At 23:13 UTC on March 12, Russia’s Proton-M rocket launched from Site 81/24 at Baikonur Cosmodrome, carrying the Olymp-K-2 satellite, also referred to as Luch-5X. The Olymp-K satellites are Russian geostationary satellites built for Russian military and intelligence use.
The Olymp-K satellites, also referred to as Luch, are Russian geostationary satellites built for the Russian Ministry of Defense as well as the Russian intelligence agency FSB.
While the purpose of the satellites has not been officially disclosed, the satellites are believed to serve two purposes. The first purpose is to conduct signals intelligence (SIGINT) and the second is to provide secure communications lines for governmental use.
The Luch designation, which is also used to refer to the Russian Satellite Data Relay Network (SDRN), hints at the satellites being used in a data relay role, with the Olymp-K designation referring to a signals intelligence payload and the Luch designation referring to a data relay payload. One other purported payload onboard is a laser communications system, providing navigation correction signals to the GLONASS system.
The Olymp-K satellites are built on ISS Reshnetnev’s Ekspress-1000 bus and mass about 3,000 kg. Like all classified Russian payloads, the satellite will likely receive a Kosmos designator after launch, similar to the American USA designator. The satellite is reported to be launching into the 167 degrees East location.
The previous Olymp satellite, Olymp-K-1, was launched in September 2014 by a Proton-M/Briz-M and moved into a position at 18.1 degrees West seven months after launch. This positioned the satellite directly between the Intelsat 7 and Intelsat 901 satellites, which are located within half a degree of each other in geostationary orbit.
In late September 2015, the satellite repositioned itself to 24.4 degrees West, again settling near the Intelsat 905 satellite, which was located at 24.5 degrees West. These colocation maneuvers drew criticism from Intelsat, and again in 2018, it maneuvered close to the French Athena-Fidus satellite, causing concerns for espionage.
The Proton rocket, formally designated UR-500, is an expendable heavy-lift launch vehicle, initially designed as a “super heavy ICBM.” Due to Proton’s large size, it was never deployed as an ICBM and was rather turned into a space launch vehicle, proposed as an alternative to the Soviet N1 rocket to launch crewed missions to the Moon.
The unusual appearance of the Proton rocket is due to most Russian rocket components being transported by rail. The first stage is made up of a central oxidizer tank and is surrounded by six fuel tanks. The first stage is powered by six RD-275 engines attached to the fuel tanks, which produce a maximum thrust of 10,740 kN. Despite resembling strap-on boosters, the tanks are not designed to be separated from the central tank.
The second stage is powered by three RD-0210 engines along with a single RD-0211 engine, producing a maximum thrust of 2,399 kN. The second stage is attached to the first stage with a lattice structure and “hot stages,” a process in which the second stage engines ignite shortly before separating from the first stage.
The third stage of the rocket is powered by an RD-58M, which produces a maximum thrust of 83.4 kN. The RD-58 family of engines has been used on multiple rockets, first being used on the Blok D of the N1 rocket, and was also to be used as the orbital maneuvering engine on the Buran spaceplane.
Each stage of the Proton rocket is fueled by the toxic combination of unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) and nitrogen tetroxide (N2O4). Both UDMH and N2O4 are hypergolic propellants that ignite on contact, removing the need for an ignition system, and can be stored at ambient temperatures.
Proton rockets can also fly with an optional fourth stage, of which there are multiple variants. The earlier Proton-K rocket could fly with the Blok D, DM, DM2, or DM-2M. The Blok D upper stage was used for interplanetary missions, lacking a guidance module relying on the probe to control the flight. The Blok DM, DM2, and DM-2M upper stages were used for flights to high Earth orbits and featured toroidal fuel tanks, located around the engine and behind the oxidizer tank.
Sunday’s Proton launch occurred from Site 81/24 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which is one of the two active Proton launchpads at the cosmodrome. The two launch complexes, Site 81 and Site 200, both host two launch pads, each of which can support either the older Proton-K or the Proton-M rocket.
Baikonur Cosmodrome is one of three cosmodromes currently used by the Russian military as well as Roscosmos, Russia’s state-owned space agency. The other two cosmodromes currently in use are Plesetsk Cosmodrome, located in Russia’s Far West, and Vostochny Cosmodrome, located in Russia’s Far East.
Founded in June of 1955 as a test center for the world’s first ICBM, the R-7 Semyorka, the then Scientific Research Test Range No. 5 was soon expanded to include launch sites for spaceflight. Located in the Kazakh Steppe, the cosmodrome is surrounded by plains, which was required at the time to allow the radio control system of the rocket to receive signals from ground stations that were hundreds of kilometers away.
Many firsts were achieved at the cosmodrome, with the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, the first spacecraft to travel to the Moon, Luna 1, the first crewed orbital flight by Yuri Gagarin, and the flight of the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova all occurring from the cosmodrome.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia sought to continue launching from Baikonur, and wanted to sign a 99-year lease for the cosmodrome, but eventually signed a US $115 million annual lease for 20 years, with the option for a 10-year optional extension. In June of 2005, the Russian Federation Council ratified an agreement between Russia and Kazakhstan, extending the lease until 2050.
(Lead photo: The previous Olymp-K-1 satellite lifts off aboard Proton from Baikonur is September 2014. Credit: Roscosmos)