At 6:01 a.m. EST (14:01 MSK, 1101 GMT) Friday, a Soyuz-2-1a rocket lifted off from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in the town of Mirny, north of Moscow, Russia, carrying the first Bars-M spy satellite for the Russian military. As is typical for classified Russian military missions, the launch was not broadcast.
Limited information has been made available, but the payload has not been kept a complete secret. Bars-M is a cartography satellite, designed to map the Earth from above to keep Russian military maps as up-to-date as possible. This particular series of mapping satellites will use digital imaging and, evidently, downlink the footage instead of using the old film-return technique to bring the maps back. Older cartography satellites relied on the ability to parachute spent film back to Earth for review and use.
Bars-M began its life in the 1990s as simply “Bars” and was created to be a replacement for the Kometa (Yantar-1KFT) satellites. The Kometa spacecraft were film-return satellites that the USSR developed in the 1970s and used, through the transition from USSR to Russia, from the 1980s to 2005. Each Kometa carried a TK-350 topographic camera TK-350 and a KVR-1000 high resolution camera in order to create large topographic maps. They used a Yantar bus module, which has been around since the 1960s and which was used recently on the Lotos-S satellite, and a Zenit-based film return capsule that could be re-used a few times.
Each Kometa could orbit for about 45 days before returning the film capsule, which meant the Soviet Union needed to launch them somewhat regularly in order to maintain accurate maps. According to a report from SEN, “The USSR tried to launch at least one orbital cartographer per year, however during the post-Soviet economic collapse of the 1990s, such missions became more and more infrequent.”
Soyuz 2-1A prior to launch as seen on Spaceflight Insider
Soyuz 2-1A prior to launch. Photo Credit: Russian Space Web
Accurate maps are no minor concern for soldiers in a combat zone. According to SEN, “Russian military maps were quickly growing obsolete. According to veterans of wars in Chechnya, inaccurate maps further complicated a nightmare scenario of urban warfare in this breakaway Russian republic.”
Thus the Bars project was born. It would be built on the Yantar bus as well, and would employ “topographic electro-optical imaging system consisting of a wide-angle and high-resolution camera and a set of laser altimeters,” according to Spaceflight101. However, in the early 2000s, the project halted due to issues with both funds and technical details. The delay “led to a decade-long gap in operational space-based cartography capabilities,” according to the same report.
The contract for the Bars-M satellites, the upgrade and reboot of the unfinished Bars, was signed in 2007 and included an expected first launch by 2012. TsSKB Progress, or Progress State Research and Production Space Centre, was contracted to develop a satellite bus different from the familiar Yantar. TsSKB-Progress operates under the jurisdiction of Roscosmos and is based in Samara, Russia. Leningrad Optical Mechanical Association (LOMO) developed and built the imaging system payload. Yet technical difficulties prevented it from being completed when desired, pushing that first launch to today, about three years late.
So far, the Russian military has ordered at least six satellites in this line. Each has a life expectancy of five years.