Soyuz launches a space-age "Tower of Babel"

Russia's Soyuz rocket lifted off with the largest number of satellites in a single mission of its nearly 60-year carrier. To accommodate a menagerie of 73 payloads from six nations, the rocket's Fregat space tug was topped with a lattice contraption holding several small satellites and launch containers for dozens of the tiniest payloads, known as "cubesats." Perched on top of the structure will be the primary cargo of the mission -- the Russian Kanopus-V-IK Earth-watching satellite.

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Kanopus-V-IK payload assembly.

Soyuz mission with Kanopus-V-IK satellite at a glance:

Launch date and time
2017 July 14, 09:36:49 Moscow Time
Launch vehicle
Launch site
Kanopus-V-IK and 72 secondary payloads

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The most numerous cargo on Soyuz

The Soyuz mission on July 14, 2017, marks the latest effort by the Russian space industry to carve a place for the legendary rocket family in the growing field of small satellite launches, currently dominated by the Indian PSLV and the American Falcon-9 rockets. Ukraine is also planning a low-cost launcher specifically aimed at the small satellite market and a number of other ventures could also join the fray.

Although in February India set the record for the largest number of satellites carried in a single launch at 104, the Soyuz will boost its number of passengers to 73 from just five carried during the first launch within the Kanopus project in 2012.

History of the Kanopus-V-IK project

Developed at the Moscow-based VNIIEM corporation, the Kanopus satellite platform was designed primarily for observations of the Earth's surface.

As of 2011, as many as six satellites within the Kanopus series were promised to fly by 2020. At the time, the Kanopus-V No. 2 satellite was described as weighing 485 kilograms and carrying 123 kilograms of payloads. By July 2012, Kanopus-V No. 2 was promised to fly in 2013. The same year, Roskosmos announced a formal tender for a contract worth 1.7 billion rubles (approximately $28.3 million according to the 2017 exchange rate), which would cover the development of the Kanopus-V-IK satellite. The IK in the spacecraft designation stood for "infrakrasny" or infrared in Russian. The main payload aboard the spacecraft -- the MSU-IK-SR infra-red radiometer -- would have the primary purpose of detecting sources of fires as small as five by five meters on a 2,000-kilometer swath of Earth's surface. The instrument was based on the hardware already developed within the Pribor-IK project.

The satellite would reportedly be able to revisit the same areas within 2-3 days. The tender documentation indicated that the satellite would have a mass of around 550 kilograms and orbit the Earth in a Sun-synchronous orbit with an altitude of between 510 and 600 kilometers. It would have to be designed to operate for at least seven years.

However by the time of the 2012 tender, the launch of Kanopus-V-IK had slipped to 2015.

Additional satellites in the series, such as Kanopus-D for detailed observation of the Earth, Kanopus-K for cartography and Kanopus-R for radar observations were also proposed at the time. The same basic platform developed in the Kanopus project also became the basis for the Zond and Mikhailo Lomonosov satellites.

In April 2013, the Belarussian press reported that two Russian and one Belarussian satellites would be added into the Kanopus network. The resolution of the new satellite would be increased to one meter.

The launch of the Kanopus-V-IK satellite was apparently first planned on a Rockot booster based in Plesetsk, but it was eventually switched to a Soyuz-2-1a rocket flying from Baikonur.

The launch on Soyuz left a considerable extra lifting capability on the rocket, making the mission an ideal vehicle for multiple extra payloads.

Glavkosmos, a division of Roskosmos, took responsibility for arranging commercial satellites to accompany Kanopus-V-IK. In addition, the integration of two secondary satellites built in Germany, three from Russia and 12 from the US was subcontracted to ECM Space Technologies GmbH based in Germany.

The Kanopus-V-IK mission appeared in the Roskosmos flight manifest scheduled for October 2016, but by September 1 of that year, the launch was postponed to December 22. The launch was then rescheduled from December 22 to December 28, in order to "optimize the overall flight manifest," the Interfax reported on October 4. However by the middle of October 2016, the mission slipped to 2017. By March 2017, the launch was re-scheduled to the end of June 2017, but by that time, it was moved yet again to July 14.

Launch campaign in Baikonur

The primary payload for the mission -- Kanopus-V-IK -- was shipped from its manufacturing site at the VNIIEM corporation in Moscow to Baikonur on June 9, 2017. The testing and integration of the complex multi-satellite payload for the launch was conducted at the assembly building at Site 31, beginning on May 12, 2017.

By mid-June, specialists largely completed electrical interface tests between the secondary payloads and the flight control system on the Fregat upper stage, clearing the way for the integration of the satellites with the space tug.

On June 19, 2017, in Baikonur, technicians from NPO Lavochkin and Roskosmos got ready for the delivery of the Fregat upper stage to its fueling facility. The fueling itself was planned to be performed from June 20 to June 24, 2017.

On June 28, 2017, Glavkosmos announced that all the secondary payloads for the Kanopus-V-IK mission had undergone autonomous tests and their integration with the launch vehicle was scheduled to be completed by July 3.


On July 4, NPO Lavochkin announced that all the secondary payloads had been installed on their interface truss and were undergoing final processing. The installation of the Kanopus-V-IK on the same truss was set for July 5 and Roskosmos had confirmed that the operation had been completed as scheduled.

On July 9, the payload section including the Kanopus-V-IK satellite, the Fregat upper stage and all the secondary payloads under their payload fairing, were integrated with the third stage of the Soyuz-2-1a launch vehicle.

On July 10, the assembly of the launch vehicle was completed and members of the State Commission overseeing the Kanopus-V-IK project approved its rollout to the launch pad next day for a three-day processing for liftoff on July 14.

Flight profile


A Soyuz-2.1a/Fregat lifted off as scheduled from Site 31 in Baikonur on July 14, 2017, at 09:36:49 Moscow Time (06:36 GMT, 02:36 EDT, 12:36 local time). The launch vehicle carried the Kanopus-V-IK Earth-imaging satellite and a cluster of 72 secondary payloads into a near-polar orbit.

During the mission, the Fregat was expected to conduct a total of seven maneuvers in order to release its cargo into three different orbits and then to put itself on a reentry path into the atmosphere.

The mission began with a largely traditional powered ascent of the three booster stages of the Soyuz rocket. However unlike most launches from Baikonur, which head east, Kanopus-V-IK turned north to align its ground track with a target orbit almost perpendicular to the equatorial plane of our planet. The flight path enabled the Soyuz rocket drop the four boosters of the first stage in Northern Kazakhstan near the border with Russia, while the core booster of the second stage should have impacted in the Ural Region of Russia.

After accelerating the payload section to a nearly orbital velocity, the third stage of the Soyuz-2-1a rocket separated from the Fregat. Five minutes later, Fregat fired its engine for five minutes, entering an initial transfer orbit.

The stage then coasted for nearly 45 minutes before another maneuver lasting less than 1.5 minutes. The Fregat's second engine firing formed a slightly elliptical orbit with an average altitude of around 500 kilometers designed for the Kanopus-V-IK satellite. The box-shaped spacecraft was successfully ejected from the top of the interface truss around 1.5 minutes after the engine shuts down and soon thereafter established contact with mission control.

After another half an hour, Fregat initiated the second dual maneuver to climb another 100 kilometers to a nearly circular orbit. It became the destination for two groups of satellites, the first five released just 1.5 minutes after the fourth engine firing, with another 19 satellites beginning to eject five minutes later.

Some of the satellites, including the Russian MKA-N, were released over Antarctica before coming in contact with Russian ground stations in Skolkovo near Moscow 35 minutes later.

Once this operation was successfully completed, Fregat performed its third pair of maneuvers, this time to descend to a nearly 485-kilometer circular orbit. Here, the largest group of satellites, 48 Doves, were successfully ejected during a roughly 25-minute window.

Almost 20 minutes after the last Dove jumps off Fregat, the space tug was to perform its final maneuver lasting nearly two minutes. It will put the stage on a destructive plunge into the Earth's atmosphere over the Indian Ocean more than 8.5 hours after the liftoff. Roskosmos had confirmed that the disposal of the stage had been completed successfully.

Timeline for the Soyuz mission on July 14, 2017:

Moscow Time
Stage I (four boosters) separation
Stage II (core booster) separation
Payload fairing separation
Stage III separation; payload section in autonomous flight
Fregat engine firing 1 starts to form 1st transfer orbit
Fregat engine firing 1 ends
Fregat engine firing 2 starts to form 1st payload release orbit
Fregat engine firing 2 ends
Kanopus-V-IK separation into a 522.5 by 478.6-kilometer orbit; inclination: 97.44 degrees
Fregat engine firing 3 starts to form 2nd transfer orbit
Fregat engine firing 3 ends
Fregat engine firing 4 starts to form 2nd payload release orbit
Fregat engine firing 4 ends
Separation sequence begins for five secondary payloads
Separation sequence ends for five secondary payloads into a 601.5-600.1 by 600-590.1-kilometer orbit; inclination: 97.61 degrees
Separation sequence begins for 19 secondary payloads
Separation sequence ends for 19 secondary payloads into a 601.0-606.9 by 581.1-587.4-kilometer orbit; inclination: 97.62-97.61 degrees
Fregat engine firing 5 starts to form 3rd transfer orbit
Fregat engine firing 5 ends to form 3rd transfer orbit
Fregat engine firing 6 starts to form 3rd payload release orbit
Fregat engine firing 6 ends
Separation of 48 Dove (Flock-2k) satellites sequence starts into a 485.0-477.4 by 482.2-450.5-kilometer orbit with inclination 97.00-97.01 degrees
Separation of 48 Dove (Flock-2k) satellites sequence ends
Fregat engine firing 7 begins to deorbit the stage
Fregat engine firing 7 ends to deorbit the stage
Fregat to reenter the Earth's atmosphere at an altitude of 100 kilometers over the Indian Ocean

Kanopus-V-IK satellite


Kanopus-V-IK stands for Kanopus-Vulkan-Infra-Krasny or Canopus-Vulcain-Infrared. The official goal of the satellite is to detect fires from space, making it the first Russian spacecraft of its kind. Vast expanses of the Russian territory are covered with forests and controlling fires had been a major challenge for the authorities throughout the Russian history. According to some sources, one of the earliest concepts for a dedicated orbital fire watcher was first put forward at NPO Lavochkin in the 1970s.

Kanopus-V-IK is said to be capable of detecting fires as small as 25 square meters. The satellite could also monitor other natural and man-made disasters, such as floods and chemical spillage. It could also be used to support agriculture and land usage, monitor shorelines and water conditions and search for natural resources.

According to its official description, the satellite will provide data for Roskosmos, the Ministry of Emergency Situations, MChS; the ministry of natural resources, Minpriroda; the hydrology and meteorology agency, Rosgidromet; the Russian Academy of Sciences, RAN; and other institutions.

Known specifications of the Kanopus-V-IK satellite:

Liftoff mass
Approximately 600 kilograms (plus/minus 30 kilograms)
Payload mass
Approximately 191 kilograms
Attitude control system
Attitude control system accuracy
Not worse than 5 angular minutes
Stabilization accuracy
0.001 degrees per second
Pitch and roll motion
plus or minus 40 degrees
Imaging readiness time
3 minutes
Maximum navigational error
15 meters
Average power supply
300 Watts
Projected life span
no less than 5 years
Orbit parameters
Sun-synchronous, 510 kilometers, 97.4 degrees, 94.8 minutes
Launch vehicle

To provide monitoring of the Earth's surface, the satellite was equipped with three instruments, including an imaging camera and the multi-channel radiometer operating in medium and far-infrared range of spectrum.

The payload section, TsA, on the satellite also includes an onboard data system and a radio system for downlinking of information from scientific instruments, RLTsI-KV.

Instruments onboard Kanopus-V-IK satellite:

Special resolution (nadir)
Spectral range
Detectable fire sources in nadir
Pan-chromatic imaging system, PSS
2.1 meters
23 kilometers
0.54-0.86 mkm
Multi-spectral imaging system, MSS
10.5 meters
23 kilometers
0.46-0.52 mkm,
0.51-0.60 mkm,
0.63-0.69 mkm,
0.75-0.84 mkm
Multi-channel mid-range and far-infrared radiometer, MSU-IK-SRM
200 meters
2,000 kilometers
3.5-4.1 mkm,
8.4-9.4 mkm
5 by 5 meters

Secondary payloads


On its trip to orbit, the Kanopus-V-IK will be accompanied by 72 secondary payloads, which is a record for the Soyuz rocket. To accommodate multiple payloads on the Fregat upper stage, a special adapter had to be built.

Along with the Kanopus-V-IK, the Russian federal government will also launch a pair of MKA-N cubesats for Earth's observation developed at NPP Dauria under a contract from Roskosmos. All other secondary payloads aboard the rocket are considered to be commercial and were booked via Roskosmos' marketing branch OAO Glavkosmos.

The largest group of secondary payloads will be the Flock-2k cluster of 48 Dove imaging cubesats weighing around five kilograms each. According to their manufacturer -- the US-based Planet Labs -- Dove satellites act like a line scanner for the planet, creating a unique data stream. Launched in so-called "flocks," Doves make up the world’s largest constellation of Earth-imaging satellites, providing a whole-Earth dataset that is unmatched in its breadth and freshness, Planet Labs said. With the launch of the Flock-2k cluster, Planet's constellation should reach 190 satellites. This number also includes RapidEye satellites, launched on the Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr launcher in 2008.

A total of 50 satellites, including 48 Dove satellites and two Corvus-BC1 satellite, will be packed inside 13 so-called QuadPack rectangular containers equipped with deployment mechanisms.

Also onboard, will be two German payloads including the so-called Flying Laptop weighing more than 100 kilograms and the 18-kilogram TechnoSat experimental satellite.

A pair of Norsat satellites reaching around 30 kilograms in mass and developed in cooperation between Norwegian and Canadian specialists will be used for traffic monitoring and technical experiments.

An overview of payloads carried during the Soyuz launch on July 14, 2017:

Russian federal payloads
473 kilograms
VNIIEM, Russia
MKA-N (6U CubeSat) (2)
10 kilograms
Earth observation
NPP Dauria, Russia
Commercial payloads via OAO Glavkosmos
Dove Flock-2k (3U CubeSat) (48)
5 kilograms
Imaging cubesat
Planet Labs, USA
Lemur+ (3U CubeSat) (8)
4 kilograms
Spire Global, USA
CICERO (6U CubeSat) (3)
Tyvak GeoOptics Inc., USA
Corvus-BC (6U CubeSat) (2)
10 kilograms
Astro Digital (formerly AquilaSpace), USA
MKA Mayak (3U CubeSat)
4 kilograms
Moscow PolyTech University, Russia
MKA Iskra-MAI-85 (3U CubeSat)
Moscow Aviation Institute, Russia
Ekvador UTE-YuZGU (1U CubeSat)
South-Western State University, Kursk, Russia
18-20 kilograms
TU Berlin
Flying Laptop
110-120 kilograms
University of Stuttgart
40 kilograms
Weathernews, Axelspace, Japan
NorSat (2)
~30 kilograms
Norwegian Space Center
NanoACE (3U CubeSat)
5 kilograms

Post-launch operations

In the aftermath of the Kanopus-V-IK launch, Roskosmos made a rare announcement on July 18 about cleanup operations at the impact sites of the first and second stages of the Soyuz rocket.

Kanopus-V-IK delivers its first photos



On July 27, 2017, Roskosmos State Corporation released the very first pair of photographs produced by the PSS black and white and the MSS color cameras onboard the Kanopus-V-IK satellite. According to Roskosmos, specialists at the VNIIEM corporation, which built the spacecraft, successfully completed the testing of the satellite's support systems. The instruments and high-speed data transmission system onboard Kanopus-V-IK were then successfully activated on July 26 and the next day, the imaging systems produced test photos of the Earth's surface. According to Roskosmos, the quality of the pictures met the requirements of the customer.


Read much more about the history of the Russian space program in a richly illustrated, large-format glossy edition:



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The article and photography by Anatoly Zak; Last update: July 27, 2017

Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: July 13, 2017

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Artist rendering of the Soyuz rocket's ascent to orbit on July 14, 2017, during the powered flight of the third stage. In reality, the Fregat space tug and its payloads will be wrapped in thermal insulation during the flight. Credit: Glavkosmos



The Kanopus-V-IK satellite. Click to enlarge. Credit: VNIIEM


Kanopus satellites under assembly. The V-IK vehicle is likely on the foreground. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos


Kanopus-V-IK during radio tests testing in echoless chamber. Credit: Roskosmos


Testing of launch containers for "cubsats" on the prototype of the Fregat upper stage at NPO Lavochkin's checkout facility. Click to enlarge. Credit: Glavkosmos


A "flock" of Dove remote-sensing satellites. Click to enlarge. Credit:


Secondary payloads attached to Fregat upper stage before the installation of the Kanopus-V-IK satellite. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos


Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos


The Kanopus-V-IK is being integrated with its Fregat upper stage on July 5, 2017. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos


Final assembly of the Soyuz-2-1a rocket for the Kanopus-V-IK launch. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos





Rollout of the Soyuz rocket with Kanopus V-IK to launch pad at Site 31. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos


The access gantry is being retracted around Soyuz-2-1a rocket, as personnel evacuates Pad 6 shortly before liftoff on July 14, 2017. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos


Soyuz-2-1a lifts off on July 14, 2017. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos