Hopefully, the coming year will stand out for Russia's space industry due to super-modern communications satellites of the latest generation: the Express-AM series. It is no secret that many pure and applied research spacecraft remained grounded in 2003. This was due to the fact that Russia's space engineers were concerned last year practically with one thing, i.e. keeping the International Space Station functioning.
No doubt, the ISS programme is a major international and the only manned space mission at the moment. But Russian Space Agency head Yuri Koptev was right when last April he said bluntly that to favour the ISS Russia meant shelving other space programmes, above all launches of research and communications satellites.
The latter are now indispensable for both the military and civilian infrastructure of any industrialised country. Of particular value are high-orbiting satellites, in a stationary orbit about 36,000 kilometres up, because they can stay above a specific spot on the ground and keep it under continuous surveillance all the time.
In the past, the USSR established the world's largest state-run system of satellite communications. It was initiated by launching Molniya-series satellites in April 1965, which were put into heavily elongated elliptic orbits with their apogees passing over the Northern Hemisphere. The mid-70s saw first satellites placed in a stationary orbit. Raduga and Gorizont space vehicles provided a day and night link between ground-based information-receiving and -processing stations.
But by the mid-90s, not only had the orbiting Soviet-era satellites run out of steam, the very models of communications spacecraft became morally and technologically obsolete. In August 2001, the development of a new generation of communications satellites was made a special priority by the Government. The Russian Savings Bank (Sberbank), one of the world's largest banks, has contributed handsomely to the project.
The first satellite of the Express-AM series was successfully launched, to reach its hovering station, by a heavy Proton carrier rocket on New Year's Eve, while two more launches are being considered this year. The full complement of five satellites of the new generation will be in place by the middle of 2005.
In their stationary orbits, the five craft will provide steady communication coverage across Russia and will require no regular re-orientation of ground aerials, as was the case with low-orbit Molniya satellites. In developing this particular satellite, the research and production enterprise of applied mechanics in the East Siberian town of Zheleznogorsk, which is spearheading the programme, has chosen the only correct method, based on close international co-operation and involving reliable partners.
Unfortunately, the radio engineering and electronic sectors of Russian industry are now far from in their best shape. So an on-board computer for the new satellite was supplied by the German firm Astrium. Direction-control instruments came from the French company Soderne. Nor was there any sense in looking in Russia for a radio transmitter for the on-board command and measuring system with a guaranteed 12-year life span. It was furnished by the Japanese firm NEC/Toshiba. In line with a decision taken by the International Union of Electric Communication, Russia has been assigned 24 slots in the universal stationary orbit designed for placing communications satellites. Most of them will be filled by satellites from the Express-AM family.