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Soyuz rocket sends up Russian weather satellite

Posted: July 8, 2014

A new Russian weather satellite lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Tuesday, riding a Soyuz launcher into space with six small piggyback satellites from Britain, the United States and Norway.

The Soyuz rocket lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 1558:28 GMT (11:58 a.m. EDT; 9:58 p.m. local time). Credit: Roscosmos
The polar-orbiting Meteor M2 satellite will track cloud cover, storm systems, temperature and humidity, and polar ice for weather forecasters.

The 6,124-pound Meteor M2 satellite launched at 1558:28 GMT (11:58:28 a.m. EDT) from Site 31 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, where it was 9:58 p.m. local time.

A Soyuz 2-1b rocket -- a modernized version of the venerable Russian launcher -- and a Fregat upper stage were programmed to reach a temporary parking orbit about 11 minutes after liftoff. The hydrazine-fueled Fregat engine fired two times before deploying the Meteor M2 weather observatory about an hour after launch in a sun-synchronous orbit more than 500 miles above Earth at an inclination of 98.8 degrees.

The Fregat upper stage reduced its altitude before releasing a small Russian space weather research satellite. A fourth ignition of the Fregat engine set up for separation of five other satellites in a circular orbit with an altitude of about 390 miles.

Russian planned a live video stream of the launch on the Internet, but officials announced less than an hour before liftoff there would be no webcast.

Designed for a five-year mission, the Meteor M2 weather satellite is the second in a series of upgraded observatories owned by the Russian government. Its launch Tuesday came nearly five years after the launch of the Meteor M1 satellite, which is still operational, according to Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency.

Meteor M2 will collect timely global information for weather forecasting, monitor the ozone layer and the radiation environment in near-Earth space, measure sea surface temperatures, and track ice in the polar regions to aid navigation.

Artist's concept of the Meteor M2 satellite. Credit: NPO VNIIEM
The spacecraft's six instruments include multi-channel cameras, a microwave radiometer and infrared sounder to measure temperature and moisture in the atmosphere, an X-band radar payload to detect ice, snow and vegetation, and a radiation detector to probe the environment around the satellite.

Meteor M2 also carries a radio system to relay data from remote weather stations and ocean buoys on the ground, according to NPO VNIIEM, the satellite's manufacturer.

The satellite will supply data on global weather systems, helping meteorologists craft forecasts.

More than 70 Meteor weather satellites have launched since 1964.

Secondary payloads were launched Thursday for customers in Britain, the United States, Norway and Russia.

Built by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. in the United Kingdom, the TechDemoSat 1 spacecraft hosts high-tech payloads engineers hope will be a pathfinder for future missions.

The mission was funded by private capital and grants from government agencies.

TechDemoSat 1, also known as TDS 1, will measure sea state by measuring radio waves reflected off the ocean surface. Another suite of sensors will monitor conditions around the satellite, such as radiation levels and other particles, for space weather research.

Solar storms can damage satellites in orbit, where they are not protected by Earth's radiation belts and atmosphere.

Ground controllers in Harwell, England, established contact with TechDemoSat 1 on Tuesday evening.

Photo of the TechDemoSat 1 spacecraft during ground testing. Credit: SSTL
"The successful launch of the TechDemoSat 1 satellite marks the end of an exciting spacecraft build challenge for SSTL, with no less than eight payloads and more than 25 of our own engineering developments on-board," said Luis Gomes, director of Earth exploration and science at SSTL. "We can now look forward to the mission phase, where data is returned from the satellite in orbit and we, alongside our payload providers, can prove new concepts in space."

The dishwasher-sized TDS 1 satellite carries a compact atmospheric sounding instrument that could lead to lower-cost meteorological and Earth observation missions, and the British craft will be removed from orbit at the end of its three-year mission by a "de-orbit sail" designed to help mitigate risks from space debris.

"The successful launch of TechDemoSat 1 has given UK space companies a unique opportunity to test their cutting-edge technologies in orbit," said David Willetts, Britain's minister for science and universities. "These innovators can now show investors and potential customers how their products perform in the harsh environment of space. TechDemoSat 1 is also the first satellite to be controlled by the Satellite Applications Catapult. This was established by the government to harness the success of the UK space sector and its world-leading companies like SSTL."

The first satellite built in Scotland -- UKube 1 -- launched Thursday. The technological testbed has a camera to take pictures of Earth, and a payload to demonstrate the feasibility of using impacts from cosmic particles to make satellite communications more secure.

Designed and assembled by Clyde Space in Glasgow -- and jointly funded by Clyde Space and the UK Space Agency -- the UKube 1 CubeSat weighs less than 8 pounds and measures about the size of a shoe box.

Clyde Space officials said they received a beacon signal from UKube 1 after launch.

Another payload released in orbit Thursday was the SkySat 2 imaging satellite, the second spacecraft put in space for Skybox Imaging. The Silicon Valley startup, which specializes in high-resolution videos of Earth from space, was acquired by Google last month for $500 million.

SkySat 2 joins a similar spacecraft launched from Russia in November 2013. Skybox plans to send up more satellites next year in a launch aboard an Orbital Sciences Corp. Minotaur rocket from California.

Skybox announced engineers contacted SkySat 2 on the first opportunity, confirming it was functioning after liftoff.

Photo of the Soyuz rocket's payloads before encapsulation inside the payload fairing. Credit: Roscosmos
The small cube-shaped DX1 satellite launched Thursday will track maritime traffic from space. DX1 was designed and built by Dauria Aerospace, which touts the satellite as the first spacecraft financed, designed and assembled in Russia by a private company.

Officials said they heard radio signals from DX1 after the launch.

The Soyuz rocket also delivered Norway's AISSat 2 microsatellite to orbit. Like DX1, the satellite will monitor ships to determine their position, speed and direction.

A Russian magnetospheric research satellite named MKA-FKI, or Relek, was also launched Thursday.

One satellite not on Thursday's mission was Canada's Monitoring and Messaging Microsatellite, or M3M, which carries a ship-tracking payload and a low data rate communications package to relay data from isolated Earth-based transmitters.

The Canadian government pulled the M3M satellite from the Soyuz launch due to Russian sanctions following the Ukraine crisis.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.