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Zenit-2SB rocket launches Russian Elektro-L weather satellite

Zenit-2SB rocket launches Elektro-L No. 2 satellite from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Dec. 11, 2015

A Zenit-2SB rocket launches Elektro-L No. 2 satellite from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Dec. 11, 2015. (Click to enlarge.) Photo Credit: Roscosmos

A Russian-Ukrainian Zenit-2SB carrier rocket, also known as Zenit-3F or Zenit-3SLBF, successfully launched on Friday, Dec. 11, with the Elektro-L No. 2 weather satellite for Russia. Liftoff occurred at 8:45 a.m. EST (13:45 GMT) from the Site 45 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Despite the fact that two more Zenit launches are currently scheduled, Friday’s launch could be the last for this booster. Tensions between Russia and Ukraine cast doubt on the process of manufacturing new launch vehicles. The latest Zenit rocket manufactured is currently at the Baikonur Space Center and is set to be launched in 2017. One more launcher is currently under construction.

After liftoff, the rocket started a short, vertical ascent and then began to fly in a northeasterly direction. About two minutes and 23 seconds into the flight, the first stage separated from the remainder of the launch vehicle. Three minutes later, the protective payload fairing was jettisoned, unveiling the spacecraft and the Fregat-SB upper stage.

“The upper stage comprising the booster and the spacecraft separated from the carrier rocket’s second stage,” a Roscosmos spokesman said.

The satellite separated from the Zenit booster approximately nine hours after the booster had roared aloft. It was then inserted into a geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) of 22,012 by 22,240 miles (35,425 by 35,793 kilometers), inclined 0.5 degrees. The spacecraft’s solar array and antenna were deployed a few minutes later.

An artist's rendering of the Elektro-L satellite in orbit.

An artist’s rendering of the Elektro-L satellite in orbit. Image Credit: NPO Lavochkin

Built by the Russian aerospace company NPO Lavochkin, Elektro-L No. 2 is a second generation weather satellite. It is designed to provide meteorological services for regional and global weather forecasts, as well as a climate change monitoring system. It will observe the Earth as a disc, from a static position relative to the planet’s surface.

The Elektro-L No. 2 satellite is based on NPO Lavochkin’s Navigator bus. The spacecraft weighs about 2 tons (1.8 metric tons) and is expected to be operational for 10 years. The Navigator bus can be used for remote sensing, communications and science missions operating anywhere between Sun-synchronous (SSO) and geostationary transfer orbits (GTO) as well as Lagrange points.

The satellite is equipped with four instruments that have a total mass of 959 pounds. (435 kilograms). These instruments should enable the spacecraft to conduct visible, infrared, and microwave imaging, ocean monitoring, and space weather measurements. Its primary tool is the MSU-GS (Multispectral Scanner – Geostationary), a ten-channel radiometer covering the visible and near infrared spectral range, the thermal infrared, and the microwave band. Data from this instrument will be used for cloud cover assessments, water vapor measurements, and sea surface temperature measurements.

The spacecraft features an Onboard Radio Engineering Complex that handles all satellite communications such as data transmission from the instruments, telemetry downlink and command uplink, and the collection of data from search and rescue terminals as well as data collection platforms. It also includes receivers for the SARSAT-COSPAS emergency call system.

The satellite also employs onboard processing to be able to deliver low and high-rate data transmissions at the S-band frequency for direct reception by customers.

Elektro-L No.2 is the second Elektro-L weather satellite to be launched by Russia. The first one was launched on Jan. 20, 2011. It was also the first launch of the Zenit-2SB rocket. It took place 17 years after the first generation of Elektro satellites was inaugurated.

The Zenit-2SB rocket used for the Friday’s launch was designed by the Yuzhnoye Design Office of Ukraine. The 196 feet (59.6 m) tall booster is 13 feet (3.9 m) in diameter. The rocket has a total mass of 519 tons (471 metric tons) and is capable of delivering up to 4.4 tons (4 metric tons) into GTO. The first stage of this launch vehicle uses one RD-171 engine, whereas the second stage features one RD-120 and one RD-8 engine.

For the Elektro-L No.2 mission, the Zenit rocket was used in configuration with the Fregat-SB upper stage. This stage uses one S5.92 engine and is 4 feet and 11 inches (1.5 m) long, with a diameter of 11 feet (3.35 m). The SB version is a variation of the Fregat-M with a block of drop-off tanks which makes increased payload capability possible.

The Zenit rocket series evolved from a program started by the Soviet Union in the 1970s to develop a new fleet of rockets to replace older boosters, they were then entered into service, including the Soyuz and Proton which remain in service today. Until recently, Zenit vehicles were often used by the Sea Launch consortium, formed between Boeing, RKK Energia, Yuzhnoye, Yuzhmash, and Kvaerner Maritime of Norway. The missions Sea Launch conducts are carried out from the Odyssey launch platform, a converted oil rig based in Long Beach, California.

Friday’s mission was the first Zenit launch in the past eighteen months, the 83rd Zenit flight overall, and the 13th liftoff from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in 2015. It was also the 23rd Russian orbital mission this year. Russia still occupies first place in terms of the total number of launches for 2015.

Russia is planning five more flights before the close of the year. The next launch is currently scheduled for Dec. 13 when a Proton-M rocket will send the Garpun communications satellite into orbit. Liftoff will take place from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Video Courtesy of Телестудия Роскосмоса (TV Roscosmos)


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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