Garpun satellite, were built at ISS Reshetnev.

The delay further compressed overloaded launch manifest in Baikonur in December 2015, which also included preparations for the launch of the Ekspress-AMU1 satellite, scheduled to fly between December 23 and December 25, 2015. Elsewhere at the space center, a Zenit and a Soyuz were also being prepared for liftoff.

The new launch attempt for Proton was set for December 10, 2015, at 03:17 Moscow Time from Pad 24 at Site 81 on the Proton-M rocket with a Briz-M upper stage. The launch vehicle was rolled out to the snow-covered launch pad in Baikonur in the early hours of December 6, 2015. The rocket left the fueling site on its way to the pad at 03:30 Moscow Time.

However just few hours earlier, on December 5, a Soyuz-2-1v rocket lifted off on the ill-fated mission to deliver the Kanopus-ST satellite, which failed to separate from its Volga upper stage. The following probe quickly focused on the separation mechanism, prompting officials overseeing the launch of the Garpun satellite to add a day to Proton's timeline on the pad to ensure that the rocket had not been affected with a similar problem. Because December 11 was reserved in Baikonur for the launch of the Elektro-L No. 2 satellite on a Zenit rocket, while December 12 was kept as a backup launch date for the same mission, the Proton's liftoff was re-scheduled for December 13, 2015, at 03:19 Moscow Time. Other sources disputed that claim, saying that the delay was unrelated to the Kanopus-ST accident. On December 9, the official RIA Novosti new agency quoted a statement from an unnamed "industry source" denying that the postponement was related to the Kanopus. Instead, unidentified technical problems were cited as an explanation.

Quiet launch of No. 12L

The liftoff of the Proton rocket with the Garpun satellite was witnessed by many outsiders, including dignitaries who had arrived for the launch of the Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft scheduled two days later. Thanks to a perfectly clear night sky, observers in Baikonur could see the liftoff, the separation of the first and second stage and even the ignition of the third stage before the rocket was finally out of sight.

However the official Russian media, the Ministry of Defense and GKNPTs Khrunichev, which developed the rocket, had remained quiet about the mission hours after the launch. Even upon seemingly successful separation of the satellite, there was no press-release or the official statement from any organization involved in the launch. The unusual quiet even for a classified mission was probably a reaction to the premature reports about the successful launch of the Kanopus-ST satellite, which had actually failed.

In the meantime, the US Strategic Command, USSTRATCOM, cataloged the latest Proton launch under number 41121. The mission also received international designation 2015-075A. The object associated with the launch was first tracked in a 401 by 35,657-kilometer orbit, which was a likely reached after the third firing of the Briz-M upper stage.

By 17:00 Moscow Time on December 13, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that the spacecraft launched on the Proton rocket at 03:19 Moscow Time had been taken under control of the Titov Chief Test Center of the Russian Air and Space Forces, which would be responsible for the mission. The satellite received an official designation Kosmos-2513, the Ministry of Defense said.

Briz-M explodes in orbit

According to NORAD, the Briz-M upper stage, which delivered Kosmos-2513, exploded on January 16, 2016, around 03:50 GMT, while circling the Earth in the 33,301 by 35,909-kilometer orbit.

The careful tracking of the vehicle showed that its orbit had experienced changes, which could not be explained by gravitational effects, sunlight pressure or other natural phenomena. It points toward some sort of leakage of pressurized gas or fuel from the stage, which could propel the vehicle to a new orbit. Moreover, the heating of the Sun or static electricity could ignite remnants of propellant and cause an explosion. To avoid such a situation, Briz stages are usually programmed to open valves on their pressurized tanks upon reaching a burial orbit. It is unclear, whether Briz-M performed all its end-of-flight operations after the delivery of Kosmos-2513.

 

A complete list of known launches in the Garpun program*:

No.
Launch date
Time of launch
Known designation
Official designation
1
2011 September 21
02:47:00 Moscow Summer Time
No. 11L
Kosmos-2473
2
2015 December 13
03:19 Moscow Time
No. 12L
Kosmos-2513

*All launches on Proton-M rocket from Baikonur

 

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Page author: Anatoly Zak

Last update: January 23, 2016

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Potok

An experimental Potok (stream) spacecraft for the Rassvet global command and relay system was launched for the first time on May 18, 1982, with a mission to relay data between military satellites and ground stations. Garpun likely serves as its modernized replacement. Credit: ISS Reshetnev


Garpun

An unconfirmed design of the Garpun satellite. (383) The drawing might not be accurate, as data relay satellites typically feature large communications antennas, as for example, the American Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, TDRS, below:

TDRS


Luch

Luch-5 satellite in deployed position during testing. Click to enlarge. Credit: ISS Reshetnev


Garpun

A Proton-M/Briz-M rocket with the Kosmos-2473 (Garpun) data relay satellite lifts off in the early hours of Sept. 21, 2011. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos


erector

Proton with the second Garpun satellite arrives at the launch pad in the early hours of Dec. 6, 2015. Click to enlarge. Credit: GKNPTs Khrunichev


launch

Second Garpun lifts off on Dec. 13, 2015. Credit: Roskosmos


krasnoznamensk

A photo of the Russian military control center in Krasnoznamensk (Galitsino-2) accompanied an announcement about the successful launch of Kosmos-2513 (Garpun-12L) on December 13, 2015. Click to enlarge. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense