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Russian Soyuz-2.1b rocket successfully launches Tundra satellite

Soyuz-2.1b rocket launch with the EKS satellite.

Soyuz-2.1b rocket launch with the EKS satellite. Image Credit: Russian Defense Ministry

Russia successfully launched on Tuesday the first satellite for its newest early warning system, named EKS. A Soyuz-2.1b rocket, carrying the Tundra satellite, lifted off at 1:34 a.m. EST (6:34 GMT) from Site 43/4 at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, located in Northern Russia.

After liftoff, the rocket started its vertical climb lasting just a few seconds. Then it commenced its pitch and roll maneuver to start flying into a south-easterly direction. The four boosters of the first stage were jettisoned around two minutes later. The launch vehicle fired its three stages for nearly 10 minutes until the separation of the Fregat-M upper stage occurred. The satellite was deployed about five hours into the flight.

The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed, minutes after the launch, that Tundra successfully separated from its Soyuz carrier later on in the process. The satellite, earlier identified as 14F142, has successfully reached its targeted orbit and was designated Kosmos-2510.

A Soyuz-2.1b rocket on the launch pad at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome waiting for the launch on Nov. 17, 2015.

A Soyuz-2.1b rocket on the launch pad at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome waiting for the launch on Nov. 17, 2015. Photo Credit: Russian Ministry of Defence

No detailed information was released regarding the preparations for this mission. About five hours before the launch, the Russian State Commission gave a green light for the liftoff with a formal approval to begin propellant loading.

The Tundra spacecraft was built by the RKK Energia company, a Russian manufacturer of spacecraft and space station components. The satellite is probably based on the USP bus, weighing about metric 1.2 tons, which was used mainly in the Yamal spacecraft series. The payload was provided by the Central Science and Research Institute “Kometa”. The satellite will be operated by the Russian Aerospace Defence Forces (VKO).

The launch was carried out under the command of Deputy Commander of VKO – Commander of the Space Troops Alexander Golovko.

Little is known about the Tundra satellite. Information released by the Russian media and government sources indicate that the spacecraft features two deployable solar arrays and will replace the US-KMO and US-K satellites of the previous early warning Oko (meaning “eye” in Russian) program. Russia lost all of its early warning satellites in the spring of 2014.

Western analysts believe that EKS satellites could carry also a secure emergency communications payload to be used in case of a nuclear war. The new system could have a true look-down capability and will detect missiles launched from the sea as well as from the U.S. territory.

The satellite was delivered into a highly elliptical geosynchronous orbit, called a Tundra orbit. It is a high inclination orbit, usually near 63.4 degrees, and an orbital period of about four minutes less than a solar day. A satellite placed in this orbit spends most of its time over a chosen area of the Earth. Tundra provides higher elevation angles than can be offered by a geostationary orbit.

The EKS system (meaning Unified Space System) will consist of satellites capable of identifying ballistic missile launches from outer space. They will identify launches of ballistic missiles by detection of their engines’ exhaust plume in infrared light. The new system will also complement early-warning radars.

The development of the program started in 2000. The Russian Ministry of Defence awarded in 2007 a contract for the EKS system to RKK Energia with a first test launch planned in 2009. Several problems, changing requirements and a court case delayed the first mission to Nov. 17, 2015.

Currently, there are six Tundra satellites planned to be launched until 2020. The next Tundra mission is scheduled for 2016. The exact date is yet to be announced.

The previous Oko system, started in the 1970s, is described as outdated and is planned to be replaced by EKS as soon as possible. Oko has currently two types of satellites: US-KMO in geosynchronous orbits, with an infrared telescope to identify ballistic missile launches, and US-K in Molniya orbits, with optical telescopes and infrared sensors. The last satellite for the Oko system, designated Kosmos 2479, was launched on March 30, 2012.

The Soyuz-2.1b rocket that was employed in Tuesday’s launch is an upgraded version of a three-stage carrier Soyuz-2 booster. The 151 feet (46.1 meters) tall launch vehicle with a total mass of 672,000 lbs. (304,814 kg) is designed to put satellites into a variety of orbits. The Soyuz-2.1b is capable of putting up to 18,100 lbs. (8,210 kg) into a low-Earth orbit (LEO), 10,800 lbs. (4,899 kg) into a Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) and 7,170 lbs. (3,252 kg) into a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO). The first launch of this version took place from Plesetsk on July 26, 2008, with a classified military payload.

This launch vehicle uses four RD-107A engines for liftoff, burning for about 2 minutes. The first stage, 88.9 feet (27.1 meters) long and 9.7 feet (2.95 meters) in diameter, is equipped in one RD-108A engine. The rocket’s second stage has a length of 22 feet (6.7 meters) and is 8.7 feet (2.66 meters) in diameter. The 2.1b version has an upgraded engine RD-0124 with improved performance to the second stage.

For Tuesday’s mission, the Soyuz-2.1b rocket was used in a configuration with a Fregat-M third stage. This upper stage is 4.9 feet (1.5 meters) long and has 11 feet (3.35 meters) in diameter. Its S5.92 engine burns for about 18 minutes. Fregat-M is responsible for the orbital insertion of the satellite. However, it could be also used as an escape stage to send space probes onto interplanetary trajectories. Fregat stages are currently used as the fourth stage of some Soyuz-FG launch vehicles.

The Russian Aerospace Defence Forces are also in the middle of preparations for its next launch scheduled for Dec. 2. The mission that will be conducted from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan will send the Garpun military communications satellite atop a Proton-M booster, into a geosynchronous orbit (GSO).

Russia has launched 22 orbital missions in 2015 so far, more than any other country. The nation plans eight more flights by the end of the year. Tuesday’s launch was the third Soyuz-2.1b/Fregat booster to be sent this year and the sixth mission from Plesetsk in 2015.

Video Courtesy of the Russian Defense Ministry


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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