While many were focused on the fireworks that can only come from skyrockets packed with various chemicals burning in exciting patterns over the weekend, the Russian Defense Ministry offered fireworks of a completely different sort. A combination of a Strela rocket—itself a converted RS-18 intercontinental ballistic missile—and the Baikonur space center recently got the Kondor radar imaging satellite in its target orbit slot around the planet.
Manufactured and designed by NPO Mashinostroyeniya, the Kondor weighs a full ton, has an expected useful life of about five years, and is packed with a variety of electro-optical tools geared toward providing both infrared and visible-spectrum imaging.
As for the Kondor's delivery system, the Strela rocket, it was—as stated above—a repurposed RS-18 that had a fairly minor set of changes to its two-stage liquid fuel system applied to produce a new kind of delivery system for space-based objects. This actually has some exciting implications, given the sheer amount of possibility inherent in space going on from asteroid mining to space tourism. But given that the Strela had only seen a few test flights before the launch, at last report, there was at least a fair chance of something not going according to plan.
Reports indicate, however, that getting the Kondor in orbit took quite a bit of doing, as the launch had been delayed several times previously. The Kondor itself has had something of a development cycle, as back in the early 1990s, the company behind the Kondor first advanced the possibility of a small satellite in orbit with a radar imaging system on board. The resulting Kondor has since gone through several versions, including one designed solely for export, the Kondor-E.
Getting the Kondor in orbit was a pretty big step, but the Strela rocket system may be an even more interesting concept. Given the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles currently out there, the idea that that design could be used to send up satellites or similar small launches might just be one worth checking out in the end. Using several of these rockets at once may well be enough to send up sufficient infrastructure to establish a full-time presence in space, offering the advantages of space-based programs like asteroid mining and the like.
The Kondor is an impressive satellite, but what's behind the Kondor's effective launch and placement in orbit may well be even more impressive in its own right. While only time will tell just what route is followed to get people out into space and onto other planets, it's clear that there's a lot waiting out there for us just beyond our own horizons.
Edited by Alisen Downey