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Soyuz rocket launches Russian military spacecraft

Posted: May 22, 2009

Russia launched a new military communications satellite aboard a modernized Soyuz rocket overnight Thursday from the country's northern spaceport.

A Soyuz 2-1a rocket lifted off from Russia's Plesetsk Cosmodrome at 2153 GMT, or early Friday morning local time.

The launcher is an updated version of the venerable rocket family, with a digital control system, a larger payload fairing, and a Fregat upper stage capable of multiple engine firings.

The Fregat released the payload into its planned orbit three hours and 20 minutes after liftoff, according to Russian media reports.

Thursday night's launch carried a Meridian communications satellite for the Russian military. The spacecraft will circle Earth in a highly-inclined egg-shaped orbit with a high point stretching nearly 25,000 miles above the planet.

This high-altitude perch, commonly called a Molniya orbit, allows satellites to stay in view of Russian territory for several hours during each circuit around the planet. Satellites in this type of orbit cover polar regions, areas out of reach of many traditional communications spacecraft in equatorial orbits.

The Soyuz carried the second Meridian satellite into orbit. An identical rocket launched the first member of the next-generation system in 2006.

Meridian satellites are designed to replace out-of-date Molniya satellites currently used by the Russian government, media reports said.

The flight marked the 29th space launch to reach orbit this year from locations around the world. It was 5th Soyuz launch so far in 2009.