Soyuz-2 takes over cosmonaut launches
In 2020, after 16 years in operation, the Soyuz-2 rocket series was finally assigned the duty of carrying piloted vehicles starting on April 9. The Soyuz rocket family also began the deployment of the OneWeb constellation, at the time the most lucrative commercial deal for Roskosmos. To perform the massive campaign, the rockets were expected to fly from three different spaceports on different continents, including the first active role for previously underused Vostochny Cosmodrome. A total of 20 missions were planned for 2020. However, dramatic and tragic developments early in 2020 disrupted all these plans.
A Soyuz-2-1a rocket lifts off with Progress MS-14 spacecraft on April 25, 2020.
On December 25, 2019, three fresh Soyuz-2-1b rockets and two payload fairings arrived at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, bringing the total fleet of launch vehicles at the spaceport to five, counting one Soyuz-2-1b and one Soyuz-2-1a delivered in August 2019. The rockets were to be used for the upcoming OneWeb missions, three of which were expected in 2020, and one for the launch of the Meteor M2-3 satellite. The rockets based in Vostochny would be switched to a more efficient kerosene-based propellant, known in Russian as "naftil." According to Dmitry Baranov, Director General at RKTs Progress, the company was also prepared to switch those Soyuz rockets that were based in Baikonur to the new propellant.
In addition, RKTs Progress also pitched the use of 88 Soyuz-2-1b rockets for the future deployment of the low-orbital Sfera communications and remote-sensing network, which was expected to include 638 spacecraft, including 239 satellites for remote-sensing, also likely to be developed at RKTs Progress.
The company also advertised newly implemented quality control checks during the assembly of the rockets at launch sites. Specialized hardware for preventing errors was in production and was expected to replace old hardware. (895)
However, a dual-prong calamity derailed the ambitious Soyuz launch manifest in 2020. As the coronavirus pandemic was paralyzing space operations around the world, including at least two Soyuz launch campaigns in Kourou, the OneWeb company filed for bankruptcy, suspending its operations after just three launches. Fortunately, flights to the International Space Station, ISS, continued departing from Baikonur, as did military missions from Plesetsk. Still, on June 26, the Russian press quoted the Ministry of Labor and Migration in the Samara Region as saying that 397 workers would be laid off at RKTs Progress out of rumored work force of around 17,000.
Soyuz launch campaigns of 2020
February 7: Soyuz launches second OneWeb cluster
After the scrub of a Meridian mission from Plesetsk in January, Russia's first orbital launch attempt of 2020 fell on another Soyuz rocket, this time loaded with 34 satellites for the OneWeb constellation. The second mission to deploy the low-orbital Internet constellation lifted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in early hours of February 7.
February 20: Soyuz launches Meridian satellite
After a nearly month-long delay caused by an electrical problem, military personnel in Plesetsk performed the launch of a Soyuz-2-1a rocket on February 20, 2020. Despite an anomaly during the operation of the third stage, the launch vehicle delivered the second Meridian-M satellite for the Ministry of Defense's Integrated Satellite Communications System, ISSS, nearly seven months after the debut of the upgraded spacecraft.
March 16: Soyuz launches the 60th GLONASS mission
Russian military personnel launched a fresh satellite to replenish the nation's orbital navigation network. The 60th mission to deploy the GLONASS constellation lifted off from Plesetsk Cosmodrome on a Soyuz-2-1b/Fregat rocket on March 16, 2020. Slightly more than three and a half hours later, the GLONASS M-60 satellite was released into its circular orbit about 19,000 kilometers above the Earth's surface.
March 21: Soyuz launches third OneWeb cluster
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and backdropped by a report about the possible impending bankruptcy of the OneWeb company, Russian specialists in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, orbited the third cluster of satellites for the OneWeb Internet constellation. The launch of the Soyuz-2-1b rocket with 34 satellites took place as scheduled on March 21, 2020, at 20:06 Moscow Time (1:06 p.m. EDT) from Site 31.
Backdropped by a pandemic, the Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft lifted off on April 9, 2020, marking the first mission of the Soyuz-2-1a rocket variant to deliver people into orbit. After years of preparations and flight tests, the launch completed the transition of the Russian piloted space program from the Soyuz-FG version, which relied on a flight control system built in Ukraine.
April 25: Progress MS-14 arrives at ISS
The first Russian mission of 2020 to re-supply the International Space Station, ISS, lifted off on a Soyuz-2-1a rocket in the early hours of April 25 and 3 hours 21 minutes later, the Progress MS-14 cargo ship successfully docked at the aft port of the Zvezda Service Module, SM, where it is expected to remain until the end of the year.
Military personnel at Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Northern Russia launched a Soyuz-2 rocket on May 22, 2020, successfully delivering a classified payload which is believed to be the fourth satellite for the nation's newest constellation designed to provide the Kremlin with early warning about launches of ballistic missiles around the world.
July 23: Soyuz-2-1a launches Progress MS-15
Russia launched its second unpiloted mission of 2020 to deliver cargo to the International Space Station, ISS. The liftoff of a Soyuz-2-1a rocket with the Progress MS-15 cargo ship took place as scheduled on July 23, 2020, at 17:26 Moscow Time (10:26 a.m. EDT). The spacecraft linked up with the station less than 3.5 hours after launch. It was the 76th Progress mission to resupply the international outpost.
September 28: Soyuz-2-1b delivers its first Gonets-M satellites
Russian military personnel at Plesetsk Cosmodrome successfully launched a Soyuz-2-1b rocket on September 28, 2020, at 14:20 Moscow Time. The primary payload of the mission was a trio of Gonets-M communications satellites for Russia's low-orbital communications network, previously replenished by the discontinued Rockot booster. Along for the ride on the Soyuz was a cluster of 19 small satellites from an international group of customers. The Fregat upper stage deployed three Gonets satellites in their operational high-inclination orbit, followed by the release of secondary payloads in the Sun-synchronous orbit.
October 14: Soyuz MS-17 delivers fresh ISS crew
The second and final Russian crew mission of 2020 lifted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on the morning of October 14 on a Soyuz-2-1a rocket. Just 3 hours, 3 minutes and 38 seconds after its launch, the Soyuz MS-17 spacecraft completed a successful docking at the International Space Station, ISS, setting a record for the fastest trip to the outpost. Onboard the ISS, two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut joined the 63rd long-duration expedition and they were scheduled to continue live and work on the ISS as Expedition 64 until April 2021.
December 1: Soyuz delivers Falcon Eye-2
After two 24-hour delays, personnel at the European launch site in French Guiana finally launched a Soyuz ST-A rocket with the Falcon Eye-2 reconnaissance satellite on December 1, 2020. The spacecraft ordered by the armed forces of the United Arab Emirates, UAE, has been grounded since March by the coronavirus pandemic.
December 3: Soyuz launches Gonets trio, military cargo
Russian military personnel at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome launched a fresh trio of Gonets-M satellites on a Soyuz-2-1b rocket in the early hours of December 3, 2020. It is the second Soyuz rocket mission to replenish Russia's low-orbital communications constellation in less than two months. However, unlike the previous launch on September 28, this time, there was no commercial hitchhiker payloads aboard the rocket. Instead, a small military satellite piggy-backed with the primary payload.
December 18: Soyuz launches fourth OneWeb cluster
After a nine-month hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the UK-based OneWeb company resumed the deployment of its low-orbital Internet-access constellation with the launch of a Soyuz-2-1b rocket carrying a batch of 36 fresh satellites. For the first time, the OneWeb cluster was launched from Russia's Vostochny Cosmodrome along a previously unused ground track. The liftoff took place as scheduled on December 18, 2020, at 15:26:26 Moscow Time (7:26 a.m. EST).
A Russian-built vehicle started an encore mission delivering a military reconnaissance spacecraft two years after the launch of its predecessor. After a 24-hour delay due to weather, the liftoff of a Soyuz ST-A/Fregat-M rocket from the ELS facility near Kourou, French Guiana, took place as scheduled on December 29, 2020, with the 3.5-ton CSO-2 imaging satellite for the French military and its allies.
Summary of launches in the Soyuz rocket family in 2020 (as of May 6, 2021 ):
Soyuz-2-1b lifts off from Baikonur with 34 OneWeb satellites on March 21, 2020. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Three Soyuz-2-1b rockets arrived at Vostochny on December 25, 2019. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz-2-1a lifts off with Progress MS-13 on July 24, 2020. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz MS-17 lifts off on October 14, 2020. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz ST-A rocket lifts off from French Guiana with Falcon Eye-2 satellite on December 1, 2020. Click to enlarge. Credit: Arianespace
Soyuz-2-1b lifts off from Plesetsk on December 3 with a trio of Gonets-M satellites and ERA-1 test payload. Click to enlarge. Credit: Arianespace
Soyuz-ST rocket lifts off from Kourou on December 29, 2020, with CSO-2 satellite. Click to enlarge. Credit: Arianespace