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Vozvrat MKA mission

Foton-M4 completes its mission

On July 19, 2014, Russia launched its latest version of an unmanned retrievable spacecraft with around two dozen of experiments and live organisms to be exposed to weightlessness, radiation and vacuum of space. The ball-shaped capsule of the Foton-M spacecraft parachuted back to Earth after 44 days in orbit. The Foton is a direct descendant of the Vostok spacecraft, which carried the first man into space in 1961.

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Above: A Soyuz-2.1a rocket lifts off on July 19, 2014, with the Foton-M4 satellite.



Above: The Foton-M4 satellite.

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Flight profile

The liftoff of a Soyuz-2-1a rocket from Pad No. 6 at Site 31 in Baikonur took place as scheduled on July 19, 2014, at 00:50 Moscow Time (6:50 p.m. EST on Friday, July 18). The launch vehicle is carrying the 6,840-kilogram Foton-M No. 4 spacecraft (a.k.a. Foton-M4) for conducting microgravity experiments in space, including the production of semiconductors, as well as for biomedical and biological research.

After a short vertical ascent, the rocket headed northeast to reach an orbit with an inclination 64.9 degrees toward the Equator. Four boosters of the first stage fell in the Karaganda Region of Kazakhstan at Impact Site No. 148. The second stage of the rocket impacted an uninhabited area southeast of the town of Kedrovy (Impact Site No. 370), on the border between Tomsk and Novosibirsk Regions in Russia. After reaching an initial orbit, the spacecraft separated from the third stage of the launch vehicle at 00:58 Moscow Time (6:58 p.m. EST on Friday).

Fourth Foton-M

In many ways unique to the Russian space program, the Foton spacecraft is very similar to the Bion series of satellites, which also built around a retrievable spherical capsule attached to a service module. However unlike Bion, whose scientific program focuses on biological research, the Foton's experiments center around material science, even though both projects have some overlap. Experiments onboard Foton and Bion can be initiated before launch or after reaching orbit and they can run either fully automatically during the entire mission or with some monitoring and even control via Russian ground stations. Bion and Foton spacecraft use basic architecture first developed in the USSR for the launching a single pilot into orbit under the Vostok project. Also unlike Bion, which usually involves broad international cooperation, Foton-M4's program was developed in Russia.

According to Roskosmos, a total of 850 kilograms of scientific instruments for 22 experiments would be carried during the Foton-M4 mission, including up to 600 kilograms of payloads inside the pressurized descent module and remaining 250 kilograms attached to its exterior and exposed to the vacuum of space. The biological payload will include five geckos, flies, seeds of plants and microorganisms.

According to the leading project scientist in the Foton and Bion programs A. Sychev from Moscow-based Institute for Medical and Biological Problems of Space Flight, IMBP, experiments onboard Foton-M4 will help to understand the effects of space flight on the human body and to develop methods of protecting cosmonauts. "Ultimately, this new data is necessary to support human expansion beyond Earth into deep space," Sychev said.

Although Foton-M No. 4 formally continues the Foton-M series, the spacecraft's design resembles primarily the Foton-M1 vehicle, which was destroyed in a launch accident in 2002. However, Foton-M4 does not have a life-support system, which was present on the M1 spacecraft. On Foton-M4, live organisms will be consuming air in the pressurized capsule without replenishment.

However, for the first time, Foton-M4 was designed to operate for 60 days, thanks to solar panels capable of recharging onboard batteries and providing more power to onboard equipment.

Foton-M4 was also equipped with a modified service module and with a new liquid-propellant orbit-correction engine. It was to be used to boost the apogee (highest point) of the initial parking orbit to 575 kilometers, providing the lower level of microgravity for onboard experiments and providing safe altitude for the two-month mission.

In addition to scientific payloads, the descent module contains support equipment, including command and control radio system, the telemetry system, flight control computers and the power-supply system.

The service module contains the propulsion system and rechargeable batteries.

Landing of the Foton-M4 spacecraft is scheduled for September 16, 2014, in the Orenburg Region in southern Russia, not far from the border with Kazakhstan. The flight program allows to conduct the landing 24 hours later, if necessary.

The first Foton satellite was launched in 1985 and spent 13 days in orbit. A total of 12 Foton missions lasting from 13 to 18 days were conducted until 1999. Foreign participants were able to join Foton missions beginning with the launch of Foton-5.

Mission history

Originally, the Foton-M4 mission was expected as early as 2010, but it required beginning of funding in 2008. In mid-2011, the launch was expected at the end of 2013. In June 2013, the head of TsSKB Progress promised the launch in April 2014. At the time, the assembly of the satellite was entering a final stage and its scientific payload were expected to be delivered in July-August of 2013.

The assembly of the payload section was completed at Site 254 in Baikonur on July 16, 2014, after which it was transported to Site 31 for its integration with the Soyuz-2 rocket. The launch vehicle with Foton-M4 was rolled out to the launch pad at Site 31 on the evening of July 17, 2014, instead of traditional morning time due to very time-sensitive pre-launch processing of biological payloads onboard the satellite.

Foton-M4 runs into trouble soon after launch

On Thursday (July 24), the Izvestiya daily quoted a source at the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, saying that the Foton-M4 spacecraft had stopped receiving commands from the ground soon after reaching orbit, even though it kept sending back its telemetry. The situation still left hopes for restoring full communications, however the scientific program onboard the spacecraft could be left unfulfilled, the Izvestiya's source said.

Several hours after this publication, Roskosmos and RKTs Progress that built the space

craft issued a statement saying that the Foton-M4 had entered orbit as planned and, according to its flight program, it had conducted turning on and off all systems, had established necessary attitude control and had initiated some of the scientific experiments. All its onboard systems had functioned properly. At the same time, after several orbits, communications between the ground control complex and the spacecraft via the command-issuing channel had been interrupted, the statement read. The telemetry on the functioning of all systems onboard the spacecraft had continued coming and had been processed and analyzed. This analysis showed that all service systems onboard the satellite had functioned exactly according to the logic of the onboard flight control system, Roskosmos said.

The statement went on saying that the design and the onboard complex (of Foton-M4) could provide long-term functioning of the spacecraft in the autonomous mode. At present, specialists of the main operational control group are conducting work to establish reliable communications with the satellite and to conduct its planned flight program, Roskosmos said.

Despite this statement, the Western radar found the Foton-M4 in a 252 by 550 kilometer orbit, indicating that it had failed to fire its engine after the separation from the third stage of the Soyuz-2 rocket. The maneuver was designed to make the orbit circular at a safe altitude of around 575 kilometers above the Earth surface.

A poster on the web forum of the Novosti Kosmonavtiki web forum estimated on Thursday that the satellite could remain in its unplanned orbit for about two weeks. Unless the orbit-correction engine onboard the satellite could be fired, the spacecraft would eventually plunge back into the Earth atmosphere. Its descent capsule was designed to survive the reentry and, as a result, it could land anywhere on Earth from 65 degrees North latitude to 65 degrees South latitude. The same poster also said that the onboard power supply system had been working only partially and all attempts to reboot the satellite's flight control computers had been unsuccessful so far.

Roskosmos then issued a second press-release confirming that the spacecraft had been in a 258.12 by 571.68-kilometer orbit. The statement also reiterated that communications via the command line had been lost during the 4th orbit of the mission. Full text below:

On the condition of Foton-M No. 4 spacecraft

The spacecraft Foton M No. 4 works in autonomous mode, onboard equipment works nominally, telemetry comes from the spacecraft regularly. According to the TsNIIMash mission control, currently, the spacecraft is in orbit matching its orbital insertion sequence:

  • Orbital period - 92.58 minutes
  • Orbital inclination - 64.92 degrees
  • Minimal altitude (perigee) - 258.12 kilometers
  • Maximum altitude (apogee) - 571.68 degrees

As it had been reported earlier, Foton-M No. 4 was successfully launched into orbit from Baikonur Cosmodrome on July 19. After the separation of the spacecraft from the launch vehicle, according to the flight assignment and the logic of the onboard flight control complex, all onboard systems were activated, the vehicle was put into the solar orientation mode, the onboard system of navigational measurements began operations, commands for the activation of the science equipment went through and some experiments were initiated. However, from the 4th orbit, the communications with the spacecraft via a command radio line stopped, while the telemetry from the vehicle continues flowing.

Sex-hungry press goes crazy about lizard sex

Soon after the Izvestiya newspaper broke the story on Thursday about problems with Foton, the official Russian news agency RIA Novosti quoted Aleksandr Kovalev, a leading scientist responsible for the Foton-M4's biological payload. To emphasize that conditions onboard the stranded spacecraft had remained normal, Kovalev was careless enough to say that geckos inside the satellite could survive and even reproduce. He went on saying that it was "one of the main goals of the scientific program!"

This statement then triggered an orgy of "sex-sells" articles in general media, especially in the US, with berserk headlines like "Sex Geckos Circle The Earth In Out-Of-Control Russian Satellite" and "Satellite full of sexually experimental geckos adrift in space, Russia loses control of mission."

Communications restored

The Russian space agency, Roskosmos, announced on Saturday that communications with the stranded Foton-M4 had been restored at 08:05 Moscow Decree Time. The head of the agency Oleg Ostapenko was quoted as saying "The communications restored, the (flight) programs had been uploaded as planned. The investigation is ongoing on the culprit that led to the abnormal situation."

Roskosmos also said that according to RKTs Progress, (the company that built the satellite), during a communications session, ground control had issued service commands to the spacecraft to downlink its telemetry and also transmitted working commands (to the spacecraft) for the continuation of its flight tasks. The condition of all systems onboard Foton-M No. 4 is nominal, the agency's statement said.

However it is still unclear whether the Foton-M4 would be able to conduct a critical engine firing to insert itself into a planned circular orbit, which would guarantee safe operation of the spacecraft during a two-month mission. Another maneuver would be required to conduct a controlled return of the experiment-carrying descent module back to Earth. Both engine firings would require to orient the spacecraft in a right direction to succeed.

As of July 28, ground control conducted 17 communications sessions with the Foton-M4, Roskosmos said, adding that the condition of systems had been nominal and onboard experiments had been continuing. However, there was still no word on the orbit-correction maneuver.

The July 29 announcement from Roskosmos again confirmed the successful flight of Foton-M4, reporting the operation of 18 scientific payloads, including the Polizon instrument, which had completed two experiments so far.

On August 1, the official ITAR-TASS news agency quoted head of Roskosmos Oleg Ostapenko as saying that Foton-M4 will fly its entire two-month mission as originally planned, despite the cancellation of the orbit-boosting maneuver. According to Ostapenko, 18 out of 22 planned experiments had been underway onboard the satellite and four others would be activated soon. Only one experiment required an orbit change, however due to a problem onboard, it was decided not to take a risk, Ostapenko said. He added that Roskosmos had been in consultations with organizers of that experiment and had intentions to conduct it.

Foton-M4 lands, but all geckos onboard lost

On Aug. 27, Roskosmos suddenly announced that the State Commission responsible for the Foton-M4 flight had reviewed the status of scientific experiments onboard the spacecraft and had declared them completed as of that date. The commission decided to conduct landing of Foton-M4 on September 1, in the Orenburg Region in Southern Russia, the agency said.

The touchdown of the Foton-M4 spacecraft took place on Sept. 1, 2014, at 13:18 Moscow Summer Time, Roskosmos announced around half an hour after the fact. The agency's press-release also claimed that an average altitude of the satellite's orbit had been 575 kilometers, exceeding that of the International Space Station, ISS. This "piece of information" was likely copied from a pre-launch announcement, because, in reality, the orbit-correction engine onboard Foton-M4 had failed to deliver the spacecraft to its planned orbit shortly after its liftoff on July 19. The mission of Foton-M4 thus lasted 44 days instead of 60 days, which it was expected to fly at the time of the launch.

Around two hours after the landing, the official ITAR-TASS news agency reported that a joint search and rescue team of the Central Military District, TsVO; Roskosmos and the Institute of Medical and Biological Problems of Space flight, IMBP; had started an evacuation of the descent capsule from the landing site. According to the TsVO press service quoted by the agency, the landing took place as planned at the expected area and radio signals enabled to determine its exact location.

The search and rescue team planned to load the descent module on a special evacuation vehicle, which would drive it to a local airfield, where the spacecraft would be put on a plane bound to Moscow. More than 100 military personnel of TsVO participated in the recovery operations along with 10 Mi-8 helicopters and An-26 fixed-wing aircraft.

Several hours after landing, Roskosmos reported that all five geckos onboard Foton-M4 had died during the mission, however flies inside another experiment had survived. Specialists were working to determine the time and conditions of their death, the agency said.

Before the end of the day, the Interfax news agency cited an unnamed member of the commission overseeing the landing as saying that preliminary data points at freezing of the animals, possibly due to a failure of the life-support system in this particular experiment. According to the same source, it was impossible to tell when the failure had taken place. (During the flight, one of the project officials claimed that it was possible to monitor the conditions of the experiments onboard Foton-M4.)

On Sept. 2, RIA Novosti quoted the head of the gecko experiment Sergei Saveliev from the Institute of Human Morphology as saying that the death of all animals had likely taken place within few hours around two days before landing.


Above: A typical descent trajectory for the landing near Orenburg.

Payloads onboard Foton-M4



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Next chapter: Bion-M series


Known specifications of the Foton-M No. 4 mission:

Liftoff mass
6,840 kilograms
Spacecraft mass (without payloads)
6,070 kilograms
Total payload mass
850 kilograms
Payload mass installed inside the reentry capsule
up to 600 kilograms
Payload mass installed on the exterior of the capsule
up to 250 kilograms
Mass of onboard propellant for the Unified Propulsion System, ODU
900 kilograms
Average daily power supply
1,400 Watts
Average daily power consumption by the service systems
500 Watts
Average daily power consumption by the science instruments
900 Watts
Temperature inside the descent module
+17-28 degrees C
Descent module diameter
2.2 meters
Maximum orbital altitude (apogee)
575 kilometers
Minimum orbital altitude (perigee)
260 kilometers
Orbital inclination
64.9 degrees


Foton-M No. 4 payload developers:

Institute of Medical and Biological Problems of Space Flight, GNTs RF IMBP RAN
NIISK, (Branch of FGUP TsENKI)
Samara State Aerospace University (Korolev SGAU)


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Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: September 2, 2014

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Media Archive


A look inside of the Foton-M4's descent module. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos


Pre-launch processing of Foton-M4 satellite. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos


Click to enlarge. Credit: RKTs Progress


The Foton-M4 during final assembly in July 2014. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos


Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos


A Soyuz-2-1a rocket with Foton-M4 satellite shortly after its rollout to the launch pad on July 17, 2014. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos


Foton-M4 lifts off on July 19, 2014. Credit: Roskosmos

Geckos onboard Foton-M4 made headlines in the West after Russian scientists reported using them for sex experiments onboard the troubled satellite. Click to enlarge. Credit: IMBP

The FotonM4 capsule after landing in Southern Russia on Sept. 1, 2014. Credit: Roskosmos