Russia launched one of its Soyuz rockets the other day, but no one knows what was on board, in an unusually secret mission.
The launch took place from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northwest Russia at 2.04pm EDT (7.04pm BST) on Friday, June 23. Normally, Russia is pretty open about its launches. This time around, we don’t know what it was up to.
The rocket, a Soyuz 2-1v, reportedly sent an unknown payload into orbit about 660 kilometers (410 miles) above Earth. Here it's on an almost a polar orbit, something commonly used for observation satellites. This rocket is a slightly smaller version of Russia’s regular Soyuz launcher.
Spaceflight Now notes the mission, called Kosmos 2519, “might be the first of several ‘14F150 Napryazhenie’ geodetic satellites designed to make extremely accurate measurements of Earth’s shape and gravitational field.” This data can supposedly be used by ballistic missile guidance computers, which might be why this is fairly hush hush.
NASASpaceflight.com (not affiliated with NASA) said this could have been an alternative type of geodesy satellite, namely the GEO-IK-2. If true, this would suggest Russia has shifted some of its military launches from Rokot rockets to this Soyuz vehicle.
“Geodesy is a branch of science and mathematics concerned with measuring the physical properties of Earth,” they said. “In a military context, understanding the properties of Earth – and especially its gravitational field, allows missile guidance and targeting systems to be refined for improved accuracy.”
The Russian Defense Ministry, despite putting out a statement confirming the launch, did not give any details about the payload. However, US military tracking data was able to discover the aforementioned orbital parameters of the satellite.
Pilots were only given a couple of days warning about the launch, indicating how secretive it was. They were told to stay out of the launch area and also the drop zone, as the expendable parts of the rocket returned to Earth.
According to Russianspaceweb, meanwhile, there were a number of issues with the launch that almost saw it delayed. Personnel raced around the clock to get it ready, avoiding the possibility of delaying it from June 23 to June 25.
Russia is not alone in performing a secretive launch. For the last few years, the US has been sending its mysterious X-37B space plane on regular missions into orbit, some lasting more than a year. We don’t know what the X-37B was doing up there or what the goal of the program is.