The Yamal satellites series
At the beginning of the 1990s, Russian firm RKK Energia returned to the development of communications satellites after a nearly three-decade hiatus. Ironically, the company pioneered satellite communications in the USSR in the 1960s before focusing almost entirely on the human space flight.
A proposed Yamal family (left to right): Yamal-100, Yamal-200, Polyarnaya Zvezda and Yamal-300.
In the 1990s, many orbital positions assigned to Russia to deploy geostationary satellites had remained unused due to economic crisis of the post-Soviet period. As a result, Moscow risked losing its registered locations along with their potential to deliver communications across the largest country in the world.
Around the same time, the Russian firm RKK Energia was looking to diversify its activities away from prestigious but then severely underfunded field of human space flight. Around 1994, after several years of preliminary studies, the company initiated a privately financed project of a communications satellite, dubbed Yamal. The spacecraft featured the unpressurized modular design, which could be easily modified for a variety of tasks. The satellite's propulsion system included eight SPD-70 electric thrusters using xenon gas.
Thanks to its smaller size, two Yamals could ride a single Proton rocket, potentially increasing Russia's chances to fill its orbital positions. RKK Energia also considered an option of launching a single Yamal on the Molniya rocket, however that plan had never materialized.
The main funding for the Yamal project came from Russia's gas and oil giant Gazprom. The company's numerous oil and gas fields are scattered across huge expanses of Siberia and Northern Russia, (including the Yamal Peninsula which lended its name to the satellite), often hundreds kilometers away from any permanent communications infrastructure. Not surprisingly, Gazprom saw satellite communications as a logical field for investment. In addition to serving its own oil fields, pipeline crews and support infrastructure, Gazprom hoped to sublet unused capacity of its satellites. Gazprom formed Gazkom company, which acted as a customer for the Yamal system. (52)
Gazkom secured two positions in the geostationary orbit at 75 degrees East and 19.5 degrees West longitude. The development of the communications payloads for the Yamal satellites was subcontracted to the US firm Loral. Yamal-100 satellites were expected to carry nine or 10 transponders each.
The launch of the two satellites on a single Proton rocket was initially scheduled for the middle of 1997.
In 1996, RKK Energia also began development of a beefed up version of the satellite designated Yamal-200, which it hoped to sell to the Russian government. A follow-on Yamal-300 configuration was also under consideration.
A Proton rocket successfully delivered a pair of Yamal-100 satellites into orbit on Sept. 6, 1999, however one spacecraft never responded to commands from the ground. (164) The second satellite functioned largely successfully until 2010. On Aug. 9, its owner, Gazprom, retired the satellite, sending it from the crowded geostationary orbit into a higher "burial" orbit. After reaching it, all systems onboard were shut off.
The modular design of the Yamal spacecraft became a basis for the standard satellite platform, dubbed Viktoria. RKK Energia hoped to use it for practically every space application planned by the Russian space agency and by the Russian Ministry of Defense. Indeed, with Viktoria, RKK Energia apparently won a bid to develop the EKS (Tundra) early warning satellites funded by the Russian military.
However, recent sources hinted that the EKS network had remained the only satellite system that has adopted the Viktoria satellite bus. Neither the Russian space agency nor the Ministry of Defense has bought into the idea of a single multi-purpose platform. (566) Still, RKK Energia used the experience and technology developed for the original Yamal-100 satellites and for the Viktoria bus to launch a pair of Yamal-200 satellites in 2003 and the BelKA remote-sensing satellite in 2006. However the Yamal-300 project had to be abandoned in April 2009. (566)
The development of the Yamal series for Gazprom was then continued at ISS Reshetnev, Russia's prime developer of communications satellites. In 2023, Gazprom indicated that the launch of Yamal-501 had been scheduled for 2026 and Yamal-502 for 2028.
On Nov. 1, 2023, Gazprom and ISS Reshetnev signed a formal contract for the development of the Yamal-501 communications satellite based on the Ekspress-1000 platform. It was intended for operation in Ku-band at 55 degrees East longitude during a 15-year period, providing 6,300 watts of power for its communications payload.
Known specifications of the Yamal-100 satellite:
The Yamal communications satellite series:
The Yamal satellite bus developed at RKK Energia. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2011 Anatoly Zak
A scale model of the head section of the Proton rocket with Block D upper stage and a pair of Yamal-100 satellites. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak