Launch of the first EKS (Tundra) satelliteThe deployment of the EKS system started with the successful launch of an experimental Tundra satellite from Plesetsk on a Soyuz-2-1b (14A14-1b) rocket with a Fregat upper stage on Nov. 17, 2015, at 09:33:41 Moscow Time. The mission was officially designated Kosmos-2510.
Approximate ground track during the launch of the EKS (Tundra) satellite.
Preparations for the first EKS mission
In August 2006, the military construction agency, Spetsstroi received a contract to develop and build two ground-processing facilities, including a clean-room and climate-control chamber and a new wing for the fueling depot with the capacity of eight fueling cycles a year. The work was conducted in Plesetsk primarily for the benefit of the EKS project.
However the EKS project itself fell scandalously behind schedule. Only in 2014, an annual report from RKK Energia, the prime developer of the EKS satellite, finally confirmed that the testing of the first satellite intended for deployment in a highly elliptical orbit had been under way. The tests included electric, radio, thermal and vacuum trials, as well as fit checks for transportation.
However, even after all that time, industry sources questioned how close the first satellite would be to an operational spacecraft. Unofficial reports hinted at continuous problems with the satellite's sophisticated payloads.
On January 9, 2015, a spokesman for the Russian Air and Space Defense Forces, VKS, Aleksei Zolotukhin announced that ground processing infrastructure in Plesetsk had been made ready to receive the EKS satellite. However in mid-February, the Kommersant daily reported that the launch had already been postponed to June due to unspecified technical problems.
On April 2, the Ministry of Defense announced via TASS that the satellite would be launched in the second half of 2015.
In June, the Spetsstroi reported that the clean-room facility and the new wing of the fueling station had finally been completed in Plesetsk, specifically for the delivery of the first EKS satellite. The arrival of the spacecraft was then expected at the end of August. On June 29, Maj. General Oleg Maidanovich, the Head of the Russian Space Command, said that the first EKS satellite was "practically ready" for launch into a highly elliptical orbit in November 2015.
On August 15, Colonel Viktor Timoshenko, Head of the Chief Early Warning Center, said that the first satellite and the command center for the EKS system were being prepared for launch in Plesetsk.
On October 3, the head of the 15th Special Army of the Russian Space Forces, VKS, Anatoly Nesterchyuk said that the first launch for the EKS system had been rescheduled for November or December 2015. At the time, the official Russian media reported that not one but two satellites for the EKS system were ready for launch. In parallel, the Russian military also completed testing of an optical early warning facility based in the Altai mountains. Three more such facilities were scheduled to be completed by 2018, the official RIA Novosti reported.
Between November 9 and November 13, the Russian government issued warnings for several areas along the expected flight path of the EKS mission where rocket fragments were expected to fall.
First EKS/Tundra satellite lifts off
The launch of the Soyuz-2-1b/Fregat-M rocket No. 76012227 with the first EKS satellite was scheduled on the morning of Nov. 17, 2015, from Pad 4 at Site 43 in Plesetsk. The launch window was expected to open around 09:15 Moscow Time (1:15 a.m. EST, 06:15 UTC).
According to the official TASS news agency, quoting the Ministry of Defense, the liftoff took place at 09:34 Moscow Time. Recorded TV footage showed the rocket leaving the snow-covered launch pad and quickly disappearing in low clouds.
The commander of Russan space forces Aleksandr Golovko oversaw the launch, the Ministry of Defense said. Assets of the Titov Chief Test Space Center began tracking the launch vehicle at 09:36 Moscow Time.
The four-stage booster lifted off under the simultaneous thrust of the first and second stages, heading southeast along the southernmost corridor available for orbital launches from Plesetsk. The four boosters of the first stage were jettisoned around two minutes into the flight and were expected to fall around 350 kilometers downrange, most likely at the S28 impact site located in the marshy area where the Vychegda River flows into the Severnaya Dvina River. The second (core) stage continued the powered ascent.
The payload fairing then split into two halves around a minute after the separation of the first stage. Its fragments probably fell in the Western-Siberian Plain, along the Om river.
Less than five minutes into the flight and moments before the second stage completed its burn, the third stage ignited its four-chamber RD-0124 engine, initially firing through the lattice structure connecting the two stages. The second stage then separated and crashed around 1,500 kilometers downrange from the launch site, most likely at the S21 impact site, northeast of the city of Tobolsk.
Around nine minutes into the flight, the third stage released the payload section, including the Fregat upper stage and the EKS satellite, into a suborbital trajectory before reentering the Earth's atmosphere. Any surviving debris from the third stage should fall into the Pacific Ocean just South East of Tasmania.
The Ministry of Defense confirmed that the Fregat upper stage and its military payload had separated as scheduled.
The Fregat was expected to conduct multiple maneuvers to insert the EKS satellite into its orbit. Most likely, three main engine firings will be made. The first maneuver initiated within a minute after the separation from the third stage likely placed the stack into an initial parking orbit. The Fregat then probably fired its engine again with the goal of stretching the orbit so that the apogee (the highest point) of this intermediate orbit reached the perigee (lowest point) of the final orbit. Finally, the third Fregat burn could increase the apogee to the required altitude.
The EKS spacecraft then separated from the Fregat upper stage, which typically conducts collision avoidance and deorbiting maneuvers. The satellite has its own propulsion system to make necessary orbit adjustments.
Around five hours after the liftoff, the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, declared the launch a success and the Russian Ministry of Defense released a video of the launch:
Completing each revolution around the Earth in half a day, Kosmos-2510 makes a long pass over the Western North America and another, six hours later, over Eastern China and Russia. The satellite then quickly swings over Pacific and Indian Oceans in the lower part of its highly elliptical orbit.
According to NORAD data, on December 3, 2015, the satellite maneuvered, raising an apogee of its orbit by around 30 kilometers. Another maneuver between December 4 and December 5, 2015, raised an apogee by 60 kilometers.
Configuration of the Soyuz-2-1b rocket, which is expected to be used in the launch of EKS satellites. Credit: Starsem
First photo of the Soyuz-2-1b rocket with the EKS No. 1 Tundra satellite. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense
A Soyuz-2-1b rocket lifts off with the first EKS satellite from its snow-covered pad in Plesetsk on Nov. 17, 2015. Credit: Vesti TV channel
Mission control monitors the launch of the first EKS satellite. Credit: Vesti TV channel
Artist rendering of the EKS (Tundra) satellite in orbit. Copyright © 2015 Anatoly Zak