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Academy of Sciences kills Karat project

Russia's scientific establishment made a decision to scrap the use of a brand-new spacecraft for most of its small instruments, including three missions already in development. The Space Council of the Academy of Sciences, which formulates the nation's space science program, deemed the Karat satellite too expensive. The light-weight spacecraft was designed to fly as a piggy-back with other satellites and serve as a low-cost platform for scientific experiments in orbit.


Previous chapter: Navigator platform


Above: A proposed family of science satellites based on the Karat platform. All but two first satellites (top left) were cancelled in 2014.




The standard MKA/Karat bus was expected to be used as a basis for numerous Russian science missions during the 2010s. Copyright © 2010 Anatoly Zak


A Soyuz FG rocket with a cluster of satellites shortly after its rollout to the launch pad at Site 31 on July 19, 2012. Credit: Roskosmos


A Karat platform with a Zond-PP experiment during development. Credit: NPO Lavochkin




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Karat platform

At the beginning of the 21st century, engineers at NPO Lavochkin proposed a standardized small satellite bus, named Karat, which could serve as a basis for a variety of scientific missions.

Karat was designed to have a dry mass of 100 kilograms and to be able to carry from 50 to 60 kilograms of payload. A pair of hydrazine tanks contained 45 kilograms of propellant for the attitude control system. Karat's solar panels were able to deliver maximum of 100 Watts of power to the payload. An S-Band radio-system could maintain contact with ground control at a range from 15,000 to 300,000 kilometers, depending on the antenna installed.

Some design features of the Karat platform, particularly its flight control system, BKU, were apparently inherited from the ill-fated Solar Sail project developed during difficult years of the post-Soviet economic collapse.

An initial federal contract for the development of what was officially identified as Small Spacecraft or MKA-FKI, was issued on April 27, 2006. Promised to fly as early as 2008, the first MKA-FKI/Karat-based payload finally reached the launch pad in 2012. By that time, Russian space agency, Roskosmos, formally outlined the purpose of MKA-FKI satellites as fundamental space science research, including a flexible program of solar research, Sun-Earth interactions, the observation of the Earth and small bodies in the Solar System and astrophysics experiments.

The flight control of the MKA-FKI missions would be conducted primarily with the use of existing ground assets. All MKA-FKI were expected to fly as secondary payloads on Soyuz-2/Fregat or Zenit-M/Fregat-SB rockets.

As of 2012, Roskosmos approved five missions based on MKA-FKI/Karat platform, with the first satellite carrying Zond-PP payload entering orbit that year:

The collapse of the Karat program

Despite a successful launch of the first Karat satellite with a Zond-PP remote-sensing payload, the overall project turned out to be short-lived. According to industry sources, the Russian Academy of Sciences, RAN, which funded practically all payloads for the Karat platform, have concluded that the spacecraft was too expensive for its purposes.

On March 14, 2014, the Space Council of the Academy of Sciences, officially rejected the use of the Karat platform for all but the Relek experiment, which was to be Karat's second mission. The third, the fourth and the fifth launches of Karat were all cancelled. The fifth Karat was expected to carry the ARKA solar telescope, one of the few Russian-American space projects. The Space Council proposed to fold ARKA, as well as the Konus-M experiment from the third Karat mission and the Monika spectrometer (provisionally scheduled to fly on the sixth Karat mission) into the Koronas-K solar-research project. However all these experiments would have to be accommodated as secondary payloads onboard future Russian application satellites.

The Space Council also recommended to conduct Strannik ("wonderer") experiments from the fourth Karat mission within the Rezonans project. Peculiarly, the Rezonans itself relied on the Karat platform, however, the Space Council gave its prime developer, NPO Lavochkin, three months to propose upgrades to the Karat platform, which would make it suitable for the latest requirements of the Rezonans project.

As a small consolation, the Space Council directed the Pushkov Institute for Earth Magnetism, Ionosphere and Radio waves Propagation to evaluate the employment of the Karat platform for unspecified ionospheric studies. The Space Council also allowed to continue the development of the Monika instrument, to preserve considerable funds and efforts already spent on the project. However, the March 2014 decision, did not specified how or when the instrument would be launched.

Next chapter: MKA-FKI (PN1) Zond-PP mission


Karat platform specifications:

Dry mass of the spacecraft bus 100 kilograms
Maximum propellant mass Two sets of 45-kilogram tanks
Propellant Hydrazine and ftoroplast
Power supply to the payload 100 Watts (previously reported 100-150 Watts)
Power supply to the service systems 60 Watts
Stabilization accuracy 4 by 10-3 degrees per second
Attitude control accuracy 10 angular minutes
Onboard memory capacity No less than 8 Gigabytes
Data transmission rate No less than 3 megabits per second
Operational life span 5 years


Karat-based MKA-FKI spacecraft projects:

Original launch date
Current launch date
Flight program, status
PN1 Zond-PP
Launched successfully. A remote-sensing satellite with an L-band radiometer
PN2 (Monika) Relek
In development. Solar and magnetosphere research. Studies of relativistic electrons in the radiation belts and their interaction with ionosphere and atmosphere of the Earth
PN3 Konus-M (372A353)
canceled in 2014
In development
PN4 Strannik
canceled in 2014
In development. Studies of large-scale turbulent plasma dynamics in near-Earth and deep-space environment.
2007-2015 (327) canceled in 2014
In development (Program based on the Karat platform)
Rezonans (MKA FKI)
2012 (327), 2014 (388) ?
OKR (in development)
A proposal
Lunnaya Doroga
A proposal
A proposal for a scientific satellite to study the Earth's magnetic field
A proposal
A proposal
A proposal
A proposal
A proposal
A proposal

Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: April 28, 2014

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