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Russia launches Bars-M1 classified military satellite

Anatoly Zak, Spaceflight Correspondent
Feb 27, 2015, 21:13 UTC

Sen—Russia's military fired a rocket from its spaceport near the Polar Circle today, Friday Feb. 27, to orbit a classified cargo, which is believed to be a new-generation cartography satellite.

A Soyuz-2-1a rocket lifted off from Pad No. 4 at Site 43 in Plesetsk at 14:01 Moscow Time (11:01 UTC, 6:01 a.m. EST). According to a representative of the Russian Air and Space Defense Forces Aleksei Zolotukhin, quoted by the official Russian media, the military satellite separated from the launch vehicle as scheduled and ground control confirmed normal operation of the satellite.

No information on the launch trajectory has been provided but several days ago Russian authorities issued official warnings to air traffic to avoid three areas north of Russia, where the fragments of the rocket were expected to fall. They match a typical ascent path for Soyuz rockets heading to polar orbit with an inclination from 93° to 98° from the Equator.

To reach this orbit, the three-stage Soyuz-2-1a rocket headed in the direction of the North Pole, and less than two minutes after the liftoff, shed its four strap-on boosters, which splashed down into the White Sea. As the rocket left dense atmosphere, its nose fairing, protecting the satellite from aerodynamic loads, slipt in two halves and fell into the Barents Sea.

The second stage separated less than five minutes into flight and then crashed into the Arctic Ocean, just short of Spitsbergen Archipelago. Finally, the third stage completed the job nine minutes after the launch, inserting the satellite into orbit extending from pole to pole.

During its first revolution around the Earth, the spacecraft crossed the sky over Canada and headed south across the Pacific Ocean all the way to Antarctica, passing near the South Pole. The near-polar orbits enable satellites to see practically any point on Earth, as the planet rotates below around its axis, making them "orbits of choice" for many observation and remote-sensing missions.

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The sequence of events that put the satellite into orbit. Image credit: Anatoly Zak/RussianSpaceWeb.com

In accordance with the usual practice of the Russian military, the satellite received an official designation Kosmos-2503, with no additional details on its mission publically released. However bits and pieces of information published in previous years allow to confidently identify the spacecraft as the first Bars-M cartography satellite.

The four-ton spacecraft is designed to provide the Russian Ministry of Defense with stereo images and elevation data anywhere on the Earth's surface, enabling to compile highly accurate small-scale maps.

It will be the first Russian cartography satellite designed to transmit high-resolution digital imagery to ground control without need to return film back to Earth in specially designed capsules, as the Soviet military practiced for decades for several types of reconnaisannce missions. Due to high cost of such a method, Russia discontinued flying previous-generation cartography satellites in 2005.