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Proton successfully returns to flight delivering a secret Olymp satellite

For the first time since its failure on May 16, 2014, a Russian workhorse rocket delivered a payload into space on September 28, this time a hush-hush satellite apparently camouflaged as a civilian payload.

Previous Proton mission: Ekspress-AM4R

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Above: A Proton rocket lifts off in the early hours of Sept. 28, 2014, with the Olymp (a.k.a Luch or Kosmos-2501) satellite.


Above: A Proton rocket with the Olymp (a.k.a Luch) spacecraft shortly after its rollout to the launch pad on Sept. 23, 2014. The rocket featured a logo of the Russian civilian space agency, Roskosmos, even though its mission had a purely military nature.

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Preparations and launch

This mission was previously scheduled to lift off at the end of May 2014 and, following the May 16 Proton accident, it was initially postponed to July 8. On August 26, Roskosmos announced that specialists from GKNPTs Khrunichev had been installing thermal protection layers on the Briz-M stage at Site 92-50 in Baikonur, while the center's personnel was configuring launch pad at Site 81 for the upcoming mission. The statement also said that the Luch spacecraft was developed at ISS Reshetnev.

On Sept. 4, Roskosmos reported that the launch vehicle, the upper stage, the payload fairing and the spacecraft had undergone autonomous checks and were all ready for integration. The assembly was completed by September 19. Two days later, a fully assembled vehicle was moved to a fueling station for loading the upper stage with propellant and pressurized gases. The launch vehicle was then rolled out to the launch pad No. 24 at Site 81 on September 23.

Several hours before an expected liftoff, Roskosmos announced that State Commission overseeing the launch had given green light to the fueling of the vehicle with propellants. At the same time, the launch contractor removed information about the scheduled time of the launch from its web site and never made public a live broadcast of the liftoff.

A very strange secret mission

The Proton-M rocket with a Briz-M upper stage lifted off as scheduled on Sept. 28, 2014, at 00:23:00 Moscow Time (4:23 p.m. EDT on Sept. 27). The launch vehicle was carrying a classified payload known as Olymp ("Olympus") as well as Luch ("Beam"), belonging to the Russian Ministry of Defense.

Roskosmos confirmed the launch around 10 minutes after a scheduled liftoff time and announced that the separation of the satellite from the upper stage had been scheduled for 09:26 Moscow Time on September 28, 2014 (1:26 a.m. EDT). The successful separation was also confirmed minutes after its scheduled time.

The spacecraft, developed at ISS Reshetnev in Zheleznogorsk, was inserted into a geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers above the Equator, where it might provide communications on the ground and likely serve as a data relay station for military satellites when they are orbiting the Earth beyond the range of ground stations. According to sources, the Olymp spacecraft might use a cutting edge laser-communication system to relay data from low-orbiting spy satellites to ground control. In 2013, it was disclosed that the latest version of Russia's flagship reconnaissance satellite -- Persona-3 -- would carry a laser data-transmission system, BA MLSPI, which enables to send information to the ground via a special relay satellite located in a geostationary orbit. In this capacity, Olymp could replace the old-generation Garpun military data-relay spacecraft.

In addition, a Moscow-based Kommersant daily claimed that the satellite would also be used for electronic espionage for the Russian security service, FSB, however the report was widely doubted by observers. The newspaper did not provide any technical details or background information to back up that claim. The report could stem from recent Russian efforts to develop a large-scale deployable antennas for satellites.

Hall plasma thrusters

At the beginning of November 2014, Moscow Physics Technology Institute, MFTI, announced that "in October (2014) propulsion clusters equipped with Hall-type plasma engines began operating in space onboard a spacecraft developed at ISS Reshetnev." The development of this new-generation Hall thrusters started at Moscow-based Keldysh center 9.5 years earlier under direction of Oleg Gorshkov (who later went to work at MFTI), the institute said. Given the timing and the wording (avoiding the mentioning of the satellite's name) in the press-release, it obviously referred to the Olymp spacecraft.

What's in the name?

This web site first broke the story about the existence of the Olymp payload in 2013, even though semi-official reports about a planned launch of a military communications satellite, such as an already known Globus-1, had circulated earlier. Still, an apparent introduction of the new name could hint a significant upgrade of the Globus-1 spacecraft or even an entirely new design. Moreover, evidence was mounting that the primary purpose of the spacecraft was data relay rather than communications.

As it turned out, a number of prominent Russian space industry contractors had previously reported in their public documents delivering components for the Olymp-K satellite. The companies involved in the project included ISS Reshetnev, Geofizika, LOMO and NPO Kvant. It also appeared that the spacecraft could also have a development designation 14K166. The official Russian documentation also disclosed that ISS Reshetnev had developed the 11K166 spacecraft for the Russian Ministry of Defense. The satellite was based on the Yamal platform and was designed to operate in the geostationary orbit for 15 years.

Given the fact that the name Olymp surfaced as Russia was gearing up to host Olympics in Sochi, one could speculate that it was assigned quite recently to a new-generation military satellite. The Soviet space history knows a few examples when the vehicle developed under a numeric code would receive a proper name shortly before reaching launch pad. During the post-Soviet period, the Russian Ministry of Defense have routinely declassified names for past and even current military satellites, while keeping most other details about their missions under wraps. In addition, most Russian military payloads would be officially identified after entering orbit as Kosmos with a number. However, in case of Olymp everything was different.

At the beginning of 2014, to the surprise of many observers, the Russian civilian space agency, Roskosmos, suddenly announced the upcoming mission carrying a Luch satellite. The Luch, of course, are civilian data-relay satellites and all the existing spacecraft in the current Luch-5 constellation have been accounted for. As a result, an apparent decision by Roskosmos to give a new public name to the Olymp satellite could be a late and rather clumsy attempt to camouflage a military payload within a civilian constellation, which might or might not have a similar purpose to its unexpected military cousin.

In any case, the differences between Olymp and Luch are obvious. Civilian Luch satellites were light enough to share a ride on Proton with another payload, while the spacecraft formerly known as Olymp is launched alone, betraying a much larger size! Moreover, numerous images of each Luch satellite during their development and pre-launch processing were released. Obviously, no visuals of the latest payload have been made available so far. Moreover, a special partion was erected around the Olymp satellite during its pre-launch processing at Site 92-50 in Baikonur to prevent foreign engineers involved in other Proton missions to see a highly classified payload.

Finally, all Luch satellites had numbers, while the latest spacecraft is carrying none.

Possibly, the Luch cover-up campaign was a response to an accidental disclosure of the name Olymp, even though the code-name in itself provides no practical information on the purpose of its carrier.

A strange misinformation campaign appeared to be continuing after the launch. The official Russian media was describing tasks of the satellite as supporting communications operations of the International Space Station and correcting the navigation signals of the GLONASS satellites. On Sept. 29, ISS Reshetnev issued a statement about the launch with a description of the Luch-5-series satellite.

However the spacecraft eventually received a designation Kosmos-2501, essentially classifying it as a military payload.

Olymp's moves mirror deployments of the Russian Navy


Positioning of the Olymp satellite in the geostationary orbit during 2015.

Upon reaching geostationary orbit on Sept. 28, 2014, Kosmos-2501 appeared at 55 degrees East longitude over the Equator, however within a day or two, NORAD radar spotted the satellite at 57 degrees East, as it continued slowly moving eastward at a rate of 1.4 degrees per day.

By October 6, 2014, Kosmos-2501 passed 65 degrees East longitude, however, by the middle of October, it slowly reversed direction and after some westward movement stopped at 54 degrees East, where Russia had no internationally registered parking position. Not surprisingly, Kosmos-2501 was soon on the move again, making a short stop at 53 East, reserved for the Ekspress-AM6 communications satellite and passing 52.8 degrees East longitude by the end of December 2014.

In the first decade of February 2015, Kosmos-2501 passed 78 degrees East longitude, while also descending by 260 kilometers and entering a perfectly circular orbit. The satellite was now moving unusually fast, covering 3.5 degrees per day. By February 11, the satellite passed 83 degrees East longitude as its movement started slowing down to half of its original rate. By mid-February 2015, the satellite passed 92 degrees East and continued moving. Ironically, it now ended up in the vicinity of its non-classified namesake -- Luch-5V.

The satellite finally arrived at its operational position at 96.4 degrees East longitude around February 21, 2015.

By June 25, 2015, Olymp moved to an orbital position 18 degrees West, where it remained until September. On Sept. 25, 2015, the satellite departed that position as well. According to a veteran space analyst Jonathan McDowell, the satellite had already attracted the attention of the US intelligence. The spacecraft reportedly behaved similarly to classified US satellites.

Unofficial reports confirmed that Kosmos-2501 used xenon gas-powered electric engines known to be onboard the satellite for its mysterious maneuvers.

Observers also noticed that the movements of the Olymp satellite match the activities of the Russian Navy. The long pause of the spacecraft over the Indian Ocean in the first half of 2015 coincided with the trip into the region of the submarine destroyer Admiral Panteleev. Accompanied by the Pechenga tanker and the SB-522 tug, the Admiral Panteleev left Russia in February and returned home in Vladivostok in August, after sailing through the Pacific and Indian Oceans. During the journey, the flotilla visited Thailand, Malaysia, Sri-Lanka, Singapore and Vietnam.

During the summer of 2015, when the Olymp stopped over the Atlantic Ocean, the Moskva missile cruiser, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet, operated in the Mediterranean and in the Atlantic. At the beginning of June, the vessel participated in the joint Russian-Egyptian exercise and in July, the flotilla moved to the Atlantic, dropping by in Luanda, Angola, and Malabo, Equatorial Guinea. In mid-July, the Moskva fired a cruise missile at a simulated sea-based target in the Eastern Atlantic. The ship also fired anti-aircraft missiles of the Fort system.

The Moskva had arrived at Sevastopol, Ukraine, in August, before the Olymp started moving again. If not a coincident, it is possible to conclude that the Olymp might be used to provide communications for the Russian Navy and, possibly, relay data from the Russian sea-based missiles.


Next Proton mission: Ekspress-AM6

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Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: October 19, 2015

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Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos


Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos


A Proton rocket with Olymp (a.k.a. Luch) satellite during its rollout to the launch pad on Sept. 23, 2014. The rocket left the assembly building at 4:30 a.m. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos

RKK comsat

A scale model of a communications satellite proposed by RKK Energia. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2011 Anatoly Zak


Proton with Olymp satellite lifts off in early hours of September 28, 2014. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos












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