Russian communications satellitesFor centuries, Russian rulers from Tsars to Bolsheviks faced serious challenges in managing their domain -- the world's largest country spread from Baltic to the Pacific. In the 1960s, with the advent of space technology, the Soviet government for the first time had an opportunity to almost instantly reach vast regions of the country with telephone communications and TV signals. In fact, for many Soviet citizens inhabiting rural areas of Russia, the satellite TV was the only evidence of the Space Age.
The Soviet modernist design of the Orbita receiving station intended for the distribution of TV signals from Molniya satellites throughout vast rural areas of the USSR and its satellite states.
In 1961, OKB-1, the organization that built the world's first manned spacecraft, also started the development of a communications satellite. Although the Space Age had barely began, the idea of using orbital spacecraft for providing communications was not new. Arthur Clark, more famous for his sci-fi novels, is also credited for a prophetically accurate description of satellite communications in 1945. In his memo to the British Interplanetary Society, Clark wrote that if the spacecraft reaches an altitude of 35,880 kilometers over the Equator, it would need 24 hours to make a complete circle, and thus it will appear "hanging" to an observer from Earth. As a result, three spacecraft evenly spread in such orbit 120 degrees apart, could "hear" signals from anywhere on the planet.
Although western developers overwhelmingly adopted 24-hour (geostationary) orbit for practical missions of communications satellites, Soviet engineers chose a different approach. The limitations of available rocket power prompted OKB-1 to seek a less energy-hungry orbit suitable for communications. Resulting studies came up with a hugely elongated ellipse, whose apogee, or the highest point, would be over the northern hemisphere, providing but continuous "view" of the Russian territory. Such trajectories became known as Molniya (Lighting) orbits, after a long-lasting series of satellites the USSR had introduced in 1965. In 1967, Molniya satellite network became a basis for the Orbita TV network. The first test transmission of TV broadcast from Moscow's Ostankino TV station to the Soviet Far East was made at the beginning of November 1967. The system was declared operational on November 7 of the same year, the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
Soviet geostationary satellites
As the Proton rocket came out of age at the beginning of the 1970s, its four-stage configuration born in the heat of the Moon Race was given a new job of opening a window for the USSR to the geostationary orbit. In March 1974, the Proton delivered the first Soviet satellite, Molniya-M1S, into the 24-hour orbit. In 1975 and 1976, a series of Raduga (Rainbow) and Ekran (Screen) satellites entered service over the Equator, providing communications for the Soviet military and civilian institutions. In 1979, a more capable Gorizont (Horizon) satellite was inaugurated.
In the meantime, NPO Energia, looking for the passengers for its super-heavy Energia rocket, concieved a 18-ton communications platform, the largest communications satellite ever proposed. The project had never gone beyond paper stage.
Post-Soviet satellite communications
From mid-1960s and until the collapse of the USSR in 1991, NPO PM development center in a Siberian town of Zheleznogorsk, which inherited the Molniya project from OKB-1, had remained a sole provider of communications spacecraft for the nation. However, space funding crunch of the post-Soviet period, bred the competition from other Russian space enterprises who saw potentially lucrative market in the field of satellite communications. During the 1990s, NPO PM struggled to modernize an obsolete and underpowered fleet of Russian comsats.
The company's first communications satellite, Gals No. 11, developed exclusively for civilian use and commissioned by a non-military organizationwas launched in 1994. The spacecraft was designed to broadcast TV signals in international frequencies. NPO PM built an automated checkout facility for testing the spacecraft at the assembly plant and the launch site. The control of the satellite was conducted from NPO PM's own ground station in Zheleznogorsk. With a life span of five years, the first satellite functioned for 7.5 years and the second and last Gals No. 12 launched on Nov. 17, 1995, survived for 8.5 years. A base platform of the Gals spacecraft became a precursor for the Ekspress series. In the meantime, many orbital positions the country reserved for its birds remained empty and were under threat of expiration under the international law.
As of beginning of 2015, the Russian communications satellite capacity was estimated at 22 percent from the planned volume in 2025. At the same time, personal satellite communications were estimated only at 2.7 percent. At the time, Russia had 24 communications satellites in orbit and had a plan to have 42 such satellites by 2020. (744)
During 1990s, the Russian firm RKK Energia developed a new series of satellites to provide commercial broadcasting and telephone services. Ironically, the company pioneered satellite communications in the USSR before focusing almost entirely on the human space flight in mid-1960s.
Express AM program
Instead, NPO PM turned to western subcontractors for the supply of advanced communications payloads, in the effort to extend orbital life, power and communication capacity of the Express family. As of 2004, Russian Satellite Communications Organization planned to complete an orbital constellation of five Express-AM satellites in 2005. At the time the company oversaw a constellation of 15 satellites.
The NPO PM also won an order from a the European conglomerate Eutelsat to build Siberian-European Satellite, or Sesat, which became the first communications spacecraft built by a Russian prime contractor for a Western customer.
In 2009, RKK Energia reached an agreement to build an Angosat communications satellite carrying up to 40 C- and Ku-band transponders for the Ministry of Telecommunications and Informational Technologies of Angola. After preliminary studies, the practical implementation of the project reportedly started in December 2012.
On July 10, 2012, during the Farnborough air show, Russia's ISS Reshetnev signed a memorandum of intentions with the Armenian government for the development of the communications satellite for this former Soviet republic. The spacecraft would be based on ISS Reshetnev's standard Ekspress-1000N platform and provide a 15-year lifespan for the mission. The project however faced a commercial hurdle, because of particular orbital positions registered by the Armenian government.
In April 2009, the Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko announced the government plans to launch a communications satellite by Sept. 1, 2011. After some consideration of a domestically built satellite, the contract for the development of Lybid (Swan) spacecraft was awarded to ISS Reshetnev in Russia. The company based the Lybid on its Ekspress-1000NT platform with a projected life span of 15 years. Lybid would be equipped with 30 Ku-band transponders.
As of November 2012, the launch of the spacecraft was expected in December 2013. The payload module was delivered from ISS Reshetnev to Canada's MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, MDA, by the beginning of 2013. However in November 2013, ISS Reshetnev announced that the company was still conducting integration between satellite's platform and its payload module. Upon the completion of the procedure in December 2013, the company planned to start electrical, thermal and vacuum, mechanical and high-frequency tests of the satellite. Then, in the first half of 2014, the Russian annexation of Crimea threatened to derail the project. In its wake, Ukraine had to move its ground control for the satellite from Crimea to Kiev. By the beginning of August 2014, ISS Reshetnev had to put a fully assembled Lybid into storage. Still, in the same month, the Ukrainian space agency reported that the Zenit-2SB-80 launch vehicle and its Fregat upper stage had been manufactured and the state enterprise GP Ukrkosmos had been building the mission control center for the satellite in Kiev. In addition, a command and tracking station for the project would be deployed near the Ukrainian capital, the agency said. The announcement said that all assets would be ready for launch of Lybid in the fourth quarter of 2014.
In February 2013, the head of ISS Reshetnev told the Interfax new agency, that the company had submitted bid for a tender of the Brazilian government to build a communications satellite.
On May 24, 2013, Russia's State Commission on Radio Frequencies announced an allocation of a radio bandwidth for the Braslet (Bracelet) mobile communications network. According to Decision No. 13-18-06-9, two positions in the geostationary orbit at 69 and 138 degrees East longitude would be reserved for satellites developed by EA SAT.
Following the deployment of the Meridian constellation during 2000s, the new draft of the Russian Federal Space Program, covering the time period from 2016 to 2025, called for the development of the new-generation Ellips (Russian for "ellipse") communications network for secure mobile communications. Like Meridian, Ellips satellites would be deployed in highly elliptical orbits (a.k.a. "Molniya orbits"). As of 2014, the Ellipse constellation was expected to include four 2.5-ton satellites.
In addition to encrypted mobile communications, the Ellips satellites will support air-traffic control and traditional fixed communications. Reflecting its dual (civilian and military) application, the Ellips project would be funded jointly by the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, and by the Russian Ministry of Defense at a price tag of 65.6 billion rubles to develop and deploy the constellation. (708)
Although Russia managed to avoid a complete degradation of its satellite communications assets at the turn of the 21st century, the nation's chief operator of space communications continued struggling well into the 2010s, representatives of the Russian Satellite Communications Organization, GPKS, told the Izvestiya daily. In order to preserve the domestic manufacturing base in the field of satellite communications, the Russian government had to resort to protectionism in the face of the strong foreign competition. In the fall of 2008, at the conclusion of his meeting with leaders of the industry in Krasnoyarsk, Prime-Minister Vladimir Putin set a requirement for at least a 15-percent cost saving for foreign communications satellites bidding to replace its Russian equivalents. Although no formal protectionist laws had been on the books, Russian Satellite Communications Organization, GPKS, felt pressured to choose domestic satellite developers over foreign.
During 2000s, GKPS' Russian-built satellites had an average life span of 5.5 years, while they would have to work at least six years to turn profit. By 2012, eight out of 11 satellites which GPKS operated would go out of business within two-three years. Around the same time period, satellites built in Europe and US were designed to work 10-15 years. In its defense, ISS Reshetnev, which built practically entire GPKS fleet, said that in 2000, the operator had asked it to assemble three Ekspress-A satellites under an emergency schedule. Even then, satellites designed to work for five years had managed to survive for a decade, ISS Reshetnev said. Still, the company admitted a premature failure of at least two of its satellites. ISS Reshetnev also blamed underfunding during 1999-2003 for the need to purchase many satellite components graded as "Industry" rather than "Space," which would certify them for reliable operation in orbit.
In the meantime, GPKS blamed low quality of Russian-built spacecraft for its miniscule 3 percent share of the world's satellite communications business during 2000s. Due to numerous technical problems, the company had been hit with fines and had seen its reputation plummet, GPKS representative told Izvestiya daily. According to the company, the satellite developer had no obligation to replace failed vehicles, pointing instead to the insurers.
By May 2012, GPKS essentially rebelled against the government protectionism, publicly announcing its plans to turn to foreign satellites. In 2000s, GPKS had already ordered Ekspress AM-4 satellite from Europe's EADS Astrium, however the spacecraft was lost in a botched launch of the Proton rocket in 2011. In the effort to increase its worldwide market share to as high as 8.5 percent, which would make it the world's 5th company in the field, GPKS apparently decided to let Western developers to build at least part of its new nine-bird fleet during 2012-2015. However, the head of ISS Reshetnev warned that the move would push Russian satellite communications manufacturers "into the corner." (561)
The Russian annexation of Crimea at the beginning of 2014 could mean an unexpected reversal of fortune for the beleaguered Russian developers of communications satellites. A potential ban on the import of Western technologies to Russia gave a new powerful impetus to the Kremlin's effort to preserve and modernize its endangered comsat industry. By the end of April, as many as four Russian orders for new communications satellites slated to go to Western developers were about to make a U-turn back to domestic manufacturers, industry sources said. Not surprisingly, this news was met with euphoria at ISS Reshetnev, the nation's key developer of communications satellites.
However, this unexpected "silver lining" on the breakdown of economic ties between Russia and the West could also have pitfalls of its own. In the short term, the widening embargo on the import of technology to Russia could push back or even derail domestic development projects, which grew dependent on foreign components. In the long term, the absence of competition could also reduce the incentive to innovate among domestic developers.
Read (and see) much more about many other space developments in Russia
Overview of Russian communications satellites:
*formerly NPO PM;
Written and illustrated by Anatoly Zak
Last update: April 23, 2020
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The Molniya spacecraft pioneered satellite communications in the USSR. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak
Molniya-1 satellite developed at NPO PM (now ISS Reshetnev) was used in the Orbita network. Credit: ISS Reshetnev
Molniya-2 satellite was used for government communications via Orbita-2 ground stations. Credit: ISS Reshetnev
Ekran satellites established regular communications across USSR in the geostationary orbit with the last spacecraft (No. 31) launched on May 6, 1988. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak
An Ekran communications satellite lifts off on a Proton rocket.
The Gonets spacecraft operating in the low orbit would be used for "store and dump" communucations. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak
The first Gals communications satellite was launched in 1994. Credit: ISS Reshetnev
In 1999, RKK Energia returned to launches of communications satellites, whose development the organization once pioneered. Despite almost a three-decade break in building such technology, one of Yamal satellites remained operational in orbit until Aug. 9, 2010. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak
An unconfirmed design of the Garpun satellite. (383) The drawing might not be accurate, as data relay satellites typically feature large communications antennas, as for example, the American Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, TDRS, below:
A scale model of the Ekspress-MD satellite. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak
A concept of a prospective spacecraft for communications and broadcasting, PKS SV, presented by RKK Energia in 2009. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak
A concept of global communications system using nuclear powered satellites with large deployable antennas. Credit: RKK Energia