A Soyuz rocket lifted off from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia earlier this morning to deliver an unidentified Russian military satellite to orbit. The launch occurred on February 5 at 07:00 UTC, or 10:00 AM Moscow time.

The satellite in question is likely called Neitron, a new type of military intelligence satellite. Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) airspace warnings point toward a 67-degree inclined orbit for the launch of Neitron. Due to its high latitude, the Plesetsk launch site is well suited for launches to high inclination orbits often associated with reconnaissance satellites.

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Plesetsk, located in northwest Russia, has served as a launch site for multiple rocket types since the dawn of the space race. Site 43, the location of today’s launch, includes two launch pads that have been used by the Soyuz family since the mid-1960s, initially in the form of R-7 missiles.

Because of the nature of the payload, information about the satellite and its exact orbit are unknown. Neitron will be joined in orbit by a sister satellite sometime in the future, possibly named Tekhnolog. It is unclear whether Neitron is a satellite-specific name or a program name.

Neitron was manufactured by NPO Mashinostroyeniya, a Russian design bureau that has also developed a series of Earth-imaging satellites named Kondor. These small satellites operate in low Earth orbit and can carry either optical or radar imaging payloads.

After a mass simulator launch in 2003, a radar imaging Kondor was launched in 2013. A Kondor-E (export) built for the South African government was orbited in 2014. A civilian version of Kondor is also set to launch later this year.

Render of a Kondor satellite, in the radar configuration, in orbit. (Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense)

The launch of Neitron was initially scheduled for late 2018, before slipping several years likely due to technical problems with the satellite. A launch date was finally set for February 3, before slipping to the 5th.

The launch was operated by the Vozdushno-Kosmicheskiye Sily (VKS) – the Russian Aerospace Forces – and utilized the Soyuz 2.1a vehicle. Soyuz 2.1a is capable of lifting just over 7,000 kilograms of payload to low Earth orbit and has completed 57 missions with 55 successes. Today’s launch marked the first Soyuz launch of 2022.

The VKS was formed in 2015 by combining the Russian Air Force and the Russian Aerospace Defense Force. Within the VKS, the Russian Space Forces are responsible for missile defense and the operation of government spacecraft. This includes GLONASS – the Russian equivalent of GPS – and reconnaissance satellites such as Neitron.

Soyuz 2 is the latest iteration of the Soyuz family and is currently the only version flying. The 2.1a variant was the first to debut. It completed a suborbital test flight in 2004 followed by a successful orbital launch in 2006.

A Soyuz rocket lifts off from Site No. 43/3 at Plesetsk. (Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense)

Upgrades featured on the Soyuz 2 include uprated engines and a digital flight control system. Although an improved 2.1b variant was introduced in 2008, the 2.1a continues to fly regularly, including lifting Soyuz and Progress spacecraft destined for the International Space Station. Because of its upgraded control systems, Soyuz 2 can roll to achieve a certain orbital inclination once in flight, and thus does not need a rotating launch pad like older Soyuz variants.

Soyuz is composed of three stages, two of which ignite on the ground. The core (second) stage, or Blok-A, is powered by an RD-108A engine which features 4 main combustion chambers. These are augmented by 4 vernier combustion chambers to provide attitude control.

Four boosters surround the second stage: Blok-B, V, G, and D. The boosters feature similar RD-107A engines which include 4 main combustion chambers and just 2 vernier combustion chambers for attitude control.

Several minutes after launch, the four boosters separated by venting gaseous oxygen during a distinct event nicknamed the Korolev Cross, a tribute to Sergei Korolev, the original designer of the Soyuz rocket family.

The vernier engines on the base of a Soyuz 2.1 rocket gimbal to move the rocket onto the proper orientation for launch. (Credit: Roscosmos)

Seconds before the second stage finished its burn, the third stage ignited during a process called “hot staging,” which ensured that the third stage’s propellant remained under acceleration and thus settled at the bottom of its tanks. All three stages burn a form of refined kerosene and liquid oxygen.

Today’s launch also featured the use of a Fregat upper stage, an optional hypergolic stage that has long served the Soyuz family on missions to all orbits. This includes launches beyond low Earth orbit and/or those involving the deployment of multiple payloads into separate orbits. Fregat is manufactured by NPO Lavochkin, and has been in service for over 20 years.

Another Soyuz rocket, this time operated by Arianespace, is expected to lift off next week with the thirteenth set of OneWeb satellites.

(Lead image: The Soyuz 2.1 rocket lifts off with the Neitron satellite. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense)

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