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Soyuz-2-1v launches a secret satellite

Russia's newest light-weight rocket embarked on its third mission on June 23, 2017, lofting a classified payload, presumably a new-generation satellite for military geodesy. Along with it, flew the latest version of the military orbital inspector satellite.

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A Soyuz-2-1v rocket lifts off on June 23, 2017.

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The Nivelir project reaches launch pad?

The Russian government has released very little information about the upcoming flight, but it appears that it might be carrying the first of several 14F150 Napryazhenie geodetic satellites developed within the Nivelir-ZU project. The Russian word "napryazhenie" stands for voltage, while "nivelir" means level.

Geodetic satellites are designed to serve as precise reference points needed for accurate measurements of the Earth's shape and the properties of its gravitational field. In military applications, the geodetic information can help in the development of highly accurate geodetic coordinate systems which could be used for guidance of long-range ballistic missiles.

The first information about the Nivelir-ZU project apparently surfaced in procurement documents published around 2013. They hinted that some components for the 14F150 Napryazhenie spacecraft were being built at RKTs Progress in the city of Samara, which also manufactures the Soyuz-2-1v rocket, while the final assembly and testing of the spacecraft appeared to be assigned to NPO Lavochkin. This distribution of responsibilities in the development of the geodetic satellite system is somewhat unusual, because other known Russian space-based geodesy projects, such as Geo-IK and Musson, were led by ISS Reshetnev in Zheleznogorsk. As of 2014, Reshetnev appeared working on the Nivelir-MNK-OZS project, which might be related to the overall Nivelir program.

A knife-edge launch

The information about the upcoming launch surfaced on the Internet only few weeks before the scheduled liftoff.

On June 19, as the rocket was about to rollout to the launch pad, the Russian government began issuing advisories to air traffic to avoid two areas along the ascent trajectory associated with the expected launch on June 23 and June 24, 2017. The third warning closed an area in the South Pacific, where the Volga upper stage from the mission was expected to be deorbited. Based on this information, it looked like the rocket would follow the ground track of the previous Soyuz-2-1v launch in 2015.

In the meantime, at Site 43 in Plesetsk launch personnel raced against the clock to finish preparations of the Soyuz-2-1v rocket, which was hit with multiple technical problems and almost forced the mission officials to postpone the launch from June 23 to June 25. According to industry sources, a total of four instruments had to be replaced on the vehicle already in vertical position at Pad 4 during the work day on June 22, which was reserved as a backup period in the final processing schedule.

Then, on the day of the launch, the personnel experienced problems with fueling of the second stage, which required to apply the maximum allowed pressure to force the propellant into the tanks. According to the schedule, the fueling had to be completed at 19:50 Moscow Time on June 23, but, in reality, the crucial operation would not be declared a success until around 20:50 Moscow Time, or around just 15 minutes before the scheduled liftoff. As a result, the fueling personnel had to literally run to clear the pad just minutes before launch, industry sources said.

Soyuz-2-1v flies its third mission

flight

After a knife-edge countdown, the third Soyuz-2-1v rocket lifted off as scheduled on June 23, 2017, at 21:04:33 Moscow Time (2:04 p.m. EDT), from Pad 4 at Site 43 in Plesetsk. The assets of the Titov Chief Test Space Center began tracking the ascent at 21:06 Moscow Time, the official Interfax news agency reported.

The rocket headed almost exactly north, under the power of a single NK-33 main engine and the four thrusters of the RD-0110 steering engine. Lacking the four strap-on boosters of its predecessors in the Soyuz family of rockets, Soyuz-2-1v relied solely on a modified core booster as its first stage.

Following the first-stage ascent, the second stage took over the powered flight around two minutes into the flight. It fired its four-chamber engine moments before the separation of the first stage, thanks to a lattice structure connecting the two boosters, which allows free flow of the exhaust from the nozzles above. Right after the separation of the first stage, the tail section of the second stage split in three segments and fell away.

Both, the first stage and the fragments of the tail section were to splash down in the Barents Sea, north of Murmansk.

As the second stage continued to thrust, the payload fairing protecting the secret satellite split in two halves and also separated. Its fragments were to fall into the Arctic Ocean, south of the Spitsbergen Archipelago.

Upon the completion of the second stage firing, the Volga upper stage and its payload entered an initial parking orbit at 21:12 Moscow Time (2:12 p.m. EDT). All further maneuvers to insert the satellite into its final orbit were conducted with the help of Volga's main engine in the next 1.5 hours, however their profile might only be discerned with the help of Western tracking radar, some time after the vehicle had reached the orbit.

According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the launch went as scheduled and ground control began operations with the spacecraft at 22:27 Moscow Time (3:27 p.m. EDT). The satellite received an official designation Kosmos-2519.

In the previous mission in 2015, which carried the Kanopus-ST satellite, the second stage was expected to deliver the Volga upper stage and its payload into a 220 by 709-kilometer parking orbit with an inclination 98.17 degrees toward the Equator, where Volga would separate from the second stage. During the 2015 mission, upon reaching the apogee (highest point) of the initial orbit, the Volga then restarted its engine to enter the Sun-synchronous polar orbit at an altitude of 701.5 kilometers. Around 10 hours after the release of the Kanopus-ST satellite, the Volga upper stage was expected to conduct a deorbiting burn, followed by the reentry into the Earth's atmosphere over the western section of the Pacific Ocean, where the Russian government claimed a huge no-fly zone during the mission's launch window in December 2015.

Napryazhenie enters near-polar orbit

Soon after the launch of a Soyuz-2-1v rocket on June 23, 2017, NORAD radars detected three objects associated with the mission. Two objects, with international designations 2017-037A, 2017-037B, likely representing the Volga upper stage and the Napryazhenie payload, were orbiting the Earth in a nearly circular 660 by 676-kilometer orbit with an inclination 98.0 degrees toward the Equator. In the meantime, the third object, which was likely the second stage, was left behind in a 291 by 657.3 elliptical (egg-shape) orbit.

Object International ID NORAD ID Apogee Perigee Orbital period Inclination
Kosmos-2519 2017-037A 42798 669 kilometers 654 kilometers 97.97 minutes 98.05 degrees
Volga or another object 2017-037B 42799 672 kilometers 654 kilometers 98.00 minutes 98.05 degrees
Stage II 2017-037C 42800 650 kilometers 285 kilometers 93.94 minutes 98.06 degrees

However, according to the telemetry received by ground controllers, a braking maneuver of the Volga space tug was performed at a scheduled time on the day of the launch. The data also showed that the Volga successfully received a command to deactivate all its systems aboard the stage, Russian industry sources said. That fact gave rise to the hypothesis that the second object registered by NORAD was actually an additional payload launched during the mission. It was also possible that NORAD conflated initial observations of Volga before its deorbiting with the subsequent appearance of the second satellite. That theory got finally confirmed, when Object 037A began maneuvering on July 26. As it would turn out, it was only a beginning.

Russian military announces inspector satellite

On August 23, 2017, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that a miniature vehicle designed to inspect other satellites in orbit had been released from a military spacecraft launched two months earlier.

The official statement from the Ministry of Defense read:

On June 23 of this year, a spacecraft developed for the Russian Ministry of Defense was launched from Plesetsk Cosmodrome. That spacecraft represents a space platform which can carry different variants of payloads. Today, from that platform, took place the separation of a small spacecraft intended for the inspection of the condition of a Russian satellite. Later on, a scientific experiment is being planned to study that satellite's external appearance with the small (inspector) spacecraft.

This was the first clear official confirmation of the spacecraft inspector project within the Russian military satellite program. The latest experiment was likely a continuation of flight tests observed during Kosmos-2491, Kosmos-2499 and Kosmos-2504 missions.

It was also clear that the "space platform" described in the Ministry of Defense statement had been launched along the Kosmos-2519/Napryazhenie spacecraft and been previously identified as Object 037A. In the meantime, tracking data indicated that at the beginning of August 2017, that very spacecraft had synchronized its orbital inclination to that of the Kosmos-2486/Persona reconnaissance satellite launched on June 7, 2013. It was the apparent target of the inspection referred to in the official statement of the Ministry of Defense.

Within 24 hours, NORAD detected the newly released payload which was cataloged under Number 42919 and it also received an international designation 2017-037D. It was seen in orbit just slightly above its former launch platform:

Object
Perigee
Apogee
Inclination
2017-037D
650 kilometers
670 kilometers
97.92 degrees
2017-037A (Kosmos-2519)
649 kilometers
668 kilometers
97.92 degrees

By August 29, the orbital period of Object D had changed slightly, indicating some maneuvers. The analysis of the orbital parameters made at the Novosti Kosmonvatiki magazine revealed that Object D made several maneuvers in the vicinity of its launch plaform.

In its official registration to the United Nations, Russia reported that the satellite separating from Kosmos-2519 on Aug. 23, 2017, had received an official designation Kosmos-2521. Then, on October 30, 2017, Kosmos-2521 also released a sub-satellite, which was officially named Kosmos-2523.

Read much more about the history of the Russian space program in a richly illustrated, large-format glossy edition:

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Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: April 7, 2018

Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: August 24, 2017

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MIK

A Soyuz-2-1v rocket is ready for rollout inside the vehicle processing building in Plesetsk. Click to enlarge. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense


rollout

A Soyuz-2-1v rocket rolls out to the launch pad in June 2017. Click to enlarge. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense


erecting

A Soyuz-2-1v rocket is erected on the launch pad shortly before its liftoff on June 23, 2017. Click to enlarge. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense


fairing

The rocket used standard 98KS payload fairing. Click to enlarge. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense


pad

A Soyuz-2-1v rocket on the launch pad before liftoff on June 23, 2017. Click to enlarge. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense