You can call me Dmitry Meyer…

History Repeats Itself

Russia operates a constellation of satellites in high Earth orbit called Meridian (меридиан). These satellites perform a critical communications purpose for Russia as much of its land mass is not well served by geostationary satellites. Therefore, you would think this constellation would be held to the highest operational level. Well it’s not as radio amateurs have observed. This fact could raise questions about Russia’s ability and preparedness to act on their recent veiled threats of nuclear war.

For a country bent on claiming they are trying to liberate Ukraine from the scourge of Nazism, some in their leadership seem to be making the same type of hubris claims that one dead Nazi did.

“No enemy bomber can reach the Ruhr. If one reaches the Ruhr, my name is not Hermann Goering. You may call me Hermann Meyer.”

Hermann Göring, September, 1939

In this post we are going to explore how the history, operation and observations of the Russian Meridian satellite constellation may reveal that Russian claims about their nuclear deterrence forces being on high alert may be technically questionable. And that another senior Russian leader apparently dreams of being “a ballerina of the Bolshoi Theater.” Yes, it’s that bizarre…

Lightning Orbits…

As most people know, Russia is located geographically on average far north. Therefore, if you where to provide a system of geostationary satellites to provide communications for your military, there would be challenges with obtaining satisfactory views of those satellites in many geographic locations due to the low elevation of those satellites in the sky. Objects such as trees, buildings and other features would challenge ground stations to get a clear view of the satellites as elevation angles would be very low for GEO satellites. This would be particularly challenging for a military application where mobility would be a key requirement for survivability and tactical surprise.

On the other side, Russia is also limited to fairly high latitude satellite launch sites and early in their space program they lacked the large rockets needed to reach geostationary orbit as the energy requirements to make the large inclination change was prohibitive. Therefore, a different solution emerged. The Molniya (молния) orbit, meaning lightning in Russian.

To address the challenges of high latitude and limited capacity rockets from northern launch altitudes the Soviets pioneered a highly elliptical orbit call Molniya, Russian for lightning in reference to the high speeds the spacecraft obtains at perigee.

The Molniya orbit was first successfully used in 1965 by the Soviet Union. The orbit is highly eccentric and cleverly designed to balance off the perturbations of the Earth and Sun to fix the satellite’s Argument of Perigee (AoP) at 270 degrees, thus locking the perigee of the orbit in the southern hemisphere and the apogee high over the north hemisphere. With a period of half the sidereal rate of a day the satellite will return to the same point in the sky each day approximately four minutes earlier and loiter in the same relatively fixed spot in the sky for approximately six hours making tracking easy. If you place four satellites in a constellation then you have 24/7 coverage even at your secret high latitude military site without needing to worry about obstacles in your way to establish communications.

The CIA announces the launch of Molniya-1 in a then Top Secret report called Preliminary Analysis of the First Successful Soviet Communications Satellite.

If you create a constellation of four satellites in Molniya orbit and arrange them nicely, you can have two satellites loitering at apogee and providing service while the other two are moving to replace the others every ~6 hours.

Contemporary Russian military hardware operations manuals remind Russian soldiers to avoid placing high value mobile ground station assets in open view of a prying enemy’s eyes. So what better way to allow you communications equipment to hide then deep in valleys, urban canyons or in the trees with your high gain antennas pointed nearly straight up rather than needing an open clear view to the south that could expose you to easier detection then using a satellite orbit that places the satellite high overhead at high northern latitudes..

Taken from a 2012 Russian training guide on military satellite communications system operation the importance of cover for both tactical survival and minimizing interference is taught.

By the mid-1970s amateur observations of the Molniya-1 satellites began by Stephen J Birkill. His work was later provided as evidence to the US Congress in hearings on the Soviet space program. Stephen is as can be seen below, still has good notes from those days.

From Soviet Space Programs: 1976-80 (with Supplementary Data through 1983). Unmanned Space Activities. Part 3. Prepared at the Request of Hon. John C. Danforth, Chairman, Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, United States Senate, Ninety-Ninth Congress, First Session.

The Meridian satellite constellation has been used by Russia since 2006. Molniya-1T and -3 satellite operations where noted to fade away by 2011 by radio amateurs as the first two truly operational Meridian satellites came online in 2011/2012.

Russia had some growing pains with the program as Meridian 1 prematurely failed and Meridian 2 was launched into an incorrect orbit, but did have a prolonged useful life. Meanwhile Meridian 3, 4 and 6 well exceeded their expected operational lives and appeared to be fully operational for the their entire lives. Meridian 7 seems to be a partial success as we will see. Meridian 5 was lost in a launch failure. Later Meridian-M missions 8 and 9 are on orbit and fully operational.

But something was missed after the transition from the Molniya to Meridian flight hardware… In references obtained and reported on in the west the 990MHz band seemed to be dropped and amateur observation of the band ended. Here’s a quote from a Russian military satellite operations manual on available communication resources on the new Meridian system.

"Each repeater trunk operates in its own frequency band of a certain range. Currently, the system uses the 4/6; 7/8 and 0.2/0.4 GHz bands (the first digit refers to the "ZS-RS" section, the second - to the "RS-ZS" section). The frequency band allocated to one trunk ranges from hundreds of kilohertz to hundreds of megahertz, depending on the purpose of the trunk."

Amateurs have logged activity from the Meridian constellation on all of the bands noted above. But 990MHz was not one of them…

Breakthrough Listen Candidate 1

In December 2020, news leaked out that the Parkes Observatory made a possible SETI detection on about 982MHz. Intrigued by this a satellite receiving station was lashed up to see if something in Earth orbit could have been the source of this detection.

Days of data was recorded and something unexpected was found on ~992.4MHz, evidence of a constellation of emitting satellites. The Doppler data didn’t fit well to known satellites so timing and directional aiming was used to narrow down the source.

By early January 2021, we were able to confirm the emissions where coming from Meridian 4, 6 and 8. Interestingly Meridian 7 as the plot above shows was not at the party. Also interesting was the fact the signal we where monitoring wasn’t a beacon, it was a retransmitted signal via a non-regenerative transponder; hence, the lack of Doppler fit success.

Over North America the transponder seemed largely empty except for what appears to be attenuated cellular signals at the lower end of the transponder and interestingly a SECAM TV channel. Later investigation revealed that this TV channel was coming from Turkmenistan. The SIGINT aspect of this story is a topic for another post…

On the Eurasian apogee reports came in that there was data traffic on the transponder. Indicating that what ever it’s purpose it was actively used. Observers in Europe remarked on the similarity to old Molniya-1T traffic.

Apparently by 1983 the Soviet Union had evolved the Molniya satellite system into two distinct models, Molniya-1T and -3. The latter was a TV broadcast satellite. The Molniya-1T purpose was to provide communications for the Strategic Rocket Forces using a codename “Korund-M”. This system included fixed and mobile ground stations as exampled by Central Satellite Communications Centre of the Strategic Missile Forces (product “Geyser” and the P-443 mobile complex)x.

As in the west, former soldiers often discuss military nostalgia online and in a thread “Korund-M” is discussed and referenced to the current Meridian satellite system that also used, yes you guessed it, a Molniya class orbit.

So it seems the “Korund” system still exists and that Meridian is providing services to the Russian strategic rocket forces.

As you will note after doing a bit of research these rocket forces heavily rely on mobile launchers.

RS-24 Yars missile system of the 39th Guards Missile Division during a command post exercise on September 29, 2017

These missile systems need mobile communications links and the Meridian satellites are outfitted to provide those links.

Realizations…

On February 24, 2022 Russia launched a “special military operation”against the country of Ukraine. As a result, I installed the appropriate feeds on my antennas and tuned into the Meridian satellite operations to observe their status. Normal activity was noted on all of the satellites except Meridian 4 and 7.

As noted earlier Meridian 7 seems to have an anomaly that unlike all the other Meridian satellites observed since the discovery of the 990MHz transponder it does not appear to operate there. Perhaps indication of a malfunction of that payload element.

Meridian 4 on the other hand was completely missing from all bands that it had been active on.

TLE data revealed that on January 27, 2022, Meridian 4 had experienced some sort of orbital change.

A call for optical observations was made and within a few days evidence Meridian 4 was tumbling in space was found. I.e. the satellite has either failed or its mission was intentionally ended. Oddly timed if your plan is to invade another country and place your nuclear deterrence forces on high alert, no?

Given these observations two Meridian satellites that provide half of the satellite constellation’s coverage on the 990MHz transponder, now known to be affiliated with the Russian militaries strategic rocket forces is unavailable to provide communications for a total of 12 hours a day. Given the context that Russian president Putin had ordered Russian nuclear deterrence forces to high alert on February 27, 2022 could make one wonder how a significant pillar of the Russian nuclear deterrence system can be on high alert given they lack 50% of the satellite coverage dedicated to their command and control.

Yes, of course Russia will have other means of communication. High frequency radio, landline links, GEO satellites in the south of Russia etc. But the idea that the mobile Russian rocket force doesn’t have 24/7 coverage to reliable satellite communications all over Russia especially if located at high latitudes is a reasonable assumption and could raise doubts about Russia’s true capabilities.

Meyer…

On the evening of March 7, 2022, I commented on a post on Twitter by the Director General of Roscosmos, Dmitry Olegovich Rogozin, @Rogozin, about repurposing Russian rockets to launch home-grown satellites in response to western sanctions. His response to my suggestion was this:

Hence, I look forward to Dmitry Meyer’s ballerina performance at the Bolshoi Theatre… Perhaps Meyer’s Trumpets will be sounding in Moscow for the performance?

Author: Scott Tilley

Amateur visual and radio astronomer, radio amateur VE7TIL

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