Unusual flight paths of missiles launched from Plesetsk and Baikonur

Sven Grahn

Optical observation of launches out of Plesetsk have often been reported in the media and is covered by an article at this site. However, professional organizations involved in geophysical research have often observed such launches by means of all-sky cameras and and even TV cameras. Luminous clouds that moved and expanded have been observed on several occasions by stations in the north of Scandinavia and Russia.

The present article discusses a particular report of such observations (1).

The direction of their movement has been determined by triangulation permitting the approximate launch azimuth to be estimated. Several of these observations have been correlated with known satellite launches out of Plesetsk. However, several launches have not been possible to connect to any known satellite launch so they must be related to missile tests of some kind. One of the observations concern a missile that seems to have been launched from Baikonur.

The table below summarizes the launches observed from two or three points, any identified source and my estimate as to the approximate inclination of the ground track, be it a missile or satellite launch.

Date Time Stations Altitude Source Incl. Launch site Notes
20 Sep 1977 0104-0112 UT Loparskaya
230 km Kosmos-955 81.2 Plesetsk "The Petrozavodsk phenomenon" 
(see article by James Oberg)
4 Nov 1983 0312-0320 UT Loparskaya
250 km - 97 Plesetsk  
26 March 1984 2113-2118 UT Loparskaya
1080 km - 90 Baikonur  
23 Oct 1985 0120-0132 UT Loparskaya
1050 km - 79 Plesetsk  
25 Dec 1986 1424-1431 UT Loparskaya
530 km - 76 Plesetsk  
23 Dec 1987 1114-1119 UT Heiss
760 km - 76 Plesetsk  

These cases are shown below. The 23 October 1985 flight path could very well be the same as for Kosmos-955, i.e. the 20 Sept. 1977. The graph in (1) is probable not more accurate than that. The 25 December 1986 and 23 December 1987 flight look like a satellite launch to 75.8 degrees inclination, but could of course very well be a missile launch.

The extraordinary missile launches are the two at unusual azimuths. The launch out of what appears to be Baikonur goes straight north. What could possibly be the purpose of such a launch? To provoke the BMEWS system and see how it reacted? The same could be the purpose of the "retrograde launch" out of Plesetsk on 4 November 1983. But where did these missiles impact. The retrograde path out of Plesetsk has only been used by the Kosmos-3M for launching the Disaster Monitoring Constellation built by Surrey Satellite Ltd, that somehow convinced the Russians they could launch at that azimuth.

Jonathan McDowell (2) has speculated that the Baikonur launch might have been a 15A11 "Perimetr" launch - there was one such launch on an unknown date in 1984 from Baikonur - which used an ICBM to carry an emergency rocketborne command and control system, as was done in the US on some Minuteman launches. The trajectory you show would have had good visibility from much of the Soviet union, appropriate for such an emergency communications relay (the idea was you launch one of these after US nukes have wiped out your normal comms network).

In (1) there is also a table of launches observed from a single observation point. This table contains more identifications of the source of the light phenomena than the table above:

Date Time Station Source Notes
20 March 1979 1855-1858 UT Is. Golomyany Meteor-2 Site located at 79 N, 93 E
31 March 1982 0312-0420 UT Istok Kosmos-1345  
25 Oct. 1985 0403-0409 UT Kiruna -  
8 Jan. 1986 1135-1138 UT Istok Kosmos-1715  
19 Sept. 1986 2220-2245 UT Arkhangelsk -  

More work is needed to try to correlate all these observations with known launches of Soviet missiles and satellite launch vehicles.


  1. V.R. Tagirov et al, Atmospheric Phenomena Caused by Powerful rocket Launches, Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets, Vol 37, No 6, November-December 2000, pp. 812-821.
  2. Jonathan McDowell, E-mail to Sven Grahn 4 Feb 2004

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