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Crimean space connection
The Russian annexation of Crimea raised question about the fate of a ground control facility on the peninsula which played a critical role in the Soviet space program and still remains important for the Ukrainian and Russian space efforts.
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Above: Antennas of the Pluton deep-space communications complex near Yevpatoria on the Crimean Peninsula circa 1980.
Crimean ground station born with the Space Age
Thanks to its southerly location, high mountains facing the Black Sea to the south, little radio interference and a beautiful climate, the Crimean Peninsula was eyed as the perfect location for the most critical Soviet ground control facility at the very dawn of the Space Era. The first temporary space communication site designated KIP-41E was founded in 1958 on the southern slope of the Koshka mountain near the town of Semiiz.
The Koshka site was equipped with a deep-space radio station, DKS, developed at NII-885 and designed to communicate with spacecraft beyond the Earth orbit. The facility was declared operational on Sept. 27, 1958, on the eve of a pioneering Soviet attempt to launch a lunar probe. In 1959, attitude control commands sent from the Koshka mountain enabled an imaging system onboard the Luna-3 spacecraft to photograph the far side of the Moon for the first time. (695) Despite its critical role, the facility on Koshka consisted mostly of mobile trailers, a few wooden structures and tents, because plans had already been made to build a permanent ground control center on the coastal plain near the ancient city of Yevpatoria, also on the Crimean Peninsula.
In December 1959, just a few months after the triumph of Luna-3, the Soviet government approved the construction of the Center for Deep Space Communications, TsDKS. As part of the Soviet ground control network spread across the USSR, the Crimean facility became known as NIP-16.
Unlike other ground stations, NIP-16 was intended for hosting the Pluton deep-space communications complex, which could maintain contact with spacecraft up to an incredible distance of 300 million kilometers. Such a capability would be enough to guide missions beyond the orbit of Mars. The Pluton antennas were designed to send commands, track trajectories and receive and decipher telemetry from spacecraft. In addition, the same complex could be used to bounce radio waves off the faces of Mars and Venus. The results of these experiments would help Soviet engineers program landing missions on both planets.
NIP-16 ground station
The NIP-16 facility in Yevpatoria included two sites located 10 kilometers apart: the receiving station at Site 1, near the village of Vitino, and a transmitting station at Site 2, near the village of Uyutnoe.
The receiving Site 1 featured two ADU-1000 antennas designed to receive signals at a frequency range of 32 centimeters. Site 1 also included a communications center, technical buildings for the Pluton facility and a diesel power station. A liquefier facility was used to supply liquid nitrogen for the receiver's cooling system.
The transmitting Site 2 was centered around the ADU-1000 antenna of the Pluton (Pluto) complex, comprised of eight 16-meter dishes arranged in two rows. It was designed to send flight control commands to spacecraft with the help of a 120-kilowatt transmitter, operating at a frequency range of 39 centimeters.
Like all other Soviet ground stations, NIP-16 was staffed with officers of the Soviet Army. The military unit which maintained the Crimean site had the official designation V/Ch 34346.
The Soviet government allocated just eight months for the construction of NIP-16. In March 1960, around 5,000 conscripts from the Navy engineering units started building the facility. The construction was conducted in two or even three shifts, with no days off.
In an effort to adapt existing engineering structures to the previously unseen cyclopean architecture, Soviet navy engineers needed maximum ingenuity. They apparently resorted to the use of hulls from decommissioned submarines, which were then attached to sections of an old railway bridge in order to form the antenna structures. A giant rotating mechanism for the antennas was fashioned out of the main cannon from the unfinished Sevastopol battleship. The design of the mechanism was developed at the Leningrad Mechanical Plant, LMZ.
The first integrated testing of the completed Pluton communication complex was conducted on Sept. 27, 1960. During its initial trial, the giant ADU-1000 antennas were used to track stars in the sky.
The Pluton facility performed its real duty for the first time in February 1961, supporting the mission of the Venera-1 spacecraft. The center then played a critical command and control role in all Soviet planetary missions to the Moon, Venus and Mars. From 1967 to 1975, the Yevpatoria site served as the USSR's main mission control center. After 1975, control operations for manned missions were moved to a newly built facility in Podlipki, near Moscow, just meters away from the campus of NPO Energia, the USSR's prime developer of manned spacecraft. From that time, Yevpatoria became a backup center for manned space flight.
The development of the Saturn-MS communications facility started in 1963, specifically for the Soviet manned lunar landing project, L3, which would involve multiple manned spacecraft operating in the vicinity of the Moon. The new infrastructure included the KTNA-200 receiving antennas and AP-400 transmitting antennas. Despite the cancellation of the manned lunar program, the Saturn-MS complex was used to support missions of Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, unmanned launches to the Moon, flights of Salyut and Mir space stations, as well as launches of Molniya satellites.
The construction of the 4,500-ton P-2500 radio telescope, a.k.a. RT-70, for the Kvant-D facility started in 1973. Its original goal was to support the Mars-79 project, which intended to insert a spacecraft in orbit around the Red Planet and drop a lander on its surface. The facility was completed by the end of 1978 and in December of the same year it was used for communications with the Venera-10 and 11 spacecraft. Kvant-D was then used in 1984 alongside the Pluton facility to support the Vega missions to Venus and Halley Comet. After that mission, the Pluton complex was retired and the Kvant-D site assumed all its functionality.
Kvant-D increased the capabilities of the NIP-16 ground station 10-20 times in wavelength range and 10-35 times in sensitivity and data-rate capacity.
Along with communications sites, NIP-16 in Yevpatoria also hosted a telemetry processing center formed in 1973. In October 1967, a special mission control facility was formed in Yevpatoria to support the manned lunar program. Despite the cancellation of the Soviet lunar landing in 1974, the facility continued functioning until 1980. In addition, in 1978, the Soviet Ministry of Defense formed a Backup Command Point, ZKP, to communicate with multiple Soviet military satellites. (696)
With the disintegration of the USSR, Russia abandoned the Crimean ground control site, however Ukrainian authorities put an effort to preserve it. By the time of launch of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft in 2011, the site in Yevpatoria was run by the Ukrainian National Center of Space Means, NTsUIKS, which was expected to support the Russian mission.
As of 2012, the Russian space strategy called for the development of a new deep-space control center before 2030. The facility was to be located in southern Russia. It is unclear how the annexation of the Crimea in 2014 would affect these plans. In fact, given the long-term investment required for the development and operation of ground control facilities, a decision to place any of such infrastructure in Crimea would be a laitmus test on whether Russia is confident about keeping the peninsula under its control in the foreseeable future.
On March 28, 2014, a Ukrainian web site, Dumskaya.net, quoted unnamed sources as saying that 210 out of 235 staff members at the Yevpatoria ground station had agreed to work for the Russian authorities. Given the unique qualifications and the work experience of the personnel, its members probably had little choice, but to accept the Russian offer or face a certain prospect of losing their jobs. At the same time, flags of the Russian Federation and the Russian Air and Space Defense Forces, VKO, were raised over the facility, marking its transfer under the control of the Russian Ministry of Defense. The Ministry of Defense traditionally managed the ground control network in the USSR and has retained that role in the post-Soviet Russia.
Read (and see) much more about many other space developments in Russia
Key dates in the history of NIP-16 site:
1959 Dec. 10: The Soviet government issues decree No. 1388-618 to form the Center for Deep Space Communications, TsDKS.
1960 March: The construction started at NIP-16 in Yevpatoria.
1960 June 29: The Directive No. 866655 from the Chief of Staff of the Soviet Armed Forces gives the TsDKS ground station in Crimea a designation the 85th radio-technical center for remote communications with space vehicles (RTTs DS s KO).
1960 Sept. 27: Engineers conduct the first integrated testing of the Pluton communications complex at NIP-16.
1961 November: The TsDKS ground station in Crimea receives an official designation the 98th Detached Scientific Measurement Point of Long Range Communications with Space Vehicles, ONIP DS s KO.
Article by Anatoly Zak, photos by Jakob Terweij; last update: April 18, 2014
Page editor: Alain Chabot; last edit: March 24, 2014
All rights reserved
A Ukrainian-language sign at the at the entrance to the Yevpatoria facility was erected after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. It says "National Space Center." Click to enlarge. Credit: Jakob Terweij
Entrance into the former NIP-16 station. Click to enlarge. Credit: Jakob Terweij
Right behind the main entrance into the former NIP-16, a monument features an actual reentry capsule of a Zenit spy satellite (left), a historic radar antenna (right) and a scale model of the Ukrainian-built Zenit rocket. Click to enlarge. Credit: Jakob Terweij
The iconic Pluton complex in Yevpatoria played a crucial role in the Soviet space program, but was retired in the 1980s. Click to enlarge. Credit: Jakob Terweij
A rotating mechanism of the Pluton complex was reportedly fashioned out of submarine hulls and battleship turrets. Click to enlarge. Credit: Jakob Terweij
Antennas at the NIP-16 in Yevpatoria in 2011. Click to enlarge. Credit: Jakob Terweij
The RT-70 (P-2500) telescope for the KVANT-D complex built in Yevpatoria in 1978. Click to enlarge. Credit: Jakob Terweij
Some facilities at NIP-16 were abandoned and left to decay even before the collapse of the USSR. A receiving and transmitting complex for satellite communications, PPPSS, can be seen on the background. Click to enlarge. Credit: Jakob Terweij
The Yevpatoria site includes extensive support infrastructure including this cafe. Click to enlarge. Credit: Jakob Terweij