On February 28 at 06:55 UTC, a Soyuz 2.1b/Fregat carried Arktika-M 1 to orbit from Site 31-6 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Arktika-M 1 is the first in a series of remote sensing satellites intended for monitoring the arctic regions of Russia. Alongside the craft’s main instrument, a multispectral imaging sensor, are receivers for search and rescue transponders which is a fairly common secondary payload.
The weather conditions at the time of launch were kind of miserable, with temperatures well below freezing and fairly significant winds and clouds. Afterward, Dimitri Rozgozin, the head of Roscosmos, said that the launch took place near the upper-level wind limit. While other rockets, like the Falcon 9, have many problems with upper-level winds, nothing seems to stop a Soyuz from launching. These rockets have often launched during snowstorms and even been struck by lightning after launch, so Rozgozin’s comment provides some insight into the operational limits of the well-proven Soyuz rocket.
After three burns of the Fregat upper stage, the satellite was deployed into orbit. Hours later on Twitter, Rozgozin confirmed the launch was a complete success and that the spacecraft was responding to ground controls.
The satellite was successfully placed into a highly elliptical Molniya orbit, which is designed to allow the satellite to spend most of an orbit over higher latitudes while at apogee and just a short time at perigee. This type of orbit was developed because most of Russia is too high in latitude for a geostationary satellite to provide coverage. The period of this orbit is about twelve hours, and it is inclined 63.4 degrees to the equator.
Thanks to orbital mechanics and Kepler’s Laws of Motion, that same highly elliptical track means the spacecraft spends about four hours racing through the lower two-thirds of its orbit before coming back to loiter over its normal operational areas for the rest of that orbital period. That fast transit is a big reason why it is called the Molnyia, or “lightning” orbit, and the particular inclination precisely balances the orbital precession from the Earth’s and the Moon’s gravity, minimizing the need for station-keeping burns.
Arktika-M 1 will be followed by four more satellites, with M2 launching in 2023 and the others launching about once a year after that.
Soyuz launches first Arktika-M satellite (Russian Space Web)
Arktika-M info page (Gunter’s Space Page)