Three days before Christmas, Satan will rise on a column of flame over Russia. But instead of death for millions, the event should mark an amazing conversion of Cold War swords into plowshares.
“Satan” is the NATO code name for the SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missile. The Soviet Union built and deployed hundreds of SS-18s in underground silos east of the Ural Mountains, and 130 remain on active duty at three bases. They each carried up to 10 thermonuclear warheads. But now the aging missiles are being decommissioned, and some of them are being converted to commercial space launch vehicles.
Within a few years, with an added third-stage engine, such missiles will be able to send small payloads to the moon, Mars and beyond.
Military missile milestone
This particular blastoff is unusual because it will come from the military missile base of the 13th Missile Division at Dombarovsky, east of Orenburg, near the Kazakh border. It’s been almost 20 years since such a missile has blasted off from any military base, and this base has never made such a launch.
Russia’s missile commander, Col. Gen. Nikolai Solovtsov, told journalists last week that on Dec. 22 his Strategic Missile Forces would “carry out a training launch from the silo where it is on combat station,” although the warhead would be “replaced by a training weight.”
The launch will be aimed at the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East. Subsequent launchings will head south over the Kazakh steppes, across the Persian Gulf, and into orbit. The mission profile is similar to launches from Russia's main space center, the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan.
“If the experiment is successful,” Solovtsov continued, “we can move all launches of this type of rocket from Baikonur to Russia.” Transporting the missiles from their deployment area to existing launch sites is a complex and expensive task.
Besides, the Kazakh government has recently begun to pressure Russia to restrict launchings with the highly toxic fuels such as those used by the Satan missile. Further use of Baikonur may require larger and larger "licensing fees" (read: bureacratic payoffs), so a launch base without enforced environmental regulations must be found soon.
Getting American attention
An arms control expert in the State Department, speaking with MSNBC.com on condition of anonymity, said the upcoming launch “doesn’t surprise us.” Disarmament treaties allow just such conversion activities, and the Russians already have launched several decommissioned Satan missiles into orbit from Baikonur, carrying payloads for paying customers.
The expert said U.S.-Russian arms agreements call for 24-hour advance warnings of such launches, and a Russian advisory on the upcoming launch is expected early next week. Observers expect that U.S. satellites and ground radar installations in Alaska will be watching the launch with more than routine interest, since it might provide a detectable signature unique to military base launchings.
Military launches from actual operational silos are rare. “They traditionally launch once from an operational silo each time a new modification is deployed,” the State Department expert said. The most recent Soviet launch of this type was in 1988. Even though the purpose of such launches may be peaceful, they still have some military benefit because they verify the operational status of other missiles that are still on "combat duty."
International law and profits
A small Russian-Ukrainian company named Kosmotras has sold and launched four of the converted Satan rockets over the past several years, under the name Dnepr. They carried small science satellites for international clients, including Americans. But these flights were made from the regular space range at Baikonur.
Ukrainian engineers are involved because the missiles were originally manufactured at the Yuzhmash factory in the Ukrainian city of Dnepropetrovsk. The company gets the missiles at essentially no cost (they save the government the cost of disposing of them), and Kosmotras pays only for customizing the guidance software, providing the small "kick stage," buying the fuel and servicing the launch. The missiles can handle payloads weighing up to 4 tons, and so far they have carried flocks of research microsatellites into low Earth orbit.
This month, Vladislav Solovey, the chief of Kosmotras' marketing department, told journalists that testing would begin next year on an improved upper stage that could put half-ton payloads into high geosynchronous orbits, or send them to the moon and beyond.
The first orbital flights from the Dombarovsky base would go into what are called sun-synchronous polar orbits — the preferred paths for weather satellites and ground imaging systems, both military and civilian. However, Kosmotras doesn't yet have paying customers firmly signed up for either the moon or the sun-synchronous destinations. A commercial lunar probe known as the TrailBlazer is supposed to use a Dnepr booster, but a firm launch date has not been set.
Not welcome in Kazakhstan
The shift to Dombarovsky is part of Russia's larger strategy to bring more of its launch operations back with its own borders. During the Soviet era, Moscow could depend on Baikonur to serve as the main launch center. Today, however, the facility sits within an independent country that is still suffering a huge environmental hangover caused by past Soviet excesses.
Kazakh authorities have called a halt to Russian military test launches at Baikonur, but the commercial Dnepr program was allowed to continue — after Kosmotras made the Kazakh government a partner in the company and granted government officials roughly 5 percent of the earnings. Even so, the converted Satans won't have permission to fly from Baikonur forever.
Col. Gen. Solovtsov began discussions about using the Dombarovsky silos by early 2003, according to Russian journalist Andrey Dneprov. The local governor was brought on board with the promise of another cut of the company’s profits, which were guaranteed only if no environmental impact assessment was made, Dneprov said.
After this month's eastbound test launch this month, commercial flights will be made to the south. The first stage, with up to a ton of unburned toxic fuels, will fall in Turkmenistan. A waiver on environmental constraints was obtained from Turkmenistan, Dneprov reported, by paying $100,000 and promising to attach the Turkmen president's personal emblem to all future rockets.
Compared with the death-dealing potential of the nuclear-armed Satan missile, these human hazards are small — but not zero. Still, if the missiles are to fly at all, carrying peaceful commercial payloads is by far the better alternative.