Mikhailo Lomonosov to hunt for upward lightning, cosmic rays

Named after a true renaissance man of Russia, the Mikhailo Lomonosov satellite will search for most elusive physical phenomena far above it in the Universe and below it in the Earth's atmosphere. After a decade in development, Lomonosov became the primary payload to be launched during the first mission from Russia's new Vostochny spaceport.


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The Mikhailo Lomonosov satellite at VNIIEM corporation in Moscow in April 2015.


Mikhailo Lomonosov mission at a glance:

Spacecraft liftoff mass
625 kilograms
Payload mass
160 kilograms (not including cable network)
Spacecraft length
~3 meters
Orbital altitude
510 kilometers (-+10 kilometers);
Orbital inclination
Sun-synchronous (97.362 - 98 degrees) Ascent node time: 11:30
Daily average power supply
300 watts (600 watts for a period no longer than 10 minutes)
Payload power consumption
181 watts in the shadow; 143 watts in daylight
Service module power consumption
170 watts (constant)
Three-axis attitude control accuracy
5 angular minutes
Three-axis stabilization accuracy
0.001 degrees per second
Projected life span
3 years
Launch vehicle
Launch site
Launch date
2016 April 28, 05:01:21 Moscow Time


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Mission goals: hunting for upward lightning

The 625-kilogram Mikhailo Lomonosov satellite (or shortly Lomonosov) was built at OA VNIIEM Corporation in Moscow for multi-disciplinary research led by the Nuclear Physics Institute of the Moscow State University, MGU. Not coincidently, Mikhailo Lomonosov, the 18th-century Russian scientist, poet and educator, led the foundation of MGU and often regarded to be the father of the modern Russian science.

Orbiting the Earth from pole to pole, the spacecraft will hunt for ultraviolet light radiating from the atmosphere on the night side of the Earth and for sources of gamma radiation in the sky.

The Earth-bound observations from Lomonosov will focus on what's known as transient luminous events -- mysterious light shows discovered in the past few decades and dubbed as "upward lightning" or cloud-to-stratosphere discharges for their tendency to shoot bright flashes of light from the clouds all the way to the edge of space. Developers of the Lomonosov hope to unlock of the exact mechanism responsible for this rare and poorly understood phenomenon, apparently related to electric activity of the Earth's atmosphere.

At the outset of the Lomonosov project, its authors stressed that along with their contribution to fundamental research, the effort might have practical applications in monitoring electric events between the Earth's cloud cover and the ionosphere. Because previous observations revealed that electrical discharges in the upper atmosphere had been accompanied by massive energy releases in a wide range of electromagnetic spectrum from radio waves to gamma rays, such events can pose serious radiation hazard at altitudes from 10 to 20 kilometers. Therefore, further studies of the newly discovered phenomena would be critical for understanding of radiation threats to flights at those altitudes, Russian scientists said.

Moreover, the brightness and emission characteristics of transient events have much in common with the effects of nuclear explosions, which obviously make them interesting for the nuclear research. (779)

In May 2015, the head of MGU Viktor Sadovnichiy was also quoted as saying that Lomonosov would be able to detect potentially dangerous asteroids and space junk, referring to the capability of high-speed, wide-angle cameras dubbed ShOK onboard the satellite.

Within the Russian space science field, the Lomonosov satellite will continue and expand the mission of the ill-fated Relek satellite, which failed in 2014, as well as Universitetsky-Tatyana-1 and -2 satellites.

Scientific instruments

Lomonosov carries a total of eight scientific payloads, including an ultraviolet detector and a telescope for measuring spectra and chemical composition of high-energy cosmic rays. Optical and x-ray sensors are also onboard. Three instruments -- BDRG, ShOK and UFFO -- will be dedicated to studies of gamma bursts in several wave lengths.


TUS telescope

The main instrument onboard Mikhailo Lomonosov is the TUS detector with a 1.8-square meter mirror concentrator with a focus length of 1.5 meters. At the focus, it will have an array of 256 photo-multipliers 15 by 15 millimeters each. From its altitude, the mirror can image 6,400 square kilometers of the atmospheric surface at a time.

The structure of the mirror is made of carbon material to retain shape under harsh temperature swings in orbit from minus 80 to plus 80 degrees. To achieve maximum reflective capability, the mirror is made of super-pure aluminum covered with a MgF2 (magnesium fluoride) coating, protecting it from the atmospheric oxygen.

The instrument will be used to capture flashes of near-ultraviolet light at wavelength from 300 to 400 nanometers in the atmosphere on the night side of the Earth, resulting from the collision between cosmic rays and particles in the atmosphere. Rare and very short-lived transient luminous events or "vertical lightning" lasting just fractions of a second could also be captured.

If successful, the TUS instrument would be the first concentrating mirror of this size with a UV-matrix operating in space, its developers said.

Thanks to its size, the UV collector could detect flashes in the Earth atmosphere four times weaker than those captured by traditional contemporary methods using video cameras. It will have a resolution of around two square meters, comparing to regular video cameras registering details around four or five kilometers in size.

Thanks to its unique light sensitivity, the TUS promised to enable scientists for the first time to observe the very initial stages of the transient luminous events and, as a result, to better understand their nature. Because the high sensitivity of the telescope will lead to "blinding" of its detectors at the moment of maximum brightness of the flash, rendering it ineffective, it is complemented with a pair of video-cameras with two different but fixed focus lengths to image the same event at its maximum brightness.


The triple X-ray and gamma-ray detector unit, or BDRG in Russian, developed at Skobeltsin Nuclear Research Institute, NIIYaF, will be used to locate and monitor celestial sources of gamma radiation. Three identical detectors of gamma particles with energy from 0.02 to 5.0 mega-electronvolts were installed at 90 degrees relative to each other pointing at the celestial sphere. The instrument is also expected to trigger a pair of ShOK optical cameras to photograph its targets.

The BDRG instrument will be able to observe various astrophysical phenomena such as X-ray novas and gamma-repeators. It will also register soft gamma-radiation from dual X-ray stars and pulsars.


shokA pair of optical cameras with a super-wide angle of view, ShOK, developed at GAISh MGU were installed on the satellite in fixed position for high-speed photography of light flashes, gamma-ray bursts, as well as satellites and space junk.

The experiment will also test an automated system for tracking small objects in space.

Each camera can take pictures at a speed from five to seven frames per second covering a field of 1,000 square degrees. Essentially, cameras will be shooting a continuous "film," whose fragments, which actually capture gamma-ray bursts could be downlinked.

In between, scientists could analyze images in search for other significant events, such as supernovae and appearances of asteroids and space junk.


Lomonosov will also carry the Ultra-Fast Flash Observatory, UFFO, which actually consists of two instruments. The UFFO Burst Alert and Trigger telescope, UBAT, is a coded-mask aperture X-ray camera with a wide field of view sensitive to wavelengths from 5 to 200 kiloelectronvolts.

The Slewing Mirror Telescope, SMT, is a 20-centimeter ultraviolet telescope sensitive to wavelengths from 200 to 650 nanometers.

Both instruments are linked to a common UFFO data acquisition system. When gamma-ray burst is detected by the UBAT camera, the SMT immediately receives the targeting information with an accuracy of 17 arc-minutes. The SMT then points its mirror in the right direction and begins capturing ultraviolet and optical light within a second, without the need to re-orient its host satellite.

UFFO will be used to locate gamma-ray bursts in the sky and to study their afterglow.

Scientists from US, South Korea, Denmark and Norway participated in the development of the instrument.


UFFO suit specifications


A special dosimeter known as DEPRON will be used for measuring electrons, protons and neutrons. DEPRON will measure absorbed doses and spectra of linear energy transfer from high-energy electrons, protons and nuclei of space radiation. The instrument will also measure radiation characteristics of the Earth's magnetosphere and register thermal and slow neutron flows.


A charged particle detector, named Electron Loss and Field Investigator for Lomonosov, ELFIN-L, is actually a suite of three instruments, including a magnetometer, a detector of energetic electrons and protons.


The IMISS instrument will be used for testing the quality of function of micro-electromechanical inertial measurement modules in space. According to MGU, the hardware could be eventually used for compensating for the disturbances of the vestibular system in humans.


To collect, store and downlink scientific information from the Lomonosov mission, the satellite's payload module will be equipped with its own Block of Information, BI, memory storage device.

Spacecraft bus

The VNIIEM corporation built the Mikhailo Lomonosov satellite based on its standard Kanopus platform, which was previously flown for Earth-observation missions. Like the original satellite bus, Lomonosov's service module is likely heavily dependent on avionics supplied by the SSTL company based in the United Kingdom.

Another major contributor into the project was VNIIEM's division in the town of Istra, known as NIIEM, which built the payload module for the satellite, the guidance mechanism for the TUS telescope and the thermal control system for the spacecraft. ZAO Novator, which is NIIEM's division in Istra, also participated in the project.

Origin of the Mikhailo Lomonosov project

The Mikhailo Lomonosov project originated at the Moscow State University, MGU. As Russia's investments into science began growing in mid-2000s, Physics, Mechanics and Mathematics Departments of MGU began collaboration with the Skobeltsin Nuclear Physics Institute and Shternberg State Astronomy Institute on a space-based ultraviolet detector for the atmospheric research. The team also established cooperation in the field with the EWHA Women's University in Seoul, South Korea, and the National University in Pueblo, Mexico.

The heart of the proposed instrument would be an innovative seven-segment fresnel mirror with a detector of ultraviolet radiation and a focus length of 1.5 meters. The device became known as TUS, which stands for "Trekovaya UStanovka" (or Trekking Unit in English). It would look at the interaction of space particles with the Earth's atmosphere and register resulting fluorescent emissions and electrons. With a mirror covering 1.68 square meters, the unit could scan an area of around 5,000 square kilometers from an altitude of 550 kilometers. (The size of the mirror was apparently later increased to 1.8 meters.)

Building the satellite, changing launchers

According to the original plan, the TUS instrument would be mounted on a micro-satellite, known as MKA, which would be developed at TsSKB Progress in Samara. The company proposed to launch it on a Soyuz rocket as a hitchhiker payload along with its primary mission delivering the Bion-M1 biological research spacecraft. Initially, TsSKB Progress hoped to equip the MKA with a simple deployable boom, which would ensure that the TUS mirror always points toward Earth thanks to natural gravitational forces pulling the mass at the end of the boom. However later, the more sophisticated three-axis attitude control system was deemed necessary for the goals of the TUS mission. In any case, the MKA would be limited in mass to just 200 kilograms and have a projected life span of just one year. Other resources and capabilities would be equally limited.

As a result around 2009, the developers of the TUS instrument switched to the Kanopus platform (also known as MVL-300) developed at AO VNIIEM as a basis for the project. The launch of the satellite was scheduled in April 2010 on a Rockot booster from Plesetsk.

The more powerful Kanopus platform provided scientists with extra resources for experiments to complement the TUS telescope with additional sensors for capturing transient events at their maximum brightness to expand the understanding of the phenomenon. In addition, it was now possible to look not only in the direction of the Earth but also toward the sky. Newly added experiments aimed to study most energetic cosmic rays in the Universe, often associated with quasars and black holes. Observations could help find sources and mechanisms accelerating these particles.

As of 2010, the spacecraft was expected to have a mass of around 450 kilogram and carry between 130 and 140 kilograms of scientific instruments. It was expected to be launched on a Ukrainian-supplied Dnepr booster into a 550-kilometer orbit with an inclination 97 degrees toward the Equator. Its price tag reached around 400 million rubles. Around that time, the spacecraft was named Mikhailo Lomonosov. The launch was scheduled for November 2011, to mark the 300th anniversary since Lomonosov's birth, but it then slipped to the spring of 2012.

By 2012, plans were made to launch the Mikhailo Lomonosov satellite during the second mission of the Soyuz-2-1v rocket with a Volga upper stage in the first half of 2013. However, at the time, the rocket was yet to fly its inaugural mission. Additional 20 million rubles were allocated in 2012 for the upgrades of the satellite, which were not expected to be completed before the middle of 2013.

As of October 2012, the shipment of the Soyuz-2-1v rocket, its Volga upper stage and an adapter to Plesetsk was scheduled no later than November 2013. As of November 2012, the delivery of the Mikhailo Lomonosov satellite to Plesetsk was promised in September 2013. However some of the parts from the second Soyuz-2-1v rocket were cannibalized for the repairs of the EU-763 test article damaged in a botched firing test in August 2012. As of October 2012, the second vehicle and its upper stage were scheduled to be ready for launch in September 2013.

In January 2013, the head of VNIIEM Leonid Makridenko told Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin that Lomonosov would be launched before the end of the year, however the company was still waiting for the Moscow State University to deliver the payload for the satellite. A month later, MGU announced that tests of dynamic mockup of the payload module had been completed in October 2012 and the flight version of the instruments entered testing the following month. The institute promised to complete integrated tests of the payload module by the end of March 2013. The work was conducted at VNIIEM's test facility in Istra.

By June 2013, the mission was expected in the fourth quarter of the same year, or as early as October. By that time, the rocket and its upper stage were still waiting for the delivery of several components during June and July at their prime manufacturing plant in Samara in order to meet the deadline for the shipment to Plesetsk in September 2013. However around the same time, it was also reported that Lomonosov had not been ready, requiring an alternative cargo for the launch. It was ultimately decided to launch the Kanopus-ST satellite on the second Soyuz-2-1v, leaving Lomonosov without a rocket again.

In February 2014, head of MGU Viktor Sadovnichy told RIA Novosti that the launch of Lomonosov on a Ukrainian Dnepr booster, was under discussion again. The mission could lift off at the beginning or in the middle of 2015. Alternatively, the satellite was considered as a candidate for the first launch of the Soyuz rocket from Vostochny. Not surprisingly, after the Russian annexation of Crimea in the spring of 2014, plans to launch Lomonosov on Dnepr were dropped and the satellite was booked to fly from the soon-to-be completed launch pad in Vostochny on the Soyuz-2-1a rocket. Sadovnichy confirmed that publicly in April of the same year. By May 2014, the Aist-2D satellite was also added to the list of passengers.

Due to high reliability of the Soyuz-2 launcher, the launch of Lomonosov had never been ensured.

Final preparations for launch


In December 2014, the delivery of Lomonosov and Aist satellites to Vostochny was planned for June or July 2015, to enable their launch before the end of 2015, however by September of that year, the delivery had slipped to October 13 or October 18, 2015, even thought the launch was still officially planned on December 25, 2015.

At the beginning of August 2015, VNIIEM announced that the company had completed qualification tests on the Lomonosov satellite.

By December 2015, the first mission from Vostochny was rescheduled for around April 25, 2016. Within a month, around 200 specialists of TsSKB Progress in Samara traveled to Vostochny for the Lomonosov launch campaign. On January 18, 2016, they began the assembly and testing of the Soyuz rocket at the new site. The Soyuz-2-1a rocket intended for the maiden flight from Vostochny was unloaded from its transport containers on January 20, after its assembly building at the center's processing facility had received power via a permanent supply line, Roskosmos announced.

At the time, autonomous tests of the new launch facilities were scheduled to be completed by March 26, 2016, when the rocket would be rolled out to the launch pad for integrated tests.

Contingent on the success of all tests, the first launch from the new Russian space center could take place as early as the second half of April, the head of Roskosmos Igor Komarov said upon his inspection of the site on January 20.

On January 19, 2016, a Volga upper stage, Aist-2D and SamSat-218 satellites departed the airfield at the Aviakor plant near the city of Samara on an Il-76 transport plane bound to Blagoveshensk, south of Vostochny. Following its landing in Blagoveshensk on January 21, the hardware was expected to reach its future spaceport by rail on January 22 and be delivered for processing a day later.

By January 26, four boosters of the first stage were integrated with the core booster of the second stage, which was to follow with pneumatic and electric tests and would be concluded with the final assembly of the rocket, Roskosmos said. According to the agency, engineers from RKTs Progress planned to complete all operations with the rocket on March 15, 2016.

As of January 2016, Lomonosov was expected to arrive at the launch site on February 1, however by mid-February, the shipment was postponed until March 3.

On February 12, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin announced that the assembly of the Soyuz-2-1a rocket for the mission had been completed. The rocket was brought to readiness No. 2 (without payload).

Before the end of February 2016, the launch of the Mikhailo Lomonosov satellite from Vostochny was set for April 27, 2016, at 05:01:21 Moscow Time (22:01 EDT on April 26). The launch was timed to insert the satellite into a near-polar orbit along the terminator (the border line between day and night).

On March 15, VNIIEM announced that electric tests of the service module of the Lomonosov satellite had been completed and tests of the payload had began inside clean room of the spacecraft processing building, MIK KA, in Vostochny.

On March 22, head of Roskosmos Igor Komarov told journalists that preparations of the Mikhailo Lomonosov satellite had been moving two days ahead of schedule. By that time, electric tests had been completed and tests of solar panels had been under way, Komarov said.

By the end of March, specialists completed electrical tests of the payload and service module, as well as tests of the solar panel deployment and their exposure to the sunlight. Upon completion of the assembly, the team began integrated tests of the satellite, Roskosmos announced on April 1.

On April 4, Roskosmos said that after reviewing the results of the tests on the pad, the State Commission overseeing the first launch from Vostochny had approved the liftoff of the Soyuz-2-1a rocket on April 27.

For the final countdown, the fully assembled vehicle would be rolled out to its brand-new launch pad in Vostochny on April 23, Roskosmos said.


A fully integrated payload section for the first launch from Vostochny with the Mikhailo Lomonosov satellite on the foreground.

The final assembly of the payload section, which would be carried into orbit during the first mission from Vostochny, began at the new Russian spaceport in the middle of April 2016.

Engineers at various Roskosmos entities including the TsENKI ground processing company, the VNIEEM satellite manufacturer and Moscow State University, which was responsible for scientific instruments, began integration of three satellites with their Volga upper stage, Roskosmos announced on April 15. All three spacecraft -- Mikhailo Lomonosov, Aist-2D and SamSat-218 -- were integrated with the upper stage.

According to Roskosmos, the fully assembled payload section would be placed inside its protective fairing on April 18. The resulting upper composite was then transferred from the spacecraft processing building, MIK KA, to the vehicle assembly building, MIK RN, for final integration with its Soyuz-2-1a rocket.

The integration of the launch vehicle was to be completed before the end of the week for the rollout to the launch pad on April 23.

Lomonosov delivers first scientific results

On May 6, 2016, eight days after the successful launch of the Lomonosov satellite, Roskosmos announced that testing of scientific instruments onboard Lomonosov was to begin after the completion of ongoing checks of the satellite's service module. According to the agency, all systems onboard Lomonosov were operating as scheduled.

On May 17, Moscow State University, MGU, announced that in the first step toward the activation of scientific instruments aboard Lomonosov, ground controllers turned on the DEPRON instrument, downlinking first data on space radiation in the near-Earth space. The IMISS-1 instrument was activated next, followed by the BDRG spectrometer.

Also, first images from the ShOK cameras onboard Lomonosov were received on May 14, 2016, during a short test session. According to MGU, these early pictures had already captured dozens of satellites and pieces of space junk which had flown within the vicinity of the Lomonosov. In the future, ShOK cameras were expected to be used for regular surveys of near-Earth space, MGU said. ShOK cameras would be used in tandem with the Master ground-based automated network of telescopes operated by MGU.


Early images from the ShOK cameras onboard the Lomonosov satellite released on May 18, 2016. (See sidebar for animations)

Mikhailo Lomonosov runs in trouble in orbit

On June 30, 2018, the Head of Nuclear Physics Institute of Moscow State University, NIIYaF MGU, Mikhail Panasyuk, confirmed the report by the RIA Novosti news agency that Mikhailo Lomonosov, one of only two dedicated scientific satellites operated by Russia, had suffered a failure of its data transmission system. Specialists from MGU and VNIIEM Corporation, which built the satellite, were working to determine the source of the problem and resolve it, RIA Novosti said, quoting an unnamed industry source. The news of the failure aboard the Mikhailo Lomonosov satellite came two years and two months after its launch from Vostochny Cosmodrome or 10 months before the completion of its minimum projected life span of three years.


Next chapter: Launch of Mikhailo Lomonosov on April 28, 2016


Read much more about the history of the Russian space program in a richly illustrated, large-format glossy edition:



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The article and photography by Anatoly Zak

Last update: July 2, 2018

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A prototype of the UV mirror for Lomonosov's primary TUS instrument circa 2009. Credit: MGU


A prototype of an optical camera for the Lomonosov satellite. Credit: MGU



The earliest concept of the Lomonosov satellite in folded (top) and deployed position: 1 - gravitation stability boom; 2 - solar panel; 3 - spacecraft body; 4 - TUS mirror collector; 5 - detector; 6 - flight control antenna; 7 - magnetometer (2); 8 - scientific data transmission antenna. Credit: TsSKB Progress


Another revision of the TUS satellite based on the MKA platform. Credit: TsSKB Progress


A scale model of the Bion-M satellite with its original "hitchhiker" payload -- an MKA-TUS satellite. Copyright © 2010 Anatoly Zak



An early concept of the Lomonosov satellite with a single TUS instrument based on the Kanopus platform and integrated with the Rockot payload fairing (top) circa 2009. Credit: MGU


Around 2012, Lomonosov was expected to ride Soyuz-2-1v/Volga rocket in an "upside-down" position. A secondary Aist-2 satellite is placed inside the adapter. Credit: Roskosmos


Artist rendition of the nadir side of the Lomonosov satellite, which should be pointed toward the Earth during the real mission. Credit: Roskosmos


The zenith side of the Lomonosov satellite equipped with sensors aiming at celestial sources. Credit: Roskosmos


BDRG detectors of the Lomonosov satellite during tests in 2012. Credit: NIIYaF MGU


The detector of the TUS telescope in the focus of the main mirror (on the background) during testing circa 2013. Credit: MGU


Payloads for the Lomonosov satellite during testing at the VNIIEM facility in the town of Istra at the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013. Credit: NIIYaF MGU


The Lomonosov satellite during radio testing in echoless chamber. Credit: VNIIEM


The fully assembled Mikhailo Lomonosov satellite with the TUS instrument (under a protective cover) on the foreground. Credit: VNIIEM


The Mikhailo Lomonosov satellite integrated with its payload section in April 2016. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos


The Lomonosov satellite is rotated into a horizontal position for integration with the payload fairing of the Soyuz launch vehicle before launch. Credit: Roskosmos


The Lomonosov satellite lifts off on April 28, 2016. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos


Measurements from the BDRG instrument released on May 17, 2016, show radiation spikes in the outer radiation belt of the Earth, as the satellite was passing near the polar regions of the planet. Credit: MGU









Animations from images captured by ShOK cameras onboard the Lomonosov satellte on May 14, 2016. Credit: GAISh MGU