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Above: A scale model showing the optical version of the Kondor-E satellite. Copyright © 2011 Anatoly Zak
Russia launches Kondor satellite
The Kondor Earth-watching satellite has been in development since 1993 at NPO Mashinostroenia (or NPO Mash for short) based in Reutov on the south-eastern edge of Moscow. Although NPO Mash is known primarily for its sea-based cruise missiles, the company is a direct descendant of Vladimir Chelomei's design bureau, the creator of some of the most significant vehicles in the Soviet space program including the Proton rocket and the Almaz space station. In fact, Almaz can be considered the actual precursor to the Kondor satellite.
History of the project
During heyday of the Soviet space program, NPO Mash oversaw development of a diverse array of sophisticated reconnaissance instruments intended for its 20-ton Almaz manned space station. The outpost's payloads included a powerful spy camera and the Mech ("sword") high-resolution radar featuring a so-called phased-array antenna. After the cancellation of the program at the end of the Cold War, the company tried to commercialize its military space station as an oversized Earth-observation platform but without success. Fortunately, advances in electronics enabled dramatically miniaturized versions of the payloads intended for Almaz. Beginning in 1992, engineers at NPO Mash started looking at the possibility of replacing heavy remote-sensing platforms with new-generation satellites weighing no more than 1.1 tons.
One of the cost-saving and mass-reduction measures in the project included replacement of the phased-array radar of the Almaz spacecraft with a regular antenna-reflector developed at OKB MEI in Moscow. According to the organization, the 6-meter device provided larger effective area and necessary span of the observation swath up to 500 kilometers. The antenna would be equipped with a mechanical rotating mechanism to capture images on both sides of the satellite's flight path.
In 1993, on an assignment from the Russian space forces, NPO Mash conducted a small-scale study aimed to fit a radar payload into a small-size satellite known in Russian as MKA. A year later, the company put forward a formal proposal to the Ministry of Defense for the Kondor ("Condor") satellite. Five other companies within the Russian space industry, including NPO Lavochkin, TsSKB Progress, RKK Energia, KB Arsenal and KB Salyut, made competing bids. In 1996, the Russian space forces, VKS, announced a formal tender for the project. Upon reviewing all six proposals, an inter-agency commission declared NPO Mash the winner, recommending the development of an optical version of the Kondor satellite along with a radar-carrying bird. On July 8, 1997, the Russian space forces officially endorsed this plan.
In the runup to the tender, NPO Mash drastically re-drafted its original bid and completed a preliminary design for the spacecraft in 1998, using mostly internal funds. A year later, the company formally defended the project and the Ministry of Defense issued a formal technical assignment for the system. However, federal funding for the implementation of the project was not available in the economic crisis of the 1990s, leaving NPO Mash to look for private backers. In the meantime, Russian contractors involved in the project apparently had to apply their unique expertise elsewhere, including participating in the development of a Chinese radar-carrying satellite.
Above: Organizational structure of the Kondor satellite system according to NPO Mash.
By 2001, the Kondor project evolved into a business plan dubbed Progmatichny Kosmos ("Progmatic Space") aimed to revive the company's expertise in remote-sensing space systems. It called for the development of a small-size satellite platform called Kondor-E ("Condor"), where "E" stood for "export", implying that the original version would still be developed for the Russian military.
The satellite was designed to carry a radar antenna capable of seeing through the cloud cover, while its sibling would be customized for a state-of-the-art optical camera. Both types of satellites would be controlled from a centralized ground facility and could downlink their radar and optical images to a specialized ground station. Thanks to its compact size, the image-receiving facility could be easily deployed inside Russia or abroad.
The satellites and their data would be offered for use by both Russian and foreign customers. With a mass of 1,100 kilograms, both satellites would fit into the Strela ("Arrow") rocket converted from the retired UR-100NU ballistic missile. Not coincidently, the UR-100-series ICBM was also developed at Chelomei's design bureau. Strela would be fired from an underground silo No. 59 at Site 175 on the west side of Baikonur Cosmodrome.
The propulsion system for the Kondor satellite reportedly included six 17D58E attitude-control engines with a thrust of 1.2 kilograms and one orbit-correction engine. The system was first fired during a series of tests at the IS-101/1B facility in NII Khimmash in Peresvet near Moscow in 2004.
The Strela launch vehicle was flight tested on Dec. 5, 2003, successfully delivering a 978-kilogram mockup of the Kondor satellite. However the development of the spacecraft itself lingered for another decade in search of commercial customers and federal funding. Despite a presidential decree classifying Kondor as a dual-purpose project (benefiting both military and civilian agencies), funding from the Ministry of Defense was continuously delayed, while the Russian space agency had completely refused to participate in the project. The leadership of NPO Mash attempted to borrow $20 million from commercial banks but these funds were also frozen for a decade due to the failure of the military to guarantee these investments.
At the turn of the 2000s, the launch was promised as early as in 2003, however the first significant money for the Kondor project would not come until 2004. In 2006, the launch was promised within a year, however by May 2007, the mission slipped to the beginning of 2008 and more delays followed.
In April 2006, during a visit of the Russian prime-minister Mikhail Fradkov to Brazil and Argentina, a possible "export" of the Kondor-E satellite was reported to be among the topics of discussion. In 2009, NPO Mash announced that the company had been working on a commercial contract for the development of a radar-carrying Kondor-E satellite for an undisclosed foreign customer. As it transpired later, in 2006, NPO Mash sold the satellite to South Africa. In 2010, the company's publication reported that three copies of the 14F133 (Kondor) spacecraft designated No. 0100, 0004 and 0001 were under construction.
In the meantime, NPO Mash continued advertising the project in Latin America, South-East Asia and in the Middle East. At the IDEX 2011 defense show in Abu Dhabi, the company's representatives said that the promotion of the Kondor-E system in the Middle East had been ongoing and had not yet been completed.
In the meantime, the Russian Ministry of Defense reportedly made only partial funding of the project, citing its doubts in the successful completion of the program. Apparently, the Russian military promised to release agreed funds only after the launch and operational deployment of the satellite.
By September 2011, the Kondor's launch was reportedly postponed to January 2012. However only by September of that year, the delivery of the satellite to Baikonur was promised within a month, with the launch date finally set for November 29. Yet by that time, the mission was delayed to 2013. On Dec. 27, 2012, while addressing the personnel at NPO Mash with best wishes in the coming new year, the head of the company, Aleksandr Leonov, said that the Kondor project had reached its final stage and the development of a new space system had been initiated, along with the continuing work on the Baumanets-2 experimental satellite.
In an interview with the Vedomosti daily in October 2012, the former head of NPO Mash, Gerbert Efremov, implied that the military version of the Kondor satellite was intended to carry an imaging radar.
During the IDEX 2013 show in February, NPO Mash disclosed that it had been preparing not one but two launches of satellites in the Kondor series during the year -- one for the Russian Ministry of Defense and one for an undisclosed foreign customer. A successful military launch would clear the way for the mission of an "export" version. At the time, the first launch was expected on March 29.
However, during the satellite's processing, pyrotechnic devices on the payload fairing and the instrument section were inadvertently activated, requiring the replacement of a number of components. The satellite itself reportedly escaped damage, however, the launch campaign now faced a tough deadline, because the rocket was certified for flight only until June 30, 2013. As a result, the mission was tentatively scheduled for June 20, 2013, however when the spacecraft was finally ready for shipment to Baikonur on May 30 or 31, the launch was expected on June 27, 2013.
Only on the day of the launch on June 27, 2013, did unofficial sources at NPO Mash confirm that blastoff of the Strela rocket from Site 175 in Baikonur was scheduled for 20:53:00 Moscow Summer Time. The launch vehicle heading east from Kazakhstan was scheduled to release the Kondor No. 0001 satellite into a circular orbit with an altitude of 504.7 kilometers and an inclination 74.75 degrees toward the Equator at 21:18:35 Moscow Time.
Several minutes after the expected launch time, the Interfax news agency reported that the Strela rocket carrying Kondor satellite had lifted off from Baikonur. Witnesses in the town of Petropavlovsk in northern Kazakhstan did see and photograph the typical bright trail of a rocket launch.
Around two hours after the launch, Interfax quoted unnamed sources confirming that the satellite had reached orbit. Western radars did detect the spacecraft in a 464 by 552-kilometer orbit with an inclination 74.9 degrees toward the Equator. Within 24 hours radar data corrected the orbital altitude to 499 by 521 kilometer and the orbital inclination to 74.74 degrees, essentially matching the parameters of the planned orbit leaked before launch.
Events of Friday, June 28
In the meantime, even 24 hours after the successful launch, the Kondor mission had received no official acknowledgement. Neither the Russian space agency, nor official military media, or even key contractors in the Kondor project had published any announcements. However an official warning about the ballistic missile launch published in the Tyumen Region of Siberia surfaced on the Internet. According to a small article in a local newspaper, the Russian Strategic Missile Forces planned the launch on June 27, at 20:58 Moscow Time (according to other sources, the launch took place at 20:53 Moscow Time) of a ballistic missile. Its first stage was scheduled to fall at a regular drop zone covering unpopulated regions of the Vagaisky, Vikulovsky and Sorokinsky Districts near the Severnoe swamp, the warning said.
The announcement asked residents not to venture into the area on June 27 and June 28, and said that a helicopter would deliver a special team to clean up the site and remove any debris from the stage. The announcement also said that such launches had been conducted since 2004 (the first Strela launch took place in 2003) and that environmental studies at the site had shown that there was no cause for concern.
Yet, on the morning of June 28, a local web portal in Tyumen received a phone call from a resident of Aromashevo village, who described a loud windows-rattling boom around midnight. It was so powerful that an alarm had been activated inside one of the cars. Many residents of the village ran outside and soon found out that residents of a nearby Sorokino village had heard the explosion as well.
On July 2, 2013, industry sources reported that Kondor had successfully deployed its imaging radar antenna. However the satellite was yet to go through a series of tests before transmitting its first images, postings on the Internet said.
It was still unclear whether any radar photos or any details about the flight would be made public. Since its launch, the mission had remained essentially clandestine. According to Internet rumors, the first checks of radar onboard the satellite were expected to start during the week of July 15.
Published: 2013 Aug. 2
Could it be that Russian space radar engineers, who went to China in the wake of the post-Soviet economic chaos brought more than know-how with them? The latest developments in orbit hint that the Russian-Chinese cooperation on the space-based radar might have been much more than simple transfer of technology.
Following the semi-clandestine launch of the Kondor spacecraft on June 27, Russia's first radar-carrying satellite, Igor Lisov, a leading Moscow-based space historian and journalist, noticed a strange peculiarity in the satellite's orbital movement as tracked by US radars. As it turned out, Kondor's maneuvers were mirroring the motion of the Chinese Huanjing-1C satellite launched the previous November! When superimposed on the same time chart, the evolution of both satellite's average orbits within a month after they had been launched looked so carefully synchronized that it was difficult to distinguish between the two missions, even though they had been launched several months apart from two countries.
Along with the slow natural descent caused by air friction in the upper atmosphere, both satellites also displayed strange downward jumps taking place at the same elapsed time in their respective missions. Unless data from US radar had periodic adjustments for both satellites, which was highly unlikely, the only remaining explanation for this orbital dance would be the coordinated action between the Chinese and Russian missions.
At the time of tracking, Huanjing-1C was in a 497 by 518-kilometer Sun-synchronous orbit, while Kondor circled the Earth in a 501 by 524-kilometer orbit. Kondor's orbit was not exactly synchronized with the Sun, however it was a result of a "bypass" taken by the launch vehicle on its way to orbit. According to Lisov, local authorities in the Yekaterinburg Region had refused to provide a necessary drop zone for the second stage of Kondor's Strela launcher after environmental protests.
Needless to say, the Chinese spacecraft is also carrying a radar antenna that engineers from Moscow-based OKB MEI had helped China to develop back in the 1990s. The fact that the cash-strapped Russian space industry had to sell its technology and expertise to the highest bidder during the economic crisis has never been a secret, however until now, there was no indication of a cooperative effort in such a sensitive and sophisticated military space project as orbital radar. Both satellites have the potential capability to provide high-resolution, all-weather, day and night imagery of the Earth surface. They can detect ships at sea and, theoretically, such data can be used to guide missiles toward their targets.
According to unofficial reports, Kondor was disabled in 2014, as a result of its imaging radar failure. According to the NORAD radar data, the satellite continued maneuvering, boosting its orbit roughly once a month during most of 2014 and 2015, however, on September 28, 2015, the spacecraft seemingly went to a 5-kilometer lower orbit, followed by quick natural decay of its altitude. It seemed that ground control was preparing the satellite for a controlled deorbiting, perhaps, after all attempts to revive the onboard imaging payload had failed.
Next chapter: Kondor-E
Known specifications of the Kondor-E satellite*:
*Data NPO Mash circa 2011
Known participants in the Kondor project:
Writing and photography by Anatoly Zak; Last update: November 5, 2015
Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: August 10, 2013
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A full-scale mockup of the Kondor remote-sensing satellite with a radar payload. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2002 Anatoly Zak
Scale model of the Kondor-E spacecraft equipped with optical imaging payload. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
A scale model of an application satellite proposed at NPO Mashinostroenia. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
The payload section of the Strela booster with a full-scale mockup of the Kondor spacecraft, carrying optical payload. Copyright © 2002 Anatoly Zak
Propuslion system of the Kondor satellite. Credit: NII Khimmash
Ironically, it was the Russian Kosmos-3M rocket that was used to deploy a constellation of Europe's small SAR-Lupe radar satellites beginning in 2006. Copyright © 2011 Anatoly Zak
A full-scale mockup of Tecsar small-size radar imaging satellite developed in Israel. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak
China's Huanjing-1C (a.k.a. HJ-1C) satellite launched on Nov. 18, 2012, carried an S-band radar which was apparently developed with the participation of Russian specialists who had been also working on the Kondor project. The size and appearance of the antenna closely matches that of its possible Russian sibling. Copyright © 2011 Anatoly Zak
A development version of the Kondor satellite No. 0100 during the assembly. Credit: Tribuna VPK
Launch of Kondor satellite as seen from Petropavlovsk, Kazakhstan. Credit: Vladislav Petrovsky
Changes in mean motion in revolutions per day for the Kondor spacecraft (red) from June 27 to July 26, 2013, compared to the same parameter of the Chinese Huanjing-1C satellite (yellow) from Nov. 19 to Dec. 18, 2012. Click to enlarge. Credit: Igor Lisov
A "self-portrait" of the Kondor satellite surfaced on the Internet in October 2013 shows opened radar antenna.
Launch of a Strela rocket. Credit: NPO Mash