Spooky world of military satellites
A vast majority of satellites that the Soviet Union had launched from 1961 to 1991 carried out military missions. Publicly, however, the USSR denied the very existence of the military space program. Not surprisingly, numerous military space projects were not publicly known until the last decade of the 20th century.
At the beginning of the 1960s, in order to provide a public "camouflage" for its expanding military space program, the Soviet government adopted a policy of assigning Kosmos names to all military satellites reaching orbit. In addition, any non-military payloads, whose mission was supposed to remain secret, were also lumped together with the Kosmos series. First of all, they included failed missions, since the Kremlin could not publicly admit any failure in the prestige-driven space program. For example, a number of Soviet planetary probes, which had reached the Earth orbit but then failed to depart to their deep-space destinations, ended up in the Kosmos series. Also, some test missions, which had flown before their programs were publicly announced, also became the part of the Kosmos series.
During the Soviet period, it was up to independent observers around the world to unscramble the puzzle of the Kosmos series. Space sleuths based their analysis on a combination of available official data and the amateur satellite tracking information.
The post-Soviet Russia adopted "western" approach to public information about classified missions -- military launches would be identified as such and they would receive traditional Kosmos names with a respective number. Civilian launches would no longer be classified.
On May 7, 1992, a presidential decree reorganized remaining military space units into Military Space Forces or VKS, merging them with Russian Strategic Missile Forces, RVSN. However Russian military assets in orbit continuously degraded during the 1990s, as the Ministry of Defense could not afford to launch new spacecraft to replace aging and failing satellites. The situation started changing to the better in the first decade of the 21th century, as the Russian economy had improved. In 2001, space forces were again split from RVSN and renamed Space Forces of Russia, or KVR. In the spring of 2006, President Vladimir Putin said that Russian military budget would increase by 20 percent in the coming year, while the official media promised restoration of the Russian military satellite constellation by 2008. The process continued in the 2010s, with Ministry of Defense planning to acquire five spacecraft during 2011. By 2012, 85 percent of Russian military satellites were developed at ISS Reshetnev in Zheleznogorsk. According to the company, 83 of its satellites were functioning in orbit, as of November 1. (613) In 2016, the company put the number of its satellites functioning in orbit at 95.
In 2009, another phase of reorganization of the Russian military space program was completed, with new entities added, others reduced and an overall organizational structure optimized, Oleg Ostapenko, the commander of Space forces told Russian press. At the time, Russian space forces included:
On May 6, 2014, Russia launched a routine spy satellite in the Kobalt-M series. However to the surprise of Russian space watchers, it was designated Kosmos-2495, even though the previously launched military payload was believed to be Kosmos-2491. Unless it was an error, three military payloads were "missing" from the record!
Initially, the prevailing theory was that the two of the missing numbers were assigned to a pair of radar calibration spheres released in December 2013, during the first test launch of the Soyuz-2-1v rocket. The third missing number -- Kosmos-2491 -- was believed to be associated with an object detected by Western radar after the launch of three Strela/Rodnik satellites on Dec. 25, 2013. The story was repeated on May 23, 2014, when another trio of Rodniks had been launched with a mysterious "add-on" payload. Its maneuvers in the following weeks bewildered watchers of the Russian space program.
When the GLONASS-M No. 55 was launched on June 14, 2014, under name Kosmos-1500, Russian military essentially confirmed the existence of previously unannounced military payloads. It now looked certain that the May 23 fragment had indeed been Kosmos-2499. The purpose of Kosmos-2491 and Kosmos-2499 "ghost" satellites remained a mystery.
On November 17, 2015, the Russian Ministry of Defense detailed the use of space assets in support of Moscow's military campaign in Syria, which has began on September 30. According to the Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, a total of 10 spacecraft were involved, including civilian remote-sensing satellites. He likely referred to satellites like Resurs-P and Kanopus. Orbits of some spacecraft had to be adjusted to facilitate their coverage of the conflict zone. The orbital assets were used to accelerate the identification of targets and to increase accuracy in determining their coordinates, Gerasimov said.
The visual presentation released by the Ministry of Defense did not specify particular satellites involved in the operation, but some assumptions can be made based on known data on Russia's currently operational spacecraft:
On December 3, 2015, the Russian Ministry of Defense released aerial and satellite imagery, to prove involvement of the Turkish government in illicit oil trade with islamic terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq. Officials did not identify the satellites that had produced the imagery, but quoted October 18 and November 14, 2015, as the dates when space-based photos had been taken.
Russian military officials specifically stated that space reconnaissance had enabled to establish that oil trucks from terrorist-controlled areas head to Turkish ports for further shipment overseas. Satellites also helped to detect as many as 1,720 oil trucks stationed primarily off road on improvised parking areas, Russian military officials said. A satellite was also credited for obtaining images showing up to 3,200 trucks heading from terrorist-controlled areas in Iraq to an oil refinery in Turkey.
According to the Russian military, a series of images taken by an unidentified satellite on October 18, 2015, revealed up to 1,700 oil trucks parked off road.
IN THE UNIFORM: The overview of the unmanned military spacecraft developed in the former USSR:
Posted: 2001 Jan. 26
Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to separate military space units from their subordination to the Strategic Missile Forces, RVSN, sources in Moscow said. Putin announced his intention to restructure RVSN during a closed-door meeting of the security council in the last week of January 2001. According to the Russian press, all space and space defense units of the Ministry of Defense will form a separate type of armed forces.
2001 May 29, 21:55 Moscow Time (1:55 p.m. EDT): The Soyuz U rocket launched a military satellite, apparently the Yantar or Kobalt imaging spacecraft, from Plesetsk's Pad 4 at Site 43. According to official information from the Russian Strategic Missile Forces, the spacecraft successfully reached orbit at 22:04 Moscow Time. The payload announced as Kosmos-2377. In preparation for the launch, the Soyuz U rocket arrived to the launch pad on May 28 at 10:20 Moscow Time. (Energy supply problems in Plesetsk threatened to delay the launch). According to the data from NORAD, the Kosmos-2377 entered 165 x 358-kilometer orbit with the inclination 67.1 degrees, which matches the orbit parameters for the Kobalt/Yantar-type satellites. (Data via Jonathan McDowell).
2001 June 8, 19:12 Moscow Time (11:12 p.m. EDT): The Kosmos-3M launcher returned to flight with the successful launch of a military satellite. The two-stage rocket blasted off from Russia's Northern Cosmodrome in Plesetsk at 20:12 Moscow Time (12:12 p.m. EDT) on June 8, according to the Russian Space Forces. The spacecraft, announced as Kosmos-2378, successfully reached the orbit. The parameters of its orbit (1,023 by 981 kilometers, inclination 82.9 degrees toward the Equator) suggest that the satellite belongs to the Tsyklon-B navigation and communications network, comprised of the Parus ("Sail") spacecraft. Russia's missile-carrying submarines and surface battleships use the Parus spacecraft to determine their exact position in the open sea -- the information critical for the high-precision warfare.
2001 July 20: The Molniya-M rocket successfully delivered a Molniya-3K (a.k.a. Molniya-3-51) satellite, for military communications after the launch at 00:17 UTC from Pad 4 at Site 43 in in Plesetsk. The latest launch was earlier expected in June. The spacecraft was predicted to reenter the Earth's atmosphere on Dec. 19, 2016.
2001 Aug. 24, 23:35 Moscow Time: A Proton launched a Kosmos-2379 military payload (An 71Kh6 No. 7124 early warning satellite.) The mission was delayed for 24 hours by technical problems.
2001 Oct. 25: Russian Space Forces launched a military communications satellite today from its Northern Cosmodrome in Plesetsk. A four-stage Molniya-M rocket blasted off from the Launch Pad 3 at Site 43 of the Cosmodrome at 15:34 Moscow Time (7:34 a.m. EDT) and ten minutes later successfully delivered Molniya (Lightning) spacecraft into the initial orbit. The fourth stage of the launcher then expected to fire again to push the spacecraft into its final highly elliptical orbit with the inclination 62.8 degrees toward the Equator. The launch was previously scheduled for October 11.
2001 Dec. 1: The Proton-K rocket blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, at 21:04 Moscow Time (1:04 p.m. EST), carrying two standard Uragan ("Hurricane") spacecraft and a brand-new Uragan-M satellite for the GLONASS network -- the Russian equivalent of the US Global Positioning System, GPS. The introduction of newer Uragan-M satellites promises to save the cost of operating the GLONASS network, thanks to the spacecrafts longer operational lifetime. As of November 27, only six Uragan satellites, launched last year and in 1998, were functioning in orbit.
2001 Dec. 21: After a two-day delay, a Ukrainian-built Tsyklon-2 booster successfully delivered a Russian electronic intelligence spacecraft on Friday. A 182-ton two-stage rocket blasted off from Site 90 in Baikonur at 07:00 Moscow Time on December 21. The rocket was carrying the US-PU satellite built by KB Arsenal development center in St. Petersburg and designed to provide electronic intelligence and missile guidance information for the Russian Navy. The rocket successfully inserted the spacecraft into a transfer orbit with the apogee of 400 kilometers. The satellite, officially designated Kosmos-2383, was then expected to use its own propulsion system to reach a final orbit around 07:48 Moscow Time on December 21.
2001 Dec. 27 (EST): In the last space launch of 2001, a Ukrainian-built rocket delivered a sextet of communications satellites into orbit after an early-morning blastoff from Russias northern cosmodrome in Plesetsk. The three-stage Tsyklon-3 booster took off from Launch Complex 32 in Plesetsk at 06:24 Moscow Time on December 28. The rocket was carrying six satellites, including three Gonets D1 (Messenger) spacecraft intended to replenish a low-orbital communications network. Remaining three satellites onboard the rocket belonged to the Russian Ministry of Defense and in an accordance with the standard practice for the military spacecraft were identified as Kosmos-2384, -2385 and -2386.
2002 Feb. 25: Russia launched its first space mission in 2002, delivering a secret satellite into low Earth orbit from Plesetsk. The Soyuz-U rocket blasted off from Russias northern launch facility at 20:26 Moscow Time, after a 2-hour-7-minute delay caused by technical problems. It was 1666th mission of the veteran rocket based on the R-7 ICBM. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and Director of the Russian Aviation and Space Agency Yuri Koptev personally viewed the launch in Plesetsk. Some nine minutes after the blastoff, the spacecraft, officially announced as Kosmos-2387, reached the orbit. The Kosmos-2387 apparently belongs to the Yantar family of imaging reconnaissance satellites, routinely launched from Plesetsk. Total 10 launches are planned from Plesetsk during 2002, according to Russian space officials. Six space launches took place from the site, during 2001.
2002 April 2: Russian Space Forces launched a military satellite on Tuesday from their Northern Cosmodrome in Plesetsk. A four-stage Molniya-M rocket blasted off at 02:07 Moscow Time on April 2 and ten minutes later successfully delivered a classified military payload, most likely Oko-type early-warning satellite, to the initial Earth orbit. The upper stage of the launch vehicle then expected to maneuver the satellite into highly elliptical orbit.
2002 May 28: The Kosmos-3M booster delivered a navigation satellite after the launch from Russia's northern cosmodrome in Plesetsk. The payload, officially identified as Kosmos-2389, apparently belongs to the Tsikada series of navigation satellites.
2002 July 8: The Kosmos-3M booster delivered two classified satellites after a successful launch from Russia's northern cosmodrome in Plesetsk. The launch took place at 10:36 Moscow Time. The payload was officially identified only as Kosmos-2390 and Kosmos-2391, however the Russian press reported that the spacecraft belong to the series of the Strela communications network, providing secret communications for the Russian authorities.
2002 July 25: The Proton booster launched a classified satellite from Site 81 in Baikonur Cosmodrome, officially announced as Kosmos-2392. The launch took place at 19:13 Moscow Time (11:13 a.m. EST). The spacecraft was expected to separate from the upper stage of the launch vehicle at 21:27 Moscow Time (1:27 p.m. EST), after reaching highly elliptical orbit around the Earth. Statements made by the Russian space officials confirmed that the payload belonged to the Araks (Arkon) family of spacecraft developed by NPO Lavochkin. The company advertised the satellite as a dual-purpose system, designed for military and civilian observations of the Earth surface. This was believed to be the second launch of the spacecraft of this type. The first Araks satellite was launched in June 1997.
2002 Nov. 28: The Kosmos-3M booster delivered Algerian and Russian satellites into a sun-synchronous orbit, after the launch from Russia's northern cosmodrome in Plesetsk. A two-stage vehicle blasted off at 09:07 Moscow Time on Nov. 28, 2002, carrying AlSat-1 remote-sensing satellite for the Algerian government and the Mozhaets experimental satellite, designed for the training of the Russian military academy students. According to the Russian Space Forces, both satellites successfully reached a 701 x 680-kilometer orbit.
2002 Dec. 24: Russian Space Forces launched a military satellite on Tuesday from their Northern Cosmodrome in Plesetsk. A four-stage Molniya-M rocket blasted off at 15:20 Moscow Time on December 24, 2002, and ten minutes later successfully delivered a classified military payload, officially identified as Kosmos-2393, to the initial Earth orbit. The spacecraft is most likely the Oko-type early-warning satellite.
2002 Dec. 25: The Proton-K rocket blasted off from Pad 23 at Site 81 in Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, at 10:37 Moscow Time, carrying three Uragan-M ("Hurricane") spacecraft for the GLONASS network -- the Russian equivalent of the US Global Positioning System, GPS. According to the official reports, the payload successfully reached the initial parking orbit at 10:48 Moscow Time. After additional maneuvers, trio of 1,425-kilogram satellites were to separate from the upper stage of the launch vehicle in their final orbit between 14:35 and 15:11 Moscow Time. This was the first launch of the Proton rocket with the Block DM upper stage, after similar vehicle failed to deliver a commercial communications satellite into its final orbit on Nov. 26, 2002.
2003 April 2: Russia launched a communications satellite to be used by the countrys armed forces. According to Russian Space Forces, the four-stage Molniya-M rocket blasted off from Russias northern cosmodrome in Plesetsk on April 2, 2003, at 05:53 Moscow Time, carrying a Molniya-1T spacecraft. The satellite separated from the fourth stage of the launch vehicle at 06:50 Moscow Time, after entering a highly-elliptical orbit around the Earth. At 07:38 Moscow Time, the ground control station of the Russian Space Forces established contact with the spacecraft.
2003 April 24: The Proton-K rocket blasted off from Pad 24 at Site 81 in Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, at 08:23:13 Moscow Time, carrying a classified military payload. According to the Russian Space Forces, VKS, the vehicle successfully reached an initial parking orbit at 8:33 Moscow Time. The Proton's upper stage then was expected to fire twice to deliver the satellite, designated Kosmos-2397, into the final orbit. The separation between the payload and the upper stage was scheduled for 15:00 Moscow Time on April 24. The Proton rockets are routinely used for the delivery of communications and early warning satellites for the Russian military.
2003 June 4: The Russian military launched a classified payload from country's northern cosmodrome in Plesetsk on June 4, 2003. The Kosmos-3 booster blasted off at 23:23 Moscow Time and the spacecraft was expected to reach its final orbit at 00:27 Moscow Time on June 5, 2003. The payload was officially identified as Kosmos-2398. Although no information on the purpose of the spacecraft had been released, it is known that the Kosmos-3 booster is routinely used to deliver low-orbital navigation and communication satellites for the Russian military.
2003 June 20: Russia successfully launched a military communications satellite from its northern cosmodrome in Plesetsk. According to Russian Space Forces, a four-stage Molniya-M rocket with Block ML upper stage blasted off at midnight Moscow Time on June 20, 2003, carrying a 1,600-kilogram Molniya-type spacecraft, apparently its newest Molniya-3 version based on a Molniya-2M (11F637) platform. This has been the second launch of the spacecraft in the Molniya family since April 2, 2003. The launch was earlier anticipated on June 19.
2003 Aug. 12: The Soyuz rocket delivered a classified military payload, possibly a Neman-type imaging surveillance satellite, after a successful launch from Kazakhstan. The Soyuz U launch vehicle, blasted off from Pad 6 at Site 31 in Baikonur Cosmodrome at 18:20 Moscow Time on August 12, 2003. According to the Starsem venture, marketing the Soyuz family of launchers in the West, the latest mission was a success. The payload received an official designation Kosmos-2399.
2003 Aug. 12: The Russian rocket delivered a classified military payload, apparently a Don-type low-resolution imaging surveillance satellite, after a successful launch from Kazakhstan.
The Soyuz U launch vehicle, blasted off from Pad 6 at Site 31 in Baikonur Cosmodrome at 18:20 Moscow Time on August 12, 2003. According to the Starsem venture, marketing the Soyuz family of launchers in the West, the latest mission was a success. The payload received an official designation Kosmos-2399. However, after only three months in orbit, in November 2003, the US radar detected five fragments in place of Kosmos-2399. It was thought that satellite either broke up or was intentionally destroyed after onboard failure. Moscow-based Kommersant daily reported on November 25, 2003 that after the loss of the Don spacecraft, Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian Chief of Staff (GRU) was left without a single surveillance satellite in orbit. The newspaper said that the mission of the Don satellite was to replace the Araks satellite, which also failed prematurely in the summer of 2003 after only one year in orbit.
Hardly a day after the reports about the problems onboard Kosmos-2399 had surfaced, the Russian Space Forces denied the report about the loss of the spacecraft. Kommersant newspaper later claimed that during the jettisoning of one of eight reentry capsules designed to return information to Earth, the capsule released its surveillance film into space. "Flickering" of the film in space apparently caused three signatures on the radar, and together with the satellite and the capsule resulted in the registering of five fragments in orbit. The story continued in mid-December 2003, when 12 more fragments were detected separating from the main body of the spacecraft, renewing speculations about the destruction of the satellite. The latest debris appeared to originate in the morning Dec. 9, 2003, as the spacecraft flew over Russia, hinting that satellite might had been destroyed by a command from the ground.
2003 Dec. 5: After years of delays, the Strela booster flew its first orbital mission from Baikonur Cosmodrome. The vehicle blasted off from the underground silo facility at Site 132 at 09:00 Moscow Time on December 5, 2003. The rocket then successfully delivered its payload -- a mockup of the Kondor-E surveillance satellite -- into a 404 by 465-kilometer orbit with the inclination 67 degrees. However, the press service of the Russian strategic missile forces mistakenly identified the mission as a sub-orbital training launch of the ballistic missile and the official Russian media blindly disseminated the report.
Converted from the retired UR-100NUTTKh ballistic missile, the Strela is intended to deliver a variety of lightweight military payloads developed by NPO Mashinostroenia. As of 2001, the first test launch of the Strela booster from Baikonur was expected in the second or third quarter of 2002, however lack of funding kept delaying the mission. Operational launches of the Strela booster will be conducted from the converted silo complex of the UR-100NUTTKh missile in Svobodny in the Russian Far East.
2003 Dec. 10: Russia launched three satellites to replenish the nation's GLONASS global navigation network. The Proton rocket with a Briz-M upper stage blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome on Dec. 10, 2003 at 20:42:12 Moscow Time, carrying two Uragan and one Uragan-M spacecraft. After reaching the orbit, the satellites were designated as Kosmos-2402, -2403 and -2404. The latest launch aimed to replenish semi-military global positioning system, known as GLONASS, the Russian equivalent of the American GPS system. The network was designed to include 24 satellites evenly spread over three orbital planes, however due to lack of funds only eight satellites were functioning before the launch on Dec. 13, 2003. As a result, the GLONASS network was able to provide less accurate navigation then a completed system.
2004 Feb. 18, 10:05:55 Moscow Time (07:05 GMT): The Molniya-M booster successfully launched a military communications satellite from Plesetsk. Upon reaching its final highly elliptical orbit at 11:02 Moscow Time, the payload, (apparently a Molniya-1T No. 100) was initially identified in the Russian sources as Kosmos-2405, however was later renamed Molniya-1T.
2004 March 27: The Proton rocket with Block DM upper stage blasted off from Pad 23 at Site 81 in Baikonur Cosmodrome on March 27, 2004, at 06:30 Moscow Time, carrying a classified payload for the Soviet military. According to the Russian space forces, the spacecraft separated from its upper stage at 13:06 Moscow Time, after apparently successful launch. Traditionally for the military spacecraft, the payload was identified as Kosmos-2406, with no details about its mission officially disclosed. However, several weeks later the spacecraft was renamed Raduga-1 -- a series of communications satellites. According to the Russian press, Lt. General Oleg Gromov, Deputy Commander of Space Forces attended the launch.
2004 May 28: Russia launched a classified military payload to monitor foreign Navy activities. According to the Russian Space Forces, KVR, a Tsyklon-2 rocket carrying a Kosmos-series satellite blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome at 10:00 Moscow Time. Four minutes later, the spacecraft separated from the upper stage of the launch vehicle. The payload was identified as Kosmos-2405.
Tsyklon-2 routinely delivers US-PM electronic intelligence, ELINT, spacecraft designed to detect sea vessels by intercepting their radio signals. The information from the satellites reportedly can be used to navigate Russian cruise missiles toward their targets. This mission was originally expected at the end of 2002. A previous spacecraft of this type was launched in December 2001.
2004 June 10: A long-delayed military mission finally took off successfully from Russian launch site in Kazakhstan. The Zenit-2 rocket carrying a classified payload for the Russian Ministry of Defense blasted off from Site 43 in Baikonur Cosmodrome at 05:28 Moscow Time on June 10, 2004. According to the Russian Space Forces, the spacecraft separated from the upper stage of the launch vehicle at 05:41 Moscow Time and successfully established radio contact with ground control. The payload was designated as Kosmos-2406. (Earlier the same designation was assigned to previous military payload, however it was later renamed, freeing the number.) According to North American Aerospace Defense, NORAD, the Kosmos-2406 entered a 848 by 865-kilometer orbit, with the inclination 71 degrees toward the Equator.
2004 Sept. 24: Russian military launched a new generation of spacecraft designed to track military activities at sea and possibly on land through electronic signal interception, also known as ELINT.
A Soyuz-U rocket blasted off from the nation's Northern Cosmodrome in Plesetsk on September 24, 2004, at 20:50 Moscow Time, and successfully delivered a military payload designated as Kosmos-2410 nine minutes later. A State Commission led by Lt. General Vladimir Popovkin, Commander of the Russian Space Forces, KVR, oversaw the launch. According to KVR, ground control established contact with the spacecraft at 21:01 Moscow Time.
Russian media reported that the payload initiated flight testing of the new generation of spacecraft developed by TsSKB Progress in Samara and OAO MZ Arsenal in St. Petersburg. Such reports support the theory that Russia has finally introduced a long-awaited family of spacecraft, known as Liana, capable of providing electronic intelligence over both land and sea. Previously, Russia had used two specialized systems -- Tselina-2, and US-PM -- to intercept electronic signals from land and sea, respectively.
The new system could also accomplish the long-established political goal of consolidating the development of sensitive intelligence satellites inside Russia. Previously, the nation depended on KB Yuzhnoe in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine for the development and manufacturing of the Tselina-2 spacecraft. In communication with the publisher of this web site, Ted Molczan, a prominent satellite observer, reported that Kosmos-2410 was circling the Earth in a 170 by 360-kilometer orbit, which would be too low for most electronic intelligence purposes and too elliptical for practical radar observations. If Kosmos-2410 will not maneuver into higher circular orbit in the following days, its flight profile would resemble that of a photo-reconnaissance satellite, such as Kobalt.
As it transpired later, the launch delivered the Kobalt-M photo-reconnaissance satellite, the reincarnation of the Yantar-4K2 (11F695) spacecraft. Designed for 120-day life span, the Kobalt-M reportedly experienced problems with its flight control system and its main reentry capsule was sent back to Earth two weeks ahead of schedule on January 10, 2005. However after weeks of search around the landing area near the city of Orenburg in southern Russia, the Russian military concluded that the lander burned up in the atmosphere, as a result of a botched reentry.
2006 May 3: A new imaging satellite renewed Russia's dwindling reconnaissance network. The Soyuz-U rocket blasted off from Pad 2 at Site-16 of the nation's northern cosmodrome in Plesetsk at 21:38 Moscow Time on May 3, 2006. It successfully reached the orbit at 21:47 Moscow Time, releasing a classified payload, officially identified as Kosmos-2420.
A well-informed Kommersant newspaper described the satellite as a modified version of the Yantar-4K2 (11F695) satellite designated Kobalt-M. According to the paper, the launch of the satellite was previously scheduled for the middle of May 2006, however its pre-launch processing was accelerated in light of the decommissioning of the last US-PU electronic intelligence spacecraft -- reportedly the last Russian reconnaissance asset in the Earth orbit. A 6.6-ton Kobalt-M is developed by TsSKB Progress of Samara and mass produced by OAO Arsenal of St Petersburg, the newspaper said. The satellite is designed for 120 days of orbital operations. Kommersant predicted that upon the completion of its mission, Kobalt-M would be replaced by the Don spysat, also known as Orlets-1.
The NORAD radar found Kosmos-2420 in the 167 by 337-kilometer orbit with the inclination 67.15 degrees toward the Equator, which is consistent with the orbital parameters of the Kobalt and Yantar-4KS-type satellites. It received international designation 2006-017A.
2006 July 21: Russia launched a military payload from its Northern Cosmodrome. A four-stage Molniya rocket lifted off from Plesetsk, carrying a military satellite, officially identified as Kosmos-2422. According to the official Russian sources, the payload successfully separated from the fourth stage of the launch vehicle at 09:16 Moscow Time. The mission most likely carried the Oko early-warning satellite, normally injected into highly elliptical orbit, where it works in conjunction with geostationary early warning satellites launched by the Proton rockets from Baikonur Cosmodrome.
2006 Sept. 14: The Soyuz-U rocket blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome's Site 31 at 17:41 Moscow Time on September 14, 2006. The launch vehicle carried a classified military payload, which successfully reached the orbit, according to the representative of the Russian Space Forces, KVR, Alexei Kuznetsov, quoted by RIA Novosti news agency.
According to Ivan Safronov, the expert on the military space systems, this mission marked the eighth and likely last launch of the 17F12 Don reconnaissance satellite, also known as Orlets. The spacecraft of this type, first introduced on July 18, 1989, apparently provides wide-angle detailed images, which are stored on multiple rolls of film and then can parachute to Earth on demand onboard as many as eight retrievable film capsules. The Don spacecraft was to be replaced by a new generation satellites, which would be capable of transmitting high-resolution imagery over radio. The mission received official designation Kosmos-2423.After around two months in orbit, on November 18, 2006, independent observers detected multiple debris in place of the satellite, apparently resulted from a self-destruct command. However, on November 20, 2006, information service of the Russian space forces denied reports that the spacecraft malfunctioned. According to the space forces, the satellite has completed its mission and conducted braking maneuver to reenter the Earth atmosphere on commands from the ground. Independent observes believed that all eight retrievable capsules onboard the satellite were released in the course of the mission.
2007 June 7: The Russian military launched its first military payload Thursday, from nation's northern cosmodrome. The Soyuz-U rocket lifted off from Plesetsk on June 7, 2007, at 22:00 Moscow Time, (18:00 GMT) carrying a classified military payload, identified as Kosmos-2427 in the official Russian sources.
Based on information from the US radar, the satellite was circling the Earth in the 180 by 360-kilometer orbit with the inclination 67.15 degrees toward the Equator. Orbit parameters match those of optical reconnaissance satellites, identified in the open Russian press as Kobalt-M. According to various sources, the satellite is designed for 60-120-day operational life span and uses reentry capsules to deliver film with the images of the Earth surface.
Following the previous launch of the Kobalt-M satellite, which took place on May 3, 2006, the commander of space forces, KVR, Col-Gen Vladimir Popovkin, promised to launch one satellite of this type annually.
In the aftermath of the latest launch, emergency crews on Russia's Yamal Peninsula were searching for the stage of the Soyuz U rocket, the Russian official news agency ITAR-TASS reported. The stage reportedly impacted 60-80 kilometers from the settlement of Yar-Sale, as planned. On the eve of the launch, 65 people were evacuated from this sparsely populated area.
2007 Oct. 23: Russian space forces launched a military satellite Tuesday from Northern Cosmodrome in Plesetsk.
A four-stage Molniya-M rocket lifted off on October 23, 2007, at 08:39 Moscow Time, carrying a classified military payload into orbit. After reaching the initial parking orbit, the 2BL upper stage of the launch vehicle was then expected to maneuver the satellite into highly elliptical orbit.
According to the official statement, Russian space forces successfully established communications with the new satellite at 10:15 Moscow Time. In accordance with a traditional practice for the military payloads, the spacecraft was officially identified only as Kosmos-2430. However it is known that over the years Molniya rocket had been used to deliver Oko ("eye") series of satellites, providing Russian military with the early warning information about missile launches around the world.
2007 Dec. 9: Russia successfully delivered a classified payload for the nation's armed forces, the official media reported, likely a Raduga-1 comsat.
2008 June 27: The Proton-K with Block DM upper stage rocket blasted off Site 81 in Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, on June 27, 2008, at 03:59 Moscow Time, the official Russian ITAR-TASS news agency reported. According to the Russian Space Forces, VKS, the launch went as scheduled and at 04:06:30 Moscow Time, the vehicle established radio-contact with ground control. The separation between the payload and the upper stage was scheduled for 10:37 Moscow Time on June 27, 2008.
Although the nature of the payload in this mission was not officially announced prior to launch, the Proton rockets were long known to deliver two types of military satellites: the communications and early-warning satellites. Both are delivered into geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers above the Earth surface. Following this launch, however, the semi-official Interfax news agency quoted Aleksei Kuznetsov, secretary of Defense Minister confirming that the purpose of the launch was to replenish the SPRN early-warning system. The network is known to employ 71Kh6 satellites equipped with infra-red sensors to detect exhaust plumes of missiles.
2008 July 27: After a one-day delay by technical problems, the Soyuz-2-1b rocket flew its first mission from Plesetsk with a 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. According to unofficial reports, the satellite belonged to the new Persona series of optical photo-reconnaissance satellites.
2008 Nov. 14: Russian military launched a secret payload from the nation's northern launch site, official media said. The Soyuz-U rocket lifted off from Plesetsk on Nov. 14, 2008, at 18:50 Moscow Time and successfully delivered its payload into orbit nine minutes later, the representative of the Russian space forces said. The spacecraft was officially identified as Kosmos-2445. It is believed to be Kobalt-M optical reconnaissance satellite developed by TsSKB Progress in Samara and manufactured by KB Arsenal in St. Petersburg. The spacecraft was deorbited on Feb. 23, 2009.
2008 Dec. 2: Russian military launched a military payload from the nation's northern launch site, the official media reported. The Molniya-M rocket lifted off from Plesetsk Cosmodrome on Dec. 2, 2008, at 08:00 Moscow Time. The classified payload received an official name Kosmos-2446. A Western radar detected the satellite in the 518 by 39,048-kilometer orbit with an inclination 62.835 degrees toward the Equator. The spacecraft is believed to be an Oko early-warning satellite.
2009 April 29: Russia launched an imaging reconnaissance spacecraft from its northern cosmodrome. According to the official Russian media, the Soyuz-U rocket lifted off from launch Pad 2 at Site 16 in Plesetsk on April 29, 2009, at 20:58 Moscow Time, carrying a classified satellite designated Kosmos-2450. The spacecraft successfully established contact with ground control at 21:08 Moscow Time, a representative of the Russia's space forces said. Based on the fact the the satellite circled the Earth in the 179 by 360-kilometer orbit with the inclination 62.1 degrees, it was believed to be the fourth satellite in the Kobalt-M series.
2009 Nov. 21: First Lotos-S takes off. Russia launched a classified payload, apparently introducing a new family of electronic intelligence satellites.
2010 Sept. 8: Russia launched a converted ballistic missile with a satellite trio from the nation's northern launch site. The Rockot booster lifted off from Plesetsk Cosmodrome on Sept. 8, 2010, at 07:30 Moscow Time. The vehicle carried a Gonets-M No. 12 spacecraft for the Gonets-D1M network, along with two classified payloads - Kosmos-2467 and 2468 -- possibly belonging to the Rodnik series of military satellites. Payloads were scheduled to separate from the Briz-KM upper stage at 09:14 Moscow Time, while vehicles would be in the range of the Russian ground control stations, according to a Russian space forces spokesman. Russian space agency, Roskosmos, qualified the launch as a success. This launch was previously expected on Dec. 28, 2009, and was later delayed to February, March and Sept. 4, 2010.
2010 Sept. 30: Russia launched a classified payload into Earth orbit, most likely an early-warning satellite to watch incoming ballistic missile launches. A Molniya-M rocket, reportedly the last in the legendary family of space vehicles, lifted off from Russia's northern launch site in Plesetsk on Sept. 30, 2010, at 21:01 Moscow Time. Lt. General Oleg Ostapenko, the commander of the Russian space forces, traveled to Plesetsk on the eve of the launch to personally witness the event, the official Russian media said. According to a representative of the Russian space forces, the liftoff went as planned and the payload was scheduled to reach its target orbit at 21:57 Moscow Time. Russian ground network started tracking the vehicle. Upon reaching the orbit, the payload received an official designation Kosmos-2469. According to space forces, the goal of the mission was to replenish Russian military satellite constellation. Traditionally, Molniya-M rockets were used to deliver Oko (eye) early-warning satellites into highly-elliptical orbits.
2013 Jan. 15: Russia opened a record of space launches in 2013 with a liftoff of a converted ballistic missile carrying a trio of military satellites Tuesday. A Rockot booster equipped with a Briz-KM upper stage lifted off from Pad No. 3 at Site 133 in Plesetsk Cosmodrome on Jan 15, 2013, at 20:25 Moscow Time. The vehicle was carrying a trio of military communications satellites for a constellation believed to be designated Rodnik-S.
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Projects of the satellites for the Global Television Reconnaissance, TGR, system equipped with nuclear-powered generator (top) and traditional solar panels (bottom) and designed to provide real-time imagery. Credit: KB Yuzhnoe
One of the early concepts of the Yantar reconnaissance satellite. Credit: KB Yuzhnoe
Artist rendering of the Yantar reconnaissance spacecraft in orbit. Two retrievable capsules can be seen on the sides of the satellite. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
A retrievable capsule of the Yantar/Kobalt-type reconnaissance satellite.
A scale-model of the imaging spacecraft, apparently Neman-type.
The early version of the Oko early-warning spacecraft carrying multiple telescopes. Copyright © 2001 by Anatoly Zak
Scale model of the 2nd-generation geostationary Oko-type early-warning spacecraft from the SPRN system. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
The Molniya-2 satellites were used for military communications. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
Early concept of the Pchela spacecraft designed for military communications. Credit: KB Yuzhnoe
Clusters of five Strela-1 satellites tested military personal communications system and the first Soviet nuclear power supply system.
The Strela spacecraft are used for military communications. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
Artist rendering of Strela-2M communications satellite. Credit: ISS Reshetnev
Tsyklon was the first Soviet navigation satellite and it also carried communications functions. Credit: ISS Reshetnev
The Altair communications satellite used to relay data from other military and civilian spacecraft to the ground control stations. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak
The artist rendering of DS-P1-Yu spacecraft for radar calibration. Credit: KB Yuzhnoe
The artist rendering of the Taifun-1B (Yug) spacecraft for radar calibration. Credit: KB Yuzhnoe
The artist rendering of the Duga-K spacecraft for radar calibration. Credit: KB Yuzhnoe
The artist rendering of the Taifun-2 spacecraft for radar calibration. Credit: KB Yuzhnoe
The artist rendering of the Koltso spacecraft deploying targets for radar calibration. Credit: KB Yuzhnoe
The artist rendering of the Taifun-3 spacecraft. Credit: KB Yuzhnoe
The conceptual model of the maneuverable spacecraft, which could be used as anti-satellite weapon or a missile interceptor. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
The Strela-2M ("Arrow") military communications satellite. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak
An experimental Potok (Stream) spacecraft for the Rassvet global command and relay system was launched on May 18, 1982, with a mission to relay data between military satellites and ground stations. Credit: ISS Reshetnev
The Lotos electronic intelligence satellite. Credit: TsNIRTI
The Kondor radar-carrying satellite. Copyright © 2002 Anatoly Zak
A Kondor remote-sensing satellites (radar imaging - top; and optical - bottom) could have a dual use - military and civilian. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
A new version of Russia's global positioning satellite, known as GLONASS-K, was to be introduced in 2010 with the launch on the Soyuz rocket from Plesetsk, but the mission slipped to 2011 at very end of 2010. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak
A proposed Arkon-Viktoria reconnaissance satellite, which would be based on RKK Energia's Viktoria/Yamal platform and NPO Lavochkin's Arkon imaging system. Credit: RKK Energia
From 2005, Russian military has been deploying the Rodnik communications network. Copyright © 2013 Anatoly Zak
The Bars-M military topography satellite. Copyright © 2015 Anatoly Zak
Artist rendering of the EKS (Tundra) satellite in orbit. Copyright © 2015 Anatoly Zak
The possible architecture of the Blagovest military communications satellite. Credit: ISS Reshetnev