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Murky world of the Meridian project
According to official Russian media, the Meridian satellite, a.k.a. 14F112, was designed to provide communications between ships and aircraft operating in the Arctic Ocean, as well as ground-based stations in Siberia and the Russian Far East. The Russian government also confirmed the satellite's military role, replacing Molniya-1, Molniya-3 and Parus spacecraft (Tsyklon-B).
The Meridian project
Above: A Meridian satellite is being prepared for a display in the assembly building of the Plesetsk Cosmodrome. The photo was taken in February 2004, on the eve of a visit to the space center by the Russian president Vladimir Putin. Credit: Nicolas Pillet / Kosmonavtika.com (Reproduced here with permission)
The Russian government displayed considerable openness with the project, providing the actual name of the satellite instead of a faceless Kosmos designation with a number that is routinely applied to military missions. Even stylized images of the spacecraft published on pocket calendars dated to 2005 circulated on the Internet.
In the middle of 2006, the Russian government released a transcript of the Security Council meeting in the Kremlin on June 20, which quoted Russian Ministry of Defense Sergei Ivanov as saying that flight tests of the new Meridian spacecraft were scheduled for no later than the 4th quarter of 2006, with a goal of upgrading the telecommunications segment of the military command and control system.
According to unofficial postings on the web during the 2000s, the Meridian satellite was equipped with a pressurized service module and a three-axis attitude control system. Some of the systems, including onboard flight control computer and propulsion might be similar to those developed for the Uragan-M navigation satellite. The onboard electronics complex known as Tsitron was developed at NII KP in Moscow.
The spacecraft also sports solar panels capable of rotating themselves toward the sun along a single axis. In 2013, ISS Reshetnev confirmed that info, adding the fact that each Meridian satellite carried three transponders operating in different frequencies. The company also said that Meridians had a mass of more than two tons and were designed to work alongside Raduga-1M satellites, as part of the Integrated Satellite Communications System, ISSS.
Both, Uragan and Meridian satellites were developed at NPO PM in Zheleznogorsk, where the latter project apparently originated back in 1978. NPO PM developed absolute majority of Russian spacecraft for telecommunications and navigation, both military and civilian.
As with Uragan satellites, the production of operational Meridian satellites was apparently subcontracted to PO Polyot in the city of Omsk. During several aerospace exhibits in Russia circa 2001, the organization released a photo of a satellite that was advertised as "new Molniya," which is a communications spacecraft, operating in the highly elliptical orbit. At the time, sources at PO Polyot told the reporter with the Kommersant newspaper Ivan Safronov that the spacecraft had already been built but had little chance of getting off the ground due to lack of funding.
The first Meridian spacecraft arrived to Plesetsk on November 10, 2006, and its pre-flight testing was taking place inside the assembly and processing building at Site 43 in Plesetsk, according to the official ITAR TASS news agency.
The launch was previously expected on Dec 8, 2006, but rumored problems with the processing hardware forced a delay to Dec. 22, 2006.
In mid-December 2006, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Plesetsk, including the processing area where Meridian's launch vehicle was being prepared for launch.
The original launch attempt on Dec. 22, 2006, at 11:43:29 Moscow Time was canceled at the beginning of the day due to a technical glitch in the countdown and winds at high altitude exceeding 20 meters per second. According to reports from Plesetsk, a problem with power supply to Site 43 required a switch to power generators and caused the launch control computer to freeze.
On Dec. 23, 2006, the launch was postponed for another 24 hours, when a hold in the countdown of the Fregat upper stage exceeded an allowable 30-minute period by several extra minutes.
Russia inaugurates a new communications satellite
In a latest bid to revive its space assets, Russia launched a new-generation communications satellite.
The Soyuz-2-1a/Fregat rocket blasted off from Pad No. 4 at Site 43 from the country’s northern cosmodrome in Plesetsk, on December 24, 2006, at 11:34 Moscow Time, carrying the first Meridian satellite. The spacecraft was expected to reach its final orbit at 18:35 Moscow Time.According to a posting on the forum of Novosti Kosmonavtiki magazine, the third stage of the Soyuz rocket released the payload section along with the Fregat upper stage on a ballistic trajectory with an apogee of 204 kilometers and a perigee of eight kilometers. Some 60 seconds after a separation from the third stage, the Fregat upper stage fired for the first time, entering the initial circular orbit with an altitude of 203 kilometers. 49.5 minutes after the launch, the Fregat's engine fired again for 10.5 minutes, stretching the orbit into a 290 by 39,500-kilometers ellipse. The satellite and its upper stage then coasted to the high point of the orbit, where some seven hours after the launch, the Fregat fired for 15 seconds, rising perigee to 1,000 kilometers. The Meridian satellite and the Fregat upper stage then separated.
Several hours after launch, the AVN Interfax news agency announced that the satellite successfully reached its orbit and established reliable communications with the Main Spacecraft Testing and Control Center of the Russian Space Forces, KVR. A spokesman for the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, confirmed RIA Novosti that all elements of the spacecraft had deployed. However, according to unofficial reports, the Meridian was yet to use its own engines to enter its final operational orbit.
The satellite's 1,012 by 39,816-kilometer orbit required 12 hours, 7 minutes, 23 seconds for a single rotation around the Earth, which was similar to the orbital parameters of Molniya satellites. The long axis of the orbit was positioned over the northern hemisphere, enabling communications antennas in the northern regions of Russia to "see" the spacecraft high in the sky for extended periods of time.
On January 22, 2007, the commander of the Space Forces, Col. General Vladimir Popovkin told the Interfax AVN news agency that the Meridian satellite could enter operational service on February 1, 2007, which would be earlier than scheduled. On February 1, 2007, ITAR TASS did confirm that the satellite had entered operational service.
Two and half years later, during the coverage of the second Meridian launch, the head of NPO PM (then renamed ISS Reshetnev) Nikolai Testoedov told Russian media that the first Meridian satellite had failed before the end of its projected lifespan. He blamed a collision with space junk for the premature demise of the spacecraft.
Russia launched its second spacecraft from the Meridian series of military communications satellites. The Soyuz-2 rocket lifted off on May 22, 2009, at 01:53 Moscow Time (00:53:33 Moscow Decree Time) from Pad No. 4 at Site 43 in Plesetsk, carrying a second Meridian satellite. This launch was previously expected at the end of 2008 and in April 2009.
According to official Russian sources, the launch vehicle successfully delivered the satellite into its orbit at 04:13 Moscow Time. The spacecraft had established contact with the ground and its systems worked well, the Russian space forces reported. However, western radar found the Meridian and its Fregat upper stage in a 275 by 36,473 and 191 by 36,377-kilometer orbits. Independent observers noticed that these parameters, especially the perigee, were considerably lower than those of the original Meridian satellite, inserted into a 1,009 by 39,818-kilometer orbit. Also, the perigee of the spacecraft was within a range of altitudes, where the friction of the upper atmosphere could quickly degrade the satellite's orbit, unless maneuvers to raise it were performed urgently.
A respectable source on the Novosti Kosmonavtiki forum reported that preliminary data had indicated the shutdown of the third stage of the launch vehicle three seconds earlier than planned. The Fregat upper stage apparently made an attempt to compensate the underperformance of the third stage with its own extended burn until it run out of propellant.
Still, on May 25, 2009, the satellite's manufacturer ISS Reshetnev (former NPO PM) issued a press-release declaring the launch a success. According to the company, the Meridian satellite had entered orbit that was close to planned. Such wording possibly indicated that the spacecraft had enough propellant to enter its operational orbit.
The announcement also said that the deployment of solar panels and antennas had been successful and one hour and eight minutes after the launch, the spacecraft had established its orientation relative to Earth. All onboard systems had performed without problems and engineers of ISS Reshetnev initiated checks and tests of the satellite before transferring it to its customer for operational work during the spacecraft's planned lifespan, the company's statement said.
According to the head of ISS Reshetnev Nikolai Testoedov, a projected lifespan of the Meridian satellite had been extended to seven years and a number of transponders onboard the spacecraft had been increased, enabling it to "replace" 12 satellites of the Molniya series and save considerable government funds.
As it transpired in the first half of June 2009, the investigation commission traced the problem during this mission to an erroneous input of data about the payload into the flight program as a result of poor interaction between the customer and the developer. It led to overuse of propellant during the first and second burns of the Fregat upper stage (not the third stage of the Molniya rocket as was originally reported.) At the end of the second burn of the Fregat's engine, it was shut down prematurely based on the propellant level data. Fortunately, the third (aborted) engine burn was expected to be very short, consuming the amount of propellant just enough to ignite the main engine. The problem during the insertion triggered the separation of the upper stage and its payload, as it was designed to do in case of emergency.
Continuing an ever increasing pace of its space program, Russia made a third attempt to orbit its newest-generation satellite for military communications.
A Soyuz-2-1a rocket with the Fregat upper stage lifted off from Pad No. 4 at Site 43 in Plesetsk on Nov. 2, 2010, at 03:59 Moscow Time. Two minutes later, Russia's ground control network started tracking the vehicle which successfully reached its initial orbit, official military sources said. According the Ministry of Defense spokesman, the separation of the payload from the upper stage was scheduled for 06:13 Moscow Time, as vehicles were orbiting the Earth within communication range of the ground control network.
The Zvezda military TV channel and other official Russian sources identified the payload as the Meridian. Unofficial posters on the online forum of the Novosti Kosmonavtiki magazine reported that deployable elements onboard the satellite had been successfully released and the spacecraft has established an orientation toward the Sun, thus ensuring its operational status.
At the time, two previous Meridian missions had already been confirmed as failures.
In the post-launch interview with the Zvezda TV channel, Aleksandr Kirilin, the head of TsSKB Progress said that the mission had concluded the test flight program of the Soyuz-2-1a launch vehicle, clearing the way to the formal acceptance of the rocket into the armaments of the Russian military.
Military personnel at the nation's northern launch site sent the latest-generation communications satellite into orbit Wednesday.
According to the planned flight profile, first three stages of the vehicle would release the Fregat along with its payload on a ballistic trajectory around ten minutes after the liftoff.
The Fregat would then fire its engine for 13 seconds to enter an initial 203-kilometer parking orbit with an inclination 62.8 degrees toward the Equator. Then, after almost a half-an-hour coasting flight, Fregat's engine would fire again to boost the apogee (highest point) of the orbit to an altitude of nearly 36,000 kilometers above the Earth surface. Finally, the third firing would lift the perigee (the lowest point) of the orbit to almost 1,000 kilometers, where the satellite was expected to be released at 23:59:23 Moscow Time on May 4, 2011. Free from its cargo, the Fregat upper stage would then fire its engine one last time to obtain a safe distance from the satellite.
Summary of Meridian No. 4's planned mission maneuvers*:
*An inclination of the satellite's orbit was expected to remain at 62.8 degrees; **Beginning of the engine firing according to Moscow Summer Time;
Soon after midnight on May 5, 2011, official Russian media confirmed that the Meridian satellite had successfully separated from the launch vehicle at 23:59 and ground control had established contact with the spacecraft.
As of January 2011, this launch was expected at the end of April 2011.
A Russian launch of a fresh satellite for the latest military communications network failed. A Soyuz-2.1b rocket with the Fregat upper stage lifted off from Pad No. 4 at Site 43 in Plesetsk on Dec. 23, 2011, at 16:08 Moscow Time but never reached orbit.
A Russian rocket successfully delivered the latest-generation military communications satellite, following a liftoff from the nation's northern space port.
The launch of the Soyuz-2-1a rocket with a Fregat-M upper stage took place on November 14, 2012, at 15:42:46 Moscow Summer Time from Pad No. 4 at Site 43 in Plesetsk Cosmodrome. The vehicle carried the Meridian No. 6 satellite intended for military communications. Following a nine-minute powered flight, a payload section comprised of the Fregat and the satellite separated from the third stage of the launch vehicle at 15:51 Moscow Summer Time. Following maneuvers of the upper stage, the spacecraft was released at 18:00 Moscow Summer Time.
As of September 2012, this launch was expected on December 25, however by October it was reported to take place on November 14. In preparation for this mission, the Soyuz-2-1a rocket was rolled out to the launch pad on November 1 to ensure's the vehicle's compatibility with ground hardware after some improvised changes that had been made at Pad No. 4 during fit tests with the Soyuz-2-1v rocket several weeks before. The Soyuz-2-1a was then returned back to the assembly building on November 3, where it was integrated with its payload section. The fully assembled vehicle then rolled out to the pad again on the morning of November 11, 2012.
In the anticipation of the launch, a newly appointed Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu arrived to Plesetsk. Along with witnessing the liftoff of the Meridian, Shoigu was expected to tour the yet-to-be-completed launch facility for the Angara rocket.
Rollout of a Soyuz-2-1a rocket with Meridian No. 7 satellite to a launch pad in October 2014.
According to unofficial sources, the launch of the Soyuz-2-1a rocket with a Fregat upper stage from Site 43 in Plesetsk took place as scheduled on October 30, 2014, at 04:42:52 Moscow Time (9:42 p.m. EDT on Wednesday). Several minutes after the event, official Russian media reported that the liftoff had taken place at 04:43 Moscow Time. The launch vehicle was carrying the seventh Meridian military communications satellite.
According to ISS Reshetnev, in the spring of 2016, the company got a contract for the second batch of four Meridian satellites with the first launch expected in 2018. Around the same time, the Kommersant daily reported that the program was expected to cost around 14 billion rubles and additional eight billion would be spent to procure Soyuz-2-1/Fregat rockets to deliver the satellites into orbit.
Read (and see) much more about the history of the Russian space program in a richly illustrated, large-format glossy edition:
A complete list of Meridian launches*:
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Last update: June 22, 2016
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Various stylized depictions of the Meridian satellite have circulated on the web before its first launch. Credit: KVR/Ivan Safronov/Novosti Kosmonavtiki
A photo, reportedly depicting the Meridian satellite. Credit: Ivan Safronov/Novosti Kosmonavtiki
An artist rendering of the Meridian satellite released by its manufacturer NPO PM after the launch of the first spacecraft. Credit: NPO PM
An artist rendering of the satellite published in 2013. Credit: NPO PM
The purported Meridian spacecraft in launch configuration with the Fregat upper stage and the payload fairing. Credit: NPO PM
A depiction of Meridian satellite revealing its resemblance to GLONASS-M spacecraft. Credit: TsNIIMash
The Soyuz-2-1a rocket for the Meridian satellite during pre-launch processing in Plesetsk. Credit: Channel I of the Russian TV
The Fregat upper stage for the Meridian satellite during pre-launch processing in Plesetsk. Credit: Channel I of the Russian TV
The third Meridian satellite lifts off on Nov. 2, 2010. Credit: Zvezda TV channel
The fourth Meridian satellite lifts off from Plesetsk on May 4, 2011. Credit: Vesti TV channel
Soyuz-2-1a rocket with seventh Meridian satellite on the launch pad in Plesetsk in October 2014. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense