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Persona-3 spy satellite lifts off

Anatoly Zak, Spaceflight Correspondent
Jun 23, 2015, 21:09 UTC

Sen—Russia sent its latest spy satellite into orbit Tuesday from a military launch site in the north of the country.

A Soyuz-2-1b rocket lifted off from Pad 4 at Site 43 in Plesetsk around 800 km north of the Russian capital at 19:44 Moscow Time, Dmitry Zenin, a spokesman for the Russian Air and Space Defense Forces, VKO, told the official Russian media. According to a statement distributed by the RIA Novosti news agency, the ascent to orbit went as scheduled and the payload separated from the launch vehicle.

The latest mission is officially classified, however it is believed to be delivering the third spacecraft in the Persona series designed to beam high-resolution images of the Earth's surface for the Russian military and intelligence circles. The most sophisticated and complex reconnaissance satellite in Moscow's current space arsenal, Persona was built at RKTs Progress in the southern Russian city of Samara, the nation's prime developer of Earth-watching satellites.

A powerful telescope provided by the LOMO company in St. Petersburg for the 7-ton spacecraft can reportedly capture details as small as half a meter in size. Resulting digital images can be either stored in the satellite's vast computer brain or transmitted back to Earth in near real time. To enable 24-hour image delivery when the spacecraft flies far outside Russian borders, it was also equipped with laser transmitters working via specialized relay satellites in a geostationary orbit. Notably, the launch of one such relay satellite was originally scheduled to precede the latest Persona, however it had to be postponed due to the failure of the Proton rocket last month.

The original Persona satellite was launched in July 2008. However it apparently failed shortly after reaching orbit, as a result of a crippling effect of space radiation on its electronics. It took nearly five years for engineers to address the problem and launch the second Persona in 2013.

Although the second spacecraft was also rumored to having initial problems, it is apparently healthy enough to work in tandem with its freshly launched sibling.

The launch window for the third Persona was seemingly timed to place it into an adjacent orbital plane with its predecessor. As a result, the pair could probably snap photos of the same targets in a carefully choreographed sequence.

Both satellites, designed to work up to five years, circle the Earth in a near-polar orbit with an inclination 98.3° toward the Equator, which enables overflight of practically any region on Earth. To reach such an orbit, the Soyuz rocket headed due north after a short vertical liftoff from Plesetsk. It dropped four strap-on boosters into the White Sea and then crossed the Kolsk Penninsula and flew over the Arctic Ocean toward the North Pole.

Two areas in the international waters were closed to air traffic in the anticipation of the launch: The first near the Rybachy Peninsula and the second near Spitsbergen Archipelago. The first location was likely used for two halves of the payload fairing after it split around the satellite no longer needing protection from air pressure in the vacuum of space. The rocket's cigar-shaped second stage most likely crashed at the second drop zone around 1,500 km from the launch site.

Right after reaching orbit, the satellite would pass over Arctic Canada and Western United States, finally crossing into the Pacific Ocean over the Californian Coast. Peculiarly, the Soviet military traditionally avoided such trajectories during the Cold War. This strategy was probably dictated by concerns that in case the rocket fails to attain the orbital speed, remnants of the top secret satellites could make landing in Canada or in the United States.

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