A Soyuz 2.1A rocket lifts off Dec. 27 from Vostochny Cosmodrome carrying a pair Kanopus-V 5 remote sensing satellites and a secondary payload of 26 smallsats arranged by GK Launch Services. Credit: GK Launch Services

VOSTOCHNY COSMODROME, Russia — With an exasperated hiss and engulfing roar, the sounds of a Soyuz rocket pierced the wild, windswept expanse of Russia’s far eastern taiga in a dramatic signal that Russia’s newest cosmodrome has finally opened for business. 

After years of delays, construction mishaps and outrageous corruption scandals, Russia’s new premier space launch facility — the Vostochny Cosmodrome — saw the first successful flight of commercial payloads aboard a Soyuz 2.1A rocket Thursday (Dec. 27) at 11:07 a.m. local time (9:07 p.m. EST, Dec. 26 ).

Thirty seconds into a vertical climb up from the cosmodrome, the Soyuz booster began to arc away toward the horizon, flashing viewers gathered at an observation post 1.5 kilometers away from the launch pad with its engines and subjecting them to a rapid-fire, concussive pounding.

Despite strong winds and temperatures far below anything NASA would consider acceptable launch conditions, it was a beautiful day for a Soyuz launch. As the rocket climbed higher into the atmosphere, it left a brief, fluffy contrail that cast a long shadow onto the cosmodrome below.

As the rocket flew farther out of sight, observers huddled around a radio in the warmth of a prefab shack on a hill overlooking the launch site  where local vendors set up shop to sell honey  to listen to the calls from mission control: “polyot normalno,” a voice repeated every 10 seconds. Flight is nominal.

Observers braved frigid temperatures in Russia’s far east to witness the Dec. 27 launch.
Observers braved frigid temperatures in Russia’s Far East to witness the Dec. 27 launch. Credit: GK Launch Services

In what appeared to be a break from tradition, the cosmodrome’s local Russian Orthodox priest, Evgeny Polyakov, told SpaceNews that today’s mission was not blessed by the church. Nonetheless, the Russian space agency reports the mission proceeded without flaw. 

The primary payload for Thursday’s flight were two Russian government Earth observation satellites, Kanopus-V 5 and 6. A secondary payload of 26 small satellites, sold by a new Roscosmos commercial subsidiary, GK Launch Services, piggybacked the launch.

Writing on Twitter after confirmation of their successful delivery into orbit by the rocket’s Fregat upper stage, Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin noted that today is Emergency Services Day in Russia, and declared the launch to be “a gift to the courage of our emergency workers.”

“Today’s launch from the Vostochny Cosmodrome concludes the flight program for 2018,” Rogozin, who was only briefly at the launch Thursday, wrote. “We are flying!”

Thursday’s launch was the fourth flight of a Soyuz 2-type rocket from Vostochny since the cosmodrome’s first launch in April 2016 and the third successful launch overall. But it was the first launch with commercial payloads sold and serviced by GK Launch Services. 

Roscosmos formed GK Launch Services last year as part of a private-public partnership between subsidiary Glavkosmos  the Russian space agency’s commercial trading house  and private Russian launch provider Kosmotras. Glavkosmos has a 75 percent stake in the company.

The presence of commercial satellites aboard today’s flight was a trial run for GK Launch Services, CEO Alexander Serkin told SpaceNews. The company facilitated the launch of 26 satellite clusters from AxelSpace, Planet Labs, ISL and ECM.

“GK was responsible for most of the technical work involved in launching all 26 satellite clusters,” he said. 

Both Glavkosmos and Roscosmos were putting a lot of faith into GK Launch Services by handing over these responsibilities, Serkin said, and Thursday’s launch has paved the way to granting complete operational control of commercial Soyuz launches to GK Launch Services.

The company already has two launches on the books, and is preparing to announce a third.

GK Launch Services has confirmed that the mission’s Fregat upper stage has delivered its 26 piggybacked satellites into their designated low Earth orbits, and re-entered the atmosphere at an altitude of 100 kilometers about  4:25 p.m.  ( 2:25 a.m. EST ) and fell into a closed area in the Pacific Ocean.

Fregat delivered its primary and secondary payloads into three distinct orbits. 

Roscosmos did not specify the orbits of its payloads, but GK Launch Services said one group of small sats were dumped over a period of 17 minutes into an orbital altitude of 585 kilometers, and other over a period of 30 minutes at an altitude of 495 kilometers. 

Control over the satellites has been handed over the customers. 

Though Thursday marked the first successful launch of piggybacked commercial payloads from Vostochny, it is not yet known when the next, fully GK-operated commercial launch will take place there. The company’s next two launches are slated to fly out of Baikonur in 2020.

Matthew Bodner is a freelance journalist based in Moscow. He previously worked for The Moscow Times.