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Russia launches spy satellite for South Africa

Anatoly Zak, Spaceflight Correspondent
Dec 20, 2014, 0:18 UTC

Sen—Russia launched an all-weather, day-and-night imaging satellite for the South African government Friday. The Strela (arrow) rocket converted from a Soviet-era ballistic missile lifted off from an underground silo in Baikonur Cosmodrome on 19 December 2014 at 07:43 Moscow Time (04:43 UTC). The launcher carried a Kondor-E satellite, which is widely believed to be commissioned by the South African government, even though neither Russia nor South Africa have officially confirmed that so far.

The official statement from the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, on Friday said that the spacecraft had been developed by NPO Mashinostroenia (or NPO Mash for short), a defense contractor based near Moscow. According to the agency, the launch was a success, the satellite normally separated from its booster stage and was transferred under a flight control by a customer.

The North-American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) detected two objects in orbit associated with that launch. They were likely the satellite itself and the upper stage of the launch vehicle, which delivered it into orbit.

The radar-carrying Kondor satellites are designed to take pictures of the Earth's surface by bouncing radio-waves from objects and registering minute differences in distance to each bounce. Russia launched its first such satellite last year, paving the way for its "export" version for the South African government.

Orbital data indicate that the Kondor-E was launched into the same orbital plane as its predecessor, which could probably allow a pair of satellites to work in tandem.

According to unofficial reports, in 2006, the South African Ministry of Defense commissioned NPO Mash to build an imaging satellite based on the Kondor design.

Currently known primarily for its cruise missiles, NPO Mash has been working on the Kondor project since the beginning of the 1990s, but neither Russian military nor civilian space agencies were providing enough cash to complete the job. After years of making a global sales pitch, the company apparently struck a deal with General "Mojo" Motau, the head of the South-African defense intelligence.

In South Africa, Kondor received a code name Project Flute. However even seasoned observers of the high-tech field in South Africa are puzzled as to what the cash-strapped South-African military would use the satellite for. Naturally, as soon as the word about Project Flute had leaked to political opposition in the country, it became controversial. Although tacitly admitting the existence of Project Flute, the South African government remains silent about its goals.