Moscow: Russia's space programme is ending 2007 on a satisfying note, filling in a vital gap in the country's space capabilities, both civilian and military, through the launch of three satellites of the dual-use Global Navigational Satellite System (Glonass) system on a Proton-M rocket.
Russia made a total of 23 rocket launches for the year from various cosmodromes.
According to Russia's Space Forces command, three satellites of the global Glonass navigation system were successfully put into a pre-calculated orbit on Wednesday.
According to Russian news agency, Itar-Tass, the Russian Space Forces chief of information and public relations service, Lieutenant-Colonel Alexei Zolotukhin said ''a Proton-M carrier rocket was blasted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome on Tuesday by means of a DM booster to put three Glonass-M-type space vehicles into a pre-calculated orbit early in the morning of Wednesday.''
Each of the three satellites will subsequently fire onboard propulsion units to settle into their final orbital positions, Roskosmos officials said.
According to these officials, the current launch was unique on at least two counts. Firstly, a Proton-M rocket was used for the first time to put Glonass satellites into orbit, a task that was hitherto carried out only through Proton-K carriers.
Secondly, the successful launch also sees the Russian Space Forces and Roskosmos fulfilling the Russian president, Vladimir Putin's, desire to have 18 Glonass navigation satellites in orbit by the end of 2007.
The Glonass system will now have 18 satellites in operation, once the freshly launched three satellites become operational after 45 days. Together, the 18 satellites will guarantee uninterrupted transmission of navigation signals through nearly all of the Russian landmass.
Not yet ready, though…
According to an earlier statement of Colonel-General Vladimir Popovkin, commander of the Russian Space Forces, made at Plesetsk on December 14, ''the December 25 launch of three Glonass sputniks fulfils, in principle, the president's order to have 18 navigation sputniks on the orbit by the end of 2007''. ''However, there are some distinctive features, too. The fact that there will be eighteen sputniks (satellites) on the orbit does not mean that they will all be working,'' he explained.
''The main point is to avoid the 1997 situation, when 24 sputniks were on the orbit, but only the military were making use of the system. However, it is now feared that a similar situation is apt to re-occur, since there are some problems with the development of navigation equipment for the consumers at large, although the constructor-general is trying to cope with them.''
According to the Russian Central Mechanical Engineering Research Institute, ''the orbital group of the Glonass system now has 18 sputniks. Thirteen of them are being used for definite purposes, the operation of three others is suspended for technical servicing, and two sputniks are about to be excluded from the system.''
The institute said that thirteen operating satellites of the Glonass system were sufficient to guarantee access to navigation signals on 60 per cent of the territory of Russia on an average, given a maximum navigation interval of 2.6 hours.
The latest launch makes it the second launch for the year, with the previous one taking place on October 26. The previous launch had seen three Glonass-M satellites, constructed by the Krasnoyarsk Applied Mechanics Science and Production Corporation (NPO PM), launched on the back of a Proton-K rocket.
Like the GPS system, Glonass creates a continuous navigation signals space, allowing accurate determination of coordinates and speed of seagoing vessels, air, land and other vehicles, which are equipped with system receivers.
India is also a partner of the Glonass system, allowing it to reduce its dependency on the US GPS system in times of emergency.
The Glonass system was launched by Russia in September 1993 and initially fielded only twelve satellites. The number increased to 24 orbital satellites by December 1995, but soon became under strength after being hit by lack of finances.
The Glonass-M-type satellite was developed at the Krasnoyarsk Applied Mechanics Science and Production Corporation and is a follow-on version. It basically differs from its predecessor in the modification of its antenna-feeder system and also to a longer service life of seven years, as compared to the earlier version's 3-4.5 years.
Also introduced as of December 2003 was a second navigation frequency for civilian users. The satellite weighs 1,415 kilograms.
A presidential order from Putin, in December 2005, to Roskosmos and the defence ministry asked them to accelerate work to restore the strength of the orbiting group of satellites meant to be a part of the system. It outlined the coverage of all Russian territory by the Glonass system by the beginning of 2008, and its conversion into a global system by the end of 2009.
As to the Glonass system's military application, Col Gen Popovkin said, ''it can be used for this purpose already today'' even despite the limited composition of the orbital group. ''Whereas it is necessary to wait for a constellation on the ground (several space vehicles within the view of a consumer – Itar-Tass), in the case with a missile, both sea-launched or guided, the constellation is found much faster because of the missile's definite flight altitude and practical lack of navigation intervals,'' the Space Forces commander explained.
The three-stage liquid-fuelled Proton-M booster was designed and manufactured at the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Centre. According to sources, highly toxic components of rocket fuel are used in the three stages of the rocket: nitrogen tetroxide as oxidiser and asymmetric dimethylhydrazine as fuel.
The rocket's all-up weight is approximately 700 tons and it is capable of putting a payload of 22 tons into a low-Earth orbit with an altitude of 200 kilometres.
The DM booster was designed and produced by the Energia Rocket and Space Corporation and its purpose is to put different-purpose space vehicles into high-elliptical, high-circular (including stationary) orbits and on inter-planetary trajectories. It is being used together with Proton carrier rockets as of 1974. The DM booster has a liquid hydrogen sustainer engine.