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Lost Russian Kanopus-ST satellite falls back to Earth over the Atlantic

Russian Soyuz-2.1v rocket launches two satellites on Dec. 5, 2015.

Russian Soyuz-2.1v rocket launches two satellites on Dec. 5, 2015. Photo Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense

A Russian defense satellite, launched on Saturday, Dec. 5, has re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, according to the sources in the Russian space industry. The spacecraft, named Kanopus-ST, has burned up in the dense layers of the atmosphere with its debris sinking into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

“The satellite hit dense layers of the atmosphere at 35 degrees south, one degree west,” a rocket and space industry representative told Interfax-AVN on Tuesday.

Kanopus-ST was launched, along with the KYuA-1 satellite, at 9:09 a.m. EST (14:09 GMT) from site LC-43/4 at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in the country’s northwestern Arkhangelsk region. The spacecraft experienced problems shortly after it was launched as it did not separate from the Soyuz-2.1v rocket’s Volga upper stage. The first reports regarding the incident did not specify which of the two satellites failed to reach the designated orbit.

Artist's rendering of the Kanopus-ST satellite.

Artist’s rendering of the Kanopus-ST satellite. Image Credit: Polyot

The Russian Aerospace Defence Forces (VKO) – the operators of the Kanopus-ST satellite – revealed the preliminary cause of the failure, stating that one of the four locks holding the satellite malfunctioned. According to the sources, it wasn’t possible to perform an emergency separation as the satellite had no backup system of unlocking from the upper stage.

“The developers of the technical documentation didn’t envisage an emergency algorithm in the event that the charge-driven piston mechanism would not unlock. Naturally, the developers should have introduced the satellite’s forced mechanical separation from the acceleration unit, despite the presence of the backup channels of transmitting commands to pyro cartridges,” the Russian press agency TASS revealed.

Data released by the United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), indicate that Kanopus-ST, mated to the Volga upper stage, broke into two larger pieces on Monday, Dec. 7, at about 1:23 p.m. EST (18:23 GMT). The smaller one entered the atmosphere at 11:37 a.m. EST (4:37 GMT) on Tuesday, Dec. 8. It could be the Kanopus-ST spacecraft. The second part re-entered approximately one hour later.

The failure to deploy the Kanopus-ST satellite delayed another Russian launch scheduled for this week. The launch of a Proton-M rocket with the Garpun spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan was planned for Dec. 10. However, due to extra checks of the system that separates the satellite from the launch vehicle, the mission was postponed until no-earlier-than Dec. 13.

Kanopus-ST, weighing about 771 pounds (350 kilograms), was built by the Russian Production Association Polyot company. It was a small remote sensing satellite designed for ocean and weather research. Western analysts believe that the secrecy surrounding the mission indicates that it was supposed to serve military purposes.

It featured a BIK-GYa-1 microwave radiometer weighing approximately 352 pounds (160 kilograms), able to cover a 1.36-mile (2.2-kilometer) wide swath on the ground with a resolution of 7.45 miles (12 kilometers) to up to 100 miles (160 kilometers). It was also equipped with a KMVD-E multispectral camera with a swath of 621 miles (1,000 kilometers) and a spatial resolution of 98-164 feet (30-50 meters).

The first Kanopus satellite was launched in July 2012. The next satellite in the series, Kanopus-V-IK 1, will be launched in 2016. Meanwhile, Russia is planning six more launches before the end of this year.


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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