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Molniya launch vehicle

The legendary Molniya rocket was conceived at the very beginning of the space era and until its retirement in 2010 logged 229 launches from Russia's northern cosmodrome in Plesetsk and, in previous decades from Baikonur with the total of 380 missions.

Like several of its predecessors, Molniya derived from Sergei Korolev's R-7 ballistic missile, thanks to the addition of upper stages on top of the existing booster. The four-stage Molniya rocket was originally designed for deep-space missions, including launches to the Moon, Mars and Venus. The vehicle was instrumental in winning a number of critical races in space for the USSR, including the historic first soft landing on the surface of the Moon and the first reaching of another planet in the Solar System. Molniya's iconic look is forever associated with the humanity's early advance into outer space.


An upgraded version of the Molniya rocket, known as Molniya-M, was introduced on Jan. 31, 1966, and it flew from Plesetsk for the first time on Feb. 19, 1970. Officially in operational service since 1976, Molniya-M had a launch mass of 305.6 tons, and a length of 43.4 meters. The rocket was used to deliver Molniya communications satellites and the Oko early-warning spacecraft.

Molniya-M launches in the 21st century:

2001 July 20: A Molniya-M rocket successfully delivered a Molniya-3K satellite, for military communications after launch at 00:17 UTC from Pad 4 at Site 43 in Plesetsk. The launch was earlier expected in June.

2001 Oct. 25: The Russian Space Forces launched a military communications satellite today from their Northern Cosmodrome in Plesetsk. A four-stage Molniya-M rocket (production number: 77013687) blasted off from Launch Pad 3 at Site 43 at 15:34:13.261 Moscow Time (11:34 UTC) and ten minutes later successfully delivered a Molniya-3 (Lightning) spacecraft into its initial orbit. The fourth stage of the launcher was then expected to fire again to push the spacecraft into its final highly elliptical orbit with an inclination 62.8 degrees toward the Equator. The launch was previously scheduled for October 11.

As it transpired in 2011, the launch took place with a 4.2-second delay, due the failure of the KZM cable and fueling mast to retract. The head of launch operations issued a command to start final operations at 13:50. The lowering of the access bridges on the service cabin started at 14:23 and the retraction of service towers at 15:01 Moscow Time. At the prescribed time, the firing officer No. 301 at the central console put the key into the "launch" position. All further operations went smoothly, however as the 3rd and 4th stages of the rocket were being switched to their onboard power supply, the KZM cable and fueling mast failed to retract. The analysis of information, which was received by the operators at the flight control console, showed that the command to retract the mast was generated correctly, however due to an unknown reason, the lock mechanism of the mast failed to work. Still, an operator at the fueling console correctly assessed the situation, activating a retraction of the mast with the closed lock.

2002 April 2: The Russian Space Forces launched a military satellite from their Northern Cosmodrome in Plesetsk. A four-stage Molniya-M rocket blasted off at 02:07 Moscow Time on April 2 and ten minutes later successfully delivered a classified military payload, most likely an Oko-type early-warning satellite, to its initial Earth orbit. The upper stage of the launch vehicle was then expected to maneuver the satellite into a highly elliptical orbit. This 220th launch for the Molniya-M booster was apparently delayed several times in the past few weeks. Lubov Kudelina, Deputy Minister of Defense and Anatoly Perminov, Chief Commander of Russian Space Forces, KVR, personally attended the launch in Plesetsk.

2002 Dec. 25: The Russian Space Forces launched a military satellite on Tuesday from their Northern Cosmodrome in Plesetsk. A four-stage Molniya-M rocket blasted off at 15:20 Moscow Time on December 24 and ten minutes later successfully delivered a classified military payload, officially identified as Kosmos-2393, to its initial Earth orbit. The spacecraft was most likely an Oko-type early-warning satellite. The upper stage of the launch vehicle then maneuvered the satellite into a highly elliptical orbit. According to official reports, the spacecraft separated from the upper stage of the launch vehicle at 16:23 Moscow Time on December 24, 2002. The satellite established contact with the ground control center at 17:05 Moscow Time. A major fire at Russia's military ground control center near Moscow in 2001 is believed to be responsible for the loss of control over one or several satellites, providing early warning of missile attacks for the Russian Ministry of Defense.

2003 April 2: Russia launched a communications satellite to be used by the country’s armed forces. According to Russian Space Forces, a four-stage Molniya-M rocket blasted off from Russia’s northern cosmodrome in Plesetsk on April 2, 2003, at 05:53 Moscow Time, carrying a Molniya-1T spacecraft. The satellite separated from the fourth stage of the launch vehicle at 06:50 Moscow Time, after entering a highly-elliptical orbit around the Earth. At 07:38 Moscow Time, the ground control station of the Russian Space Forces established contact with the spacecraft.

2003 June 20: A four-stage Molniya-M rocket with a Block ML upper stage blasted off at midnight Moscow Time on June 20, 2003, carrying a 1,600-kilogram Molniya-type spacecraft, apparently its newest Molniya-3 version based on the Molniya-2M (11F637) platform. This has been the second launch of a spacecraft in the Molniya family since April 2, 2003. The launch was earlier anticipated on June 19.

2004 Feb. 18, 10:05:55 Moscow Time (07:05 GMT): A Molniya-M booster successfully launched a military communications satellite from Plesetsk. Upon reaching its final highly elliptical orbit at 11:02 Moscow Time, the payload, (apparently a Molniya-1T No. 100) was initially identified in Russian sources as Kosmos-2405, however it was later renamed Molniya-1T.

2005 June 21: A 315-ton Molniya-M rocket, carrying a Molniya-3K military communications satellite, blasted off from Russia's northern cosmodrome in Plesetsk on June 21, 2005, at 04:49 Moscow Time. The spacecraft was expected to reach its final orbit at 05:43 Moscow Time, however it never established communications with ground control. Preliminary data showed that a launch vehicle failure took place around six minutes in flight, during the burn of the third stage, Russian officials said. Another report said that the failure took place five minutes in flight, during separation between the second and third stages. The latest information revealed that the flight was nominal for 340 seconds, when telemetry from the vehicle was lost. Apparently, the second and the third stage did not separate and the engine on the third stage, which normally ignites before the separation, shut down. The payload apparently carried a self-destruction system typical for military missions. The remnants of the launch vehicle and its payload were expected to impact in a remote region of the Tyumen Oblast. Later information narrowed the impact area to the Tobolsk range, a routine site for third stage impact during a nominal flight.

A special team of the Ministry for Emergencies, MChS, was expected to use a Mi-2 helicopter to search for the impact site. Later reports said that initial observations of the area from the aircraft did not yielded results, as bad weather hampered the effort. The search was resumed on June 22, 2005 at 06:00 Moscow Time, when a Mi-2 helicopter and a Yak-52 aircraft departed for the impact area. The search was fruitless again and was resumed at 08:30 on June 23, 2005. This time a Mi-8 helicopter and an An-2 airplane were used. Finally, within 48 hours of the launch attempt, the debris from the crash were found in the Uvat Region of the Tyumen Oblast, the Russian Space Forces said on June 23. According to official statements most of the fragments burned up during reentry.

Immediately following the launch failure, the Chief Military Prosecution Office opened a criminal investigation under Article 351 of the Criminal Codex of the Russian Federation entitled: "Violation of flight rules and their preparations." Two days after the accident, the Russian press reported that the preliminary investigation had cleared military launch personnel from responsibility for the failure. A full investigation was expected to last for two weeks. The launch vehicle and its payload were reportedly insured for 900 million rubles.

2006 July 21: A four-stage Molniya rocket lifted off from Plesetsk, carrying a military satellite, officially identified as Kosmos-2422. According to official Russian sources, the payload successfully separated from the fourth stage of the launch vehicle at 09:16 Moscow Time. The mission most likely carried an Oko early-warning satellite.

2008 Dec. 2: The Russian military launched a military payload from the nation's northern launch site, official media reported. A Molniya-M rocket lifted off from Plesetsk Cosmodrome on Dec. 2, 2008, at 08:00 Moscow Time. The classified payload received the official name Kosmos-2446. A Western radar detected the satellite in a 518 by 39,048-kilometer orbit with an inclination 62.835 degrees toward the Equator.

2010 Sept. 30: Russia launched a classified payload into Earth orbit, most likely an early-warning satellite to watch incoming ballistic missile launches. A Molniya-M rocket, the last in the legendary family of space vehicles, lifted off from Russia's northern launch site in Plesetsk on Sept. 30, 2010, at 21:01 Moscow Time. Lt. General Oleg Ostapenko, the commander of the Russian Space Forces, traveled to Plesetsk on the eve of the launch to personally witness the event, official Russian media said. According to a representative of the Russian Space Forces, the liftoff went as planned and the payload was scheduled to reach its target orbit at 21:57 Moscow Time. The Russian ground network started tracking the vehicle. Upon reaching its orbit, the payload received the official designation Kosmos-2469.The goal of the mission was to replenish the Russian military satellite constellation, the Russian Space Forces said. Traditionally, Molniya-M rockets had been used to deliver Oko (eye) early-warning satellites into highly-elliptical orbits. Spacecraft of this type make up a constellation known in Russia as SPRN, which is designed to detect and track launches of ballistic missiles around the world.

The Molniya-M rocket which was used for this mission, was manufactured in 2005 and was close to the end of its 6.5-year storage warranty, the head of TsSKB Progress Aleksandr Kirilin told ITAR-TASS. With the retirement of the Molniya-M launcher, its duties to deliver similar payloads would be transferred to the Soyuz-2 rocket.

Different versions of space launch vehicles collectively known as Molniya:

Manufacturer index
US designation
Sheldon designation
Molniya, Mars/Venera, Prognoz, Zond
Mars/Venera, Prognoz, Zond
Mars/Venera, Prognoz, Zond
Luna (E-6)
Mars/Venera, Prognoz, Zond-1-3, IRS-1C


Molniya-M rocket specifications:

Launch mass
305.6 tons
43.4 meters
First launch
1970 Feb. 19
In operational status
since 1976



This page is maintained by Anatoly Zak; Last update: August 11, 2023

Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: May 20, 2011

All rights reserved.

insider content


At the dawn of the space era, a 8K78 (Molniya) launcher lifts off from Baikonur on a pioneering mission into deep space.


Stills from film footage likely showing Molniya rockets lifting an unmanned lunar or planetary spacecraft.


A Molniya rocket climbs to orbit.


A Block L fourth stage (foreground) and the Block I third stage of the 8K78 (Molniya) rocket during the assembly. Credit: RKK Energia


Engine S1-5400 (11D33) that powered the fourth Block-L stage of the Molniya rocket. Copyright © 2011 Anatoly Zak


The Molniya rocket derived its name from a series of communications satellites, which it carried into orbit. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak


A Molniya-M rocket is being prepared to launch India's IRS-1C satellite from Pad 31 in Baikonur Cosmodrome into a near-polar orbit with an inclination of 98.7-degrees toward the Equator. Credit: Novosti Kosmonavtiki