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Zenit rocket climbs to orbit with weather satellite

Posted: January 20, 2011
Updated @ 6 p.m. EST

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SANTA MARIA, Calif. -- A Zenit rocket lifted off Thursday from Kazakhstan with a Russian weather satellite to snap real-time images of clouds and storm systems.

The Zenit rocket climbs into clouds over Baikonur. Credit: Tsenki TV
The Ukrainian Zenit 3F booster blasted off at 1229 GMT (7:29 a.m. EST) from pad 45 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It was the first space launch anywhere in the world in 2011.

The 20-story rocket disappeared into low clouds hanging over the snow-covered space center a few seconds after launch. The launcher released the Electro-L 1 weather satellite into orbit at 2128 GMT (4:28 p.m. EST).

Less than 10 minutes after launch, the two-stage Zenit, supplied by Ukraine, placed the Russian Freget upper stage and Electro-L spacecraft in a preliminary parking orbit just above the atmosphere. Three Fregat burns raised its altitude to more than 22,000 miles before releasing the Electro-L payload in a circular geosynchronous orbit over the equator.

Thursday's launch is the first time a Fregat stage, which is often used on Soyuz rockets, has flown with a Zenit booster.

The Electro-L satellite is Russia's second high-altitude weather observatory, coming after a troubled mission launched in 1994 that never achieved all of its goals. The next-generation Electro-L program faced years of delays because of interruptions in funding.

According to Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, the Electro-L spacecraft will function for up to 10 years, collecting weather imagery several times per hour with visible and infrared cameras. The satellite's position in geosynchronous orbit will yield views the entire Earth disk, allowing its weather sensors to observe storm systems across a wide swath of Asia, the Middle East and the Indian Ocean.

Electro-L 1 will be parked at 76 degrees east longitude, appearing fixed over a point in the Indian Ocean.

Artist's concept of the Electro-L satellite. Credit: NPO Lavochkin
The 3,751-pound satellite will also study space weather phenomena and provide communications for search-and-rescue services. It carries nearly 1,000 pounds of scientific and communications equipment.

The Electro-L project joins an international network of geosynchronous weather satellites, which includes missions led by the United States, Europe, Japan, China and India.

Electro-L 1 is also named GOMS No. 2, short for Geostationary Operational Meteorological Satellite.

NPO Lavochkin built the spacecraft for a consortium of Russian government institutions led by Roscosmos and two official weather agencies - Roshydromet and Planeta. The Russian military will also use data from the Electro-L system.

Thursday's mission is a pathfinder for more Russian space research projects planned over the next few years.

A series of upcoming space missions will use a similar bus as Electro-L 1 from NPO Lavochkin. Many of those satellites will blast off on Zenit 3F rockets, including Russia's Phobos-Grunt Mars probe.

The next Zenit 3F launch will haul into space the Spektr R radio astronomy observatory as soon as May.