A Soyuz rocket has conducted the first launch from Russia’s Vostochny Cosmodrome on Thursday – carrying the Mokhailo Lomonosov research satellite and two small secondary payloads. Following a late scrub on Wednesday, liftoff from the brand new launch site occurred at 11:01:00 local time (02:01 UTC), all without any live coverage on the orders of the Kremlin.
Soyuz Launch from Vostochny:
Constructed by the Russian Government to service the country’s future space launch needs, Vostochny – in the Amur Oblast region of Russia’s far east – is seen as a long-term replacement for the Baikonur Cosmodrome which Russia continues to lease from Kazakhstan.
Vostochny, whose name means “Eastern”, is built on the site of the former Svobodny missile base. Svobodny, which was the farthest East of Russia’s cold war missile bases, was occupied by UR-100K missiles until its closure under the START-II treaty during the 1990s.
After its closure as a missile base, Svobodny was used between 1997 and 2006 for a series of five orbital launches via the Start-1 rocket, a derivative of the Topol missile.
The first of these launches was of a Mozhayets research satellite on 4 March 1997, using the five-stage Start-1.2 configuration. Subsequent launches, which carried an EarlyBird commercial imaging spacecraft for EarthWatch Incorporated, two EROS imaging spacecraft for Israel’s ImageSat International and the Swedish Space Corporation’s Odin satellite, used a four-stage version of the vehicle.
The final Start launch from Svobodny came on 25 April 2006, with the EROS-B satellite aboard. The Start, which also flew from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, has not launched since.
Svobodny was also intended as a launch site for the Strela rocket – derived from a variant of the UR-100 missile similar to those which were based there. The Strela made its first flight – a test mission with a mass simulator payload – in 2003 from a former UR-100 development silo at Baikonur’s Site 175.
By the time of the rocket’s next launch, almost a decade later, Svobodny had been closed. As a result, Strela launches have remained at Baikonur – using the same silo that was used for the maiden flight.
Svobodny was closed in 2007 by order of Vladimir Putin, as the Russian Space Agency Roskosmos considered the little-used site redundant and expensive to maintain.
Russia’s other active orbital launch sites are the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in the Northwest, the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and a missile base at Dombarovsky in Southern Russia.
Historically the Kapustin Yar missile base has also hosted orbital launches – via the now-retired Kosmos family of rockets – but was last used for an orbital mission in 2008. The Volna and Shtil’ rockets, derived from the R-29 submarine-launched ballistic missile, have been launched towards orbit from submarines in the Barents Sea.
Baikonur is the oldest of the three active launch sites, having begun construction in 1955 to support the Soviet Union’s missile development programmes.
The first launch from Baikonur was the maiden flight of Sergei Korolev’s R-7, the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, on 15 May 1957.
The Soyuz rocket that will be used for the launch is a direct descendent of the R-7. Five months later, a modified R-7 was used for the first orbital launch, placing the Prosteyshiy Sputnik (Elementary Satellite) – now known as Sputnik 1 – into orbit.
Three and a half years after Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin’s Vostok 1 mission lifted off from the same pad. To date, all of the Soviet Union and Russia’s manned space missions have lifted off from one of Baikonur’s two R-7 launch pads; Pad 5 at Area 1 and Pad 6 at Area 31.
Baikonur’s R-7 launch complexes are both still active, catering to the Soyuz-U, Soyuz-FG and Soyuz-2 rockets. Proton rockets also regularly launch from Baikonur, while the Cosmodrome has operational launch pads for the Zenit, Strela and Dnepr rockets – although it is unclear whether Zenit will fly again, Strela is rarely used and all Dnepr launches since 2010 have been made from Dombarovsky.
Plesetsk was built in the late 1950s to serve as an operational base for the R-7, and as such four launch complexes for that family of rockets were constructed; Pad 1 at Site 41, Pad 2 at Site 16 and Pads 3 and 4 at Site 43.
Site 41 has since been demolished while Site 16 and Site 43/3 are undergoing refurbishment; Site 43/4 is actively used by the Soyuz. Angara and Rokot vehicles also fly from Plesetsk. The Dombarovsky launch site – an active base for the R-36 series of missiles – is used exclusively by the Dnepr in terms of orbital missions.
In addition to its own launch facilities, Russia has also provided Soyuz rockets for launch from the Centre Spatial Guyanais, in Kourou, French Guiana.
The seemingly-defunct Sea Launch enterprise operated the Russo-Ukrainian Zenit-3SL rocket from the Odyssey launch platform, a converted oil rig, in the Pacific Ocean.
As the most southerly of Russia’s launch sites, Baikonur has been the most suited for launches to lower-inclination orbits. With Plesetsk too far North to provide a practical alternative, all of Russia’s geostationary missions go through Baikonur, as well as launches to the International Space Station and beyond Earth orbit.
While Vostochny’s latitude of 51.8 degrees North is still higher than Baikonur’s 45.9 degrees, meaning that low-inclination launches will need to expend more fuel adjusting their inclination during flight, it is still usable for geosynchronous missions. Vostochny will allow Russia to reduce its dependence upon Baikonur – a site which, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, it has been forced to lease from Kazakhstan.
Initially, only Soyuz rockets will launch from Vostochny. Construction of a two-pad complex for the Angara was due to start later this year, however this has now been pushed back to 2017 and reduced to a single pad.
The first Angara launch from Vostochny is not currently expected until 2021. TsSKB Progress’ proposed Rus-M vehicle was to have had two pads at the site, however its development was cancelled in 2011.
The Soyuz pad at Vostochny, Site 1S, is the eighth Soyuz pad to be built across four different launch sites, following the two complexes at Baikonur, four at Plesetsk and one at Kourou. Designated 371SK14, the launch equipment resembles that at Kourou, with a mobile service tower instead of retractable arms with gantries that enclose the rocket as used at Plesetsk and Baikonur’s older pads.
When flying from Kourou, installation of the payload, fairing and any upper stage occurs inside the tower, after the rocket has been made vertical. It is unclear whether Vostochny will also support this approach – traditionally Russian vehicles are assembled horizontally and this has been the case for the Soyuz that will conduct the launch.
Integration of the Soyuz takes place at Site 2, approximately four and a half kilometres (2.8 miles) to the South of the launch pad.
The site was originally to have been shared by Soyuz and the larger Rus-M – which would have had its own launch complex to the East of Soyuz – however with the latter’s cancellation the facility was redesigned for unmanned Soyuz missions.
Manned launches of Soyuz-MS spacecraft to the International Space Station would require overflight of terrain unsuitable for an emergency landing in case of an abort, and as such appear unlikely.
The Soyuz vehicle is assembled in the main processing building, or MIK, while the payload is processed in its own hangar along with an upper stage – such as Volga or Fregat – if one is being used.
The payload and upper stage will be mated and encapsulated within a payload fairing to complete the “Upper Composite”, a stack which is then transferred to the MIK to be mated with the Soyuz. The completed rocket is transported by rail to the launch pad and erected.
Soyuz Launches from Vostochny will use the Soyuz-2 series, which first flew in November 2004 on a suborbital test fight from Plesetsk. The type’s first orbital launch was made two years later from Baikonur, carrying the European METOP-A weather satellite. The Soyuz-2 can operate in three different configurations; the Soyuz-2-1a, 2-1b and 2-1v, all of which will be able to fly from Vostochny.
The launch used a Soyuz-2-1a vehicle, topped with a Volga upper stage. This is an evolution of the earlier Soyuz-U and Soyuz-FG with an updated and digitalised guidance system.
The Soyuz-2-1b increases the rocket’s performance via a more powerful third stage, while the Soyuz-2-1v is a smaller rocket without the four strap-on boosters that make up the first stage of the other two configurations.
The overall design of the Soyuz has changed little since the 1960s. The original Soyuz was introduced in 1966 as a more powerful version of the Voskhod rocket, designed for manned missions with the Soyuz spacecraft.
Both the Soyuz and Voskhod were part of a series of rockets descended from the R-7 missile – and replaced in the mid-1970s by the further upgraded Soyuz-U, which was intended to standardise production of R-7 rockets.
Overall, the launch was the 1,858th flight of an R-7 – or the 1,859th depending upon the classification of a December 1967 launch attempt as a launch failure or a ground processing accident.
This launch, which was to have carried the second unmanned test of the Soyuz spacecraft, was aborted after the rocket’s core ignited but not the boosters. Half an hour after the abort, the spacecraft’s launch escape system was inadvertently activated, carrying the spacecraft away from the launch pad. The escape system’s exhaust caused the fully-fuelled rocket to explode below it.
The exact number of flights made by the Soyuz rocket is not accurately known, as details of the transition of military payloads from the Voskhod to the Soyuz-U in the 1970s remain unclear.
Soyuz-2’s first stage consists of four boosters, each powered by a single RD-107A engine. An RD-108A powers the core stage, which under Russian terminology is the second stage despite burning concurrently with the boosters.
The third stage, or Blok-I, is powered by a single RD-0110. Each of these engines has four combustion chambers, and burn RG-1 propellant – a refined form of the petroleum extract known as kerosene or paraffin – similar to the RP-1 formula used in American vehicles. The propellant is oxidised by liquid oxygen (LOX), while hydrogen peroxide is used to drive the engine’s gas generator turbine.
For missions requiring precise orbital injection, higher orbits or multiple manoeuvres prior to spacecraft separation, all of the Soyuz-2 rockets are able to fly with optional upper stages. Typically, NPO Lavochkin’s Fregat upper stage has been used in conjunction with the Soyuz, and can fly atop either the 2-1a or 2-1b models.
The smaller Soyuz-2-1v uses the Volga upper stage, built by TsSKB Progress – the same company that constructs the Soyuz itself.
The launch was the first time Volga has been used on one of the larger Soyuz variants, which is seen as a way of reducing the cost of launching spacecraft too big to use the Soyuz-2-1v, but that do not require the Fregat’s additional performance.
Derived from the propulsion systems of Yantar reconnaissance satellites – which have also formed the basis of many of TsSKB Progress’ recent spacecraft developed for the Russian Government, including Lotos-S, Persona and Resurs-P – Volga is closely related to the Ikar upper stage that was used for six Soyuz-U launches in 1999 that each deployed four Globalstar communications satellites.
Volga is powered by a 17D64 engine instead of the 17D61 used by Ikar. The upper stage uses storable hypergolic propellants – unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) oxidised by liquid oxygen.
The Soyuz had the serial number P15000-001, reflecting that it was the first vehicle to fly that is optimised for launch from Vostochny.
Minor changes include making the vehicle more durable for rail transportation over the thousands of miles from TsSKB Progress’ factory in Samara to the launch site, the ability to remain on the launch pad longer following a launch that is delayed after fuelling has begun and valves to allow oxidiser to be vented away from the pad’s service tower and third stage propellant to be drained safely.
The rocket’s avionics were also upgraded, with the Malachite-7 system – previously flown aboard the Soyuz-2-1v – being introduced in placed of the earlier Malachite-3. Other upgrades include a new telemetry downlink system and the installation of onboard cameras. The latter have previously been used on launches from Kourou.
The first payload to launch from Vostochny consisted of three satellites. The primary payload, Mikhailo Lomonosov, or MVL-300, is an astrophysics research satellite intended to study gamma ray bursts and other high-energy phenomena.
The 450-kilogram (990 lb) satellite was built by VNIIEM Corporation of Moscow, based on a spacecraft bus developed for the Kanopus series of remote sensing satellites and with avionics produced by British firm SSTL.
Its primary instrument, Tracking Ultraviolet Set-Up (TUS), is a telescope designed to study ultraviolet light emitted from particle air showers as high energy particles interact with the Earth’s atmosphere. TUS had originally been intended as a stand-alone experiment upon its own satellite, however it was later merged with the Lomonosov mission.
The Block for X-ray and Gamma-Radiation Detection, or BDRG, consists of three identical instruments which will be used to detect gamma ray bursts, allowing the spacecraft to turn its other instruments to study these short-lived phenomena.
Once a gamma ray burst is detected BDRG will form part of the suite of instruments dedicated to observing the occurrence, providing observations and gamma wavelengths.
The detectors will also be used to study solar radiation, timing of x-ray sources and pulsars and to study other intermittent high-energy phenomena. A further instrument, UFFO, will provide observations in the ultraviolet and x-ray regions of the electromagnetic spectrum via a 20-centimetre (7.9-inch) telescope.
The optical imaging payload aboard Lomonosov consists of the Optic Cameras of Super-Wide Field of Vision, or ShOK. These are a pair of wide-angle cameras capable of imaging at a rate of up to seven frames per second. These will continuously record observations, downlinking images recorded during burst events and others that may be of interest to researchers.
DEPRON, or the Dosimeter of Electrons, Protons and Neutrons, is a particle detector which will determine the flux of incident charged particles – protons and electrons – and thermal neutrons. The Electron Loss and Fields Investigator for Lomonosov (ELFIN-L) package consists of a fluxgate magnetometer and particle detectors for electrons and protons, helping to characterise the processes affecting radiation in Earth’s magnetosphere.
A technology demonstration experiment, IMISS-1, will study the performance of the inertial measuring units on the spacecraft and their potential use in automatic stabilisation of the satellite’s imaging systems.
The Lomonosov satellite will be operated by Lomonosov Moscow State University (MSU), and is named after its founder Mikhail Vasilyevich Lomonosov – the spacecraft’s name uses a different Anglicisation of his first name. Lomonosov, who lived from 1711 to 1765, was a scientist and poet who helped to shape Russian language and science.
The two other payloads aboard the Soyuz were Aist-2 and SamSat-218/D, both of which are being carried for the Samara State Aerospace University.
Aist-2 is a 53-kilogram (117-lb) microsatellite which will serve as a demonstrator for optical, radar and infrared imaging systems. It follows a pair of Aist-1 research satellites which were launched in 2013.
SamSat-218/D, which has also been identified as Kontact-Nanosputnik in information regarding the launch, is a CubeSat built to the three-unit form factor which will investigate the use of aerodynamic forces to provide attitude control to spacecraft.
Controllers can communicate with the satellite via ground stations or through Globalstar communications satellites, allowing commands and telemetry to be relayed at any point in its orbit.
The launch was the seventh of the year for the Soyuz rocket and the tenth for Russia – including Monday’s launch of a Soyuz-STA/Fregat vehicle from Kourou.
The next Soyuz launch is currently scheduled for 21 May, with a Soyuz-2-1b deploying a Glonass-M navigation satellite in a mission from Plesetsk. Before then Russia’s Proton-M rocket is scheduled to orbit the DirectTV Latin America 2 (DLA-2) commercial communications satellite from Baikonur on 17 May.
No further launches from Vostochny are expected until late next year, with the next scheduled mission likely to be a pair of Kanopus-V satellites atop a Soyuz-2-1a/Fregat.
In the meantime work will continue to bring the site up to its full operational standard; this mission having established its initial operational capability.
Russian President Vladimir Putin flew into Vostochny to watch the launch, which serves as a symbol of Russia becoming more independent of other former Soviet republics in its space activities.