Russia needs to upgrade its fleet of optical reconnaissance satellites, as it appears to currently be falling behind, according to expert Bart Hendrickx.
“Russia currently has only two operational optical reconnaissance satellites in orbit, both of which may already have exceeded their design lifetime. They are to be replaced by more capable satellites carrying a primary mirror about the same size as of those believed to be flown aboard American reconnaissance satellites, but it is unclear when these will be ready to fly. An experimental satellite launched in 2018 likely is the precursor of a constellation of much smaller spy satellites that will augment the imagery provided by the big satellites,” Hendrickx said in his piece, published on The Space Review back in August 2020.
During the Soviet era, reconnaissance satellites used to return film back to Earth through a capsule, and such old equipment was still in use up until 2015 in Russia, when the last such satellite was taken down.
Drawbacks of film-return satellites were the limited supply of film they could carry (and, hence, their limited lifetimes) and, more importantly, their inability to return images in timely fashion.
In 1976, the United States orbited its first KH-11/KENNEN digital reconnaissance satellite using CCD technology to send back images to Earth in real time.
The satellites send images to Earth via data relay satellites in highly elliptical and geostationary orbits. Sixteen of the type were launched in total.
The Soviet Union did not launch its first electro-optical reconnaissance satellite until December 1982.
The first-generation satellites (Yantar-4KS1 or Terilen), having an estimated resolution of 1 meter from an altitude of 200 kilometers, were launched nine times between 1982 and 1989.
An improved second-generation satellite (Yantar-4KS1M or Neman) with sub-meter resolution saw 15 launches between 1986 and 2000.
The satellites were capable of sending images to Earth via military data relay satellites called Geyzer.
It would appear that Russia was, somewhat, catching up, but initially Soviet satellites would have a lifetime of 6 months, which was gradually increased to approximately 1 year, but that was still much less than the US multi-year capable satellites.
In 1983, the Soviet Union decided to develop a satellite that could compete more adequately with the US-made ones, but ultimately, they were unsuccessful.
The LOMO optical institute in Leningrad was ordered to build an optical system called 17V317 featuring a telescope with a mirror 1.5 meters in diameter. It was supposed to fly on two types of satellites.
One, called Sapfir, was to be built by TsSKB-Progress and placed into low orbits for close-look missions while the other, dubbed Araks, would be manufactured by NPO Lavochkin and fly in much higher orbits for area survey missions.
The Spafir never made it off the ground, while Lavochkin launched one satellite in 1997 and then another in 2002, but they both failed long before their expected end of lifetime date.
From 2003 onwards, Russia was left, for a while, without any digital reconnaissance satellites and had to actually occasionally launch the film-return ones.
A downsized version of the failed digital satellite was suggested in 2001, and the contract was awarded for work to be carried out on the “Persona.”
After several years of delays, the first Persona satellite was launched as Kosmos-2441 on July 26, 2008, but Russian press reports at the time said it was lost barely two months later because memory boards in its on-board computer had been rendered useless by charged particles.
The next satellite, Kosmos-2486, fitted with hardened electronic components, went into orbit on June 7, 2013.
Speculation in the Russian press that this satellite soon ran into trouble as well was confirmed by court documents published in 2017.
Persona #3 was launched on June 23, 2015, into an orbit synchronized with that of the second satellite to provide maximum coverage of areas of interest on Earth. According to the same court documents, it also encountered technical problems during initial in-orbit testing and was not declared operational until November 2016.
“Despite the trouble-plagued start of the Kosmos-2486 and Kosmos-2506 missions, both satellites seem to have been operating normally ever since. However, if their design lifetime is indeed five years, both have exceeded it by now. While they may well continue to operate for several more years, Russia cannot afford the risk of losing the high-resolution imaging capability offered by these satellites and is busily working on an upgrade of its spy satellite fleet.”
Then, in August 2016, the Russian newspaper Kommersant revealed the existence of a replacement for Persona called Razdan.
Publicly accessible procurement documents show that the project officially began on June 19, 2014, with the signing of a contract between the Ministry of Defense and RKTs Progress. A second contract for the project was concluded by the same two parties on September 26, 2016.
Procurement documentation suggests that two Razdan satellites are currently under construction. Documentation released in September 2017 pointed to possible launch dates in late 2020 and late 2021, but these dates are likely to have been delayed since then.
On March 29, 2018, Russia launched a small military satellite from Plesetsk using the Soyuz-2-1v, a lightweight version of the Soyuz rocket without the four strap-on boosters. Announced as Kosmos-2525, it was placed into an orbit of roughly 320 by 350 kilometers with an inclination of 96.64°.
Online tenders for the transportation of the satellite to Plesetsk identified it as EMKA and linked it to the All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Electromechanics (VNIIEM). It was also identified as Zvezda, according to separate documentation.
Zvezda is also mentioned on the website of a company called SKTB Plastik, which has drawings of a camera housing that it built for the satellite.
Kosmos-2525 is still operational, continuing to perform regular burns to protect its orbit from decay. One of the objectives of the mission has been to observe ground-based optical calibration targets developed at the Moscow Polytechnic University.
In conclusion, it turns out that Russia is relying on two aging Persona satellites to provide high-resolution imagery in the interests of the Ministry of Defense. Both seem to be functioning normally after having overcome significant problems during initial in-orbit testing. However, there is no guarantee they will continue to operate until the next-generation Razdan satellites are ready to take over.
Complicating matters further, Russia currently has no radar imaging satellites (neither civilian nor military) capable of seeing through cloud cover and making observations at night.
“In short, it is safe to say that Russia’s current space reconnaissance capabilities are far inferior to those of the United States and China. In a worst-case scenario, the Russian Ministry of Defense may even find itself depending solely on lower resolution imagery from Russian civilian Earth remote sensing satellites until its new fleet of reconnaissance satellites is ready to take to the skies.”
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