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Above: Artist reconstruction of an unidentified imaging satellite, whose architecture could be related to the Sapfir and Persona projects.
Previous chapter: Resurs-P
Most advanced Russian spy sat mission put off till next year
During 2012, the highly anticipated encore introduction of Russia's flagship spy satellite had to be delayed until next year, industry sources say. The launch of the second Persona reconnaissance spacecraft would come more than four years after a costly failure to deploy this new-generation bird in 2008. Symptomatic of the Soviet and Russian high-tech industry, the botched mission was blamed on the low quality of onboard electronics, which hampered efforts by the Russian military to modernize its strategic assets despite improved funding during the previous and the current decade.
The Persona satellite traces its roots to the Sapfir project first proposed by TsSKB Progress in 1979. Originally, the Sapfir (sapphire) was to be a 16-ton satellite, which would be deployed and possibly serviced in orbit by cosmonauts of the Buran reusable space plane.
A full-scale development of Sapfir at TsSKB Progress was authorized in 1983. At the time, the first launch of the 14-ton vehicle was projected for 1986 on the Zenit or Proton rocket. Sapfir would transmit imagery to the ground via a special data-relay satellite. Designated Sapfir-V, where "V" stands for vysoko-orbitalny, or high-orbital, Sapfir would be orbiting the Earth in the elliptical orbit climbing as high as 10,000-20,000 kilometers to obtain imagery of very wide areas, but at lower resolution than one-meter details discenrable from Araks-N satellite, which would be deployed in lower orbit.
Sapfir-V's orbits were designed to let satellites stay within view of the area of interest up to 20 minutes at a time transmitting live imagery, as it climbed toward and decended from the high point of its orbit and followed by a quickly swing around low point of its orbit positioned on the opposite side of the globe. Military planners expected Sapfir-V to focus on the European region watching the main Cold War frontier between the West and the East.
In 1992, Sapfir was expected to be joined by a radar-carrying surveillance satellite capable of all-weather observations of the Earth surface.
By 1990, the LOMO company in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) finally assembled the first flight version of a powerful 17V321 optical telescope for the Sapfir satellite and worked on two follow-on systems. However around the same time, TsSKB Progress was overloaded with work on the Energia-Buran program. The Sapfir project was also plagued by lack of high-tech components and systems, particularly high-sensitivity infrared sensors.
A critical review of the project led to the decision in January 1989 to postpone the launch of Sapfir until 1991 -- the year the USSR disintegrated. (76) The Sapfir project had apparently lingered until the end of the 1990s before being formally canceled. A nearly completed vehicle remained for years in the processing building in Samara.
Following the cancellation of the Sapfir project, TsSKB Progress proposed to recycle three leftover telescopes in various stages of completion for a smaller, cheaper spacecraft to be launched on the Soyuz-2 rockets. The new vehicle would also use hardware developed inside post-Soviet Russia, replacing old contractors in the former republics of USSR, first of all those in Ukraine.
At the turn of the 21st century, the Russian government decided to fund at least one such spacecraft within the armaments development program covering a period until 2010. In 2000, NPO Lavochkin, the developer of the Araks satellite, and TsSKB Progress, a leading spy satellite developer in Russia, submitted competing bids for the project. NPO Lavochkin planned to use an optical system from the Araks project combined with a brand-new unpressurized service module. The capability of the proposed spacecraft were as good or exceeding those of the Araks satellite. One improvement included a major increase in the image transmission speed. In contrast, a proposal from TsSKB Progress was based on the Resurs-DK satellite, whose design was formulated in accordance with the requirements of the Russian space agency, rather than deriving from higher requirements demanded by the military.
Still, it was clear from the outset that TsSKB Progress was "doomed" to win the tender. Both, a civilian space agency and the Ministry of Defense felt that they owed to give the company a lucrative contract in order to preserve the survival of the development potential in Samara, including the production of the critically important Soyuz family of rockets.
With a mass exceeding seven tons, the spacecraft code-named 14F137 Persona was designed to fit onto the Soyuz-2 rocket, which would launch it into a high-inclination orbit extending from pole to pole and enabling to photograph virtually any point on the Earth surface.
The Persona would transmit high-resolution images via high-capacity radio channels during its seven-year life span for the Reconnaissance Directorate of the Chief of Staff of the Russian armed forces.
The new satellite would replace the Yantar-4KS2 Neman spacecraft, which had to use special retrievable capsules carrying exposed film back to Earth in order to deliver high-resolution imagery.
According to the original plan, the first Persona satellite would have to be launched in 2004. However by 2002, technical problems pushed the inaugural flight to 2006. As the project struggled with delays and cost overruns, two other leading spacecraft developers -- NPO Lavochkin and RKK Energia -- proposed to launch a third Araks satellite as a stop-gap measure, as well as follow-on designs based on their own hardware. However, the Russian government chose to stick with the original plan. At the beginning of 2006, the launch of Persona was officially set for 2007, however all involved with the program knew that the project could be pushed as far back as 2009 or even 2010. By 2008, the price tag for the Persona project had reportedly reached five billion rubles.
Preparations for the first launch
After many delays, the first Persona was finally shipped to Plesetsk in 2007 for a launch scheduled for January 2008. Even then, the shipment to the launch site was reportedly ordered in order to report to the government reaching this major milestone. At the time, the vehicle was still far from readiness, resulting in delays of the launch to February, April and, finally, to the end of July 2008. During the Spring, some components on the spacecraft were reportedly damaged during a botched test.
After a one-day delay by technical problems, the Soyuz-2-1b rocket flew its first mission from Plesetsk with the new-generation military satellite. According to the official Russian press, the launch vehicle lifted off on July 26, 2008, at 22:31 Moscow Time, carrying a military satellite designed to work for seven years.
The separation of the payload from the launch vehicle was scheduled for 22:40 Moscow Time on the same day. A representative of the Russian space forces confirmed that the satellite officially named Kosmos-2441 had successfully reached its orbit. Western radars found the payload in a 196 by 727-kilometer orbit with an inclination 98.3 degrees toward the Equator. A second fragment from the mission -- apparently the upper stage of the Soyuz-2 rocket -- was detected in a similar orbit.
At the beginning of August, the satellite reportedly fired its engine as it was passing its apogee (the highest point of its orbit). As a result, its orbit became circular at an altitude of around 720 kilometers. Mission control then successfully downlinked the first test images from the spacecraft around August 12.
However in February 2009, Rossiskaya Gazeta reported that the first Persona spacecraft had failed before it had a chance to enter service due to the failure of onboard electronics. (326) According to some rumors, the manufacturers blamed the loss of the satellite on the wrong choice of its orbit, which reportedly put the spacecraft on the very edge of the Earth's radiation belt. Industry sources said that the failure of one critical avionics part had led to the crippling of the satellite. This component reportedly used imported low-cost electronics, which were not designed to withstand space radiation.
As a result of the failure, the spacecraft reportedly lost its capability to transmit images to the ground.
Around mid-April 2009, radar tracking showed signs that Persona had climbed slightly from its slowly decaying orbit and then quickly giving up around a half of this altitude gain. Due to relatively slow pace of the "maneuver", observers suggested that some onboard leak were pushing the spacecraft or radar observations were accumulating some slight errors. At the time, it was unclear whether the satellite was continuing to function, however some rumors suggested that it had remained under control and stayed in contact with the ground, however was unable to perform its primary function.
Persona No. 2 and No. 3
TsSKB Progress apparently started building a second copy of the Persona satellite from available spare parts and using its internal funds. However without full-scale government funding, the work faced inevitable delays. In April 2011, an industry publication indicated that six gyroscopic orientation systems, known as SGK, had been "cannibalized" from the second Persona satellite in order to complete the assembly of the non-classified Resurs-P satellite.
In January 2011, the head of TsSKB Progress Aleksandr Kirilin promised the launch of two imaging satellites during 2011, one of which would be a dual-purpose Resurs-P spacecraft. (601) Observers assumed that the second satellite would be Persona. However both missions had to be delayed until 2012.
At the beginning of 2012, Kirilin promised the launch of two military spacecraft: one in the spring and another in November. (562) The statement possibly referred to a reconnaissance satellite that lifted off on May 17 or, possibly to a Bars spacecraft and to Persona, which had to wait yet again.
In May, a Russian publication reported that TsSKB Progress had just completed the testing in the town of Korolev of the newest propulsion system for satellites, which would be certified to operate in space for up to five years. (TsSKB Progress is actually based in Samara, while the town of Korolev is a home of the Isaev design bureau, which developed many propulsion systems for Soviet and Russian spacecraft). The article also said that TsSKB Progress had fully consolidated the manufacturing of spy satellites within its own organization, including testing of propulsion systems. The new arrangement reportedly promised to increase the reliability of Russian satellites and avoid dissolving responsibility in case of a failure. (600)
In August, the same publication reported that Roskosmos had asked TsSKB Progress to pay back 400 million rubles for failing to build a new type of propulsion systems for a pair of advanced satellites by the agreed deadline. At the time, missions in question were promised to lift off during January-February and May-September 2013. (599) Again, observers assumed that Resurs-P and Persona were the recipients of the new engines.
Around the same time, industry documents indicated that the third copy of the Persona satellite was in development.
The development of the next-generation satellite to replace the original Persona family was rumored as early as 2008, but the studies in the field probably started earlier. From the outset, the original Persona project likely relied solely on the three optical telescopes inherited from the Sapfir program and thus could only serve as a transitional step toward yet another new generation of imaging spacecraft.
Next chapter: Liana
Known info on Persona satellites:
The known specifications of the Persona satellite:
Writing and multimedia by Anatoly Zak; Last update: May 16, 2013
Editing by Alain Chabot; Last edit: November 21, 2012
All rights reserved
An animation of the advanced reconnaissance satellite possibly related to the Persona project. Click to play (This video file is available in a variety of HD formats)
This rendering of an unidentified imaging satellite equipped with an Ikar upper stage and compatible with the Soyuz family of rockets appeared in Russian sources. It could be an accurate depiction of the existing reconnaissance satellite, but could also be an artist approximation. Credit: Roskosmos
According to some sources, Persona closely resembled Resurs-DK and Resurs-P satellites. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak
An official depiction of the Soyuz-2 rocket featuring an unidentified low-orbital satellite as a payload. Another depiction of a very similar spacecraft appeared in the Russian military document referring to the Persona project (top). A wide skirt-like structure at the top of the propulsion section could be inherited from the Sapfir satellite, where it was used it to carry special latches for attachment inside the cargo bay of the Buran orbiter. Credit: TsSKB Progress
A rendition of the satellite by the editor of this web combining information from two official images above. Copyright © 2012 Anatoly Zak.
The Soyuz-2 rocket, apparently with the Persona military satellite, during pre-launch processing in Plesetsk in 2008. Credit: Vesti
A group of Russian military and Roskosmos officials visit TsSKB Progress in Samara with an imaging satellite in early stages of assembly visible on the background. Credit: TsSKB Progress
A photo of the propulsion system that apparently belongs to an imaging satellite. Credit: Life News