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Soyuz rocket launches Russian weather satellite

Posted: September 17, 2009

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A Russian Soyuz launched rocketed into space Thursday with an upgraded weather satellite and several other small payloads destined for a variety of missions.

The Soyuz 2-1b rocket, featuring advanced digital avionics and a more powerful third stage engine, lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 1555 GMT (11:55 a.m. EDT) Thursday.

The rocket's core stages wrapped up their burns in less than 10 minutes, leaving a hydrazine-fueled Fregat upper stage to finish putting the payloads in a sun-synchronous orbit about 500 miles high.

The Soyuz successfully completed the launch with the deployment of the spacecraft, according to a posting on the Roscosmos Web site.

Launch attempts on Tuesday and Wednesday were scrubbed due to bad weather and an unspecified technical issue.

The delays aligned the launch with a commercial Proton flight, meaning the Baikonur Cosmodrome hosted back-to-back launches from across the sprawling spaceport barely three hours apart.

The mission's primary payload was the Meteor M1 weather satellite, a new Russian observatory designed to monitor the Earth's climate from its perch in polar orbit.

Meteor M1's six instruments will give Russian meteorologists a comprehensive look at the planet's weather systems, helping forecasters create more accurate climate outlooks.

A suite of imagers and sounders will take pictures of cloud formations and detect sea surface temperatures, air temperatures and moisture. The craft also carries a radar designed to monitor ice in the polar regions to aid navigation.

The 6,000-pound satellite is a replacement for the Meteor 3-M1 observatory launched in 2001. That spacecraft failed a few years ago, forcing Russia to rely on foreign weather satellites.

A second upgraded Meteor satellite will be in launched in a few years. Both spacecraft should last up to five years.

"This constellation will meet international standards, and the data acquired will be compliant with the demands of world weather organizations," said Valery Diaduchenko, deputy head of Roshydromet, the Russian weather service.

Russian officials say around 50 older Meteor satellite models have been launched during the past 25 years, although none of the observatories are operating today.

The Soyuz also orbited South Africa's second satellite, a 179-pound trunk-sized spacecraft named SumbandilaSat. The $3.5 million mission draws its name from the local Venda language word for "pioneer."

SumbandilaSat was originally supposed to launch from a Russian Navy submarine aboard a Shtil launcher made from retired missile parts. But that deal fell through in a diplomatic quagmire that triggered a delay of more than two years.

South Africa will use information gathered by the satellite for agriculture monitoring, infrastructure mapping, disaster response, population measurement, and water management, according the country's Department of Science and Technology.

A search-and-rescue satellite was also in the cache of secondary payloads carried by the Soyuz rocket.

Called Sterkh 2, the Russian contribution to the COSPAS-SARSAT international satellite system will join a similar spacecraft launched in July. The satellites detect distress beacon signals from land, sea and air, determine their locations, and relay the information to emergency officials.

A small 17-pound sphere covered in polished glass, named BLITS, was carried into space to act as a retroreflector to study satellite laser ranging techniques. Engineers will use lasers to track the soccer ball-sized satellite to help improve orbit determination methods.

The Soyuz also deployed a small payload called IRIS and a pair of small student-built satellites, each weighing less than 100 pounds.

The Tatyana 2 and UGATUSAT spacecraft will conduct education and basic technology demonstration missions.