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Soyuz launches a secret cargo

Opening Russia's orbital launch attempts in 2022, a Soyuz-2-1a rocket delivered a classified satellite into orbit, following a liftoff from a military spaceport in Plesetsk, north of Moscow on February 5.


The Neitron mission at a glance:

Primary payload 14F01 Neitron, Kosmos-2553
Launch vehicle Soyuz-2-1a
Launch site Plesetsk, Site 43, Pad 4 (Launch facility 17P32-S4)
Launch date 2022 Feb. 5, 10:00:00.101 Moscow Time

After a 48-hour delay, a Soyuz-2-1a rocket with a Fregat upper stage lifted off from Pad No. 4 at Site 43 in Plesetsk on Feb. 5, 2022, at 10:00 Moscow Time (2 a.m. EST). According to air traffic warnings issued ahead of the launch, the mission targeted an orbit with an inclination 67 degrees toward the Equator.

Shortly after launch, the Russian Ministry of Defense said that all pre-launch operations and initial ascent of the vehicle with a military satellite had gone as planned. The payload section, including the Fregat upper stage and a spacecraft had separated from the third stage of the Soyuz-2-1a launch vehicle at 10:09 Moscow Time. It would take several hours for the Fregat to deliver the spacecraft to its planned orbit, the Ministry of Defense said quoted by the official Russian media. Several hours after, the Russian military said that Fregat had successfully delivered the spacecraft into its planned orbit. The official media also confirmed the successful deorbiting of the Fregat upper stage after the delivery of the payload. The satellite was officially designated as Kosmos-2553. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the new satellite was maintaining stable communications with ground control and all its system were operating nominally.

The Russian military also characterized the mission as a "technological... equipped with newly developed instruments and systems for their testing under conditions of radiation and heavy particles."


A scale model of the radar-carrying satellite displayed by NPO Mashinostroenia in 2011.

According to unofficial sources, the launch delivered a Neitron satellite built at NPO Mashinostroenia, based in the town of Reutov, outside of Moscow. The company is a leading manufacturer of Russian cruise missiles, but it also led the development of the Kondor radar-imaging satellites in recent years. According to posts on Russian social media, the Neitron payload is believed to be based on the Kondor platform, but it is customized for operation in a considerably higher orbit.

In the early stage of the Kondor project, NPO Mashinostroenia proposed multiple roles for its spacecraft series, including optical reconnaissance and communications.

The Neitron designation surfaced in Russian procurement documents around 2017 and the spacecraft was also listed in a corporate newspaper published by NPO Lavochkin among payloads slated for launch on the company's Fregat upper stage during 2018.

The orbital inclination targeted by the Neitron matched that used by the Liana electronic-intelligence constellation, however Pion and Lotos satellites comprising that network, did not require the Fregat space tug to reach their low orbits.

According to radar tracking data from the 18th Space Control Squadron of the US Space Force, Kosmos-2553 entered a 1,987 by 1,995-kilometer orbit with an inclination 67.08 degrees toward the Equator and an orbital period of 126.99 minutes.


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Scale model of the Kondor-E spacecraft equipped with optical imaging payload. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak


A scale model of an application satellite proposed at NPO Mashinostroenia. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak


Soyuz-2-1/Fregat rocket with Neitron satellite shortly before launch on Feb. 5, 2022. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak