Angara-5 takes to the sky for the first time
On December 23, 2014, at 08:57 Moscow Time, Russia's new-generation Angara-A5 launch vehicle blasted off from a snow-buried launch pad at Site 35 in Plesetsk in the north of Russia on its maiden voyage.
Final preparations for launch
On December 15, 2014, the fully assembled Angara-A5 was rolled out from the assembly building to a fueling facility, known as KZ BND, for loading low-pressure propellant tanks of the Briz-M upper stage with toxic fuel and oxidizer. The hazardous facility was located near the perimeter of Angara's launch complex in Plesetsk, just 700 meters from the rocket's launch pad. Based on similar operations with Proton rockets in Baikonur, the fueling at the KZ BND site was expected to take up to two days.
On December 16, the official TASS news agency quoted Designer General of the Angara project Vladimir Nesterov as saying that the State Commission overseeing the launch would convene on the evening of December 17 to make a decision to proceed with the rollout of the rocket to the launch pad.
Around the same time, the launch schedule was apparently moved back by 24 hours. On December 18, TASS reported that the liftoff would take place on Dec. 23, 2014, at 08:57 Moscow Time. The State Commission made a decision to proceed with the fueling of the Angara's Briz-M upper stage, which was underway at the KZ BND site during December 18. The short transfer of the rocket from the fueling station to the launch pad took place on December 20.
On December 22, after a series of electrical checks on the pad, the State Commission overseeing the launch cleared the rocket for fueling and launch.
Preparations for the launch of the first Angara-A5 rocket were conducted largely in secret and no live coverage of the historic launch was provided, however postings on the online forum of the Novosti Kosmonavtiki magazine based on the information from the launch of the Angara-1.2PP rocket in July 2014, allowed to assume following details from the final countdown preceding a scheduled liftoff on Dec. 23, 2014, at 08:57:25 Moscow Time (12:57 a.m. EST):
23:57 Moscow Time (T-9 hours): Preparations of the launch complex' hardware for the fueling of the launch vehicle and the retraction of service access bridges to the vehicle. The Pre-launch Preparation Program, PSP, is activated.
00:02 Moscow Time (T-8 hours 55 minutes): Beginning of preparation for the propellant loading into the launch vehicle's main tanks.
Around 05:00 (T-4 hours): Beginning of the cooling of the liquid oxygen fueling system for loading cryogenic oxidizer of the launch vehicle's third stage. Beginning of the kerosene fuel loading into the main tanks and the engine's bottles; filling of pneumatic systems with nitrogen and helium.
Around 06:00 Moscow Time (T-3 hours): Beginning of the cooling of the launch vehicle's oxidizer tanks, filling of the helium bottles inside the tanks. The completion of fuel loading onboard the rocket.
Around 07:00 Moscow Time (T-2 hours): The completion of oxidizer loading onboard the rocket.
Around 08:00 Moscow Time (T-1 hour): Refilling of the oxidizer tank on the third stage.
08:42: Pre-launch operations with the flight control and propulsion system of the launch vehicle.
08:54: Drainage of the oxidizer from launch vehicle's supply lines. Pre-launch pressurization of the first and second stages.
08:54:40: Undocking and retraction of oxidizer umbilicals.
Angara-5 during fueling on the eve of its launch on Dec. 23, 2014.
The liftoff of the Angara-A5 rocket took place as scheduled on Dec. 23, 2014, at 08:57:00 Moscow Time from Site 35 in Plesetsk. Shortly after the launch, the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, announced that the payload section of the rocket had reached an initial parking orbit 12 minutes after leaving the pad (09:09 Moscow Time). The launch vehicle had an official mass of 763,621 kilograms at liftoff, as opposed to 773 tons in the official specifications of the Angara-A5 rocket.
No TV broadcasts or any other live coverage of the mission had been provided. According to visualizations of the mission emerged in official post-launch TV reports, the first Angara-A5 rocket flew a following profile during its ascent to an initial parking orbit:
The complete launch timeline, which surfaced on the online forum of the Novosti Kosmonavtiki magazine in January 2015 looked as following:
According to industry sources, at the moment of separation from the third stage, the payload section had a mass of 25,766 kilograms, including a 2,042-kilogram dummy satellite, known as GVM or GMM, a Russian abbreviation for Gabaritno-Massovy Maket or Size and Mass Mockup. Other sources identified the payload as NVP PM for Naturny Vesovoy Maket Poleznoy Nagruzki or Full-scale Mass Mockup of Payload.
The first engine firing initiated by the Briz-M upper stage at 09:11 Moscow Time inserted the stack into a 215-kilometer circular orbit and additional three maneuvers where expected to carry the dummy cargo into a geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers above the Earth surface during a nine-hour mission. The second firing was initiated at 10:03 Moscow Time, the third at 12:26 Moscow Time and the fourth at 17:44 Moscow Time.
In the hours following the launch, the official Russian media confirmed that the two-ton dummy cargo would remain attached to the Briz-M stage during the entire mission.
Russian tracking stations monitoring the launch confirmed a nominal insertion of the stack into the transfer orbit toward the geostationary altitude and the on-time separation of the donut-shaped external tank of the Briz-M stage. Western radar showed an object associated with the launch in a 442- by 35,801-kilometer transfer orbit with an inclination 60.60 degrees toward the Equator.
Around ten hours after the liftoff, Roskosmos confirmed that the Briz-M upper stage had successfully delivered its cargo to the geostationary orbit 35.8 thousand kilometers above the Earth's surface. According to the Ministry of Defense, the Briz-M and a GMM dummy cargo reached its targeted geostationary orbit at 17:58 Moscow Time.
According to the official announcement of the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported to President Putin about the successful completion of the Russian military space launch program in 2014, including the first phase of testing of the Angara rocket.
The target orbit in the first Angara mission was expected to have an altitude of 35,793 kilometers and an inclination of zero degrees, matching the plane of the Equator. However, as it transpired in the first week of 2015, no true geostationary orbit was actually achieved during the launch. According to industry sources, instead, Briz-M entered a 35,625 by 36,946-kilometer orbit with an inclination 0.49 degrees toward the Equator and an orbital period of 1,461.6 minutes or 24.36 hours.
Still, in an interview with the official Interfax-AVN news agency in January 2015, Designer General of the project Vladimir Nesterov claimed that the payload spent an hour and a half in the geostationary orbit.
Briz-M then successfully completed two maneuvers designed to take it away from a busy traffic of the geostationary orbit, carrying the dummy satellite with it. According to preliminary information gathered by Russian tracking services, Briz-M entered a 35,841- by 38,680-kilometer orbit with an inclination of 0.3 degrees toward the Equator. In this orbit, the object had a rotation period of 1,528 minutes, or 25.5 hours, instead of 24 hours required to complete a single orbit in the geostationary orbit. As of December 24, tracking data indicated that the Briz-M had an orbital period of 1,512 minutes and drifted westward. It reappeared over the Eastern hemisphere by the end of the first week of January 2015. At the time, the stage was yet to complete dumping of onboard pressurized gas and propellant in order to avoid their overheating and potential explosion of the stage. The ejection of pressurized gas could cause further changes in the object's orbital parameters.
In the first half of January, NORAD finally released its radar data on the Angara's cargo. The ground radar tracked the object, as it was beginning its second full circle caused by its drifting relative to the Earth's rotation at 67 degrees West longitude. According to NORAD, the vehicle was in a 36,158 by 39,086-kilometer orbit. Its orbital period was 1,529.1 minutes or around 25.5 hours.
Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense
The moment of ignition as seen by a camera in Plesetsk and on screen of the National Center of Defense Control on Dec. 23, 2014, at 08:56:57 Moscow Time. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense
From a brand-new National Center of Defense Control, Russian officials including Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu monitored the first launch of the Angara rocket on Dec. 23, 2014. President Vladimir Putin also joined in via a video link and even gave a ceremonial permission to fire the rocket. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense
Between June 22 and June 26, 2015, search crews were finally able to search the 150 by 50-kilometer drop zone of the first stage URM-1 boosters dropped during the Angara-5 launch on December 23, 2014. According to the local media, the debris field was concentrated within a 25 by 15-kilometer area in the Vuktylsk District of Komi Republic. More than 30 fragments were reportedly recovered from the site including identifiable components of an RD-191 engine and tank walls.
Components of the Angara-A5 rocket for the first flight:
Rollout of the Angara rocket from the assembly building to a fueling site on Dec. 15, 2014. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense
The first Angara-5 leaves the fueling site on its way to the launch pad on Dec. 20, 2014. Click to enlarge. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense
Angara-5 arrives to its launch pad. Click to enlarge. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense
Angara-5 is erected on the launch pad on Dec. 20, 2014. Click to enlarge. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense
Short winter day in Plesetsk was coming to an end when the rocket took vertical position on its launch pad. Click to enlarge. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense
Angara-5 on the launch pad in Plesetsk probably on the morning of Dec. 21, 2014. Click to enlarge. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense
Weather apparently cleared on December 22. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense
Click to enlarge. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense
Angara-5 during fueling on the eve of the launch on Dec. 23, 2014. Click to enlarge. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense
Click to enlarge. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense
Click to enlarge. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense
Angara-A5 lifts off on Dec. 23, 2014. Click to enlarge. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense
Russian military officials including Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu monitor the first launch of the Angara rocket on Dec. 23, 2014 from a brand-new National Center of Defense Control. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense