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By the end of the Cold War in 1991, the UR-100N missile developed by the collective of Vladimir Chelomei had been the most numerous strategic weapon in the Soviet nuclear fleet. Capable of carrying up to six warheads, the UR-100NU started flying in 1977, and some 360 missiles, known in the West as SS-19, had been manufactured by the Khrunichev plant in Moscow, by the time their production stopped in 1991.
With the end of the Cold War, the Khrunichev enterprise in Moscow, which used to manufacture the UR-100N-type missiles, started converting the weapon into the Rockot space booster. At the same time, NPO Mashinostroenia, which originally developed the UR-100 family of missiles, proposed its own conversion project dubbed "Strela" (Arrow).
Unlike Rockot, which incorporated a brand-new Breeze upper stage to make a space launcher, the Strela would require only minor modifications on the original missile. The UR-100NU was equipped with the so-called, APB (Agregatno-Priborny Otsek), which was essentially a maneuverable platform designed to deliver multiple warheads to their targets. In the Strela project, engineers reprogrammed the APB to work as the third stage pushing its payload into orbit. A special avionics section with the diameter 2.4 meters and length of 800 millimeters was fitted on top of the third stage. It would contain guidance and flight control hardware:
The payload would be attached to the interface located on top of the avionics section. The spacecraft would be protected in flight either by standard warhead firing from the UR-100NU rocket or by a "stretched and narrow" fairing, which was tested with the latest reincarnations of the missile. The payload sections were designated KGCh-1 and KGCh-2 respectively.
In a typical launch, the first stage of the rocket separates at the altitude of about 70 kilometers, which is followed by the separation of the payload fairing at the altitude of 114 kilometers during the burn of the second stage. The second stage separates upon reaching the altitude of around 200 kilometers and the third stage with the payload then coasts passively before its own small thrusters fire to complete the orbital insertion.
For its initial test flights, the Strela launcher would utilize the existing launch silos of the UR-100NU rocket in Baikonur Cosmodrome and then fly operational missions from the silos at the retired ICBM base in Svobodny in the Russian Far East. The facilities would require only minimal modifications.
From Baikonur, the Strela would be able to enter the orbit with the inclination 62.8 degrees toward the Equator delivering around 1,400 kilograms of payload to the altitude of about 200 kilometers. Around 500 kilograms could be boosted to the altitude of 1,800 kilometers with the same inclination.
When flying from Svobodny, the Strela would be able to access a wide range of orbits with the inclinations from around 52 to 61 degrees and near-polar orbits from 90 to 97 degrees toward the Equator. Under 1,600 kilograms could be inserted into a 200-kilometer orbit with the inclination 51.8 degrees and 1,110 kilograms could be boosted to the Sun-synchronous orbit, overflying North and South poles of Earth. (190)
While Khrunichev enterprise used its established marketing muscle to market Rockot booster internationally, NPO Mash was "selling" the Strela to the Russian government along with a family of its semi-military satellites, among them remote sensing Condor-E spacecraft, carrying radar and optical payloads. Not surprisingly, it took much longer for the Strela to reach the launch pad, then for the Rockot backed by foreign investors.
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.
The first Strela was reportedly lowered into the silo at Site 132 around February 2003, however the launch did not take place until December of that year.
The first test flight
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 into a 404 by 465-kilometer orbit with an 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 25-year-old ballistic missile and the official Russian media blindly disseminated the report.
During 2011 several reports surfaced about negotiations between Roskosmos and officials in Chelyabinsk Oblast of Russia on the establishment of a new drop zone for the first stage of the Strela rocket, scheduled to carry the Kondor radar satellite into orbit in 2012. The impact site was expected to be in Nyazepetrovsk Region between towns of Shemakha, Araslanovo, Skaz and Tabuska. However, as it had previously happened in other regions of Russia and Kazakhstan, concerns over the contamination of the pristine environment became a cause of public protests by local population on February 25, 2011, the official RIA Novosti news agency reported. As a result, local authorities reportedly rejected the proposed agreement at the beginning of March 2011. Two months later, Interfax news agency reported that all work on the drop zone agreement had been stopped as "launches of payloads along this flight path had not being currently planned." This was an indication that a long-delayed Kondor mission hit a new snag if had not been outright canceled.
On June 27, 2013, unofficial sources at NPO Mash confirmed that the blastoff of the Strela rocket from Site 175 in Baikonur was scheduled for 20:53:00 Moscow Summer Time. The launch vehicle heading east from Kazakhstan was scheduled to release the Kondor satellite into a circular orbit with an altitude of 504.7 kilometers and an inclination 74.75 degrees toward the Equator at 21:18:35 Moscow Time.
Several minutes after the expected launch time, the Interfax news agency reported that the Strela rocket carrying Kondor satellite had lifted off from Baikonur. Witnesses in the town of Petropavlovsk in the northern Kazakhstan did see and photograph a typical bright trail of a rocket launch.
Around two hours after the launch, Interfax quoted unnamed sources confirming that the satellite had reached orbit. Western radars did detect the spacecraft in a 464 by 552-kilometer orbit with an inclination 74.9 degrees toward the Equator. Within 24 hours radar data corrected an orbital altitude to 499 by 521 kilometer and an orbital inclination to 74.74 degrees, essentially matching the parameters of the planned orbit leaked before launch.
Technical specifications of the Strela launcher:
UR-100N UTTKh family tech dossier:
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Last update: October 24, 2014
An experimental launch of the UR-100NU missile with the "stretched" payload firing adopted for the Strela project and designated KGCh-2 from Baikonur. (This photo was taken sometimes before August 2001) (Note lighting tower of the Proton launch complex at Site 200 on the background.) Credit: NPO Mash
Launch of a Strela rocket in December 2003. Credit: NPO Mash
A cargo simulator launched on Strela in 2003. Credit: RKA
Main elements of the Strela launcher. Credit: NPO Mash
The payload section of the Strela booster designated KGCh-2. Copyright: © 2001 Anatoly Zak
The payload section of the Strela booster with the mockup of the Condor spacecraft, carrying optical remote-sensing payload. Copyright: © 2002 Anatoly Zak
The Condor-E spacecraft with the radar payload was considered a main payload for the Strela launcher. Copyright: © 2002 Anatoly Zak