Russia Is Building Its Next Satellite Network Over the Arctic

‘Arktika’ is key to Moscow’s push for remote resources

Russia Is Building Its Next Satellite Network Over the Arctic Russia Is Building Its Next Satellite Network Over the Arctic

Uncategorized November 6, 2013 0

Arktika system. NPO Lavochkin illustration Russia Is Building Its Next Satellite Network Over the Arctic ‘Arktika’ is key to Moscow’s push for remote resources... Russia Is Building Its Next Satellite Network Over the Arctic
Arktika system. NPO Lavochkin illustration

Russia Is Building Its Next Satellite Network Over the Arctic

‘Arktika’ is key to Moscow’s push for remote resources

The Arctic is warming and everyone from shipping companies to governments is eying the results. Less ice means drastic consequences for the environment, but also new trade routes and access to lots of oil and gas.

But to go on the hunt, and control the expected surge in traffic over the coming decades, you need lots of orbiting satellites to scan the ocean and track vessels making the still-hazardous journey.

Oil and gas-hungry Russia is preparing for this more than most.

Russia already has some limited satellite coverage of the region. To keep up with demand, the Kremlin is spending $2.3 billion to launch a cluster of 10 satellites with the first launch expected in either 2014 or 2015. The details were recently summed up by space journalist Anatoly Zack at Russian Space Web, one of the few online sources dedicated to covering the Russian space industry.

If completed, the satellite cluster’s highly elliptical orbits, known as Molniya orbits, “would enable frequent overflies of the polar regions with practically uninterrupted view of the northern hemisphere.” And it gives Russia at least one advantage.

Electro-L satellite illustration, which is similar to the planned Arktika-M. Federal Service for Hydrometerology and Enironmental Monitoring of Russia illustration

Polar eyes

Satellites carry out some specialized tasks over the Arctic right now, but coverage is limited.

We have a pretty good idea of the weather because weather satellites regularly pass near the north pole in sun-syncronous orbits. But Iridium satellites are the only orbiters that are able to transmit civilian communications at such high latitudes—the U.S. military also uses Iridium for communications that far north.

The problem is that at high enough latitudes, there’s not enough satellite bandwidth to “surge” communications in the event of a crisis. Most communications satellites travel along the Earth’s equator, too far away to see over the planet’s curvature. If more ships and aircraft have to be deployed in a hurry, there could be a communications traffic jam. And the more commercial ships begin to transit the Arctic, the busier the networks will get.

Arktika is Russia’s solution. First, plans call for two Arktika-M satellites used for measuring weather conditions like wind and ice while acting as relays for distress calls—a serious current shortcoming for Arctic voyages.

Instead of orbiting the Earth in a circular, geostationary pattern like most satellites, the Artika-M satellites are expected to maneuver in a highly elliptical orbit like a hula hoop. As one satellite whips over the pole, the other comes around to take its place.

The Artika-M sats will also be joined by three Artika-MS satellites, which will transmit mobile phone and radio communications—like Iridium satellites. Another cluster is made up of three Artika-MS2 satellites, which will stay under the control of the Kremlin and handle government communications—this is likely to include non-tactical military traffic as well. According to Zack, this trio will also be able to relay global positioning signals from both both the U.S. Global Positioning System and the Russian competitor GLONASS.

The final group include two Artika-R satellites. These are to be used in the hunt for oil with their suite of remote sensing tools. The Kremlin has also stressed that these satellites are for civilian and international purposes—it won’t just be Russians using them. But given the limitations of the Russian military’s ability to operate in the Arctic, it’s not a stretch to believe the satellites could be used as “dual use” technology.

In any case, a satellite-upgraded Russian polar force getting into an actual military confrontation with the West is a pretty far out prospect.

The waters are difficult to navigate even with receding ice levels, and the United States holds an overwhelming advantage in submarines, which is what really counts in a conflict under the ice. The expensive and secretive USS Seawolf very likely transited the Arctic this year.

But Russia also considers its claims in the region to be central to its future economic security and political stability. The Kremlin has shown the ability to enforce those claims—to a point. It’s navy has been increasingly active. Moscow even used its security forces to storm an oil rig that was occupied by Greenpeace activists in September.

But the irony behind the receding ice is that it opens room for more ships to burn more fossil fuels. Which means less ice. Which brings the environmental activists and a heavy-handed Russian reaction—with billions of dollars in new satellites to serve as its eyes.

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