December 28, 2018

SPACEINTEL: Soyuz/Fregat rocket carries 2 Russian Earth observation satellites and 26 ride-share smallsats into separate orbits

by Peter B. de Selding

CARBONDALE, Colorado – Russia’s Soyuz-2.1a/Fregat rocket gave fresh proof of its viability for the fast-growing cubesat market on Dec. 27 with the launch of 26 ride-share satellites into two separate orbits from Russia’s new, commercially oriented Vostochny Cosmodrome. All 28 satellites were reported healthy in orbit and sending signals.

The ride-share customers included Planet, which had 12 Flock-3K Dove satellites aboard to add to Planet’s global constellation of Earth observation satellites; and Spire Global, which provided eight Lemur satellites for ship and aircraft tracking and GPS radio occultation weather data.

It was Planet’s fourth launch aboard a Soyuz. Mike Safyan, vice president for launch at Planet, said in a Dec. 27 statement that the launch, the third for Planet in 28 days, “brings our active, on-orbit fleet to roughly 150 satellites across our three constellations – Dove, SkySat, and RapidEye.”

German Orbital Systems GmbH provided two satellites, iSat and Sparrow, both second-generation 3u-cubesats for amateur radio transmissions that also carry a new-generation ADS-B aircraft tracking demonstration payload.

Also on board was the GRUS satellite designed by Axelspace of Japan, a startup commercial Earth observation satellite constellation operator that has raised 4.5 billion Japanese yen, or around $41.5 million, in three funding rounds. The 100-kilogram GRUS is s designed to take images with a ground resolution of 2.5 meters and a swath width of 60 kilometers and to operate for at least five years.

The Soyuz launch from Russia’s Vostochny Cosmodrome carried 26 secondary payloads including 12 for Earth observation constellation operator Planet and eight ship-identification, weather monitoring and aircraft-tracking satellites from Spire Global. Fifteen of the secondary payloads were flown following contracts with

GK Launch Services


The main customers were the Russian government’s 490-kilogram Kanopus V5 and V6 satellites, to operate from a 510-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit for at least five years.The 26 ride-share satellites, weighing between 2.5 and 100 kilograms, were placed into orbits at 495 kilometers and 585 kilometers, a demonstration of the well-proven Fregat upper stage’s ability to maneuver to customer-specific orbital parameters after depositing the main payloads into their prescribed orbit. It is the same upper stage that is used for launches of the Europeanized Soyuz rocket from Europe’s Guiana Space Center in South America.

GK Launch Services

, created in 2017 by the Russian government and given exclusive rights to sell Soyuz launches commercially, expects to capture some of the European Soyuz business when the Europeanized version ceases operations around 2023 as Europe develops its own smallsat-launch capability with the Ariane 6 and Vega-C rockets.

The launch was the fourth from the Vostochny spaceport, which has suffered multiple delays and allegations of corruption on the part of its developers. From a customer’s point of view, however, the launch occurred the same month as was planned nearly a year ago and announced by

GK Launch Services


ECM Launch Services of Germany contracted for, and integrated, 11 of the 26 smallsat passengers for the Soyuz launch. With this launch, ECM will have integrated 54 cubesats for launches aboard the Soyuz-2 rocket.

Innovative Solutions in Space (ISIS) of The Netherlands and ECM Launch Services of Germany were the main launch aggregators for the cubesat missions.

Russia’s Roscosmos space agency confirmed that all 26 ride-share customers, in addition to the two Kanopus satellites, had been released into their assigned orbits, and that the Fregat stage had been placed into an orbit from which it will reenter the Earth’s atmosphere over the South Pacific Ocean.

GK Launch Services

has a next ride-share mission opportunity under Roscosmos’s responsibility in 2019. The company has said that 2020 is its first year fully commercial launches with two missions planned so far.