Tag Archives: Baikonur Cosmodrome

Progress MS-07 flies on the second attempt

Last Thursday, the Soyuz rocket experienced a very rare abort when one of two umbilicals failed to separate at the appropriate time.  This cost the perfect geometry required to attempt a new two-orbit direct ascent approach, so they reset for Saturday, with the plan of reverting to the traditional two-day chase.  Today’s launch was carried out flawlessly, and Progress MS-07 is on its way to the ISS.

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Sixty Years of Orbital Spaceflight

October 4.

Sixty years ago today, the Space Age was inaugurated with the surprise launch of Sputnik 1.  Both the Americans and Soviets had been racing to launch scientific satellites, in honor of the International Geophysical Year (lasting July 1957 to December 1958), and because it would be an exceptionally good way of demonstrating the accuracy and reliability of their nascent ICBM programs with a suitably scientific cover.  But launching your first satellite is no easy task.  (Even today, most rocket programs start out with a lot of explosions, and modern rocketeers have the experience of their predecessors to help guide them.)  Both sides were seriously behind.  The Americans were developing an ambitious solar-powered vehicle called Vanguard 1 (essentially named for its rocket, the US Navy’s Vanguard — this was in the days before the USAF called dibs on nearly all rocket work) but it was behind schedule.  The US Army had its own program, called Explorer, but it had been largely shelved in favor of Vanguard.  (It didn’t help that the US Army’s main rocket team had a lot of the former Nazis brought over under Operation Paperclip.  Werner Von Braun and his team would go on to lead the triumphant Apollo program, but in 1957 they still faced deep suspicion even as they settled into their new home at Redstone Arsenal.)

By the end of the summer of 1957, the Americans knew they were badly behind, thanks to spyplane imagery of the Soviet rocket facilities in Kazakhstan.  But they also knew the Soviets were having trouble as well.  As far as they knew, it was still anyone’s game.

The Soviets, meanwhile, were keenly aware of the Americans’ efforts.  They were planning a scientific satellite at least as ambitious as Vanguard 1, codenamed Object D, and had been working on it for a couple of years with the specific aim of launching during the International Geophysical Year.  But although Object D’s booster, the R-7 missile (granddaddy of the modern Soyuz rocket), was ready, the spacecraft was not.  It still looked likely to fly in the International Geophysical Year, but the Kremlin really wanted something to fly by early October, to hit the auspicious dates on the Soviet calendar, and also to make sure they beat the Americans to it.  So program director Sergei Korolev came up with a couple of other proposals.  One was a ‘korabl sputnik”, or spaceship satellite, to carry a live animal into orbit and back.  But this was far too ambitious to attempt; the first such spacecraft would not fly until the following July.  A prototype satellite, a “prosteyshiey sputnik”, was proposed instead.  First, he proposed one that would carry an animal to orbit but not be capable of returning it.  This, too, would take too long.  So, in the end, a third spacecraft was propose: an even simpler “prosteyshiey sputnik” that would be little more than a highly polished sphere containing a battery and a transmitter. This would be light enough for the R-7 rocket as it existed at the time (Object D had gained a lot of weight in the design process, as tends to happen, and needed an upgraded R-7 to launch it), shiny enough to be seen by the naked eye as it orbited, and trackable by anyone with a radio.

The design process for “PS-1” was frenetic; the designers had barely a month to design and build it, and so they dispensed with drawings, simply building as they went.  And on October 4, 1957, it flew.

Designated Sputnik 1 (“satellite 1”), the object was launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome and stoicly bleeped out its signal for twenty-one days, until its battery was exhausted.  Atmospheric drag eventually pulled it out of orbit a few months later, but its impact had been felt around the world.  This tiny and inconspicuous satellite of no scientific or technical or strategic value had blasted the entire world awake, and launched the Space Race.

PS-2, the satellite with a live passenger, launched less than a month later, on November 3.  Designated Sputnik 2, it carried the dog Laika into orbit.  It was never intended to return her to Earth, but she died almost immediately into the mission anyway, doomed by a faulty environmental control system.  The Americans, meanwhile, were terrified that they had fallen far behind technologically.  The first two attempts to launch a Vanguard satellites were spectacular failures, exploding on the pad (the press dubbed the project “Flopnik”), and the US Army was allowed to restart their Explorer proposal.  On January 31, 1958, a Juno rocket out of the Cape Canaveral Missile Annex placed an extremely simple satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit.  The spacecraft was essentially an instrumented nosecone atop the fourth stage of a Juno rocket, similar in size to a a modern Cubesat (although somewhat longer, due to its pointed nosecone).  It was much smaller than Sputnik 1, but carried more useful instruments; Explorer 1’s biggest claim to fame is discovering (quite accidentally) the existence of the Van Allen Belts.  After that, the US Navy finally got Vanguard 1 into orbit; it’s extremely small (Soviet premiere Nikita Khruschev derisively compared it to a grapefruit) but the Vanguard missile was able to place it into a very high orbit, and it was powered by solar panels, the first spacecraft to generate its own power.  Vanguard 1 was able to operate for about six years before its power systems failed, and because the orbit was so high, it actually remains in orbit today, the oldest manmade object in space.  Lastly, Object D finally flew on May 15, 1958. It took two tries to launch it, but on the second attempt, the one and a half ton spacecraft finally made it to orbit.  It produced a great volume of data on particles and radiation in the upper atmosphere, and ran off its own solar panels for about two years before its orbit decayed.

But it was Sputnik 1, that unassuming polished metal sphere, that riveted the world’s imagination and fired off the Space Race.  The spacecraft that followed it would be far more capable, but it had been the first.

In sixty years, we’ve gone from Sputnik to spacecraft orbiting other planets and even leaving the solar system altogether.

Where will we be in sixty more years?

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Proton-M places AsiaSat-9 into orbit

Another launch today: a Proton-M out of Baikonur Cosmodrome boosted the AsiaSat-9 spacecraft to geosynchronous transfer orbit.  Built by Space Systems/Loral in California, the spacecraft will be operated by Hong Kong-based AsiaSat and will provide satellite TV services direct to homes across Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.

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The next crew is on its way to the ISS!

Soyuz MS-06 launched today!  And actually, by the time I’m writing this, they’re at the ISS, docked and preparing to board.  Here’s the spectacular nighttime launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome:

On board are Alexander Misurkin, Mark Vande Hei, Joe Acaba.  They are expected to stay in space until late February.

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Proton-M places Amazonas-5 into orbit for Hispasat

A Proton-M made by Khrunichev and sold by International Launch Services placed the Amazonas-5 communications satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit.   The flight originated at Baikonur Cosmodrome, which won’t have time to relax; they’re pressing towards the launch of Soyuz MS-06 with the next ISS crew late tomorrow/early Wednesday.

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Soyuz MS-05 launches to the International Space Station

The latest crew has arrived at the ISS!  The international crew (Russian, American, and Italian) launched from Baikonur into a rapid ascent profile that allowed them to dock just a few orbits later.

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Soyuz seizes second place in the “most payloads” race

Not that it’s exactly a race anymore; the game has clearly changed massively with satellite operators such as Planet Labs, the company also largely responsible for PSLV seizing first place in this category.  Planet Labs placed 88 of its “Dove” CubeSats into orbit on a PSLV last February, and another 48 aboard Soyuz last Friday.  These are imagery spacecraft, designed to completely rewrite the rules of satellite image procurement — instead of building massive, expensive, highly sophisticated spacecraft akin to spy satellites, they’re building CubeSat with relatively inexpensive cameras — but lots of them.  Their resolution is less, but the availability is much greater, and although the satellites are so small and light that they don’t stay in orbit for more than a few years, this also means they’re self-cleaning and easily replenished because they are so cheap.  It also partially compensates for their small size — they’re dwarfed by the big commercial imaging sats (to say nothing of spy satellites) but they fly much, much lower.

The primary payload aboard this flight was Kanopus-V-IK, a Russian civilian imaging satellite operated by Roscosmos for the purpose of emergency response.  It carries multispectral imagers particularly useful for tracking wildfires.  Kanopus-V-IK is a traditional spacecraft, large and equipped with propulsion.  The Doves were not its only smallsat neighbors for the flight; other payloads included eight Lemurs from Spire Global (to provide weather forecasting information), three CICERO cubesates from GeoOptics (Spire’s closest competitor), two LandMapper-BC cubesats from Astro Digital, Tyvak’s experimental NanoACE (to test propulsion for nanosatellites; Tyvak is a launch broker), the Flying Laptop (a smallsat capable of searching for NEOs while testing a new type of On Board Computer) from the University of Stuttgart, Technosat from the Technical University of Berlin, Norsat 1 & 2 (Norway’s first scientific satellites, to improve merchant marine tracking and communications, and originally scheduled to fly on a Soyuz out of French Guiana), the Japanese WNISAT 1R small weather satellite, the crowd-funded Mayak solar sail from Moscow Polytechnic University (which could become brighter than the ISS when deployed), and four other Russian CubeSats.

FYI, third place is 37 satellites.  It was set in 2014 by a Ukrainian-built Dnepr rocket out of Dombarovsky Air Base in Russia.  The fact that the three records have all been set in the last five years — and with such a huge gap — is indicative of a major trend in spaceflight.  Things are changing.

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