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Russian Proton-M lifts Garpun military satellite to orbit

Inmarsat 5F2 launches from Baikonur Cosmodrone Tsenki photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider

A Russian Proton rocket lifts off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome (Archive Photo). Photo Credit: Tsenki

A Russian Proton-M rocket has successfully launched the Garpun 12L (meaning “harpoon” in Russian) military communications satellite into orbit on Saturday, Dec. 12, at 7:19 p.m. EST (00:19 GMT on Sunday, Dec. 13). Liftoff of the rocket took place from Site 81/24 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The launch of this mission was initially scheduled for Dec. 10, but it was postponed after the loss of the Kanopus-ST satellite on Dec. 5 when it failed to separate from the Soyuz-2.1v booster. Additional checks of the spacecraft separation system were performed to make sure that the failure won’t happen again.

Due to the military nature of the Garpun mission, very little information was released regarding preparations for the launch. The mission also wasn’t broadcasted live.

The Proton-M vehicle was rolled out to the launch pad in the first week of December. The countdown for the launch started almost 12 hours before liftoff. The rocket, together with its upper stage, were activated for testing and fueling.

Firing up its six RD-276 engines, the Proton-M booster started a vertical ascent, lasting a few seconds and then it turned northeasterly to reach a geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO). The rocket’s first stage operated for about two minutes until it was jettisoned. The second stage’s burn lasted three minutes and 28 seconds and then it separated from the launch vehicle. The third stage continued the flight for approximately four minutes during which the protective payload fairing was jettisoned. The Briz-M upper stage separated about nine minutes and 42 seconds after liftoff.

The upper stage then commenced its nine-hour flight tasked with injecting the Garpun satellite into GEO. The Briz-M performed four main engine burns to complete its mission. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, the spacecraft was successfully delivered into the targeted orbit. When in space, the satellite received an official designation – Kosmos 2513.

Proton-M rocket on the launch pad days before the liftoff.

The Proton-M rocket on the launch pad at Baikonur days before liftoff. Photo Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense

Garpun 12L is a new-generation space-to-ground military communications satellites. It is designed to provide data relay capabilities for Russia’s fleet of reconnaissance satellites and is operated by the Russian Defense Ministry. The spacecraft features two solar arrays.

Built by ISS Reshetnev – a Russian satellite manufacturing company – the spacecraft is probably based on the Ekspress-1000 or 2000 bus. This platform can be equipped in various types of payloads including several antenna reflectors capable of tracking low-orbiting satellites and relaying their signals to ground stations. However, no detailed information was released about the satellite’s size, mass, and its payload.

The first Garpun satellite, designated 11L, was launched on Sept. 20, 2011. The Garpun satellites will replace the Potok/Geizer series started in 1982 to relay data from optical reconnaissance satellites.

The 190 feet tall (58 m) Proton-M booster used for the Saturday launch is 13.5 feet (4.1 m) in diameter along its second and third stages, with a first stage diameter of 24.3 feet (7.4 m). The overall height of the Proton booster’s three stages is 138.8 feet (42.3 m).

The first stage consists of a central tank containing the oxidizer surrounded by six outboard fuel tanks. Each fuel tank also carries one of the six RD‑276 engines that provide power for the first stage. The cylindrical second stage is powered by three RD-0210 engines plus one RD‑0211 engine. The third stage is powered by one RD-0213 engine and a four-nozzle vernier engine. Guidance, navigation, and control of the Proton-M during operation of the first three stages is carried out by a triple redundant closed-loop digital avionics system mounted in the Proton’s third stage.

The Briz-M is powered by one pump-fed gimbaled main engine. This stage is composed of a central core and an auxiliary propellant tank that is jettisoned in flight following depletion. The Briz-M control system includes an onboard computer, a three-axis gyro stabilized platform, and a navigation system. The quantity of propellant carried is dependent on specific mission requirements and is varied to maximize mission performance.

Saturday’s mission was the sixth launch of Proton-M/Briz-M and the 15th liftoff from Baikonur this year. It was also the 24th Russian orbital mission this year. Russia still occupies first place in terms of the total number of launches for 2015.

Proton, used very often by Russia and also by the International Launch Services (ILS) for commercial missions, is lately experiencing a long series of setbacks and accidents. It has had eleven failures in the last ten years. The last accident occurred on May 16, 2015, when the Mexsat-1 exploded shortly after the launch.

Russia is planning three more flights before the close of the year. The next launch is currently scheduled for Dec. 15 when a Soyuz-FG rocket will send the Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft with three Expedition 46 crew members (NASA’s Timothy Kopra, Yuri Malenchenko of Roscosmos, and ESA’s Tim Peake) to the International Space Station (ISS). Liftoff will take place from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Tim Peake will become the first ESA astronaut from the UK to be sent to space.

The next Proton mission is scheduled for Dec. 23 when it will launch the Russian Ekspress AMU1 satellite from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.


Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.

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