Spaceflight Insider

Russia launches covert payload on rare Soyuz variant

A Soyuz-2-1v sits on the pad at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in this file photo. Photo Credit: Russian Ministry of Defence

A rare Soyuz-2-1v rocket lifted off from Russia’s Plesetsk Cosmodrome to deliver a covert payload to a highly inclined polar orbit. The rocket departed at 2:04 p.m. EDT (18:04 GMT) on June 23, 2017, from Plesetsk’s Site 43, and was only the third flight of this uncommon launch vehicle.

Unusual rocket

File photo of a Soyuz-2-1v lifting off the pad. Photo credit: Russian Ministry of Defense

File photo of a Soyuz-2-1v lifting off the pad. Photo Credit: Russian Ministry of Defence

Although the rocket shares the same name as its other R7-based stablemates and is a derivative of the Soyuz-2.1b, the Soyuz-2-1v presents an unusual sight to those accustomed to the tapered appearance of the classic Soyuz design.

Rather than sporting four liquid-fueled boosters attached to a central core stage, the Soyuz-2-1v foregoes the extra liftoff power and utilizes a single core stage. However, unlike the 2.1b, the 2-1v’s main power plant is the NK-33 engine.

The engine was originally designed in the late 1960s for the then-Soviet N1 Moon rocket and later modified and re-branded as Aerojet Rocketdynes AJ-26, which was used on the first five flights of the Orbital ATK Antares rocket. The NK-33 was selected to power the Soyuz-2-1v due to its comparatively high efficiency and thrust-to-weight ratio.

After the supply of NK-33 engines is exhausted, the vehicle will be converted to use the RD-193 engine, a modified version of the RD-191 used on the Angara launch vehicle.

The first stage operates for approximately two minutes before being jettisoned to splash down in the Barents Sea sometime later.

Although the first stage has been heavily modified from the design upon which it is based, the second stage remains unchanged from those found on the Soyuz-2.1b. Powered by a lone RD-0124 engine, the second stage fires for about four minutes and delivers the rocket’s third stage and its payload to an initial parking orbit.

Unlike many other Soyuz-based launches, the 2-1v makes use of a Volga upper stage. The Volga, derived from the propulsion system of the Yantar series of reconnaissance satellites, powers the payload to its final orbit before detaching and deorbiting itself into the Pacific Ocean.

The Soyuz-2-1v last launched back on Dec. 5, 2015, and was a partial failure. The vehicle is designed to launch smaller payloads, something previously handled by rockets like Dnepr and Rokot.

Secret payload

While the Soyuz-2-1v may be a known quantity, the payload it carried was shrouded in secrecy. Although Russian authorities are tight-lipped, there is speculation the spacecraft riding atop the rocket was a geodetic survey satellite.

Should the spacecraft be the first of the Napryazhenie survey satellites or one of the current generation GEO-IK-2 models, it will most likely be used to gather precise measurements of Earth’s gravitational field. This data can be used to more finely-tune the guidance systems of long-range missile systems.

Russian defense ministry officials confirmed the successful deployment of the satellite.

“The Soyuz-2.1v small-lift carrier rocket that was launched from the Plesetsk space center at 21:04 Moscow time put a Russian defense ministry satellite into the operational orbit in due time,” a ministry spokesperson was quoted as saying in an article on TASS.

The satellite will most likely settle into a Sun-synchronous orbit, from which it will conduct its measurements.

A previous launch of the Soyuz-2-1v on Dec. 5, 2015. Video courtesy of the Russian Defence Ministry


Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.

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