Electric eye in the sky: A brief overview of the Russian satellite constellation in the Arctic
The Arctic Ocean from a space perspective1 july 2023
On 28 February 2021, Russia launched the Arktik-M satellite. This is the first spacecraft of a new satellite constellation that will monitor events in the North Sea Route in real time. A total of nine tracking stations are planned to be delivered into orbit. They will provide radar surveillance, distribute the Internet and, of course, explore the Arctic. Today, the Russian space industry is implementing a massive project to conquer the unpredictable and dangerous element—the sky over the Arctic Ocean.
First to go!
The Arktik-M satellite carries two MSU-GSM complexes, each equipped with visible spectral range modules, thermal infrared range modules and a control unit. They transmit images to Earth in real time, capturing the polar regions from different angles. Thanks to its highly elliptical orbit, the Arktik-M satellite was able to monitor polar areas that are virtually inaccessible to conventional meteorological satellites, as well as provide all-weather monitoring. Two satellites in orbit are needed to give a complete picture - they will alternate, monitoring weather changes along the entire North Sea Route. The second spacecraft is scheduled for launch in December 2023, TASS reported, citing Government materials. And in the future, the number of Arctic-Ms will increase to four.
By 2024, three more satellites—two Kondor-FKA and one Obzor-RV—will be on 'polar watch.' The first Kondor left for orbit on 27 May this year and is now confidently transmitting photographs to the ground. It can take images with a resolution of up to 1 m, and in overview mode, it can survey an area up to 120 km wide. The Kondors enable detailed real-time monitoring of ice conditions and even take part in search and rescue operations. When the second Kondor enters orbit, the basis for the 'ice navigator' operation will be in place—consecutive flights over the same region will allow tracking of the dynamics of ice movements, including predicting its course.
The Obzor-R is a radar satellite that surveys the Earth's surface with a resolution of up to 1 m. It is equipped with an APAA-based locator, an active phased array antenna. Around-the-clock all-weather surveillance will be conducted not only for the benefit of the nuclear fleet but also for the EMERCOM, to whom the device will report on possible weather threats, man-made disasters and, of course, to help look for ships stranded in the ice.
In addition to surveillance, the North Sea Route will receive satellite Internet in 2026. It will be provided by four Express-RV satellites. In 2023, Roscosmos announced the construction of a ground complex, which will include ground stations, subscriber terminals and other useful equipment. Broadband Internet should be available along the entire route of the ships, which means a de facto revolution in Arctic navigation.
From an extreme trail on the edge of the world, the North Sea Route will be transformed into a route that is as safe and predictable as can be. By the way, Express-RV will distribute satellite Internet to the rest of the country as well.
A prerequisite for space meteorology
The formation of a national satellite constellation in the Arctic is one of the most important conditions for ensuring the safety of the North Sea Route. Until recently, the line services had to buy satellite weather data from abroad, with a three-day delay. This was not enough, as until now, no country has been able to establish a sustained satellite constellation over the polar regions of our planet. By 2026, Russia will hold the second unique key to the Arctic (the first is a nuclear-powered fleet). The cost of all the activities carried out and to be carried out will be around RUB 151 bn.
Against the background of the potential benefits of the North Sea Route and the ongoing Arctic projects, however, this figure looks quite affordable. At the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Aleksey Chekunkov, Minister for the Development of the Russian Far East and Arctic, estimated the potential of the North Sea Route at trillions of roubles. Once fully operational, he said, the route would carry up to 200 mn tons a year, which generates new financial flows to the budget, salaries and taxes of about $200 bn.