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Soyuz delivers seventh Meridian satellite
Russian military launched the final spacecraft -- Meridian No. 7 -- for its latest-generation Integrated Satellite Communications System, ISSS, on Thursday.
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Above: Artist rendering of the Meridian satellite published in 2013. Credit: ISS Reshetnev
Meridian-7 rides Soyuz-2-1a to orbit
According to unofficial sources, the launch of the Soyuz-2-1a rocket with a Fregat upper stage from Pad No. 4 at 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.
According to the TASS news agency, the Fregat upper stage with its payload was scheduled to separate from the third stage of the launcher at 04:51 Moscow Time. According to the Interfax news agency, the Fregat was scheduled to conduct three engine firings to insert the spacecraft into its final orbit.
The launch vehicle was carrying the seventh Meridian military communications satellite. The separation of the payload from the upper stage was expected on the same day at 06:58:12 Moscow Time (11:58 p.m. EDT on Wednesday). It would be followed by communications between the satellite and a ground control at 07:01 Moscow Time. In the meantime, the Fregat upper stage would conduct its final maneuver to enter a disposal orbit.
According to the official Russian media, the Meridian satellite established communications with ground control and functions normally. On the morning of October 30, ISS Reshetnev, which developed the Meridian spacecraft, and NPO Lavochkin, which built the Fregat upper stage, issued press-releases confirming that the satellite had reached its planned orbit, established communications with ground control and oriented itself toward the Sun. All systems onboard the spacecraft have been functioning well, ISS Reshetnev announced.
Long road to the launch pad
On October 27, 2014, Russian state-controlled media finally confirmed previous unofficial reports about a scheduled launch of a semi-classified Meridian communications satellite. It would be the seventh launch into the Meridian dual-purpose constellation. On the day of the official announcement, a fully assembled Soyuz-2-1a rocket with a Fregat upper stage was rolled out to Pad No. 4 at Site 43 at Russia's Northern Cosmodrome in Plesetsk.
The 7th (and possibly last) Meridian mission was originally expected to take off as early as 2013. In March of that year, Nikolai Testoedov, the head of ISS Reshetnev company, which developed the spacecraft, was quoted as saying that the final Meridian would be launched at the end of the first half of 2013.
The mission would bring the operational Meridian constellation to four spacecraft. Testoedov added that the Ministry of Defense had not procured any further satellites for its communications network, which was expected to operate until 2016. However, the company planned to initiate the development of a new-generation satellite for the same purpose, Testoedov said. Unlike the Meridian, the new generation satellites would reportedly sport unpressurized service modules, promising to extend their operational life.
However, the industry sources explained that in the eyes of the military, Reshetnev had had an obligation to provide operational satellite within the current system until 2017 not 2016. The discrepancy stemmed from the fact that Reshetnev started counting down a promised seven-year life span of the system in 2009, when the second Meridian satellite had been launched. However, due to its delivery into an incorrect orbit during botched operation of the Fregat stage, the Ministry of Defense refused to formally adopt the bird into its arsenal. With the loss of the fifth satellite in 2011, the Meridian network reportedly operated only at half of its projected capacity.
At the beginning of May 2013, the seventh Meridian launch was promised on July 23 of the same year, however by the end of the summer, the mission reportedly slipped to the end of October or beginning of November 2013. In turn, by that time, the mission was pushed into 2014. According to the Commander of the nation's Air and Space Defense, VKO, Aleksandr Golovko, the mission had been delayed by unreliable operation of the satellite's onboard systems. The spacecraft was reportedly shipped back from the launch site to its manufacturer. Online chatter about the renewed efforts to launch the seventh Meridian resurfaced only in August 2014. This time, the liftoff was expected on Sept. 27, 2014.
At the beginning of October 2014, the launch of the seventh Meridian had to be delayed by at least three weeks, this time by a derailment during transportation of its upper stage, industry sources said. The Fregat upper stage for the mission was transported inside its container to a fueling station at its launch site in Plesetsk, when one of the axles of its railway platform broke causing its derailment. The container with the Meridian satellite had to be transported back to the assembly and checkout building for new tests to ensure that the shock of the accident did not damage its sensitive electronics and propellant tanks. The derailment took place at the curve of the railway, which had been a place of an accident before.
On October 15, the official Russian media disseminated a statement from the Russian Ministry of Defense confirming that one of the wheels of the platform had left the railway and had kept moving for three or five meters before stopping. The subsequent tests of the Fregat stage had been completed on October 14 and representatives of its manufacturer -- NPO Lavochkin -- declared it ready for flight, according to a military source quoted by the Interfax news agency. It would be a return to flight for Fregat, after its failure in August left two European Galileo satellites stranded in a wrong orbit.
Read (and see) much more about the history of the Russian space program in a richly illustrated, large-format glossy edition:
Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: November 4, 2014
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The purported Meridian spacecraft in launch configuration with the Fregat upper stage and the payload fairing. Credit: NPO PM
A Meridian satellite. Credit: Nicolas Pillet / Kosmonavtika.com
Click to enlarge. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense
Click to enlarge. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense
The rollout of the Soyuz-2-1a rocket with Meridian No. 7 to the launch pad in Plesetsk in October 2014. Click to enlarge. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense
Soyuz-2-1a rocket lifts off with the seventh Meridian satellite on October 30, 2014. Credit: Zvezda TV