For centuries, Russian rulers faced serious challenges in managing their domain -- the world's largest country spread from Baltic to the Pacific. In the 1960s, with the advent of space technology, the Soviet government for the first time had an opportunity to reach vast regions of the country with telephone communications and TV signals. In fact, for many Soviet citizens inhabiting rural areas of the country, the satellite TV was the only evidence of the coming Space Age.
In 1961, OKB-1, the organization that built the world's first manned spacecraft, also started the development of a communications satellite. Although the Space Age had barely began, the idea of using orbital spacecraft for providing communications was not new. Arthur Clark, more famous for his sci-fi novels, is also credited for a prophetically accurate description of satellite communications in 1945. In his memo to the British Interplanetary Society, Clark wrote that if the spacecraft reaches the altitude of 35,880 kilometers over the Equator, it would need 24 hours to make a complete circle, and thus it will appear "hanging" to an observer from Earth. As a result, three spacecraft evenly spread in such orbit 120 degrees apart, could "hear" signals from anywhere on the planet.
Although western developers overwhelmingly adopted 24-hour (geostationary) orbit for practical missions of communications satellites, the Russian engineers chose a different approach. The limitations of available rocket power prompted OKB-1 to seek a less energy-consuming orbit suitable for communications. Resulting studies came up with a hugely elongated ellipse, whose apogee, or the highest point, would be over the northern hemisphere, providing but continuous "view" of the Russian territory. Such trajectories became known as Molniya (Lighting) orbits, after a long-lasting series of satellites the USSR had introduced in 1965.
Soviet geostationary satellites
As the Proton rocket came out of age at the beginning of the 1970s, its four-stage configuration born in the heat of the Moon Race was given a new job of opening a window for the USSR to the geostationary orbit. In March 1974, the Proton delivered the first Soviet satellite into the 24-hour orbit. In 1975 and 1976, a series of Raduga (Rainbow) and Ekran (Screen) satellites entered service over the Equator, providing communications for the Soviet military and civilian institutions. In 1979, a more capable Gorizont (Horizon) satellite was inaugurated.
In the meantime, NPO Energia, looking for the passengers for its super-heavy Energia rocket, concieved a 18-ton communications platform, the largest communications satellite ever proposed. The project had never gone beyond paper stage.
Post-Soviet satellite communications
From mid-1960s and until the collapse of the USSR in 1991, NPO PM development center in a Siberian town of Zheleznogorsk, which inherited the Molniya project from OKB-1, had remained a sole provider of communications spacecraft for the nation. However, space funding crunch of the post-Soviet period, bred the competition from other Russian space enterprises who saw potentially lucrative market in the field of satellite communications. During the 1990s, NPO PM struggled to modernize an obsolete and underpowered fleet of Russian comsats. The company's first communications satellite developed exclusively for civilian use -- Gals No. 11 -- was launched in 1994. The spacecraft was designed to broadcast TV signals in international frequencies. NPO PM built an automated checkout facility for testing the spacecraft at the assembly plant and the launch site. The control of the satellite was conducted from NPO PM's own ground station in Zheleznogorsk. With a life span of five year, the first satellite functioned for 7.5 years and the second and last Gals No. 12 launched on Nov. 17, 1995, survived for 8.5 years. A base platform of the Gals spacecraft became a precursor for the Ekspress series. In the meantime, many orbital positions the country reserved for its birds remained empty and were under threat of expiration under the international law.
With many Russian orbital positions remained available during the 1990s, RKK Energia, which for decades specialized in prestigious but then severely underfunded field of manned space flight, pushed a privately financed project of a communications satellite, known as Yamal. Thanks to its smaller size, two Yamals could ride a single Proton rocket, potentially increasing Russia's chances to fill its orbital positions. However RKK Energia's lobbying of the Russian government to adopt the Yamal platform for its future orders under name Express-AYa proved fruitless.
Still, the first Yamal-100 satellite, which successfully made it to orbit in 1999 functioned largely successfully until 2010. Only on Aug. 9, its owner, Gazprom, retired the satellite, sending it from the crowded geostationary orbit into a higher "burial" orbit. After reaching it, all systems onboard were shut off.
Yamal-300K satellite was launched in November 2012 and it was based on the Ekspress-1000N platform. At the same time, its manufacturer, ISS Reshetnev was completing the assembly of the Yamal-401 satellite, which would be based on the Ekspress-2000A platform.
At the beginning of 2013, Gazprom GKS planned to open a tender for the development of the Yamal-601 satellite to be launched after 2015 replacing Yamal-202.
Express AM program
Instead, NPO PM turned to western subcontractors for the supply of advanced communications payloads, in the effort to extend orbital life, power and communication capacity of the Express family. As of 2004, Russian Satellite Communications Organization planned to complete an orbital constellation of five Express-AM satellites in 2005. At the time the company oversaw a constellation of 15 satellites.
The NPO PM also won an order from a the European conglomerate Eutelsat to build Siberian-European Satellite, or Sesat, which became the first communications spacecraft built by a Russian prime contractor for a Western customer.
In 2009, RKK Energia reached an agreement to build an Angosat communications satellite carrying up to 40 C- and Ku-band transponders for the Ministry of Telecommunications and Informational Technologies of Angola. After preliminary studies, the practical implementation of the project reportedly started in December 2012.
On July 10, 2012, during the Farnborough air show, Russia's ISS Reshetnev signed a memorandum of intentions with the Armenian government for the development of the communications satellite for this former Soviet republic. The spacecraft would be based on ISS Reshetnev's standard Ekspress-1000N platform and provide a 15-year lifespan for the mission.
ISS Reshetnev also worked on the development of the first Ukrainian communications satellite named Lybid carrying 30 Ku-band transponders. As of November 2012, the launch of the spacecraft was expected in December 2013. The payload module was delivered from ISS Reshetnev to Canada's MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, MDA, by the beginning of 2013.
In February 2013, the head of ISS Reshetnev told the Interfax new agency, that the company had submitted bid for a tender of the Brazilian government to build a communications satellite.
Although Russia managed to avoid a complete degradation of its satellite communications assets at the turn of the 21st century, the nation's chief operator of space communications continued struggling well into the 2010s, representatives of the Russian Satellite Communications Organization, GPKS, told Izvestiya daily. In order to preserve the domestic manufacturing base in the field of satellite communications, the Russian government had to resort to protectionism in the face of the strong foreign competition. In the fall of 2008, at the conclusion of his meeting with leaders of the industry in Krasnoyarsk, Prime-Minister Vladimir Putin set a requirement for at least a 15-percent cost saving for foreign communications satellites bidding to replace its Russian equivalents. Although no formal protectionist laws had been on the books, Russian Satellite Communications Organization, GPKS, felt pressured to choose domestic satellite developers over foreign.
During 2000s, GKPS' Russian-built satellites had an average life span of 5.5 years, while they would have to work at least six years to turn profit. By 2012, eight out of 11 satellites which GPKS operated would go out of business within two-three years. Around the same time period, satellites built in Europe and US were designed to work 10-15 years. In its defense, ISS Reshetnev, which built practically entire GPKS fleet, said that in 2000, the operator had asked it to assemble three Ekspress-A satellites under an emergency schedule. Even then, satellites designed to work for five years had managed to survive for a decade, ISS Reshetnev said. Still, the company admitted a premature failure of at least two of its satellites. ISS Reshetnev also blamed underfunding during 1999-2003 for the need to purchase many satellite components graded as "Industry" rather than "Space," which would certify them for reliable operation in orbit.
In the meantime, GPKS blamed low quality of Russian-built spacecraft for its miniscule 3 percent share of the world's satellite communications business during 2000s. Due to numerous technical problems, the company had been hit with fines and had seen its reputation plummet, GPKS representative told Izvestiya daily. According to the company, the satellite developer had no obligation to replace failed vehicles, pointing instead to the insurers.
By May 2012, GPKS essentially rebelled against the government protectionism, publicly announcing its plans to turn to foreign satellites. In 2000s, GPKS had already ordered Ekspress AM-4 satellite from Europe's EADS Astrium, however the spacecraft was lost in a botched launch of the Proton rocket in 2011. In the effort to increase its worldwide market share to as high as 8.5 percent, which would make it the world's 5th company in the field, GPKS apparently decided to let Western developers to build at least part of its new nine-bird fleet during 2012-2015. However, the head of ISS Reshetnev warned that the move would push Russian satellite communications manufacturers "into the corner." (561)
Overview of Russian communications satellites:
*formerly NPO PM;
Written and illustrated by Anatoly Zak
Last update: February 9, 2013
All rights reserved
Molniya pioneered satellite communications in USSR. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak
Molniya-1 satellite developed at NPO PM (now ISS Reshetnev) was used in the Orbita network. Credit: ISS Reshetnev
Molniya-2 satellite was used for government communications via Orbita-2 ground stations. Credit: ISS Reshetnev
Ekran satellites established regular communications across USSR in the geostationary orbit with the last spacecraft (No. 31) launched on May 6, 1988. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak
The Gonets spacecraft operating in the low orbit would be used for "store and dump" communucations. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak
In 1999, RKK Energia returned to launches of communications satellites, whose development the organization once pioneered. Despite almost a three-decade break in building such technology, one of Yamal satellites remained operational in orbit until Aug. 9, 2010. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak
An unconfirmed design of the Garpun satellite. (383) The drawing might not be accurate, as data relay satellites typically feature large communications antennas, as for example, the American Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, TDRS, below:
A scale model of the Ekspress-MD satellite. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak
A concept of a prospective spacecraft for communications and broadcasting, PKS SV, presented by RKK Energia in 2009. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak
A concept of global communications system using nuclear powered satellites with large deployable antennas. Credit: RKK Energia
A scale model of the Ekspress-2000 satellite bus. Copyright © 2010 Anatoly Zak