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Rockot successfully launches Swarm satellites

A converted Russian ballistic missile delivered a trio of European scientific satellites into orbit on Nov. 22, 2013.

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Ground track

Above: Ground track of the Rockot mission to launch Swarm satellites. Credit: GKNPTs Khrunichev.


Above: Ground track of the orbital insertion during the Swarm mission. Credit: GKNPTs Khrunichev.

A Rockot booster with Briz-KM upper stage lifted off as scheduled from from Pad 3 at Site 133 in Plesetsk on Nov. 22, 2013, at 16:02:29 Moscow Time (7:02 a.m. EST). The vehicle was carrying a trio of 500-kilogram Swarm geomagnetic research satellites for the European Space Agency, ESA. It will be the agency's first satellite constellation dedicated to measure magnetic signals from the Earth and the fourth mission in the European Earth Explorer program, following GOCE, SMOS and CryoSat satellites.

ESA confirmed that the first burn of the Briz-KM upper stage was completed at 12:17:04 GMT (7:17 a.m. EST). The maneuver was supposed to insert the stack into a 476 by 153-kilometer transfer orbit with an inclination 87.6 degrees toward the Equator.

Following a second burn, all three Swarm satellites were released into the same 490-kilometer near-polar orbit with an inclination 87.6 degrees toward the Equator. From there, a pair of satellites was scheduled to descent to a 460-kilometer orbit, while the third spacecraft would climb to a 530-kilometer orbit. The lower pair will fly in formation side by side, about 150 km (10 seconds) apart when crossing the Equator. The goal of this arrangement was to spread out scientific instruments onboard satellites, in order to help establish exact origins of various magnetic phenomena.

According to ESA, Swarm satellites will identify and measure the magnetic signals that stem from Earth’s core, mantle, crust, oceans, ionosphere and magnetosphere – all of which create the magnetic field that protects our planet. This information will provide insight into processes occurring deep inside the planet and yield a better understanding of the near-Earth electromagnetic environment and the impact solar wind has on Earth, ESA announced. The experiment would allow to analyze the Earth's geomagnetic field and its evolution over time in unprecedented detail.

The satellites were built by EADS Astrium would be controlled by ESA teams at the European Space Operation Centre in Darmstadt, Germany. In the development of SWARM spacecraft, Astrium relied on its experience with the Champ satellite launched in July 2000.

According to Astrium, Swarm's the primary research objectives included:

  • Studies of core dynamics, geo-dynamo processes, and core-mantle interaction;
  • Mapping of the lithosphere magnetization and its geological interpretation;
  • Determination of the 3D electrical conductivity of the mantle;
  • Investigation of electric current flowing in the magnetosphere and ionosphere.

A formal operational life span for Swarm satellites was set for four years, however the project scientists hoped that they could work as long as an entire 11-year solar cycle.

Mission launch history

The contract for the mission with the European Space Agency was signed in April 2010. When the fully assembled satellites were first presented to the media in February 2012, their launch was promised in July of the same year. The mission was then planned for the middle of October 2012, but by the beginning of June of that year it was rescheduled for November 13. Following a failed launch of the Proton rocket with Briz-M upper stage in August 2012, the mission was postponed to February or March 2013. Following a technical glitch with Rockot's own Briz-KM upper stage during a mission to deliver Rodnik military payloads in January 2013, the mission was postponed again and was eventually scheduled for November 2013. The satellites were delivered to Plesetsk in September 2013. By the end of October 2013, a need to replace a component onboard the Briz-KM required to postpone the launch from November 14 to November 22, 2013.

Briz glitch?

Following the release of the Swarm trio, the Briz upper stage was supposed to conduct a series of maneuvers to lower its orbit. However the live telemetry from the vehicle indicated that the second attitude control maneuver preceding a planned braking engine firing and planned to be completed in 3.3 minutes ended around 52 minutes prematurely. There was no data on the first attitude control maneuver or on any of two 10-second braking engine firings. It could indicate a problem with the telemetry transmission or with the maneuver itself. However, the western radar found the Briz-KM in a 461 by 472-kilometer orbit instead of the planned 429 by 473-kilometer final orbit, likely confirming that orbit-lowering maneuvers had not been completed as planned.

There was no immediate official explanation for these developments, however within 24 hours, updated radar data indicated that the Briz had reached an orbit with a perigee of 453 - 466.4 kilometers and an apogee between 480.3 - 501.6 kilometers, thus leaving the stage as close as 25 kilometers above its prescribed lowest point. The lack of orbital parameters data during the live feed could have many causes unrelated to the performance of the spacecraft itself.


SWARM launch timeline:

Planned time
Moscow Time
07:02 a.m.
122 seconds
Stage I and II separation
168 seconds
Fairing separation
305 seconds
-1 second
Separation of Stage II and the payload section
305 seconds
Braking solid motor firing on Stage II
311 seconds
First firing of Briz-KM upper stage starts
867 seconds
07:17 a.m.
First firing of Briz-KM upper stage ends
4,540 seconds
Second firing of Briz-KM upper stage starts
4,557 seconds
Second firing of Briz-KM upper stage ends
5,478 seconds
Spacecraft separation from the Briz-KM upper stage
5,971 seconds
Briz-KM upper stage starts attitude control maneuver to avoid its payload
6,171 seconds
Briz-KM upper stage completes attitude control maneuver to avoid its payload
8,786 seconds
Briz-KM upper stage starts second attitude control maneuver to avoid its payload
8,986 seconds
Briz-KM upper stage completes second attitude control maneuver to avoid its payload

*according to actual telemetry from the mission


Known specifications of SWARM satellites according to EADS Astrium:

9 meters
1.5 meters
1 meter
Launch mass
500 kilograms each (all three satellites total 1,500 kilograms)
Operational life span
4 years


Next chapter: Rockot's launch site in Plesetsk

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Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: January 15, 2015

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A scale model of Swarm satellite in deployed position. The spacecraft was designed to generate as little atmospheric drag as possible during its mission at the edge of the upper atmosphere. The spacecraft was equipped with a four-meter boom carrying scientific instruments. Copyright © 2010 Anatoly Zak


Swarm satellites during preparation for launch. Click to enlarge. Credit: ESA



A Rockot booster lifts off with three Swarm satellites in heavy fog on Nov. 22, 2013, at 16:02 Moscow Time. Credit: ESA


Artist rendering of separation of three Swarm satellites from Briz upper stage. According to Roskosmos, this milstone took place at 17:33 Moscow Time on Nov. 22, 2013. Click to enlarge. Credit: ESA