Russia begins rebuilding its weather satellite network with Meteor M1

Russia jump-started 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 marked 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:

  • Sterkh-2 emergency rescue satellite built by PO Polyot. (Stopped operating shortly after launch.)
  • BLITS - A 7.53-kilogram nanosatellite consisting of two outer hemispheres made of a low-refraction-index glass. It was developed and manufactured by the IPIE center, under a 2006 agreement between Roskosmos and International Laser Ranging Service. The purpose of the mission was experimental verification of the spherical glass retroreflector satellite concept. A small spherical retroreflector of the same type (6cm in diameter) was flying onboard of the Meteor-3M satellite in 2001-2006. On Jan. 22, 2013, the BLITS satellite was likelly hit by a debris from the Chinese FENGYUN 1C satellite that was previously destroyed in the Chinese ant-satellite weapon test.
  • SumbandilaSat (ZA-002) - An 81-kilogram South-African low-orbiting microsatellite was designed to photograph Earth surface. Resulting images were to be used for flood and fire disaster management; enhancing food security through crop yield estimation; the prediction of the outbreaks of diseases; monitoring of land cover and use; and water resource management.
  • Universitetsky-Tatyana-2 - A 100-kilogram experimental and educational satellite for Moscow University, Russia. (The attitude control system onboard the satellite failed by February 2010, rendering its payload useless.)
  • UGATUSAT - A remote-sensing and educational satellite for the Ufa aviation and technical college, Russia, built by PO Polyot. (Stopped operating before the end of 2009)
  • Iris - An experimental unit attached to the Fregat upper stage, built be NPO Lavochkin and designed to test an inflatable and solidifying material in space.

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.

First Meteor-M mission

At the end of 2009, the head of VNIIEM Leonid Makridenko announced that State Commission on flight testing of the 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.


Article by Anatoly Zak

Last update: June 26, 2023

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The Meteor-M satellite near the completion of its assembly at VNIIEM Corporation. Click to enlarge. Credit: VNIIEM

Meteor launch

Meteor-M lifts off on Sept. 17, 2009. Credit: TsENKI