Polyus (spacecraft)

Last updated
Polyus cutaway.png
Cutaway drawing of the Polyus spacecraft
Mission typeTechnology - Military
Mission durationSpacecraft failure
Spacecraft properties
Launch mass80,000 kilograms (180,000 lb)
Dimensions37 m × 4.10 m
Start of mission
Launch date15 May 1987 (1987-05-15)
Rocket Energia
Launch site Baikonur 250
Orbital parameters
Reference system Geocentric
Regime Low Earth
Epoch Planned
Polyus satellite on Energia launch vehicle. Energia-Polyus drawing.png
Polyus satellite on Energia launch vehicle.

The Polyus spacecraft (Russian : Полюс, pole ), also known as Polus, Skif-DM, GRAU index 17F19DM, was a prototype orbital weapons platform designed to destroy Strategic Defense Initiative satellites with a megawatt carbon-dioxide laser. [1] It had a Functional Cargo Block derived from a TKS spacecraft to control its orbit and it could launch test targets to demonstrate the fire control system.

Russian language East Slavic language

Russian is an East Slavic language, which is official in the Russian Federation, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as being widely used throughout Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, the Caucasus and Central Asia. It was the de facto language of the Soviet Union until its dissolution on 25 December 1991. Although nearly three decades have passed since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian is used in official capacity or in public life in all the post-Soviet nation-states, as well as in Israel and Mongolia.

Geographical pole Points on a rotating astronomical body where the axis of rotation intersects the surface

A geographical pole is either of the two points on a rotating body where its axis of rotation intersects its surface. As with Earth's North and South Poles, they are usually called that body's "north pole" and "south pole", one lying 90 degrees in one direction from the body's equator and the other lying 90 degrees in the opposite direction from the equator.


The Main Missile and Artillery Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation (GRAU) is a department of the Russian (ex-Soviet) Ministry of Defense. It is subordinate to the Chief of Armament and Munition of the Russian Armed Forces, a vice-minister of defense.


The Polyus spacecraft was launched 15 May 1987 from Baikonur Cosmodrome Site 250 as part of the first flight of the Energia system, [2] but failed to reach orbit.

Baikonur Cosmodrome Rocket launch complex in Kazakhstan, used by Russia

The Baikonur Cosmodrome is a spaceport located in an area of southern Kazakhstan leased to Russia.

Site 250 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, also known as UKSS and Bayterek, is a test facility and launch site which was used by the Energia rocket during the 1980s. The site consists of a single launch pad, which doubled as a test stand, and is supported by an engineering area and a propellant storage facility. As of 2011 the complex was planned to be rebuilt as the Bayterek Launch Complex, which would be used by the Angara rocket from 2015; however development is yet to begin.

Energia was a Soviet rocket that was designed by NPO Energia to serve as a heavy-lift partially recoverable launch system for a variety of payloads including the Buran spacecraft. Control system main developer enterprise was the Khartron NPO "Electropribor". The Energia used four strap-on boosters each powered by a four-chamber RD-170 engine burning kerosene/LOX, and a central core stage with 4 one-chamber RD-0120 (11D122) engines fueled by liquid hydrogen/LOX.

According to Yuri Kornilov, Chief Designer of the Salyut Design Bureau, shortly before Polyus' launch, Mikhail Gorbachev visited the Baikonur Cosmodrome and expressly forbade the in-orbit testing of its capabilities. Kornilov claims that Gorbachev was worried that it would be possible for Western governments to view this activity as an attempt to create a weapon in space and that such an attempt would contradict the country's previous statements on the USSR’s peaceful intent. [3]

Mikhail Gorbachev 20th-century General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev is a Russian and formerly Soviet politician. The eighth and last leader of the Soviet Union, he was General Secretary of its governing Communist Party from 1985 until 1991. He was the country's head of state from 1988 until 1991, serving as Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet from 1988 to 1989, Chairman of the Supreme Soviet from 1989 to 1990, and President of the Soviet Union from 1990 to 1991. Ideologically, he initially adhered to Marxism-Leninism although by the early 1990s had moved toward social democracy.

For technical reasons, the payload was launched upside down. It was designed to separate from the Energia, rotate 180 degrees in yaw, then 90 degrees in roll and then fire its engine to complete its boost to orbit. The Energia functioned perfectly. However, after separation from Energia, the Polyus spun a full 360 degrees instead of the planned 180 degrees. When the engine fired, it slowed and burned up in the atmosphere over the south Pacific Ocean. This failure was attributed to a faulty inertial guidance system that had not been rigorously tested due to the rushed production schedule. [4]

Parts of the Polyus project's hardware were re-used in Kvant-2, Kristall, Spektr and Priroda Mir modules, as well as in the ISS module Zarya.

Kvant-2 module of the MIR space station

Kvant-2 was the third module and second major addition to the Mir space station. Its primary purpose was to deliver new science experiments, better life support systems, and an airlock to Mir. It was launched on November 26, 1989 on a Proton rocket. It docked to Mir on December 6. Its control system was designed by the NPO "Electropribor".

Kristall Mir space station module

The Kristall module was the fourth module and the third major addition to the Mir space station. As with previous modules, its configuration was based on the 77K (TKS) module, and was originally named "Kvant 3". It was launched on May 31, 1990 on a Proton-K. It docked to Mir autonomously on June 10, 1990.

Spektr Mir space station module

Spektr was the fifth module of the Mir Space Station. The module was designed for remote observation of Earth's environment containing atmospheric and surface research equipment. Spektr also had four solar arrays which generated about half of the station's electrical power.


NPO Energia received orders from the Soviet government to begin research on space-based strike weapons in the mid-1970s. Even before, the USSR had been developing maneuverable satellites for the purpose of satellite interception. By the beginning of the 1980s, Energia had proposed two programs: laser-equipped Skif and guided missiles platform Kaskad (where Skif would cover the low-orbit targets, Kaskad engaged targets in high and geosynchronous orbits). Together with NPO Astrofizika and KB Salyut, they began developing their orbital weapons platform based on the Salyut DOS-17K frame.

Government of the Soviet Union main body of the executive branch of government in the Soviet Union

The Government of the Soviet Union, formally the All-Union Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, commonly abbreviated to Soviet Government, was the executive and administrative organ of state in the former Soviet Union. It had three different names throughout its existence; Council of People's Commissars (1923–1946) and the Council of Ministers (1946–1991).

Later, when the objective of ICBM interception proved too difficult, the aims of the project were shifted towards anti-satellite weapons. The 1983 announcement by the US of their SDI program prompted further political and financial support for the satellite interceptor program. In the nuclear exchange scenario, the interceptors would destroy the SDI satellites, followed by a so-called "pre-emptive retaliation" large-scale Soviet ICBM launch.

The laser chosen for the Skif spacecraft was the 1-megawatt carbon dioxide laser, developed for the Beriev A-60 aircraft (an Il-76 flying laboratory with a combat laser). The introduction of the Energia, capable of launching about 95 tonnes into orbit, finally allowed the spacecraft to accommodate the massive laser. The massive exhaust of the carbon-dioxide laser precipitated the objective of making the laser "recoil-less". The zero-torque exhaust system (SBM) was developed to that end. Its testing in orbit meant the release of a large cloud of carbon dioxide, which would hint at the satellite's purpose. Instead, the xenon-krypton mix would be used to simultaneously test the SBM and perform an innocent experiment on Earth's ionosphere.

In 1985, the decision was made to test-launch the new Energia launch vehicle, which was still in the testbed phase. A 100-ton dummy payload was initially considered for the launch, but in a series of last-minute changes, it was decided that the almost-completed Skif spacecraft would be launched instead for a 30-day mission.

The development of the real Skif was completed in just one year, from September 1985 to September 1986. Testing and tweaking the Energia launch vehicle, the launch pad and the Skif itself moved the launch to February, and later to May 1987. According to Boris Gubanov, the head designer of the Energia launch vehicle, the work schedule of the preceding years was exhausting, and at the point of Mikhail Gorbachev's visit on 11 May, he asked the Soviet premier to clear the launch now, because "there will be heart attacks".

The catastrophic malfunction that led to Skif entering the atmosphere in the same area as Energia's second stage was successfully investigated. It was found that 568 seconds after launch, the timing control device gave the logical block a command to discard the side modules' covers and laser exhaust covers. Unknowingly, the same command was earlier used to open the solar panels and disengage the maneuvering thrusters. This wasn't discovered because of the logistics of the testing process and overall haste. Main thrusters engaged while the Skif kept turning, overshooting the intended 180-degree turn. The spacecraft lost speed and reverted to the ballistic trajectory.


See also

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Strategic Defense Initiative American missile defense system

The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was a proposed missile defense system intended to protect the United States from attack by ballistic strategic nuclear weapons. The concept was first announced publicly by President Ronald Reagan on 23 March 1983. Reagan was a vocal critic of the doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD), which he described as a "suicide pact", and he called upon the scientists and engineers of the United States to develop a system that would render nuclear weapons obsolete.

Buran programme research project

The Buran programme, also known as the "VKK Space Orbiter programme", was a Soviet and later Russian reusable spacecraft project that began in 1974 at the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute in Moscow and was formally suspended in 1993. In addition to being the designation for the whole Soviet/Russian reusable spacecraft project, Buran was also the name given to Orbiter K1, which completed one unmanned spaceflight in 1988 and was the only Soviet reusable spacecraft to be launched into space. The Buran-class orbiters used the expendable Energia rocket as a launch vehicle. They are generally treated as a Soviet equivalent of the United States' Space Shuttle, but in the Buran project, only the airplane-shaped orbiter itself was theoretically reusable. While Orbiter K1 was recovered successfully after its first orbital flight in 1988, it was never reused.

Salyut programme

The Salyut programme was the first space station programme, undertaken by the Soviet Union. It involved a series of four crewed scientific research space stations and two crewed military reconnaissance space stations over a period of 15 years, from 1971 to 1986. Two other Salyut launches failed. In one respect, Salyut had the task of carrying out long-term research into the problems of living in space and a variety of astronomical, biological and Earth-resources experiments, and on the other hand the USSR used this civilian program as a cover for the highly secretive military Almaz stations, which flew under the Salyut designation. Salyut 1, the first station in the program, became the world's first crewed space station.

Energia (corporation) Russian space manufacturer

PAO S. P. Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation Energia, also known as RSC Energia, is a Russian manufacturer of ballistic missile, spacecraft and space station components. The company is the prime developer and contractor of the Russian manned spaceflight program; it also owns a majority of Sea Launch. Its name is derived from Sergei Korolev, the first chief of its design bureau, and the Russian word for energy.

Anti-satellite weapon Kinetic energy device designed to destroy defunct satellites

Anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) are space weapons designed to incapacitate or destroy satellites for strategic military purposes. Several nations possess operational ASAT systems. Although no ASAT system has yet been utilised in warfare, a few nations have shot down their own satellites to demonstrate their ASAT capabilities in a show of force. Only the United States, Russia, China, and India have demonstrated this capability successfully.

Soviet space program organization

The Soviet space program comprised several of the rocket and space exploration programs conducted by the Soviet Union (USSR) from the 1930s until its collapse in 1991. Over its 60-year history, this primarily classified military program was responsible for a number of pioneering accomplishments in space flight, including the first intercontinental ballistic missile (R-7), first satellite, first animal in Earth orbit, first human in space and Earth orbit, first woman in space and Earth orbit, first spacewalk, first Moon impact, first image of the far side of the Moon and unmanned lunar soft landing, first space rover, first sample of lunar soil automatically extracted and brought to Earth, and first space station. Further notable records included the first interplanetary probes: Venera 1 and Mars 1 to fly by Venus and Mars, respectively, Venera 3 and Mars 2 to impact the respective planet surface, and Venera 7 and Mars 3 to make soft landings on these planets.

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Site 110 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome is a launch facility which was used by the N1 rocket during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and by the Energia rocket during the 1980s.

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  1. Konstantin Lantratov. ""Звёздные войны, которых не было" (Star Wars that didn't happen)".
  2. Bart Hendrickx; Bert Vis (2007). Energiya-Buran: The Soviet Space Shuttle. Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN   978-0-387-73984-7.
  3. Yuri Kornilov. "Unknown Polyus". Earth and the Universe.
  4. Ed Grondine. "Polyus". Archived from the original on 2010-01-02. Retrieved 2009-09-15.