Soyuz 2-1v conducts clandestine military launch

by William Graham

Just prior to the SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch on Friday, Russia undertook a low-key launch of a Soyuz-2-1v rocket with a military payload. The launch, out of the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northwest Russia, took place at 21:04 local time (18:04 UTC).

Secret Russian Launch:

Friday’s Soyuz launch was unusually clandestine, even for the Russian military. News that a launch was even scheduled only began to emerge at the beginning of the month, with rumors initially pointing to a liftoff on 25 June before the date aligned to Friday

No details of the payload that has been put into orbit have emerged – although it has been widely speculated that the satellite may be the first in a new generation of military geodesy satellites.

Geodesy is a branch of science and mathematics concerned with measuring the physical properties of Earth. In a military context, understanding the properties of Earth – and especially its gravitational field, allows missile guidance and targeting systems to be refined for improved accuracy.

If the payload of Friday’s launch is a geodesy satellite, it may be the first Napryazhenie spacecraft, a new series of satellite that forms part of Russia’s Nivelir-ZU programme. Napryazhenie has a GRAU index, or military item number of 14F150. The satellites’ name means “voltage”.

An alternative payload could be a current-generation GEO-IK-2 geodesy spacecraft. The GEO-IK-2’s two previous launches used Rokot/Briz-KM rockets, and a third launch aboard a Rokot was scheduled for the third quarter of this year, however in February Russia’s TASS news agency reported that Rokot would be retired after two launches planned for 2017.

With two commercial launches planned for the European Space Agency’s Sentinel program, this implies that Rokot’s military launches may have been shifted to other vehicles. The Soyuz-2-1v and Angara-1.2 rockets were developed to replace a number of small rockets in the Russian fleet, including the Rokot.

Hazard areas declared for Friday’s launch indicated that the rocket would fly to the Northwest of Plesetsk, consistent with an orbital inclination of around 98 degrees – similar to that used by Russia’s geodesy spacecraft.

Derived from the Soyuz-2-1b rocket, Soyuz-2-1v was designed to fill a gap in Russia’s launch capabilities for a smaller rocket to replace the aging Kosmos-3M and missile-derived vehicles such as the Dnepr and the Rokot.

The Soyuz-2-1v uses the modified second stage – or core – of the Soyuz-2-1b as its first stage, omitting the four boosters that give Soyuz its distinctive appearance.

Instead of the RD-108A engine used on the Soyuz-2-1b, the first stage is powered by an NK-33 motor. The NK-33, which was originally built in the early 1970s for a canceled production version of the N1 rocket, provides greater thrust than the RD-108A.

NK-33 engines are refurbished from the leftover N1 stockpile before being used on the Soyuz-2-1v.

American company Z4Orbital ATK initially used a modified NK-33, designated an AJ-26, as the first stage engine on their Antares rocket, switching to the more modern RD-181 after a launch failure in October 2014. Once the stockpile runs down, Russia plans to replace the NK-33 on Soyuz-2-1v with NPO Energomash’s RD-193, which is derived from the RD-191 powerplant used on the Angara rocket.

The second stage of Soyuz-2-1v is the version of the Soyuz Blok-I used on the Soyuz-2-1b. This has a single RD-0124 engine with four combustion chambers. Both the first and second stages of the rocket burn kerosene propellant oxidised by liquid oxygen.

The Soyuz-2-1v can fly as a two-stage rocket, or in a three-stage configuration with a Volga upper stage. Volga is based on the propulsion system of the long-running Yantar series of reconnaissance satellites, whose bus still forms the basis of modern Russian spacecraft such as Persona and Resurs-P.

Closely related to the Ikar upper stage which was used in conjunction with Soyuz-U rockets in the late 1990s, Volga is powered by an 17D64 engine burning unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine and dinitrogen tetroxide.

Friday’s launch was the third flight of the Soyuz-2-1v, which made a successful maiden flight in December 2013 deploying the Aist-1 technology demonstrator and a pair of radar calibration satellites. The rocket’s most recent launch, in December 2015, ended in failure.

The rocket achieved its planned orbit, however it failed to deploy its primary payload, Kosmos 2511 – the first Kanopus-ST satellite. The Volga then attempted a preplanned deorbit burn, although due to the unexpectedly continuing presence of the Kanopus satellite, it could not lower its orbit far enough to complete the deorbit maneuver. The spacecraft decayed from orbit several days later.

Initial reports suggest that Friday’s launch has achieved orbit successfully. The Volga will continue its mission for around an hour and a half, injecting the payload into a precise orbit before spacecraft separation takes place.

The launch took place from Pad 43/4 at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome. This remains the only active Soyuz launch pad at Russia’s Northern launch facility, which historically had four pads for Soyuz and other rockets derived from the R-7 ballistic missile.

Of these, Site 41/1 was last used in 1989 and has since been demolished, while Sites 16/2 and 43/3 have never been converted for Soyuz-2 rockets. The only Soyuz version other than the Soyuz-2 still flying is the Soyuz-FG, which is now used exclusively for manned launches of the Soyuz spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

The Soyuz launch was the second of three orbital launches to be conducted worldwide on Friday, following India’s PSLV launch at 03:59 UTC which successfully deployed the Cartosat-2E Earth imaging satellite and thirty secondary payloads.

Soyuz was originally scheduled to lift off just five minutes and twenty-seven seconds before SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch with BulgariaSat-1, however by the time Soyuz was airborne, Falcon had slipped into its launch window. Falcon eventually lifted off at 19:10 UTC, one hour later than originally planned.

The next Soyuz launch will take place on 14 July, when a Soyuz-2-1a, equipped with a Fregat-M upper stage, will deploy the Kanopus-V-IK spacecraft and a collection of small satellites in a mission from Baikonur.

(Images via Russian media and L2 Russian section).

Related Articles