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Above: An early version of the Meteor satellite.
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The Meteor satellite in its original configuration. An umbrella deployable antenna to downlink TV signals from the satellite can be seen at the top. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak
The Meteor-3M weather-forecasting spacecraft in pre-launch configuration.
A pre-launch processing of the Meteor satellite in Plesetsk.
The Meteor-M No. 3 spacecraft was expected to feature a drastically different design from its predecessors in a series. Click to enlarge. Credit: VNIIEM
In June 2009, at Paris air in space show in Le Bourget, an exhibit by the VNIIEM development center showcased a constellation of Russian remote-sensing satellites functioning simultaneously. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak
The Meteor-M satellite. Credit: VNIIEM
The Meteor-M satellite at the end of the assembly. Click to enlarge. Credit: VNIIEM
Meteor-M lifts off on Sept. 17, 2009. Credit: TsENKI
The Soviet Meteor series of meteorological satellites were introduced in 1969, preceded by three years of flight testing of experimental satellites, identified only as numbered Kosmos spacecraft. In the 1970s, Soviet TV viewers could already see black-and-white images of cloud cover from space during weather forecasts.
Origin of the Meteor satellite network
As with a number of other dual-purpose projects, the Soviet space-based meteorological system traces its origins in the military. The emergence of the USSR as a global power on the Cold War stage, with its intercontinental bombers and the ocean-going fleet required up-to-date information on weather conditions around the world. (70) While lobbying for a space-based meteorological system, Soviet military strategists did not forget to remind the government about an ongoing US effort to develop weather-forecasting satellites. (362)
On June 23, 1960, the Soviet government issued a watershed decree on the development of many critical space systems. Paragraph 12 of the document directed the industry to prepare development plans for astronomical, astrophisical, meteorological and geophisical satellite projects by October 1960.
On Oct. 30, 1961, the Soviet government issued a decree ordering the development of the Meteor experimental meteorological satellite network. The Main Directorate of the Hydro-Meteorological Service of the USSR (GUGMS) was appointed to be the main user of the system's data. The organization was subordinated to the Soviet of Ministers of the USSR and the Main Directorate of the Rocket Weaponry of the Defense Ministry (GURVO). Within GURVO its 3rd Directorate apparently reluctantly took an unfamiliar responsibility to serve as a chief customer of the system, while footballing the formulation of the tasks and requirements for Meteor to the NII-4 institute of the Ministry of Defense. (70) The latter had extensive experience in spacecraft development, dating back to the very origins of the Sputnik.
The actual development of the Meteor meteorological satellite network was delegated to OKB-586 in Dnepropetrovsk. The design bureau hoped to use the 65S3 launch vehicle, than in development, to deliver the satellites. According to the technical assignment, the Meteor satellite was expected to carry TV imaging system, infra-red imager and actinometric payload. The service equipment was to include following systems:
During the preliminary design, the mass of the satellite still remained within the capabilities of the 65S3 rocket. In the course of the development, (during 1961) OKB-586 assembled a group of sub-contractors on the project, as well as developed a number of technical solutions for some systems, for example, an umbrella deployable antenna for the TV system. However a number of reasons, first of all heavy involvement of OKB-586 into the development and production of the Soviet ICBM force and nascent plans to build a super-heavy R-56 rocket, lowered the priority of the Meteor project at the bureau. As a result, Mikhail Yangel, the head of OKB-586, proposed to spin-off less-prestigious Meteor project to NII-627 (later the All-Union Electro-mechanics Institute, VNIIEM) in Moscow, along with the 65S3 rocket to be outsourced to OKB-10 in Zheleznogorsk. Both moves were ultimately approved by the Commission on Military-Industrial Issues at the Presidium of the Soviet of Ministers, while still leaving OKB-586 an oversight of both projects, at least during the transition. The bureau's production plant No. 586 also still had responsibility of manufacturing the satellite's body, the gas-thruster system, antennas and other elements.
In May 1962, OKB-586 transferred to VNIIEM all documentation on the Meteor project, while a team of engineers was sent to Moscow to jump-start the project.
During 1962, the project went through a number of changes, particularly, a passive gravitational attitude-control system was replaced with a much more advanced gyro-based system, a separate orientation system was added to solar panels. The project changes led to increased mass of the spacecraft, prompting the switch to 8A92M (Vostok) rocket and later to the 11K68 (Tsyklon-3) rocket. (98) The satellite ultimately received a three-axis attitude control system and an independent Sun-tracking system. (70)
Flight testing and production
During 1963, VNIIEM launched two 300-kilogram Omega "electrotechnical laboratories" - officially announced as Kosmos-14 and Kosmos-23, which tested technology of three-axis attitude control system, cremnium-based solar panels and thermal protection systems, which could function under conditions of longer exposure to the Sun and higher temperatures than previous spacecraft. (73, 2) A procursor of the Meteor spacecraft -- Kosmos-44 -- was launched on Aug. 28, 1964, and transmitted first TV images of the cloud cover. (270)
These missions paved the way to the first Soviet experimental meteorological satellite - Kosmos-122 -- launched on June 25, 1966. Three Soviet ground control stations were recieving the information -- TV images to be delivered to the Soviet meteorological service on film, and infrared data on magnetic tapes. (270) That spacecraft was followed by Kosmos-144 and Kosmos-156 in 1967. The birds formed the first Soviet experimental weather-forecasting network. (2)
A veteran of the Soviet rocketry, General K. A. Kerimov and later V. I. Sheulov led the State Commission overseeing the testing. In first four launches, the 8A92M (Vostok) booster carried the satellites into a 81.2-degree orbit. The first five Meteor spacecraft flew from Baikonur and following satellites from Plesetsk. (70)
Until middle of 1966, the assembly and testing of the Meteor satellites was taking place at VNIIEM, while OKB-586 and its production plant conducted preparation for the mass production of the spacecraft. The plant No. 586 in Dnepropetrovsk was then building the Meteor satellites based on the production documentation from VNIIEM and adapted to the standards of the rocket industry. (98)
Initial Meteor satellites were plagued with depressurization in flight. As a result, a series of thermal-vacuum and pressurization tests were conducted at NIIKhIMMash test facility in Zagorsk, north of Moscow in 1970. Tests revealed that due to slight temperature fluctations, the satellite's body would deform along some intrfaces, while a resin sealant would loose its properties. In the wake of the tests the design of some interfaces had to be changed and a new material was employed as a sealant. (129)
The Meteor system was declared operational in 1969. Although it was still considered an experimental network it was successfully functioning for a decade. (70) The total of 28 operational Meteor satellites were launched from 1969 to 1977. (2)
In the meantime, in 1967, the Soviet military formulated tasks for the development of the second-generation Meteor spacecraft. Known as Meteor-2, it was conceived to extend the operational life span of the spacecraft from six months to a year and had capability of direct transmission of meteorological data to the network of autonomous military receiving stations, APPI, developed by VNII Television. In 1969, the Meteor (2) development schedule was further refined, while technical requirements for the system was approved by the Defense Ministry and Chief Meteorological Service at the Soviet of Ministers.
The preliminary design for the Meteor-2 system was completed in 1971, however problems with the development of the actinometric and spectrometric payloads at NPO Geophisika pushed the completion of development to 1975. The flight testing started in July 1975.
During the development of the Meteor system, the Soviet developers designed for the first time extensively used computerized systems for the spacecraft testing at both the assembly line and during the pre-launch processing. The process allowed the reduction of the military testing personnel and cut the preparation time.
Meteor-2 carried three types of optic-mechanical TV sensors operating in visible part of spectrum, as well as in infra-red, capable of providing global image of cloud cover and the Earth surface below day and night. Additionally, the satellite was equipped with radiometric sensors registering radiation and eight-channel infra-red radiometer for building global vertical temperature maps.
The Meteor-2 satellites were capable of covering 30,000 square kilometers of the Earth's surface. The network normally consisted of two or three satellite separated 90-180 degrees along the longitude, thus reappearing over the same area every 60 or 12 hours. The satellite had a capability to store data and then downlink it to main ground stations in Moscow, Novosibirsk and Khabarovsk. At the same time, the military APPI ground network included 50 sites across the Soviet territory, its satellite countries and at sea. It reportedly enabled one-three-day weather forecasts, as well as monitoring of especially large-scale emergency situations, such as typhoons, hurricanes, floods, hailstorms and large forest fires. It was also possible to detect the presence of snow and ice cover in areas within 3,000-5,000 kilometers from a particular APPI site. (70)
For the Soviet military, the Meteor system provided a fast-reaction weather forecasting over the area targeted for imaging by spy satellites, as well as for regular armed forces. Additionally, satellites monitored space radiation levels for the potential use by the military. To the surprise of the developers, images from Meteor satellites also turned out to be good enough to distinguish characteristics of the ice cover in the Arctic Oceans. In May-June 1978, the Sibir ice breaker equipped with APPI receiver attempted a pioneering voyage across ice-covered Arctic Ocean from Murmansk to Bering Straits. According to the veterans of the trip, Meteor imagery was crucial in locating areas of thinner ice, thus enabling the ship to move as fast as 22 knots. (76)
Although flight testing of the satellite showed promising results, the operational deployment of the Meteor-2 system was falling behind schedule, due to low production capacity at VNIIEM. (70) As a result, during 1971-1972, VNIIEM set up a new assembly line for the Meteor satellite at its branch facility in the town of Istra, near Moscow. (98) (Founded in 1960, the Istra branch became a separate organization in 1992, known as Electro-mechanics institute, NIIEM). (75) NIIEM has remained the prime developer of the Meteor series until the beginning of the 21st century.
To simplify the pre-launch processing of the Meteor system, launches of its satellites were switched from Vostok-2M rocket to more advanced Tsyklon-3. It afforded the acceleration of the testing process and on June 21, 1982, the Meteor-2 network was declared operational. (76)
Meteor-Priroda: out of the uniform
Also at the beginning of 1970s, a gradual "demilitarization" of the Meteor system had began. In December 1971, the Soviet government issued a decree on the use of the naation's space assets for civilian remote-sensing purposes. This decision cleared the way to the development of the Meteor-Priroda-series of satellites, customized for multi-spectral Earth observation. The Vostok-2M rocket successfully delivered the first Meteor-Priroda spacecraft into a near-polar orbit on July 9, 1974. Meteor-Priroda No. 2-2, launched from Plesetsk on June 29, 1977, became the first Soviet satellite reaching Sun-synchronous orbit. The Meteor-Priroda were declared operational in 1978. (76)
VNIIEM hoped to use the second-generation Meteor satellites for the deployment of the Unified Hydro and Meteorological Space System, GMKS. The Military Industrial Commission, VPK, which oversaw military development, approved this program on June 4, 1970. The Soviet five-year plan for the military development in 1971-1975, envisioned GMKS including Meteor (2) and Meteor (2M) satellite networks. VNIIEM completed preliminary design of the system in 1972, however GMKS had never been deployed. Instead, on Dec. 16, 1972, VPK went ahead with the approval of a third-generation meteorological satellite system. Designated Planeta-S, the network would include low-orbiting Meteor-3 satellites and the Energia satellite in the geostationary orbit. This project also turned out to be beyond the capability of VNIIEM. (70)
Meteor-3 series of satellites started flying in 1984 and continued being launched during the 1990s. (359) The 1.4-meters by 4.2-meter satellite was equipped with a tree-axis attitude control system enabling the orientation with the accuracy up to 0.5 degrees. The power-supply system was capable of providing 500 Watts to the payload. Along with its main weather-forecasting payloads, the satellites were routinely equipped by multiple remote-sensing instruments. In 1991, Meteor-3 No. 5 satellite for the first time carried a foreign scientific payload - a US-built TOMS spectrometer designed to map ozone layer.
Delayed by financial problems from 1998, the first Meteor-3M (No. 1) spacecraft was launched by a Zenit-2 rocket from Baikonur on Dec. 10, 2001. In addition to financial problems, which delayed the mission from 1998, technical issues with the US-built SAGE-III instrument, postponed the launch from December 2000.
Meteor-3M No. 1 functioned until March 2006, however after two years of operations following the launch, technical problems left it almost completely disabled.
Original plans envisioning four launches of Meteor-3M satellites during 1998-2000 had never materialized. (359) Instead VNIIEM, developed Meteor-M series, which by the end of the first decade of the 21st century included three satellites of two different designs. The main goal of two first satellites was to provide weather forecasting, along with monitoring of the ozone layer, radiation levels in space, observation of sea and ocean ice cover. Meteor-M No. 3 would also be equipped with a new-generation phased antenna radar for ocean monitoring. (361)
As of 2012, Russian officials promised to orbit as many as four Meteor-M satellites by 2015.
Also in 2012, Russian space officials promised start launching a new-generation Meteor-MP satellites beginning in 2016.
Russia begins rebuilding its weather satellite network
Published: 2009 Sept. 17
Russia hopes to jumpstart its space meteorology with the launch of a new-generation weather-forecasting satellite. The Soyuz-2-1b rocket lifted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome's Site 31, on Sept. 17, 2009, at 19:55:07 Moscow Time, carrying the first of three Meteor-M spacecraft.
The launch of the first Meteor-M satellite marks the re-institution of the nation's space weather-forecasting capabilities at the new technological level, Russian space officials said. They promised to build up the Russian meteorological network to include three satellites in the Sun-sunchronous orbit and three in the geostationary orbit. Meteor's manufacturer, the VNIIEM center in Moscow, also promised the development of the Meteor-4 series of satellites around 2013. (361) Prior to this mission, Russia had no funcitioning meteorological satellites in orbit, and, according to the national press, had to purchase weather-forecasting data abroad.
Along with the Meteor-M No. 1 satellite, Soyuz-2-1b rocket carried six secondary payloads:
According to the ITAR-TASS news agency, the first stage of the launch vehicle was expected to impact in Aktubinsk and Kustanai regions of Kazakhstan, the second stage and payload fairing in Perm and Sverdlovsk regions, while the third stage, along with the Fregat upper stage and its multiple payloads would reach the initial Earth orbit. Such trajectory matched the target orbit with an inclination 98.7 degrees toward the Equator.
At 20:04 Moscow Time, the Fregat upper stage and its payloads separated from the third stage, while flying in the orbit with an apogee of 211 kilometers, ITAR-TASS reported. Roskosmos then reported that at 21:45 Moscow Time, Universitetsky-Tatyana-2 separated from the upper stage. All other payloads also separated and reached their orbits, the agency said.
This mission was previously expected to take place as early as fourth quarter of 2007 and then was postponed to July 2008 and March 25, 2009. The first attempt to launch the mission on Sept. 15, 2009, had to scrubbed shortly before scheduled fueling of the launch vehicle, after a weather balloon registered unacceptably strong winds in the upper atmosphere. The second attempt for launch on Sept. 16, was also called off, due to a technical problem.
At the end of 2009, the head of VNIIEM Leonid Makridenko announced that State Commission on flight testing of Meteor M spacecraft met on December 23 and called for transition from flight testing to experimental operation of the satellite. According to Makridenko, tests showed that the system "largely met the goals of a research and development assignment within the project. During flight testing, more than 200 informational packages using the satellite's data on conditions of clouds, ice and flood levels were assembled and delivered to end users, Makridenko said. Two more satellites for the Meteor-M network were to be launched in 2011 and 2012.
At the same time, unofficial reports said that a crucial instrument onboard Meteor-M designed to produce imagery in infrared range of spectrum was disabled because the satellite's cooling mechanism was unable to lower temperature of infrared sensors below 100K. In order to maintain sensitivity in infrared range, sensors would have to be cooled to at least 80K. Investigators suspected that the problem was related to the particular architecture of the Meteor platform and would not affect an upcoming mission of the Elektro-L satellite, which was expected to carry a similar infrared scanner.
In the meantime, Meteor's mission suffered from the lack of capability to automatically correct geometric distortion of images acquired in various channels of spectrum, project insiders said. In order to compose each multi-spectral image, specialists had to go through a laborious process of manual correction of each individual channel. According to sources, all images from the Meteor-M satellite which had been made publicly available prior to February 2010, were manually composed, thus rendering them of little practical use. To make matters worse, the software, which controlled the downlink of data from the satellite was plagued by glitches and crashes. The satellite itself reportedly suffered from periodic vibrations of its imaging system mirror, causing deterioration of imagery, while the spacecraft's onboard radar antenna had never deployed properly.
In November 2014, Russian officials told the Interfax news agency that the attitude control system on Meteor-M No. 1 had failed rendering it inoperable.
Overview of the Meteor spacecraft family:
Original Meteor network development team:
Meteor project chronology:
1961 Oct. 30: The Soviet government issues decree ordering the development of the Meteor meteorological satellite network.
1962 May: OKB-586 transferred to VNIIEM all documentation on the Meteor project.
1963 April 13: The first Omega "electrotechnical laboratory" reaches orbit. Announced as Kosmos-14.
1963 Dec. 13: The second Omega "electotechnical laboratory" reaches orbit. Announced as Kosmos-23.
1964: The development of the Meteor system is completed. (98)
1964 Aug. 28: A procursor of the Meteor spacecraft -- Kosmos-44 -- reaches orbit and transmits first TV images of the cloud cover. (270)
1964 Sept. 24-25: The Meteor satellite is among other weaponry and system demonstrated to Chief Commander of the Rocket Forces Marshall N. I. Krylov, during the inspection of the NIIP-5 test facility (Baikonur).
1966 June 25: Kosmos-122 reaches orbit, becoming the first Soviet meteorological satellite to function in orbit successfully.
1967 Feb. 28: Kosmos-144 reaches orbit.
1967 April 27: Kosmos-156 reaches orbit, forming the first Soviet experimental weather-forecasting network.
1969 March 26: The spacecraft publically identified as Meteor-1 is launched, as the Meteor network is declared operational. Meteor-1 functioned until July 1970 and reentered the Earth atmosphere on March 27, 2012.
1970 June 4: The Military Industrial Commission, VPK, orders the development of a Unified Hydro and Meteorological Space System, GMKS.
1971: The Meteor satellite production line is set up at the Istra branch of VNIIEM;
1971: VNIIEM completes the preliminary design of the Meteor (2) system;
1971 December: The Soviet government issues a decree "On initiation of work for Earth-remote sensing research by means of space technology;"
1972: VNIIEM completed the preliminary design of the Unified Hydro and Meteorological Space System, GMKS.
1974 July 9: The Vostok-2M rocket successfully delivered the first Meteor-Priroda spacecraft into a near-polar orbit on
1975 July: Flight testing of the Meteor (2) satellite starts.
1978 May-June: Meteor imagery plays crucial role in locating areas of thinner ice during a pioneering voyage of the Sibir ice breaker across the ice-covered Arctic Ocean from Murmansk to Bering Strait.
1982 June 21: the Meteor-2 network is declared operational.
1992: The Istra branch of VNIIEM becomes an independent entity under name NIIEM.
Writing and photography: Anatoly Zak; last update: December 2, 2015
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