A Soyuz rocket has launched a new weather satellite for the Russian Government Friday, replacing a similar spacecraft lost in a 2017 launch failure. The Meteor-M satellite, accompanied by a host of secondary payloads, lifted off from Russia’s Vostochny Cosmodrome at 14:41 Yakutsk Time (05:41 UTC, 08:41 Moscow Time) Friday afternoon.
Friday’s launch placed the Meteor-M No.2-2 satellite placed into sun-synchronous orbit by a Soyuz-2-1b rocket with a Fregat-M upper stage. This is the same type of rocket that was employed to launch Russia’s last weather satellite, Meteor-M No.2-1, in November 2017.
During that launch a programming error resulted in the rocket’s upper stage firing in the wrong orientation, and as a result the satellite did not reach orbit. A few weeks after the failure the Russian Government announced that the rocket had been incorrectly configured for a launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome instead of the new Vostochny Cosmodrome where the launch had taken place.
Although Meteor-M No.2-2 was already planned for launch – at the time of its predecessor’s failure it had been slated to launch in early-to-mid 2018 – the loss of the preceding satellite has increased its importance in maintaining Russia’s satellite meteorology program. Meteor is a series of satellites that make up the low-orbit component of this program, complimented by Elektro satellites in higher geostationary orbits.
The earliest Meteor satellites were launched in the 1960s: the first was the experimental Kosmos 40 deployed in August 1964. Early satellites were given names under the Kosmos series, used by the Soviet Union as a placeholder when it did not want to reveal which program a satellite belonged to. Meteor No.12L, launched in March 1969, was the first satellite to be named “Meteor” publicly.
In all, thirty-six first-generation Meteor satellites were launched between 1964 and 1977, with six additional satellites launching between 1974 and 1981 under the Meteor-Priroda project for remote sensing applications. The replacement Meteor-2 series consisted of twenty-one spacecraft deployed from 1975 until 1993. Seven third-generation Meteor-3 satellites were launched between 1984 and 1994. The Meteor-2 and Meteor-3 were upgrades to the original Meteor design, rather than completely new spacecraft, but incorporated new and upgraded instruments as well as enhancements to the spacecraft itself.
Russia had intended to merge its civilian weather forecasting and remote sensing missions into a single type of spacecraft, the Meteor-3M. Only one was launched, on 10 December 2001, before the project was abandoned. The next Meteor satellite would not fly until September, when Meteor-M No.1 began a fourth generation of spacecraft.
The improved Meteor-M No.2 was deployed in July 2014. Meteor-M No.2-1 which was destroyed in 2017’s launch failure followed the same design and incorporated a similar suite of instruments. Meteor-M No.2-2 is identical to its lost predecessor, with several more spacecraft of this configuration planned to fly in the coming years. Built by the VNIIEM Corporation, the 2,750 kilogram satellite is designed for at least five years of service.
Meteor-M No.2-2 is equipped with two imaging payloads. MSU-MR is a low-resolution instrument operating at visible-light and near-infrared wavelengths. It will take wide-angle images of the Earth to help monitor cloud cover and the icecaps. The second imager, KMSS-2, provides complimentary high-resolution visible-light images of more specific areas. The satellite also carries two sounding instruments: the MTVZA-GYa microwave radiometer and IKFS-2 infrared spectrometer, which will build profiles of temperatures, humidity and wind conditions within the atmosphere.
As well as direct weather monitoring, Meteor-M No.2-2 will be used to relay data from automated weather stations across the Earth’s surface. BRK, also known as SSPD, is the communications payload that will facilitate this, receiving data from stations and re-transmitting it for collection and analysis. A Kospas-SARSAT emergency communications payload, RK-SM-MKA, is also carried to detect and relay distress signals, aiding search-and-rescue operations around the world.
A Soyuz-2-1b/Fregat-M rocket was used to launch Meteor-M No.2-2, along with the thirty-two other satellites accompanying it. The Soyuz-2-1b is the latest evolution of the Soyuz line of rockets, which trace their history back to Sergei Korolev’s R-7 missile, which became the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile when it made its maiden flight in 1957. While its fuel combination or kerosene and liquid oxygen quickly rendered it obsolete as a missile, the R-7 was the progenitor for a dynasty of Soviet rockets, including the modified missile that launched Sputnik, the Vostok rocket that boosted Yuri Gagarin to orbit in April 1961 and the Soyuz which has been the workhorse of the Soviet and later Russian space industry since the 1960s.
The Soyuz-2 family is a modernized version of earlier Soyuz rockets, incorporating digital flight control systems and upgraded engines. It consists of three rockets: Soyuz-2-1a is a modernized version of the earlier Soyuz-U, Soyuz-2-1b also incorporates an upgraded third stage with an RD-0124 engine to increase its payload capacity. The third rocket, Soyuz-2-1v, is designed to launch smaller payloads by replacing the Soyuz-2-1b’s second stage engine and removing the first stage altogether.
Soyuz can fly from four launch sites worldwide: it currently has two launch pads operational at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, one each at the Plesetsk and Vostochny Cosmodromes and one at the Centre Spatial Guyanais in French Guiana which is used exclusively for commercial missions. Plesetsk originally had four launch pads, although one of these has since been demolished. The other two were slated to be renovated for Soyuz-2 launches, with one expected to return to service later this year while the other is likely to be a more long-term upgrade if it goes ahead.
Friday’s launch used Site 1S at the Vostochny Cosmodrome. Russia’s newest launch site, Vostochny opened in April 2016 with the successful launch of the MVL-300 satellite aboard a Soyuz-2-1a. The Soyuz launch pad is the only one currently operational at the site, with Meteor-M No.2-2 the fourth launch to use it. Vostochny is located in Russia’s far East and is intended to reduce reliance on the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which was built during the Soviet era and resides in modern-day Kazakhstan.
The first stage of Soyuz consists of four boosters attached radially around the rocket’s second stage. Both stages will ignite together about sixteen seconds before liftoff, building up to full thrust in the last seconds of the countdown.
Each first stage booster is powered by an RD-107A engine, with an RD-108A powering the second stage – the core. These are closely-related, with the RD-108A incorporating four vernier chambers to provide additional attitude control. Each engine has four main combustion chambers and nozzles.
After lifting off, Soyuz flew under the power of both its first and second stages for 118 seconds before the first stage burns out and separates. Falling away from the second stage, the boosters made a pattern known as the Korolev Cross after the rocket’s chief designer. The second stage burned for another 170 seconds, with separation of the rocket’s payload fairing occurring about a minute before the end of its burn.
Soyuz uses a “fire-in-the-hole” staging technique between the second and third stages, with the latter igniting while the second stage engine is still producing thrust. Exhaust gases escape through a lattice interstage structure at the top of the second stage, with the stages separating moments after third stage ignition. The third stage of Soyuz is powered by a single RD-0124, although like the lower-stage engines this also has four chambers. About a second and a half after ignition the top part of the interstage separated from the third stage.
The third stage burned for four minutes and thirty-three seconds before shutting down. Three and a half seconds after its burn concluded, Fregat separated to carry its payloads into their final orbits. Unlike the lower stages of Soyuz, Fregat uses storable propellant – unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine and dinitrogen tetroxide – with a single S5.98M engine providing thrust.
Friday’s launch used a Fregat-M, an upgraded version of the original Fregat design. Fregat is used in conjunction with both Soyuz and Zenit rockets to deliver satellites to higher or more precise orbits than can be achieved by those rockets directly. For Friday’s mission it allowed Meteor-M No.2-2 to be injected into a sun-synchronous orbit over the Earth’s poles, and the secondary payloads to reach two different prescribed orbits.
Fregat made its first burn about one minute after separating from Soyuz, firing for approximately 77 seconds to set up its initial parking orbit. About 47 minutes later the stage restarted to circularize its orbit, a burn lasting about 57 seconds. This will establish a 790 by 830 kilometer (490 by 520 miles, 430 by 450 nautical miles) orbit inclined at 98.6 degrees. Meteor-M No.2-2 is due to depart from Fregat about a minute after the end of this burn.
Joining Meteor-M No.2-2 for Friday’s ride into orbit were 32 small satellites with a wide range of missions for a variety of customers within and outside of Russia, with significant participation from Germany. These will be deployed after the primary payload has separated. To deploy these, Fregat made a series of additional burns to reach two further deployment orbits.
Two engine firings sent Fregat to a roughly-circular orbit 580 kilometers (360 miles, 310 nautical miles) above the Earth, where the larger of the secondary payloads were deployed. Two more burns were made to reduce the orbit’s altitude to 530 kilometers (330 miles, 290 nautical miles) for separation of the smaller CubeSats. Once all of its payloads have been dispensed, Fregat will perform one final burn to deorbit itself.
Three of the secondary payload satellites aboard Friday’s mission are three-unit CubeSats developed by Russian universities, with their participation in Friday’s launch sponsored by Roskosmos. AmurSat, which is also known as AmGU-1, carries the Foton-Amur instrument consisting of charged particle and gamma ray detectors to study space weather phenomena.
It was developed by Amur State University, in conjunction with the Institute of Nuclear Physics at Moscow State University (MSU). Sokrat, developed by the MSU’s Skobeltsyn Institute of Nuclear Physics (SNIP), also carries particle and gamma ray detectors to study space weather, while VDNH-80 was built by MSU’s Institute of Nuclear Physics in conjunction with JSC VDNH and also carries charged particle detectors. As well as studying space weather, the satellites will also fulfill technology development and demonstration objectives.
The Demonstration of Technology 1 (DoT-1) satellite was carried for British satellite manufacturer Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL). This small spacecraft will test components in orbit intended for use on future missions. Its launch was contracted through GK Launch Services, a joint venture between Glavkosmos – the commercial arm of the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roskosmos – and ISC Kosmotras who formerly contracted commercial launches of the now-defunct Dnepr rocket. The other twenty-eight payloads aboard Soyuz were booked by German company Exolaunch, in a separate deal with Glavkosmos.
CarboNIX is an experiment being conducted by Exolaunch to test a new separation mechanism for small satellites on future missions. This is designed to separate satellites from their carrier rocket without mechanical shock. Since its primary objective is to test the separation system, the CarboNIX satellite is essentially an instrumented mass simulator which will cease operating once its batteries run out.
Eight of the satellites are three-unit Lemur-2 CubeSats for American operator Spire Global. The Lemur-2 spacecraft carries two payloads: STRATOS to monitor atmospheric conditions and SENSE to collect and relay signals from Automated Identification System (AIS) transmitters aboard ships on the world’s oceans. After launch of the Lemur-1 demonstrator in June 2014, deployment of operational Lemur-2 spacecraft began in 2015 and Friday’s launch includes the one-hundredth Lemur-2, including satellites lost in previous launch failures.
The CubeSat standard, which is heavily used for small satellite missions worldwide, defines a series of common form factors to be used in conjunction with universal deployment mechanisms. This form factor is based around a number of cube-shaped units – with a single-unit CubeSat having all sides of 10 centimeters (3.9 in). Most CubeSats use one, two or three-unit designs although larger (e.g. six-unit) and smaller (e.g. half-unit) satellites have been built. The CubeSat standard helps to reduce the cost of launching a satellite, as a custom deployment mechanism does not need to be procured to attach it to the rocket.
Five BeeSat spacecraft were flown for the Technical University of Berlin. BeeSat-9 is a single-unit CubeSat developed for technology demonstration as a follow-up to 2016’s BeeSat-4 mission. Constructed from the engineering model of the BeeSat-4 satellite, BeeSat-9 carries a satellite navigation receiver which it will use to test precise orbit determination techniques. The satellite also carries a camera and a pico-fluid dynamic actuator (PFDA) which will be tested as part of the attitude control system.
BeeSat-10, 11, 12 and 13 are quarter-unit CubeSats which will demonstrate using a “swarm” of tiny spacecraft to conduct a mission in orbit. The satellites will test an ultra-high frequency (UHF) communications system and attitude determination through the use of optical sensors, as well as providing targets for ground-based laser-ranging experiments via retroreflectors mounted on the spacecraft.
El Camino Real is an unusually-large sixteen-unit CubeSat, measuring 20 by 20 by 40 centimeters (7.9 x 7.9 x 15.7 inches) or 2 by 2 by 4 standard CubeSat units. Operated by US company Momentus, it is intended to test a water-based plasma propulsion system in orbit ahead of its planned use on an orbital tug the company aims to introduce in the early 2020s. The Vigoride tug is designed to launch with relatively small satellites and inject them into more precise orbits – such as sun-synchronous orbit – after their initial deployment. El Camino Real will perform a series of engine burns to validate its propulsion systems, before deorbiting itself.
Lucky-7 will be operated by Czech firm SkyFox Labs. The single-unit CubeSat will test the use of off-the-shelf components in the space environment with multiple redundant subsystems. The satellite will test power supply and management systems, onboard computers, communications and navigation through a low-power GPS receiver. It will monitor the performance of its components as they are exposed to radiation in orbit around the Earth as a precursor to future CubeSat missions beyond Earth orbit.
The Memory Test CubeSat (MTCube) – also known as Radiation on Bipolar Test for University Satellite Application 1C (ROBUSTA-1C) is being flown for the University of Montpellier. A single-unit CubeSat, it will test flash and random-access memory in the space environment to study how the memory is affected by exposure to radiation.
Israel’s NSLSat-1 satellite is a prototype for a new constellation of high-throughput communications satellites to be operated by NSLComm. Developed by Clyde Space, the satellite is built to the 6U CubeSat form factor with an expandable antenna which will be deployed once in orbit. This provides a shapeable footprint, with the satellite expected to offer bandwidth of up to one gigabit per second.
The Small Explorer For Advanced Missions 2.0 (SEAM 2.0) is a three-unit CubeSat being flown for a consortium led by the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) and Swedish Space Centre (SSC). It carries a suite of magnetometers to study magnetic fields in the Earth’s ionosphere and currents in the aurora, however its main mission is to test the satellite platform for use on future missions. SEAM 2.0 is a replacement for the original SEAM satellite, which was lost in the same November 2017 Soyuz launch failure that claimed the Meteor-M No.2-1 satellite.
The Solutus Nano Satellite (SONATE), which is being flown for the University of Würzburg, is a three-unit CubeSat mission intended to demonstrate autonomous operation of a spacecraft. The satellite carries two experiments: Autonomous Sensor and Planning System (ASAP) which will monitor data from various sensors to detect readings that may warrant further investigation. The Autonomous Diagnostic System (AIDA) will monitor the health of the satellite and attempt to diagnose the cause of any malfunctions.
Two D-Star ONE satellites – three-unit CubeSats developed by German Orbital Systems – will test technologies for future satellites. These are named EXOCONNECT and LightSat. JAISAT was also built by German Orbital Systems to the 3U standard and will be operated by the Radio Amateur Society of Thailand (RAST). ICEYE-X4 and X5 are prototypes for a series of small satellites equipped with radar-imaging payloads, which are being carried for Finnish operator ICEYE. These spacecraft carry X-band synthetic aperture radar imaging systems.
The Munich Orbital Verification Experiment 2b (MOVE-2b) satellite, built by the Technical University of Munich, will test a single-unit CubeSat bus designed for future scientific missions. UTE-Ecuador is a space weather and ionospheric research mission being carried out by the Universidad Tecnológica Equinoccial (UTE) of Ecuador using a three-unit CubeSat. Estonia’s TTÜ101 single-unit CubeSat carries cameras and an X-band communications payload which will be tested in orbit.
The launch of Meteor-M No.2-2 and its co-passengers was Russia’s eighth orbital launch of 2019, including two Soyuz missions conducted by Arianespace from French Guiana. It has been over a month since the last Russian launch – of a Proton-M rocket with a Yamal satellite at the end of May – with a Proton launch that had been planned for June with the Spektr-RG space telescope slipping to the middle of July. It is the seventh Soyuz launch of the year, and the fifth to use the Soyuz-2-1b configuration.
The next Soyuz launch is currently expected on 20 July, with an older Soyuz-FG vehicle carrying the Soyuz MS-13 spacecraft to orbit with three cosmonauts bound for the International Space Station. The next Meteor satellite, Meteor-M No.2-3, is currently slated to launch at an unspecified date next year.