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Plesetsk Cosmodrome
Plesetsk Cosmodrome

Credit: (c) Mark Wade. 13,822 bytes. 448 x 466 pixels.

Operator: Russia. Country: Russia. Latitude: 62.70 N. Longitude: 40.35 E. Minimum Inclination: 62.0 degrees. Maximum Inclination: 83.0 degrees.

Plesetsk was the Soviet Union's northern cosmodrome, used for polar orbit launches of mainly military satellites, and was at one time the busiest launch centre in the world. The collapse of the Soviet Union put the main launch site of Baikonur in Kazakh territory. It now seems that once the Proton rocket is retired, Baikonur will be abandoned and Plesetsk will be Russia's primary launch centre. Upgrades to existing launch facilities will allow advanced versions of the Soyuz rocket and the new Angara launch vehicle to be launched from Plesetsk. Plesetsk's major drawback was the lower net payload in geosynchronous orbit from a northern latitude launch site. However Russia is planning to remove the disadvantage by looping geosynchronous satellites around the moon, using lunar gravity to make the necessary orbital plane change.

Plesetsk began as the world's first ICBM base in 1959. Construction of four massive R-7 Angara integrated launch complexes began in 1959 (numbered SK-1 to SK-4). They were first on full alert from September 11 to November 21, 1961, during the Cuban missile crisis.

Meanwhile, future space plans indicated the need for a launch site that could reach militarily useful polar orbits, inaccessible from Baikonur. Galaktin Yeliseyevich Alpaidze lad the expedition to select the site for the Northern Cosmodrome at the beginning of 1962. In December 1962 Plesetsk was selected. The decree was issued on 2 January 1963. Korolev was personally involved in the decision.

A major defect at the Baikonur cosmodrome was that the living quarters were 30 km from the technical positions, forcing the workers to commute 3 to 4 hours a day and requiring many motor vehicles. This was rectified from the beginning at Plesetsk by locating the living quarters only 1 to 2 km from the technical positions. This population centre was named Mirniy.

Mirniy is linked by train to the launch complexes, 36 km away. The left flank of the launch complex array is on the Yemtsa River, and consists of four launch complexes for Soyuz and Molniya launch vehicles, analogous to the R-7 Semyorka launch facilities at Baikonur. The satellite payloads for these pads are prepared and integrated in Mirniy. On the right flank of Plesetsk is the Kosmos-3 Voskhod launch complex, two Chusovaya launch complexes at LC-132 for Kosmos-3M, and until 1974 the Raduga launch complex at LC-133 for the Kosmos-2M. Living areas for the launch service staff are near the pads, together with a nitrogen-oxygen plant, guidance stations, a work management centre, tracking stations, the railroad yard, and a communications centre.

MirniyMirniy - Mirniy, town serving workers at the Plesetsk cosmodrome.

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Through good planning from the beginning the cosmodrome was very comfortable. Mirniy is a planned city in the taiga forest, with decent housing, excellent sports and recreation complexes,; fantastic food and juice factories, movie theatres, officer's clubs, a cultural centre, stores, hotels, playgrounds, memorials, and parks. In 1966 Mirniy obtained city status and the population eventually reached 80,000, not counting military staff. It is served by the Pevo Airport. Chief of the cosmodrome for the first 13 years was Glaktion Yehseyevich Alpaidze; first commander of the forces at Plesetsk from 1966 to 1973 was V I Voznyuk.

The first generation R-7 ICBM's already at Plesetsk were soon obsolete. The Yangel R-16U missile with its storable propellants could be launched in three hours from the go command, compared to 12 hours for the R-7 and R-9 Lox/Kerosene missiles. By 1968 all four Angara launch complexes had been taken out of service and were converted to space launch complexes.

The first to be converted was SK-1, renamed LC-41/1. By December 1965 it underwent two test exercises leading to the first space launch from Plesetsk on 17 March 1966. It was modernised in 1976 and finally disassembled in 1981, having been used for 2 R-7A ICBM and 308 R-7 space launches. The last launch from this pad was the Bion launch of 15 September 1989. Reconstruction of SK-1, for use in launch of the modernised Soyuz-2 launch vehicle, began in 1997.

SK-2 (later LC-16/2) was disassembled in 1966 and used to reconstruct LC-31 at Baikonur, which had been badly damaged in the explosion of the booster after an on-pad booster shutdown. It was rebuilt in 1979-1981, with the first launch on 19 February 1981.

SK-3 (renamed LC-43/3) was first used in 1970-1973 but was badly damaged in a rocket explosion on 18 June 1987. After restoration it returned to service in December 1988.

SK-4 (renamed LC-43/4) was used continuously from 1970 until it burned down in the failed launch of a Tselina-D ELINT satellite on 18 March 1980. It was restored to service in April 1983.

A new category of orbital launcher was added when in March 1967 the LC-133 'Raduga' complex for the Kosmos-2 light launch vehicle became operational. Up to its closure in 1977 164 launches were made.

The more powerful Kosmos-3 launch vehicle was first launched at Plesetsk from 1967 to 1969 from the LC-131 'Voskhod' complex. It was then replaced by more permanent facilities at LC-132 for the Kosmos-3M version of the vehicle.

The Tsyklon-3 medium launch vehicle was based on the Tsiklon-2 but featured automatic launch features. Launch complex 32 for the Tsiklon-3 began construction at the beginning of the 1970's at Plesetsk. The first pad was put into operation in 1977 and the second in 1979. This launch complex was developed by KB Transmash Minoshchemash, Chief Designer V N Solovyov.

Additional launch sites at Plesetsk were used for suborbital sounding rocket launches and tests of military missiles. Among these are the LC-158 used for RT-2PM ICBM tests and Start orbital launches.

In the 1980's work began on launch complex 35 for the new medium Zenit launch vehicle. This was not completed before the fall of the Soviet Union. Work was then abandoned since the rocket was built by a company now in the Ukraine, making it unsuitable for military use. The pad is now to be completed for use with the new all-Russian Angara rocket.

In the second half of the 1960's a total of six technical complexes were built, and two more were completed in the 1970's. From March 1966 to the end of the century over 1,500 orbital launches were made from Plesetsk, including the 'jubilee' launches of Cosmos 1000, 1500 and 2000.

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Last update 12 March 2001.
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© Mark Wade, 2001 .