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Russia Conducts Unusually Secret Soyuz Rocket Launch: What Is It For?

SpaceX has successfully launched its reused Falcon 9 rocket and recovered it within 48 hours. But just before this feat last June 25, Russia undertook a low-key launch of its own.

A modified version of the country’s Soyuz rocket launched last Friday, June 23, from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northwest Russia, with a military satellite whose mission is still largely veiled in mystery.

Secret Launch?

The Soyuz 2-1v rocket blasted off at 9:04 p.m. Moscow time (2:04 p.m. EDT) from Plesetsk, situated on the edge of the Russia Arctic or about 500 miles north of Moscow.

But while the Russian Defense Ministry announced the launch in a website statement late Friday, the agency as well as local media reports did not provide details on the payload, Spaceflight Now reported.

According to U.S. military tracking data, the spacecraft and the rocket’s Volga upper stage orbited around 410 miles above Earth after the Friday mission. The objects were reported to fly in an orbit tilted 98 degrees to the equator.

Initial indications showed that the Friday launch achieved orbit as intended, with the Volga likely to continue its mission for about 1.5 hours, injecting the satellite into its precise orbit before the spacecraft separates.

Russian authorities did not announce the launch in advance, but warned pilots a couple of days pre-flight to stay out of drop zones located in the Arctic Ocean where the rocket’s first stage and payload were forecasted to fall.

The lightweight Soyuz 2-1v is a scaled-down version of the much-revered Soyuz launcher, although it uses a different propulsion system. Its first stage is driven by an NK-33 main engine as well as four steering thrusters, and it operates without the four strap-on boosters making up the first stage of other Soyuz vehicles.

Geodetic Satellite In Focus

Speculations have it that the satellite may be the first in new-generation military geodesy satellites. Geodesy is concerned with measuring Earth’s physical properties such as its shape and gravitational field.

In the military context, it can refine missile guidance along with targeting systems for greater accuracy, with data likely to be fed into ballistic missile guidance computers.

“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 program,” NASA Spaceflight noted of the satellite officially designated as Kosmos 2519.

An alternative payload, the website added, could be a current-gen GEO-IK-2 geodesy spacecraft, with two previous launches featuring Rokot/Briz-KM rockets. A third launch onboard a Rokot rocket was slated for the third quarter of 2017, although the country’s TASS news agency reported that the rocket would be retired after two planned launches for this year.

Two commercial launches are in the works for the Sentinel program of the European Space Agency, which means that Rokot’s military launches may have been moved to other vehicles. The Soyuz 2-1v rocket along with the Angara-1.2 was created to replace the Rokot and other small rockets in Russia’s fleet.

The next Soyuz journey will happen on July 14 when the Soyuz 2-1 deploys the Kanopus-V-IK spacecraft along with small satellites in a mission taking off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

The Russian space agency also recently launched a cargo ship to the International Space Station to deliver supplies to the space outpost. The supply ship Progress MS-06 cargo lifted from Baikonur earlier this month for its two-day journey to the ISS carrying fuel, food, and supplies for the low-Earth orbit crew.

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