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Russia to launch its first digital mapping satellite

Anatoly Zak, Spaceflight Correspondent
Feb 25, 2015, 23:43 UTC

Sen—After a quarter of a century of efforts, Russia's new-generation military satellite designed to remotely map the Earth is finally ready to launch into orbit on Thursday, Feb. 26.

A Soyuz-2-1a rocket is expected to blast off from the military spaceport in Plesetsk, north of Moscow, around 14:00 Moscow Time (11:00 UTC, 6 a.m. EST). The mission is officially classified, however available information allows space-watchers to identify the cargo under the rocket's payload fairing as the Bars-M1 cartography satellite.

If successful, the launch will provide the Russian Ministry of Defense with a state-of-the-art imaging tool to produce detailed maps of the entire world after a decade-long hiatus in such a strategic capability. Moreover, unlike previous-generation spacecraft of this type, the Bars-M will transmit all its digital data via radio channels, eliminating the need for the costly and slow process of returning photos back to Earth.

Cartography satellites use dual camera systems, which photograph the same areas of the Earth surface under slightly different angles. As a result, stereo images can be produced and elevation information can be determined for the imaged areas.

The USSR launched its first cartography satellite in 1971 and introduced the second-generation spacecraft of this type in 1981. However both platforms had to be equipped with bulky reentry capsules designed to parachute exposed film with images back to Earth. The transmission of huge volumes of visual information via radio channels was simply beyond the capabilities of available electronics at the time.

The USSR tried to launch at least one orbital cartographer per year, however during the post-Soviet economic collapse of the 1990s, such missions became more and more infrequent. The last cartographic satellite, known as Kometa (comet), flew in 2005.

Without frequent updates, Russian military maps were quickly growing obsolete. According to veterans of wars in Chechnya, inaccurate maps further complicated a nightmare scenario of urban warfare in this breakaway Russian republic. One such map was reportedly showing woods in the area, where in reality it was long replaced by urban sprawl. Russian officers joked that navigating their way with the Belomor cigarette pack, which featured a small stylized map of Russia, had been more effective than using military maps.

To address the problem, in the waning days of the USSR, the Ministry of Defense commissioned a new-generation orbital mapper dubbed Bars (leopard) from the nation's top developer of spy satellites—TsSKB Progress in the Southern Russian city of Samara. The heart of the spacecraft—its stereo-telescope—was sub-contracted to a company in Belarus. However the same financial problems of the 1990s stalled the project for more than a decade, making it obsolete long before it could reach the launch pad.

Only in 2007, as the funding for the Russian space program had greatly improved, could the project be jump-started under name Bars-M. This time, the development of its sophisticated imaging system was delegated to the LOMO company in St Petersburg, thus keeping this crucial component inside Russia.

Moreover, for the first time, TsSKB Progress attempted to make all systems of the spacecraft capable of withstanding harsh conditions of space, abandoning failure-prone pressurized containers. As a result, Bars-M was guaranteed to function in orbit for at least five years, while transmitting all its data remotely.

However, this time, multiple technical challenges hampered the project. The Russian Ministry of Defense and the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, are known to have gone to court demanding TsSKB Progress to pay multi-million-ruble fines for failing to meet deadlines for the delivery of the spacecraft.

Nevertheless, after at least three years behind schedule, the first Bars-M satellite finally made it to its launch site in Plesetsk last month. According to official procurement documents, the Russian military has ordered at least six Bars-M satellites.