Russian satellite for polar weather forecasting ready for launch Sunday

A Soyuz-2.1b rocket stands on the launch pad at Site 31 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Credit: Roscosmos

The first in a new constellation of Russian Arctic weather satellites is poised for launch on top of a Soyuz rocket Sunday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Russia’s Arktika-M 1 spacecraft is inside the nose cone of a Soyuz-2.1b launcher awaiting liftoff from Site 31 at Baikonur at 1:55:01 a.m. EST (0655:01 GMT; 11:55:01 a.m. local time).

Managers at the historic spaceport in Central Asia gave approval several hours before launch to begin loading the three-stage Soyuz rocket with kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants.

The liquid-fueled launcher will head northeast from Baikonur, dropping its four first stage boosters around two minutes after liftoff. The rocket’s second stage, or core stage, will continue firing until just shy of the mission’s five-minute mark. The Soyuz payload fairing will jettison during the second stage burn after the rocket climbs above the dense, lower layers of the atmosphere.

A third stage powered by an RD-0124 engine will ignite to accelerate the Arktika-M 1 satellite and a Fregat upper stage to near orbital velocity.

The Fregat upper stage with Arktika-M 1 will separate from the Soyuz third stage at T+plus 9 minutes, 23 seconds, followed soon by the first burn by the Fregat’s main engine to reach a preliminary parking orbit. Two more Fregat engine firings will boost the Arktika-M 1 spacecraft into a highly elliptical, or oval-shaped, orbit ranging between about 600 miles and 25,000 miles (1,050 and 39,700 kilometers).

The 4,850-pound (2,200-kilogram) Arktika-M 1 satellite will deploy from the Fregat space tug around two hours into the mission. In its elongated path around Earth — also called a Molniya-type orbit — the spacecraft will take about 12 hours to complete one lap around the planet.

The target orbit has an inclination of about 63.4 degrees, meaning Arktika-M 1 will linger above the northern hemisphere when it farthest from Earth, providing its instruments a view of Arctic weather patterns for multiple hours on each orbit. With two satellites in orbits positioned 180 degrees apart, the Arktika network could provide around-the-clock coverage over the Arctic.

Arktika-M 1 is the first of a new line of satellites designed to provide persistent weather data on Russia’s Arctic, home to economically lucrative natural resources, energy reserves, and an important region for Russian military operations. The Arktika-M satellites are built by NPO Lavochkin, the same Russian company that builds Fregat upper stages.

Russia’s first Arktika M satellite. Credit: Roscosmos

The Arktika-M 1 satellite is based on the design of Russia’s Elektro-L weather satellites that fly in geostationary orbit over the equator. Weather observatories in geostationary orbit collect imagery 24 hours a day over the same part of the Earth, but they are unable to peer at weather systems over high latitude regions.

According to Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, the Arktika-M satellites will obtain color images of clouds and Earth’s surface in the Arctic. The Arktika-M satellites also host radio receivers and transmitters to relay information from weather stations and search-and-rescue beacons in polar regions, which are inaccessible to conventional geostationary satellites.

In addition to weather observations and emergency communications support, the Arktika-M satellites will help forecast solar flare activity, measure radiation through the Van Allen belts, and collect data on Earth’s magnetosphere and ionosphere, Roscosmos said.

Roscosmos said engineers modified the spacecraft design used for Russia’s Elektro-L weather satellites to make it suitable for the Arktika program. The changes include additional radiation hardening and solar batteries to meet the challenges of the elliptical Molniya orbit.

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