Russian military communications satellite launched on Soyuz rocket

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A Soyuz rocket lifts off Tuesday with a Russian military satellite. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense

A Russian Soyuz rocket delivered a military communications satellite to orbit Tuesday in the first space launch for Russia’s military since forces invaded Ukraine last month.

The Soyuz launcher lifted off from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome at 8:48 a.m. EDT (1248 GMT) Tuesday. The rocket headed southeast from the military-run spaceport, located about 500 miles (800 kilometers) north of Moscow, and dropped its four kerosene-fueled first stage boosters two minutes into the mission.

The Soyuz-2.1a rocket’s core stage, or second stage, burned nearly five minutes, and a third stage fired before releasing a Fregat upper stage to continue maneuvers to inject a Meridian M communications satellite into orbit.

The Fregat upper stage fired its main engine three times to place the Meridian M satellite into an elongated, or elliptical, orbit ranging between roughly 600 and 25,000 miles (about 1,000 kilometers by 39,700 kilometers) above Earth, with an inclination of 62.8 degrees to the equator.

The Russian Defense Ministry declared the launch a success, and independent tracking data published by the U.S. military confirmed the Fregat upper stage deployed its payload into the expected orbit.

The Meridian spacecraft are manufactured by ISS Reshetnev, a Russian space contractor, as replacements for a previous generation of Molniya communications satellites. The Russian contractor says the Meridian satellites weigh around 2.1 metric tons, or 4,630 pounds, and can operate for at least seven years in space.

Thanks to their elliptical orbits, Meridian satellites can link Russian ground forces, aircraft, ships and command centers in the Arctic, Siberia and the North Sea, outside the reach of stable communications coverage through geostationary satellites over the equator.

In one example of the Meridian fleet’s communications mission, the Russian Defense Ministry said the satellites relay signals between coastal stations and vessels and ice reconnaissance airplanes traveling along the Northern Sea Route in the Arctic Ocean. The Meridian satellites also serve users in northern Siberia and Russia’s Far East, the defense ministry said.

With Tuesday’s mission, Russia has launched 10 Meridian communications satellites since 2006 to begin replacing the Molniya family of data relay platforms. One of the Meridian satellites was lost in a Soyuz launch failure in 2011, and another was released into an off-target orbit in 2009.

Thursday’s launch sent the third upgraded Meridian M-class spacecraft into orbit. The first of the new batch of Meridian M satellites launched in July 2019, followed by another one in February 2020.

The Meridian satellites are a part of Russia’s Integrated Satellite Communications System, working with the Russian military’s Raduga, or Globus, military data relay satellites in geostationary orbit.

The launch of the newest Meridian M satellite was the first satellite delivery mission for the Russian Defense Ministry since the Russian military invaded Ukraine last month.

Russian ground crews emblazoned the letter “Z” on the Soyuz rocket’s payload fairing. Displays of the letter are commonly associated with support for the Russia’s military attack on Ukraine, and many Russian military vehicles participating in the invasion also carry the insignia.

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