Russia launches classified military satellite

A classified Russian military satellite, possibly designed with a new miniature reconnaissance camera, launched Sept. 9 on a single-core version of the Soyuz rocket.

The Soyuz 2-1v rocket lifted off from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in far northern Russia at 2:59 p.m. EDT (1859 GMT), according to a statement from the Russian Ministry of Defense. Liftoff from Plesetsk occurred at 10:59 p.m. Moscow time.

Powered by a kerosene-fueled NK-33 engine, the rocket headed north over the Arctic Ocean, targeting an orbit flying north-south over Earth’s poles.

The rocket shed its spent first stage and jettisoned its payload shroud after climbing above the discernible atmosphere, leaving the Soyuz second stage to place its military payload into orbit.

Russian defense officials said in a statement that the rocket successfully deployed its payload into the proper orbit. U.S. military tracking data indicated the satellite separated from the rocket in a near-circular polar orbit about 185 miles (300 kilometers) in altitude.

The orbital parameters are similar to those of an experimental Earth-imaging satellite launched on a previous Soyuz 2-1v rocket mission in 2018. That satellite, known as EMKA, was thought to be a demonstrator of a future fleet of military reconnaissance satellites.

The EMKA spacecraft carried a compact optical imaging payload that could fit on a relatively small satellite. Analysts believe the satellite launched Sept. 9, named Razbeg, is an operational version of the EMKA satellite for the Russian military.

The satellite, officially designated Kosmos 2551, is flying in an unusually low orbit, which could allow its camera to collect higher-resolution imagery.

The launch Sept. 9 marked the seventh flight of the Soyuz 2-1v rocket configuration.

The Soyuz 2-1v is a modified version of the Russian Soyuz rocket that flies without the four liquid-fueled strap-on boosters used on standard Soyuz configurations. A single kerosene-fueled NK-33 main engine replaces the four-nozzle core stage engine flown on other Soyuz rocket variants.

The NK-33 engine was originally developed for the Soviet-era N1 moon rocket, which was canceled in the 1970s after four test launches failed. Russia kept NK-33 engines in storage after the cancellation of the N1 rocket program. Some of the powerplants were exported to the United States and flown on Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket to launch supplies to the International Space Station.

But Northrop Grumman redesigned the Antares booster to use newly-manufactured Russian RD-181 engines. Investigators blamed an Antares launch failure in 2014 on one of the NK-33 engines — known as AJ26s in the United States — stored for decades after Russia ended development of the giant N1 rocket.

The Soyuz 2-1v first stage also includes four vernier steering engines mounted around the NK-33 main engine. The modified launcher’s second stage is powered by an RD-0124 engine, the same type of powerplant also used on the modernized Soyuz 2-1b version of Russia’s classic Soyuz rocket.

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