Proton launches classified payload
In its second mission of 2023, the Proton rocket carries a satellite officially identified as Luch-5, but the spacecraft more likely belongs to the classified Olymp-K series.
Second Olymp-K mission at a glance:
Preparations for launch
Early unofficial reports about plans to launch the second Olymp-K payload on a Proton rocket surfaced in 2020. At the time, the launch of what was officially identified as the Luch-5 data-relay satellite was expected during 2021. Because the civilian Luch-5 system was not known to have another spacecraft in the works at the time and because it was previously used as a cover for the first launch of the classified Olymp-K spacecraft, it was likely that a second such satellite had been planned. Olymp-K is believed to be intended for electronic intelligence.
By March 2021, the planned launch of the second Olymp-K had shifted into 2022 and in the course of 2021, the rocket's flight manifest put the mission into the Spring or Summer period of 2022.
The Proton-M vehicle and the Briz-M upper stage for the spacecraft were apparently shipped from GKNPTs Khrunichev in Moscow to Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan during the night from Sept. 16 to 17, 2021. However, during 2022, the Olymp mission drifted into the following year, possibly due to problems with the payload. The launch was reported scheduled for January 31, then for February 19 and, finally, for March 13, 2023, at 02:13:00 Moscow Time.
Four backup launch dates were also known to be reserved:
In early February 2023, the TsENKI enterprise, responsible for ground infrastructure at Roskosmos, published a video report showing the delivery of a container with what was identified as the Luch-5 satellite to the processing building at Site 92A-50 in Baikonur, which marked the start of a launch campaign with the spacecraft.
The rollout of a fully assembled rocket to Pad No. 39 at Site 200 in Baikonur was reported on March 9, 2023. Despite official identification as Luch, there was no usual official coverage of the launch campaign, as witnessed with previous Luch satellites and most other civilian payloads.
Peculiarly, in 2019, the Russian Ministry of Defense said that the fourth Blagovest satellite, launched on August 6 of that year, would be its final payload flying from Baikonur, before the switch of all military space operations to Plesetsk. That might indicate that the Olymp-K payload had a customer other than the Ministry of Defense.
According to Roskosmos, the Proton-M rocket with a Briz-M upper stage lifted off on March 13, 2023, at 02:12:59.981 Moscow Time (7:13 p.m. EDT) from Site 200 in Baikonur. After a few seconds of vertical ascent, the vehicle was programmed to head east to align its trajectory with an orbit inclined around 51.6 degrees toward the Equator. The first stage of the rocket was to separate around two minutes into the flight and likely fall in Karaganda Region of Kazakhstan. After the launch, the Kazakh media reported that the fragmemts of the rocket fell at the Y-24 drop zone located in the Ulytausk District.
According to the official information released by TsENKI for the local authorities in the Republic of Khakassia, the rocket's second stage and the two halves of the payload fairing were expected to fall in Drop Zone No. 326 located in the Tashtypsky District of Khakassia and also overlapping Altai and Tuva republics.
The third stage of the rocket had to accelerate to a near-orbital velocity, ensuring its reentry into the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean, following its separation from the Briz-M upper stage around nine minutes into the flight. Around a minute after parting from the third stage, Briz-M should perform its first engine firing in order to reach an initial parking orbit. Subsequent maneuvers of the upper stage in the following six hours were expected to boost the satellite toward the geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers above the Earth's surface, where it is expected to operate.
As expected, an empty external tank from the Briz-M upper stage, which normally jettisoned in an elliptical transfer orbit, was in fact, tracked by a US Space Force radar in a 381 by 35,715-kilometer orbit with an inclination 48.7 degrees toward the Equator.
Several hours after the launch, Roskosmos announced that the spacecraft was successfully delivered to its planned orbit. In the following day, the US Space Force catalogued the satellite in a 35,316 by 35,771-kilometer orbit with an inclination of 0.3 degrees toward the Equator, which resulted in an orbital period of 1,423.68 minutes (around 23.7 hours). Because it was slightly less than 24 hours required for matching the Earth's rotation, the satellite's longitudal position relative to the Earth's surface drifted east 3.1 degrees per day, as of March 15.
Soon thereafter, the Briz-M stage, which delivered Olymp, was found in a 35,871 by 36,448-kilometer orbit, indicating that it was used for a direct insertion of the satellite into the near-geostationary orbit.
A scale model of a communications satellite proposed by RKK Energia. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2011 Anatoly Zak
A container likely carrying the Olymp-K satellite is transported to Baikonur at the start of the launch campaign at the beginning of 2023. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2011 Anatoly Zak