|Soyuz-2-1v launches classified payload
Russian military launched a Soyuz-2-1v/Volga rocket from Site 43 in Plesetsk, delivering a classified cargo into orbit on November 25, 2019. It was the sixth mission of the Soyuz-2-1v variant since its introduction in 2013.
Kosmos-2542 mission at a glance:
Preparations for the mission
On November 18, 2019, Russian authorities issued notifications for air traffic to avoid areas of the Arctic Ocean north of the Kola Peninsula and south of the Spitsbergen Archipelago. Another warning came for a large swath of the Pacific Ocean. The designated areas matched the impact sites used by previous launches of the Soyuz-2-1v rocket with the Volga upper stage from Plesetsk, in particular the delivery of the 14F150 payload in June 2017.
According to the notifications, the launch was expected on November 25, 2019, between 20:30 and 22:00 Moscow Time. The launch vehicle was expected to ascent along the following ground track to enter orbit:
Timeline of the Kosmos-2542 launch on November 25, 2019:
Kosmos-2542 enters orbit
According to the official Russian media quoting the Ministry of Defense, the Soyuz-2-1v rocket lifted off on November 25, 2019, at 20:52 Moscow Time and ground assets of the Titov Chief Test Space Center, GIKTs, of the nation's Air and Space Forces began tracking the vehicle at 20:54 Moscow Time.
Around half an hour later, the official media announced that the payload section, including the Volga upper stage and the spacecraft, had separated from the second stage of the launch vehicle as planned at 21:00 Moscow Time.
Before the end of the day on November 25, the Ministry of Defense announced that the Volga upper stage had successfully delivered the military satellite in its planned orbit at the scheduled time. According to the Russian military, the newly launched satellite was based on a standard platform which can perform monitoring of the condition of Russian satellites. The optical equipment also allows the spacecraft to conduct imaging of the Earth's surface, the Interfax quoted the Ministry of Defense as saying.
The wording of the statement seemed to be hinting that the second mission in the 14F150 project had been underway, following the original launch in 2017, which was also officially described as having orbital inspection capabilities. Because the distinct feature of the 2017 launch was the subsequent release of additional satellites from the primary payload, the appearance of similar sub-satellites after the latest launch should provide more clues about the nature of the mission.
Several hours after the launch, the US Space Command, USSPACECOM, released orbital elements for three objects associated with the mission which likely represented the payload, the second stage of the Soyuz-2-1v rocket and the Volga upper stage:
On the morning of November 26, the official TASS news agency reported quoting the Ministry of Defense that "specialists of the Titov Chief Space Center, GIKTs, completed the operations for removal of the Volga upper stage from the target orbit of the spacecraft of the Ministry of Defense and its sinking in the Pacific Ocean."
In reality, around 8.5 hours after releasing its payload, the Volga upper stage initiated a pre-programmed deorbiting maneuver which resulted in its decay at an altitude of around 100 kilometers over the Pacific Ocean at 09:09 Moscow Time (1:09 a.m. EST) on November 26, 2019.
On December 6, 2019, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that a small sub-satellite had separated from the multi-functional platform in orbit. In the course of the experiment, visual information is being transmitted to the ground processing facilities in order to assess the technical status of the spacecraft under observation, the Ministry of Defense said. According to the announcement, the experiment was conducted on December 6.
At the time, the newly released vehicle was tracked in a 368 by 858-kilometer orbit with an inclination 97.895 degrees toward the Equator and a period of 96.95 minutes.
By December 9, the US radar detected the first maneuver of the new satellite which boosted its perigee by four kilometers. By mid-December 2019, the sub-satellite boosted its perigee by 55 kilometers. Because the mother vehicle entered orbit within one degree of inclination from the USA-245 classified satellite launched by the United States, observers immediately suspected an attempt by the Russian pair to intercept and inspect the American spacecraft. Interestingly, according to a satellite observer Nico Janssen, between December 9 and December 10, USA-245 left its 272 by 985-kilometer orbit and maneuvered somewhere else, possibly attempting to prevent a close encounter with the newly released Kosmos-2543, which climbed to a 590 by 859-kilometer orbit.
On January 29, 2020, Janssen wrote that while Kosmos-2543 has remained in its practically unchanged 586 by 861-kilometer orbit, Kosmos-2542 climbed to a 369 by 915-kilometer orbit. At the time, the USA-245 satellite was tracked in a 283 by 1,002-kilometer orbit. According to Jannsen, orbital planes of the Russian and American spacecraft differed by just 0.55 degrees and their orbital periods had only a one-second difference.
Possible launches of maneuverable satellites:
A Soyuz-2-1v rocket is being prepared for rollout from the vehicle assembly building in Plesetsk in November 2019. Click to enlarge. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense
Click to enlarge. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense
A Soyuz-2-1v rocket arrives at launch pad in Plesetsk in November 2019. Click to enlarge. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense
A Soyuz-2-1v rocket is being erected on the launch pad in Plesetsk in November 2019. Click to enlarge. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense
A Soyuz-2-1v rocket moments before liftoff on November 25, 2019. Click to enlarge. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense