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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russians Look to Put Leaner Satellites in Space

For MTIZMIRAN's Vulkan satellite systems will be much lighter than those currently in use.
Russian scientists say they could slash the price of putting satellites into orbit around Earth by a factor of 10, simply by making them 10 times lighter.

The Moscow region-based Institute of Terrestrial Magnetism, Ionosphere and Radiowave Propagation, or IZMIRAN, has developed a number of satellite prototypes that it hopes will one day replace those now used to monitor surface activity on Earth.

The current generation of satellites weigh in at hundreds or thousands of kilograms, making sending them into orbit a pricey endeavor.

Putting such satellites into orbit atop rockets like the Proton and Soyuz costs on average between $45 million and $50 million just for the launch.

IZMIRAN says new satellites could be sent up on smaller, cheaper rockets.

Longer-term plans involve replacing heavy geostationary satellites used to relay everything from television programs to telephone conversations with batches of smaller satellites.

But the institute's current proposals are more modest and deal with very specialized satellites.

Most satellites launched today fit into the medium class, weighing in at around 1 ton and over, and the medium-heavy class that can weigh as much as 3.2 tons.

Satellites like these can carry from 24 to 60 transponders each, with the volume of information they can carry depending on the number of transponders at their disposal.

Small satellites, or those weighing less than 600 kilograms, can hold eight to 10 transponders, according to the Russian Satellite Communications Co.

"We're not saying that all satellites need to be replaced immediately," said Viktor Orayevsky, IZMIRAN's director.

"Satellites that monitor extraterrestrial activity have higher demands on them than those that watch the Earth and it is too soon to replace them," he told reporters at the fourth International Aerospace Congress in Moscow last month.

"Small satellites cannot be used to collect high resolution information from the Earth's surface either, because the equipment needs to be much bulkier," he said.

Yet there are areas where small satellites and spacecraft could be employed quite effectively, he said.

One of the institute's projects, the Vulkan system, will be used to monitor the Earth, its atmosphere and the ionosphere -- the outer layer of the Earth's atmosphere -- to forecast natural disasters such as earthquakes, typhoons, hurricanes and tidal waves several days before they happen.

IZMIRAN is developing the Vulkan satellite systems as part of Russia's 2001-05 federal space program.

The five satellites required for the new system will be launched on a platform designed by the Institute of Electromechanics near Moscow and the Makeyev State Rocket Center design bureau located in the Chelyabinsk region.

The first satellites will be assembled in the first half of next year, but Orayevsky was not willing to say how much the project will cost or estimate the launch cost.

The Vulkan satellites will be much lighter than current satellites, mainly because the instruments used on them have been shrunk to miniature size.

For example, Orayevsky said, the main instrument used to measure the electron density of the ionosphere, the electron canon, now weighs 20 kilograms.

"Together with the Paton [electric welding] institute [of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences] in Kiev, we have developed an electron canon that weighs 2 kilograms," he said.

Researchers achieved these results by changing the way electron density is measured, not by refining existing technologies.

"Before it was measured by reflecting radio waves off points in the ionosphere, now we measure wave resonance characteristics," he said.

According to Orayevsky, changing the principal measurements has allowed researchers to shrink many instruments they use down to size.

As a result, IZMIRAN has been able to develop satellites that weigh less than 100 kilograms.

Together with its platform, a Vulkan satellite -- orbiting at heights of 400 kilometers to 1,100 kilometers at an angle of 82.5 degrees -- weighs in at 202 kilograms.

"You don't need an entire Proton or Soyuz rocket to put something like that into space," Orayevsky said.

IZMIRAN proposes using conversion rockets, or ICBMs that were designed to carry nuclear warheads, such as the RS-20 and RS-18, known by their NATO code name of Satan and Stiletto in the West.

The satellites could even be launched from submarines on Russian Shtil missiles known in the West as the Gadfly, or Volna type missiles known as the Stingray, Orayevsky said. These missiles have already been used to launch clusters of small test satellites in experiments.

Other aerospace companies have also mulled the use of smaller satellites, but say it is too early for their use to be practical.

"If you launch small satellites individually the cost comes out to be nearly the same as it would be to launch larger satellites that can hold more transponders," said Denis Sukhorukov, a spokesman for the state owned RSCC.

"However, the real cost advantage comes when you can launch two separate satellites, say a small one and a medium one, into orbit atop the same rocket."

The RSCC, which operates communications satellites that broadcast state television and radio, has plans for these kinds of launches in the future. "For us it is a new direction, but very interesting," Sukhorukov said.

The RSCC will start the launch of a series of five Express-AM communications satellites weighing 2.6 tons each in December at a cost of $100 million each.

IZMIRAN has specialized in investigating magnetic storms and substorms on the Earth's surface since its inception in 1940, and was the first to use satellites to make magnetic measurements in 1958.

More recently throughout the 1990s it led the CORONAS space mission, sending satellites into orbit around the Earth to study the sun's electromagnetic radiation.