Russia has launched its Soyuz 2-1A rocket in a surprise mission from the Plesetsk cosmodrome at 15:24 UTC. The launch, using a rocket that recently failed during the Progress M-27M mission, was clouded under secrecy due to its payload, the Kobalt-M spy satellite – rumored to be the final film-return photo reconnaissance spacecraft.
Soyuz 2-1A Launch:
The Soyuz 2-1 rocket is derived from the earlier Soyuz-U and the Soyuz 11A511 before that – and first flew in November 2004.
The rocket was intended as an eventual replacement for all of the Soyuz and Molniya variants then in service.
The Molniya-M was retired from service in 2010 and the Soyuz-2 has already replaced the Soyuz-U for all launches apart from Progress missions to the International Space Station.
A switch to the 2-1A for the Progress M-27M mission ended in failure, as an issue – believed to be specific to the marriage of the resupply ship and the Soyuz 2-1A – has been cited in the failure investigation notes.
Roscosmos claim a hardware issue caused abnormal separation between the Soyuz carrier rocket and the Progress, resulting in the latter’s eventual doom.
The Soyuz-2 has three principal variants; the 2-1a, 2-1b and 2-1v (v being the Romanisation of the third letter of the Cyrillic alphabet).
The 2-1a is a modernised version of the Soyuz-U, while the 2-1b introduces a new RD-0124 stage engine.
The Soyuz-2-1v, which is also known as Soyuz-1, uses an NK-33 engine to power the core stage and does away with the four boosters flown on all other Soyuz rockets.
The first and second stages of the Soyuz-2-1a burn in parallel; the first stage consists of four strap-on boosters powered by RD-107A engines, clustered around the core, or second stage, which is powered by an RD-108A.
Atop the core sits the third stage with an RD-0110 engine that injected the spacecraft into its target orbit.
Although Friday’s launch was a surprise, this was mainly related to the military payload, as opposed to a rushed decision to try and launch the Soyuz 2-1A in a “Return To Flight” scenario.
The payload – the Kobalt-M – is classed as a modernized version of the Yantar spacecraft. It is understood to be a military reconnaissance spacecraft by nature.
The spacecraft was developed by TsSKB Progress of Samara and manufactured by OAO Arsenal of St Petersburg.
The design of the spacecraft is such that it has two small capsules on board, allowing it to return film back to Earth inside the main – cone-shaped – reentry vehicle.
Kobalt-M satellites are typically launched into the 170 by 370-kilometer orbits with the inclination 62.8 – 67.2 degrees toward the Equator.
Very little is known about the spacecraft, given its military nature. However, previous mission information has provided some insight into the mission length for the spacecraft.
The first Kobalt-M satellite was launched on September 24, 2004 on a Soyuz-U launch vehicle from the LC16/1 Launch Complex at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome. Designated Kosmos-2410, the Kobalt-M returned to Earth on January 9, 2005, after a 107-day mission. The second satellite on the series was launched on May 3, 2006 on a 74-day mission.
Kosmos-2427 was the third satellite on the series, launched on June 7, 2007 – this time spending 76 days in space. This was followed by a number of similar missions until a May 17, 2012 Soyuz-U launch resulted in a Kobalt-M flight lasting an extended – and record-breaking – 130 day on orbit.
Kosmos-2495 was the first Kobalt-M to be launched by a Soyuz 2-1A rocket, resulting in a mission duration of 120 days.
The May 6, 2014 launch was believed to be the last for this range of spacecraft. However, due to changes to the geopolitical climate, it appears Russia decided to loft one more from the range, named Kosmos-2505, although this too is believed to be the final Kobalt-M, not least due to the advances in spy satellite technology.
(Images via Roscosmos and Tsenki).