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Soyuz launches fresh Meteor weather watcher and 32 small satellites
Russia launched a Soyuz-2-1b rocket from the Vostochny spaceport on July 5, 2019, carrying the Meteor M2-2 weather and climate-monitoring satellite, along with a cluster of 32 secondary payloads. The fresh Meteor will replace its sibling destroyed in a launch mishap on November 28, 2017. It will be the fifth launch from Russia's far-eastern space center since its inauguration in April 2016 and the fourth mission for the Meteor-M series.
The Meteor M2-2 mission at a glance:
Like its two predecessors, the 2,750-kilogram Meteor-M No. 2-2 satellite (a.k.a. Meteor M2-2) was designed to watch the global weather, the ozone layer, the ocean surface temperature and ice conditions to facilitate shipping in the polar regions of our planet.
The spacecraft was built at Moscow-based VNIIEM Corporation, which relied on its standard Resurs-UKP-M platform as a basis for the Meteor-M series.
Despite the promise from VNIIEM in 2017 to equip the Meteor M2-2 variant with the Severyanin radar for obtaining all-weather images of the Earth's surface, there was no sign that such a payload was installed onboard.
The Meteor-M No. 2-2 was certified to work for at least five years. It will become the third spacecraft in the Meteor-3M network, after the Meteor-M No. 1 satellite, which was launched on Sept. 17, 2009, and Meteor-M No. 2 launched on July 8, 2014.
According to the original plan, the launch of the Meteor-M2-1 satellite would allow Russia to have three low-orbital meteorological satellites simultaneously in orbit, allowing a total meteorological coverage of the Russian territory from polar orbit every two or three days. However the original Meteor-M satellite lost most of its capabilities in 2014, or three years before Meteor M2-1 reached the launch pad and then itself was lost during ascent to orbit.
Known specifications of the Meteor-M No. 2-2 satellite:
Originally, the mission was scheduled to carry more than 40 secondary payloads, however a few of them had to drop out because of delays with their development and other issues.
The final list of payloads which were able to make it onboard included 28 satellites for customers based in Germany, France, USA, Israel, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Finland, Thailand, Ecuador, the Czech Republic and Estonia. Their pre-launch processing was performed by Exolaunch GmbH, which had a contract for such work with Glavkosmos, the main commercial arm of the Roskosmos State Corporation. Exolaunch had responsibility for integrating its clients' payloads aboard the Fregat upper stage. The company also supplied the deployment containers for those satellites that were built within the so-called CubeSat architecture and classified as nano-satellites.
In addition, Exolaunch GmbH also arranged the delivery of two ICEYE commercial micro-satellites built by ICEYE Oy in Finland and the CarboNIX experimental payload designed to test Exolaunch's separation system for micro-satellites.
In addition, Glavkosmos had a contract with the British company SSTL to launch the Demonstration of Technology mission, DoT-1, which was designed to test new components for prospective satellites, the company's representative told RussianSpaceWeb.com.
Finally, Glavkosmos also accommodated three experimental satellites built by Russian Universities within the CubeSat standards and sponsored through an educational program at Roskosmos.
Summary of payloads aboard the Soyuz launch on July 5, 2019:
Preparing the mission
The payload section with Meteor-M2-2 and secondary satellites is being prepared for integration with its payload fairing on June 27, 2019.
The Soyuz-2-1b rocket for the Meteor M2-2 mission arrived at Vostochny on June 18, 2018. Its launch was originally planned for Dec. 6, 2018, but later, shifted to the first quarter of 2019. By October 2018, the mission was postponed until April 2019, at the earliest, and by the end of 2018, it was expected at the end of June or beginning of July 2019.
On April 22, 2019, the Chief Designer's Council responsible for the mission met at RKTs Progress in Samara to review preparations for the launch. Deputy Designer General at RKTs Progress S.A. Volkov reported readiness of the company to begin launch campaign operations with the launch vehicle on May 20. By the end of April, the mission was reported to be delayed from June 27 to July 5.
The Fregat upper stage for the mission arrived at Vostochny and was unloaded at the storage facility of the center on May 14. It was delivered to the spacecraft processing complex the next day for installation in its work site for tests.
Following its air shipment to the Ignatievo airport in the Amur Region, the Meteor-M2-2 satellite had arrived at Vostochny on May 21, 2019. The integrated electric tests of the satellite were completed on May 30.
Around June 22, the Fregat upper stage returned to the spacecraft processing complex after fueling, clearing the way for the installation of the primary and secondary payloads and electric tests.
On June 27, the fully assembled payload section was covered with its payload faring inside the spacecraft processing building. Its transportation to the vehicle assembly building via a trans-border gallery was performed on June 28 and on the same day, the payload section was integrated with the third stage of the launch vehicle. Roskosmos also announced the formation of a joint launch team from the Vostochny KTs branch of the TsENKI launch processing center and the Roskosmos State Corporation to support pad operations in the upcoming launch.
On July 1, the upper composite, including the payload section and the third stage of the launch vehicle, was lifted from its assembly cradle and placed on the transporter/erector, where it was integrated with the booster stages of the Soyuz-2-1b rocket. The rollout of the fully assembled vehicle to the launch pad took place on the morning of July 2, 2019, between 03:00 and 04:15 Moscow Time and, after its installation in vertical position on the pad, the rocket was enclosed inside the Mobile Service Tower, MBO.
The Meteor-M No. 2-2 initial launch timeline on July 5, 2019:
A Soyuz-2-1b rocket with a Fregat upper stage carrying the Meteor M2-2 lifted off from the Soyuz launch complex in Vostochny on July 5, 2019, at 08:41:45.962 Moscow Time, which was scheduled for the same time, to the second, when the previous Meteor mission lifted off on Nov. 28, 2017. It was 14:41, local time, in Vostochny.
After a few seconds in a vertical ascent under the power of the four boosters of the first stage and the core booster of the second stage, the rocket headed northwest across eastern Russia, aligning its trajectory with a polar orbit inclined around 98 degrees toward the Equator. The strap-on boosters of the first stage separated 117.59 seconds into the flight (1 minute 57 seconds after liftoff) and were aimed to crash at Drop Zone No. 981 in the Amurskaya Oblast (Amur Region) on the border between the Tynda and Zeya Districts.
The fairing protecting the payload then split in two halves and separated during the operation of the second stage at L+225.62 seconds in flight (3 minutes and 45 seconds after liftoff). The payload fairing was projected to fall at Drop Zone No. 983 in the Aldan District in the Sakha (Yakut) Republic.
Moments before the second stage completed its firing 4 minutes and 47 seconds into the flight, the RD-0124 engine of the third stage began to fire through the inter-stage lattice structure, which moments later separated along with the second stage at L+287.47 seconds in flight.
Just 1.5 seconds later, the tail section on the third stage split into three segments at L+288.87 seconds. Both the second-stage booster and the segments of the tail section were projected to fall at Drop Zone No. 985, in the Vilyusk District, located farther north in the Sakha Republic.
The third stage continued firing until 562 seconds into the flight, inserting the Fregat upper stage and its passengers into a ballistic trajectory just short of orbital velocity. As a result, after its engine cutoff and separation from Fregat 9 minutes 23 seconds after liftoff, the third stage began a long free fall back to Earth over the Arctic Ocean and Northern Atlantic. Its trajectory was designed to bring the flaming debris of the booster crashing into the Atlantic Ocean.
Space tug flight profile
Following its split from the third stage, the Fregat had to fire its engines over the Arctic Region for around 1.5 minutes to ensure its insertion into an initial transfer orbit. The stack then climbed passively for around 46 minutes before Fregat had to fire for the second time near the apogee of its initial orbit, this time over the southern polar region of the planet. The maneuver, lasting less than a minute was designed to insert the vehicle into a nearly circular orbit around 830 kilometers above the Earth's surface. Less than a minute later, the Meteor M2-2 satellite was programmed to eject from Fregat's payload adapter, completing the main task of the mission. Because, the initial engine firings had to be performed by the Fregat beyond the view of Russian ground stations, their successful completion would had to be confirmed during the subsequent passes of the vehicle over Russia.
Around 1.5 hour after liftoff, the official TASS news agency quoted Roskosmos officials as saying that the Meteor M2-2 had separated from the upper stage and entered its planned orbit. Around 10:20 Moscow Time, Roskosmos head Dmitry Rogozin announced that the satellite had been under control and had deployed its solar panels. NPO Lavochkin announced that Meteor M2-2 separated from its Fregat upper stage at 9:42 Moscow Time on July 5, 2019.
According to Roskosmos, the spacecraft was released into a 828-kilometers Sun-synchronous orbit with an inclination 98.57 degrees toward the Equator. VNIIEM Corporation, the satellite's manufacturer, also confirmed that the Meteor was maintaining the proper orientation after entering orbit.
After the successful release of its primary payload, the Fregat embarked on a complex pre-programmed sequence, including multiple firings of its main engine, to deliver its secondary payloads into two different orbits. The payloads in the micro-sat range were to be released at an altitude of 580 kilometers and inclination 97.7 degrees, while the nano-satellites (also known as cubesats) were to be dropped at an altitude of around 530 kilometers and an inclination of 97.5 degrees. The latter group included a cluster of eight Lemur satellites.
According to Roskosmos, the deployment process lasted 4.5 hours after liftoff and all the secondary payloads had been succesfully separated from the Fregat upper stage. It was up to the owners of individual satellites to confirm their health in orbit.
After the release of its final passenger around 13:10 Moscow Time, the Fregat was programmed to conduct another maneuver to place itself on a suicide trajectory into the Earth's atmosphere and disintegrate over the Equatorial region in the eastern section of the Pacific Ocean around 14:07 Moscow Time on July 5, 2019.
On July 12, 2019, Roskosmos published the first image delivered by the Meteor M2-2 satellite, covering a huge swath of the Russian territory from the Caspian Sea to the Arctic Ocean. According to the State Corporation, Low-Resolution Multi-Zone Scanning Device, MSU-MR, was activated on July 12, successfully producing first good-quality photos which were delivered to the spacecraft developer. The performed analysis showed that the instrument was operating nominally as did all the service systems aboard the satellite, Roskosmos said.
Problems aboard Meteor M2-2
In the middle of Summer 2019, a Russian ham radio operator Dmitry Pashkov reported that Meteor M2-2 had been tumbling in orbit, but the satellite was soon apparently able to stabilize itself.
On December 18, 2019, independent observers reported that the Meteor M2-2 had stopped transmitting data, while NORAD data indicated that the satellite's orbit had experienced a rapid decay by a few kilometers on the same day around 01:05 UTC, as the spacecraft was overflying Southern Pacific near the Antarctic Coast. The satellite appeared to remain silent as late as December 24, according to independent radio operators. On the same day, Roskosmos announced that the anomaly registered aboard Meteor M2-2 on December 18, 2019, had been associated with an "external influence" on the satellite, implying that the satellite suffered a meteoroid or a space junk strike. However, rumors had it that the satellite's instrument container had lost pressure and the escaping gas had caused the spacecraft to lose altitude and go into tumble. Roskosmos did admit that Meteor M2-2 change its orbital parameters and had been "flying without attitude control with high angular rates" -- meaning that it was tumbling rapidly.
According to the statement, the spacecraft entered the power-saving mode, by turning off unessential systems, including onboard payloads and discontinuing its planned operations, as required by its flight control logic. However, Roskosmos claimed that communications with the spacecraft were re-established after it had entered the range of Russian ground stations. According to the state corporation, specialists then began work to re-store the operations aboard the spacecraft, including the negation of the angular motion and the reestablishment of telemetry and operational data transmissions.
"At this time, the spacecraft is under the Chief Designer flight mode," Roskosmos said, "Meteor M No. 2-2 is flying with stable orientation, regular flight control communications sessions are maintained with the satellite with the reception of telemetry information and information from the onboard payloads."
The Fregat for the Meteor M2-2 mission arrived at Vostochny around May 15, 2019. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Meteor M2-2 arrived at Vostochny around May 20, 2019. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
The Meteor M2-2 with its solar panels fully deployed during tests in Vostochny. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
The assembled payload section is being prepared for integration with its payload fairing. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Click to enlarge. Credit: GK Launch Services
Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz-2-1b lifts off with Meteor M2-2 on July 5, 2019. Click to enlarge. Credit: GK Launch Services
Artist rendering illustrating operation of the second stage during the launch of the Meteor M2-2 satellite. Credit: Roskosmos
Artist rendering illustrating third stage separation during the launch of the Meteor M2-2 satellite. Credit: Roskosmos
First image from Meteor-M2-2 published on July 12, 2019, showed a huge swath of the Russian territory from the Arctic Ocean to the Caspian Sea. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos