Kosmos 2344 is Arkon-1

The News Bulletin of The Astronautical Society of Western Australia, vol 23, no 3, December 1997, pp 27-29, has the following article by the Kettering Group. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that one of the persons behind the article must be Geoff Perry, since he is the only member of the Kettering Group that resides in Bude, Cornwall.

And whoever heard about the projects Zerkalo, Nord and Arkon-1 ?

The Kettering Group

The title is a quotation from a Russian newspaper article. Well, Zerkalo (Mirror) and Nord were Lavochkin proposals for geosynchronous and semi-synchronous Ku-band communications satellites, and Arkon (Lasso) was described in a 1994 paper by the production organisations NPAO Elas and NPC Opteks. That seemed a pretty strange paper for a conference on satellite communications and the Arkon-1 orbit was even more strange th 2800 x 1500 km at 63 deg inclination. To paraphrase Dr Doolittle, we've "never seen anything like it in our life!"

Friday, 6 June 1997

Working on the basis of a NOTAM with a 1630-1800 UT window indicating that the inclination would be greater than 51.6 deg, supplemented by Igor Lissov's postings on the Seesat and Friends and Partners in Space bulletin boards about a new Proton-launched reconnaissance satellite, an orbit generated for a 1645 lift-off at 64.8o, 300 x 200 km suggested a possibly visible pass from Bude at 2114:34, 32 deg maximum elevation, azimuth 125 deg. Skies in Bude had broken cloud and were improving. A telephone message, alerting to the launch and possibility of a visual observation was left with the wife of a highly competent visual observer in Edinburgh, since he was out for the evening.

Confirmation of a launch was received and an indoors-watch from Bude commenced at 2100 UT (Mars was visible through a patch in the cloud) and concentrated on large patches of clear sky in the SE. Two bright objects, approx 6 s apart, were observed travelling from right to left at an elevation of approx 30 deg in the ESE at 2125:49 UT. A sighting 11 min later than predicted indicated that the launch would have been 11 min later than assumed, i e at 1656 UT. On telephoning the Edinburgh observer, to report the sighting, learnt that he had already seen a Seesat message from Vladimir Agapov quoting a launch time of 1657!

Orbital elements

A telephone call at 0630 BST (all times from here on are BST) next morning reported that 1997-28A had not been catalogued but that there was a gap for it. 28B had an inclination of 64.8 deg and already would have been down and that there were C and D objects in eccentric orbits at 12 plus rev/day. That was very interesting. Before knowing about the C and D pieces there was speculation that this could be an Almaz-class payload.

One of the objects seen from Bude was the Proton's third stage, 1997-28B, but the other object, the protecting tube surrounding the fourth stage at launch, often referred to as the launcher or platform, was never catalogued by US Space Command, presumably because it decayed shortly after the Bude observation.

Another telephone call at 0937 supplied the surprising data for the payload --130 min period, 63.4 deg inclination. Yet another call at 1240 gave the apogee and perigee heights as 2479 and 1516 km respectively. This was followed by a fax at 1312 with elsets for objects 28A-F confirming the data which had accumulated piecemeal.

E-mails from Agapov, downloaded at 1343, supplied the ITAR-TASS announcements of the launch and the orbital parameters. The Space Forces press office had informed the news agency that the satellite would be operated by the Ministry of Defence. The orbital period, quoted as "two hours and 10 minutes" was incorrect -- in fact, our calculations based on the first two published elsets gave 130.1 min, 63.4 deg, 2747 x 1510 km -- very reminiscent of the Arkon-1 orbit!

The mission

Lissov's postings on the bulletin boards about a new Proton-launched reconnaissance satellite quoted the Moscow newspaper, Kommersant-Daily, as reporting that the new reconsat was named 11F664 and that, in his opinion, the main thrust of the article was that it should not have been launched at the time because it was not ready and its customers, the GRU were not ready to use the information it would provide. Another newspaper, Izvestiya, following the launch, also identified the Main Intelligence Directorate [GRU] as the owner and referred to the satellite as "Agent 11F664". Construction of the spy satellite had begun more than 10 years earlier but, owing to financial problems, the GRU's order to launch was delayed. The article claimed that the launch had been timed to promote interest in Russian participation in the following week's air show at Le Bourget, Paris.

Western space journalists were perplexed by the launch. During the International Launch Services' press conference at Le Bourget, the correspondent of the French Air & Cosmos raised the possibility of the orbit being due to some failure. Other examples are:

New class of intelligence gathering satellite, details of which are unknown. The type of intelligence being gathered is not obvious from the orbit: perigee is too high for photographic or radar work to be done and the orbit is too low for an early warning role. By default it is assumed that some kind of ELINT work is being undertaken.

..... a hitherto unseen orbit which leaves the purpose of the mission as yet undetermined. The inclination will ensure that the perigee is maintained close to 20 deg S and the ground-track has an almost perfect 11 rev repeat pattern.

If Russian reports that it is a new type of reconnaissance satellites can be believed then very long focal length optics are employed.

The ICSC 94 paper

Such an orbit had been described by production organisations NPAO Elas and NPC Opteks. The satellite, given the name Arkon, was stated to have a resolution of 2-5 m, presumably depending on the orbit height. To achieve this resolution, the satellite has a reflecting telescope system with a focal length of 27 m. The satellite's CCD sensor operates in 8 bands in the optical and near infra-red region of the spectrum from 0.4-1.1 microns. The 30 km swath width quoted for the system suggests that the field of view of the optics is roughly 0.5 deg.

The satellite is capable of rolling at least 20 deg from nadir-pointing, as the slant range for the system is stated to be 3000 km. This suggests that the satellite can image at least 1000 km from the sub-satellite point, and hence can rapidly revisit locations. Indeed, the satellite's mission is described as "highly periodical observation".

An illustration!

It was brought to our notice that Arkon was described in a publication which was no longer being received as complimentary copies. Space Bulletin is a Russian insert in Earth Space Review, a quarterly magazine published by Gordon & Breach.

The short article by the Lavochkin Association describing the satellite platform indicates that it can be used to support both astronomical and Earth observation missions. Specific missions for the generic platform are "the high resolution remote sensing system Arkon-1" and the "scientific satellite Lomonosov". The article includes an illustration of the Arkon satellite. The body of the satellite comprises a cylindrical section with a "sunshade" mounted at the Earth-pointing end. An irregularly shaped solar array and a large radiator panel are attached to opposite sides of the main cylinder. The propulsion unit is attached to an elliptical pressurised equipment compartment at the zenith-end of the satellite.

The illustration of Lomonosov in Europe & Asia in Space 1993-1994 is similar to that of Arkon.

Arkon - arbitrary color scheme

At last!

Positive confirmation of the identity of Kosmos 2344 as Arkon-1 came with the use of the same illustration in a Lavochkin souvenir brochure with limited distribution at the MAKS-97 Air Show, Moscow, in August 1997. Figure 42 is labelled "Kosmos-2344" SC and although, due to a "typo", the caption heading reads "Kosmos-2044" it continues, "The spacecraft is intended for Earth high resolution remote sensing from highly elliptical and circular orbits." Although Air & Cosmos published a piece following MAKS-97, it did not make the connection with Arkon.

In summary, Kosmos 2344, or Arkon-1, is a highly sophisticated surveillance satellite with a novel optical sensor mounted on a highly capable platform. In general terms the system may be considered to be somewhat similar to the Hubble Space Telescope, but pointed towards the Earth, rather than space.

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