Proton ready to return to flight on a cover-up mission
For the first time since its failure on May 16, a Russian workhorse rocket will try to deliver a payload into space, this time a hush-hush satellite apparently camouflaged as a civilian payload.
A very strange secret mission
The Proton-M rocket with a Briz-M upper stage is scheduled to lift off on Sept. 28, 2014, at 00:23:00 Moscow Time (4:23 p.m. EDT on Sept. 27). The launch vehicle will be carrying a classified payload known as Olymp ("Olympus") as well as Luch ("Beam"), which belongs to the Russian Ministry of Defense. The spacecraft, developed at ISS Reshetnev in Zheleznogorsk, will likely be inserted into a geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers above the Equator, where it will provide communications for the Russian military. A Moscow-basedKommersant daily claimed that the satellite would also be used for electronic espionage for the Russian security service, FSB, however the report was widely doubted by observers.
This web site first broke the story about the existence of the Olymp payload in 2013, even though semi-official reports about a planned launch of a military communications satellite, such as an already known Globus-1 series, had circulated earlier. Still, an apparent introduction of the new name could hint a significant upgrade of the Globus-1 spacecraft or even an entirely new design. As it turned out, a number of prominent Russian space industry contractors had previously reported in their public documents delivering components for the Olymp-K satellite. The companies involved in the project included ISS Reshetnev, Geofizika, LOMO and NPO Kvant.
Given the fact that the new name had surfaced as Russia was gearing up to host Olympics in Sochi, one could speculate that it was assigned quite recently to a new-generation military satellite. The Soviet space history knows a few examples when the vehicle developed under a numeric code would receive a proper name shortly before reaching launch pad. During the post-Soviet period, the Russian Ministry of Defense have routinely declassified names for past and even current military satellites, while keeping most other details about their missions under wraps. In addition, most Russian military payloads would be officially identified after entering orbit as Kosmos with a number. However, in case of Olymp everything was different.
At the beginning of 2014, to the surprise of many observers, the Russian civilian space agency, Roskosmos, suddenly announced the upcoming mission carrying a Luch satellite. The Luch, of course, are civilian data-relay satellites and all the existing spacecraft in the Luch constellation have been accounted for. As a result, an apparent decision by Roskosmos to give a new public name to the Olymp satellite could be a late and rather clumsy attempt to camouflage a military payload within a civilian constellation, which might or might not have a similar purpose to its unexpected military cousin.
In any case, the differences between Olymp and Luch are obvious. Civilian Luch satellites were light enough to share a ride on Proton with another payload, while the spacecraft formerly known as Olymp is launched alone, betraying a much larger size! Moreover, numerous images of each Luch satellite during their development and pre-launch processing were released. Obviously, no visuals of the latest payload have been made available so far. Finally, all Luch satellites had numbers, while the latest spacecraft is carrying none.
Possibly, the Luch cover-up campaign was a response to an accidental disclosure of the name Olymp, even though the code-name in itself provides no practical information on the purpose of its carrier.
Preparations for launch
This mission was previously scheduled to lift off at the end of May 2014 and, following the May 16 accident, it was initially postponed to July 8. On August 26, Roskosmos announced that specialists from GKNPTs Khrunichev had been installing thermal protection layers on the Briz-M stage at Site 92-50 in Baikonur, while the center's personnel was configuring launch pad at Site 81 for the upcoming mission. The statement also said that the Luch spacecraft was developed at ISS Reshetnev.
On Sept. 4, Roskosmos reported that the launch vehicle, the upper stage, the payload fairing and the spacecraft had undergone autonomous checks and were all ready for integration. The assembly was completed by September 19. Two days later, a fully assembled vehicle was moved to a fueling station for loading the upper stage with propellant and pressurized gases. The launch vehicle was then rolled out to the launch pad No. 24 at Site 81 on September 23.