Russian spy satellite launched by Soyuz rocket

A classified mapping satellite rode a Soyuz rocket into space Thursday from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, the fifth mission of the year to deploy a Russian military payload in orbit.

The Russian military satellite launched at 4:03 a.m. EDT (0803 GMT) Thursday from Plesetsk, a military spaceport about 500 miles (800 kilometers) north of Moscow in Arkhangelsk Oblast.

A Soyuz-2.1a rocket began its vertical climb away from Plesetsk with nearly a million pounds of thrust from kerosene-fueled engines, then headed north to target a polar orbit for deployment of its Russian military payload.

The Soyuz jettisoned its four first stage boosters about two minutes into the flight, then a third stage engine took over from the rocket’s core stage about five minutes after liftoff. The third stage deployed its payload into a preliminary orbit ranging in altitude between 210 miles (338 kilometers) and 345 miles (556 kilometers), with an inclination of 97.7 degrees to the equator, according to U.S. military tracking data.

The circumstances of Thursday’s launch — its launch site, the configuration of its launch vehicle, and target orbit — suggest the payload was the Russian military’s third Bars-M digital mapping satellite. The first two spacecraft in Russia’s current generation of Bars-M mapping satellites launched on Soyuz rockets in 2015 and 2016.

The Russian Defense Ministry did not identify the satellite launched Thursday. The Russian military declared the launch successful, and U.S. tracking data confirmed the Soyuz placed its satellite payload into an orbit matching those of the previous Bars-M missions.

Made by TsSKB Progress in Samara, Russia, the Bars-M satellite’s capabilities are classified, but analysts believe it hosts a digital imager, replacing older satellites that carried film cameras that returned to Earth via parachute to be recovered and developed.

The Bars-M satellite’s Karat electro-optical camera was developed by the Leningrad Optical Mechanical Association, and the satellite is expected to operate at least five years, according to documents posted on a Russian government procurement website.

The upgrade allows the Bars-M satellites to remain in orbit longer and send imagery to analysts via radio links.

The last of the old-generation satellites launched in 2005, leaving Russia with a gap in the imaging capability to be filled by Bars-M, which specializes in collecting stereo images to help create maps for use by the Russian military.

The spacecraft launched Thursday was designated Kosmos 2556, continuing the Russian naming scheme for military satellites.

The mission Thursday was the seventh launch of a Soyuz rocket this year, and the fifth space mission to blast off from Plesetsk in 2022.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.