Soyuz launches Gonets trio, Skif-D
A Soyuz-2 rocket carries three fresh satellites for the Gonets-M communications network, along with an experimental version of the new-generation Skif-D satellite on October 22. It is the first mission of 2022 originating from Vostochny Cosmodrome.
The 18th Gonets-M mission at a glance:
The latest Gonets mission
According to early plans, the 18th trio of Gonets communications satellites, including vehicles No. 33, 34, and 35, (collectively known as Block 18), would be launched from Plesetsk on the Angara-1.2 rocket sometimes after the planned delivery of that rocket by a contractual deadline on Oct. 15, 2021. Roskosmos allocated 2.278 billion rubles for the purpose at the beginning of 2019 and awarded a contract to GKNPTs Khrunichev on July 25 of the same year for the adaptation of the Gonets satellite with the Angara-1.2 vehicle.
In the ongoing deployment of the Gonets constellation, Angara-1.2 would serve as a replacement to the Rockot booster, converted from a Soviet-era UR-100NU ballistic missile and using Ukrainian-built electronics. However, continuing delays with the manufacturing of the Angara in 2019 (INSIDER CONTENT) forced Roskosmos to switch Block 18 to the Soyuz-2.1b series, which was clearly oversized for the task, though its launch was priced at "just" 1.345 billion rubles. Roskosmos apparently planned to utilize that excessive capacity on the Soyuz for piggy-backing commercial payloads, but, because most such customers at the time were expected to come from abroad, the Russian Ministry of Defense barred all the commercial missions from its classified launch site in Plesetsk.
As a result, on October 30, 2021, Roskosmos cancelled its contract with Khrunichev, making Block 18 the third group of Gonets satellites flying on Soyuz and the first to be launched from Vostochny, instead of Plesetsk. The latter change required moving pre-launch testing equipment for Gonets satellites to the new spaceport. In November 2019, Roskosmos claimed that the Block 18 would still fly in 2021, however, the procurement order for the Soyuz-2-1b rocket issued in December 2019, put a deadline for the vehicle's delivery before Nov. 15, 2022.
As of early 2022, the Gonets-D1M low-orbit communications network was reported to consist of 15 satellites. The satellites comprising the Block 18 trio were reported to be assembled and tested in November 2021. While awaiting launch at the end of 2022, the satellites spent a few months in storage. At the time, Roskosmos also planned to launch three more Gonets-M satellites in 2024, followed by another trio in 2025.
The 2022 Gonets mission also received an extra task of deploying the Skif-D test spacecraft for the prospective Russian Internet constellation. Also, several more piggy-back payloads, including in the cube-sat format, such as ArcCube-01, ASRTU-1 and MKA MFTI were reported to be candidates for the mission. The last spacecraft in the group was intended for experiments with laser communications. However, none of the seconday payloads, except for Skif-D, made it onboard with the Block 18 of Gonets-M satellites.
Three Gonets-M satellites weighing 280 kilograms each, plus the 200-kilogram Skif-D, brought the total mass of payload carried by the rocket to over one ton, according to Roskosmos.
The mission also marked the first employment on the Soyuz-2 rocket family of a different version of kerosene fuel known in Russia as "naftil." For that purpose, fueling systems at Soyuz ground infrastructure in Vostochny underwent some upgrades, culminating with a series of autonomous tests in December 2021. In addition, the pre-launch countdown on the pad for the first rocket fueled with naftil was extended from four to five days due to extra checks.
Skif-D experimental satellite
Known Skif-D specifications:
The Skif-D No. 11L satellite, where "D" stands for a "demonstrator," is a prototype of the first Russian satellite for the broad-band Internet access in remote areas, such as Arctic regions of Russia. The system was conceived as an alternative to the European o3b constellation. Each of the 12 spacecraft comprising the Skif network (distributed over three orbital planes and exceeding mass of one ton) was promised to be able to beam up to 100 gigabits Internet data per second.
According to ISS Reshetnev, which developed the Skif system, the demonstrator spacecraft was intended for testing key technologies of standard satellites, which were expected to operate in medium-altitude circular orbits 8,070 kilometers from Earth and inclined 88.2 degrees toward the Equator. Skif-D would probe the feasibility of the chosen orbit in terms of radiation levels and stability. The satellite also carried some prototype systems of the Skif network, including the Ka-band transmitter and receiver.
Perhaps even more important role for Skif-D would be securing the reserved radio frequency for Russia, which would be made available to other customers by the International Telecommunications Union, ITU, if not used by the deadline in 2022. According to the same rules, at least 10 percent of the Skif system would have to be deployed by 2024, even though in 2022, the first six operational satellites of the Skif constellation were not expected to fly until 2027 and the second sextuplet would not be in space until at least 2029.
If ever completed, the Skif system was to be operated by Sputnikovaya Sistema Gonets organization and Zond Holding.
Early studies of the Skif design were initiated at ISS Reshetnev in the second half of 2020 and in April 2021, the company announced that it had started development of the working documentation for the experimental Skif-D satellite. The formal technical assignment for the spacecraft was issued in June 2021.
On Dec. 8, 2021, Roskosmos awarded ISS Reshetnev a contract for the preliminary design of the Skif system.
By the end of 2021, Reshetnev sent solar panel structures for Skif-D to AO Saturn in the city of Krasnodar for the installation of their photovoltaic elements, with a planned return date in May 2022. At the time, the launch of the spacecraft was promised in the fourth quarter of 2022.
According to ISS Reshetnev, the latest Western sanctions, introduced against Russia in Spring 2022, forced the company to urgently replace some components in the service module and the instrument payloads of the satellite with Russian-built hardware. The final assembly of the satellite was reported in the middle of the Summer 2022. At the time, the shipment of the satellite to Vostochny was scheduled at the end of September 2022.
Preparations for launch
The Fregat stage for the mission was delivered to Vostochny at the beginning of August 2022 and the trio of Gonets satellites was delivered to the Ignatievo airfield near Vostochny aboard an Il-76 aircraft on Sept. 14, 2022. Skif-D satellite was delivered to Vostochny on Sept. 29, 2022, by the same route. The assembly of the payload section for the vehicle was completed by October 13 and it was integrated with the launch vehicle on October 18.
On the same day, the State Commission overseeing the campaign gave the green light for the rollout of the vehicle to the launch pad, which took place on the morning of October 19, 2022.
A Soyuz-2-1B /Fregat rocket lifted off from Pad 1S in Vostochny on Oct. 22, 2022, at 22:57:09.456 Moscow Time (3:57 p.m. EDT). (It will be October 23 local time at the launch site in the Russian Far East.)
Under a standard launch profile of the Soyuz/Fregat vehicle, the first, second and third stages of the rocket should accelerate the fourth Fregat stage and its payload to a near-orbital velocity, while heading north-northwest across Eastern Russia and the Arctic Ocean.
After the first stage accelerated the rocket to a velocity of around 4,696 kilometers per hour at an altitude of around 46 kilometers, four boosters separated at L+118.94 seconds in flight.
As the rocket exited dense atmosphere at an altitude of around 100 kilometers and accelerated beyond 10,000 kilometers per hour hour, the payload fairing protecting the payload split into two sections and fell away at L+228.29 seconds in flight.
The second stage separated at L+287.87 seconds in flight. Immediately thereafter, the tail section of the third stage split into three fragments and separated at an altitude of around 150 kilometers above Earth, as the rocket was flying with a speed of 13,702 kilometers per hour and continued accelerating.
The third stage was programmed to cut off its main engine at L+560.66 seconds after liftoff.
After the separation from the third stage at L+563.96 seconds, the Fregat fired its own main engine to reach an initial 200-kilometer circular orbit, followed by a period of a passive flight before the second maneuver to enter an elliptical transfer orbit with an apogee of around 1,500 kilometers. The third maneuver in apogee made the orbit circular for the release of the Gonets trio, which took place 1 hour 38 minutes after liftoff.
The add-on payload, in this case Skif-D experimental satellite apparently separated after two additional maneuvers of the Fregat stage. According to Roskosmos, the payload delivery was to be completed 4 hours 8 minutes after liftoff.
Following the separation of its payloads, the Fregat upper stage is usually programmed to perform additional maneuvering to enter a disposal trajectory.
A payload section of the 18th Gonets-M mission is prepared for integration with the payload fairing. Click to enlarge.
A Soyuz rocket with a trio of Gonets and Skif-D satellite is being prepared for a rollout from the assembly building to launch pad in Vostochny. Click to enlarge.
A Soyuz rocket with a trio of Gonets and Skif-D satellite is installed on the launch pad in Vostochny on Oct. 19, 2022. Click to enlarge.
A Soyuz rocket with a trio of Gonets and Skif-D satellite lifts off from Vostochny on Oct. 22, 2022. Click to enlarge.
First stage separates from the core stage of the Soyuz rocket as seen by its onboard camera.
Payload fairing (top) drops off from the rocket.
Tail section of the third stage separates as seen by onboard camera during a ride to orbit.
A Fregat space tug as seen by a camera aboard the third stage of the launch vehicle during their separation.
Gonets-M in orbit. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2019 Anatoly Zak
Artist depiction of Skif-D satellite in orbit. Click to enlarge. Credit: ISS Reshetnev
The 64-centimeter telescope of the Crimean Astrophysical Observatory captured the separation of the Skif-D satellite from the Fregat upper stage. Credit: Roskosmos