Some newly uncovered information suggests that:
a) Cosmos-2521 likely has the same design as three inspector satellites launched as piggyback payloads on the Rokot booster in 2013-2015 (Cosmos-2491, 2499, 2504) and that all these are part of project Nivelir.
b) Burevestnik (presumably a co-orbital ASAT system) may use the same bus as the inspector satellites
c) all these satellites are built by the Central Scientific Research Institute of Chemistry and Mechanics (ЦНИИХМ, transliterated either as TsNIIKhM or CNIIHM).
These conclusions are largely based on a number of patents filed by TsNIIKhM which in turn led to other sources of information.
One of the patents (placed online in July 2018) provides a strong clue that the Rokot-launched inspectors are a product of TsNIIKhM (their manufacturer had not been identified before). With TsNIIKhM already known to be a key player in Nivelir (see earlier posts here), this probably means that the inspectors launched by Rokot and the inspector deployed fr om Cosmos-2519 (Cosmos-2521) are the same type of satellite (one single company is unlikely to have built two different types of inspectors). This is also backed up by the fact that identical radio signals were picked up fr om the satellites (see Reply 239 in this thread) as well as by other evidence presented later in this post.
The patent in question is here:
English machine translation:
It deals with a new method of performing ground-based test firings of satellite thrusters. The authors describe how this method can be applied to test firings of the K50-10.6 thrusters, which are thermal catalytic engines (monopropellant hydrazine thrusters) of the OKB Fakel design bureau. This most probably means that TsNIIKhM was involved in those test firings. The only satellites known to have carried these engines so far are Cosmos-2499 and Cosmos-2504, which rendezvoused with the Briz-KM upper stage that placed them into orbit. See this list of flown OKB Fakel engines on Fakel’s website:
The first of the Rokot-launched inspectors (Cosmos-2491) is not in the list. There is no clear evidence that it performed maneuvers, meaning that either it did not have an operational engine unit or that its engine unit failed. The list does contain a satellite named Cosmos-2491 launched on 24 March 2014, but this is actually a Glonass satellite that was called Cosmos-2492.
Cosmos-2521 (also likely to have the K50-10.6 thrusters) is not in the list either, but it was published shortly before the satellite’s release from Cosmos-2519 and has not been updated since. Cosmos-2519, the “parent satellite” built by NPO Lavochkin, [I]is[/I] listed. It has a different type of hydrazine-fueled thermal catalytic thruster called K50-10.5.
Performance data for the K50-10.6 thruster are given on the OKB Fakel website (see attachment 1).
While these thrusters may not seem powerful enough to account for the maneuvers performed by the inspector satellites, the satellites are so small that they are unlikely to have a second propulsion system. A probable clue as to how they made those maneuvers comes in two other patents as well as a handful of papers published by TsNIIKhM. All of their authors (Sergei Ulybyshev, Aleksandr Glushkov and Taras Gavrilenko) were also involved in the patent that mentions the test firings of the K50-10.6 thruster.
(patent published in January 2016). English machine translation:
(patent published in July 2016). English machine translation:
(paper presented at a conference in September 2015, full version available for registered users of elibrary.ru)
(paper published in 2018) (English abstract at the end of the article)
(paper published in 2018)
These are all very technical with lots of mathematical formulae, but they seem to describe a fuel-efficient way of performing orbital maneuvers by carrying out short intermittent burns rather than one single long burn. Schematic representations of satellites published in these patents and papers may very well show the configuration of thrusters and reaction wheels on the inspector satellites (see attachments 2 and 3). The conference paper presented in September 2015 says the use of thrusters in this specific mode had already been tested in flight, “confirming the results of the mathematical simulations”. This must refer to either Cosmos-2499 or 2504 or to both.
Although none of these patents and papers mention orbital rendezvous or inspection, Glushkov and Gavrilenko did present papers related to orbital inspection at conferences back in 2012 and 2013, showing that they were involved in the development of the inspectors at an early stage.
(2012 conference, see p. 67-68)
(2013 conference, see p. 41-42)
Yet another patent published by TsNIIKhM in February 2018 has made it possible to identify the propellant tank that feeds the K50-10.6 thrusters of the inspector satellites.
(English machine translation)
The patent is about pressure relief valves. While it belongs to TsNIIKhM, a further check shows that the authors are actually affiliated with NIIMash (Scientific Research Institute of Machine Building) in Nizhnyaya Salda. NIIMash is best known as a manufacturer of small satellite thrusters, but also builds propellant tanks, not only for its own engines, but also for engines produced by other companies. The link between NIIMash and TsNIIKhM becomes clear in a paper co-authored by three of the patent holders (Sergei Buldashev, Yuri Arkhipov and Aleksandr Volkov) and presented at a conference organized by NPO Lavochkin in early September 2017.
(This is an abstract of the paper. The full version can be downloaded by registered users of elibrary.ru)
It includes this excerpt:
Бак МВСК84 также прошел полныи цикл наземнои отработки и в настоящее время проходит летные испытания в составе ДУ разработки ОКБ «Факел» (КА разработки ФГУП «ЦНИИХМ»).
“The tank MVSK84 has undergone a full cycle of ground tests and is currently undergoing flight tests as part of an engine unit developed by OKB Fakel ([on] a satellite/satellites designed by FGUP TsNIIKhM”).
The authors use the abbreviation KA (“space apparatus”) for “satellite” and therefore it is not clear if the word is used here in the singular or the plural. They are presumably referring to the Rokot-launched inspectors and/or Cosmos-2521, which was released from Cosmos-2519 in late August 2017, shortly before the paper was given. This excerpt is also significant in that it finally confirms earlier speculation in this thread that TsNIIKhM is indeed a satellite manufacturer/integrator and not just a supplier of subsystems.
Data for the MVSK84 tank are given in the paper and also on the website of NIIMash (see attachment 4):
The paper says the tank can store nitrogen tetroxide, UDMH or hydrazine, but the website mentions only hydrazine, adding that the tank is designed for a monopropellant engine system (and K50-10.6 is exactly such a system). Its mass is “no more than 2.5 kg” and it has a capacity of just over 8 liters.
A subsequent search on the procurement website zakupki.gov.ru turned up two contracts related to the MVSK84 tank which show that it will be used for two [I]different[/I] projects:
Published in March 2014. It has a draft contract between NIIMash and OAO Kompozit on materials to be used for the production of the MVSK84 tank. The project is not mentioned.
Published in June 2018. This has a draft contract between OKB Fakel and NIIMash for the delivery of an MVSK84 tank by 31 October 2018. The project name is given as Nivelir-DU (DU stands for [I]dvigatel’naya ustanovka [/I]or “engine unit”).
The documentation released on Nivelir-DU in June 2018 says the contract is based on the following contracts:
30 September 2011 : GNTTs Garant – TsNIIKhM (nr. 102/18/2011)
1 December 2011 : TsNIIKhM – OKB Fakel (nr. 516/11/840-G)
Other contracts identified for Nivelir in the same timeframe are:
21 November 2011 : TsNIIKhM – OKB MEI (for an on-board radio system)
1 December 2011 : TsNIIKhM – NPO Lavochkin
(see earlier posts here)
The documentation published in March 2014 refers back to [I]other [/I]contracts:
1 September 2011 : GNTTs Garant – FGUP KBM (nr. 097/18/2011)
30 September 2011 : FGUP KBM – TsNIIKhM (nr. 804-G)
15 December 2011 : TsNIIKhM – OKB Fakel (nr. 514/1/895-G)
15 December 2011 : OKB Fakel – NIIMash (nr. 20/1-012/014/2011)
The involvement of FGUP KBM suggests that this contract is for Burevestnik, the presumed co-orbital ASAT system. FGUP KBM (later renamed NPK KBM) (the Design Bureau of Machine Building in Kolomna) is so far not known to have a role in Nivelir, but it did sign contracts for Burevestnik in June 2014 and December 2015 (see the first posts in the Burevestnik thread). There is also plenty of evidence for TsNIIKhM’s involvement in Burevestnik (also see the Burevestnik thread).
If the March 2014 documentation is indeed about Burevestnik, that would mean that Nivelir and Burevestnik have an identical propellant tank, a strong indication that the two use the same propulsion system and the same bus. Other procurement documentation published in July 2016 had already shown that Burevestnik is supposed to carry an engine system of OKB Fakel:
The contract (for “Burevestnik-KA-M-DU”) is for the delivery of polyimide film to OKB Fakel (probably to protect the satellite structure from the engine’s exhaust products) but does not specify the type of engine. My earlier guess was this was for one of Fakel’s stationary plasma thrusters, but the presence of a hydrazine tank would rule out that idea. Most likely, Burevestnik will use the same thermal catalytic thrusters as Nivelir. As explained earlier here, a further link between Nivelir and Burevestnik is the construction of a joint ground control facility (1009/5) for the two projects near Russia's space surveillance headquarters in Noginsk-9.
The preliminary conclusion from all this new evidence is that in September 2011 Russia initiated two projects, Nivelir (likely for orbital inspection) and Burevestnik (likely a co-orbital ASAT system). All the satellites were to be built by TsNIIKhM and use a common bus with K50-10.6 thermal catalytic thrusters of OKB Fakel and an MVSK84 hydrazine tank of NIIMash.
Apparently, it was decided to carry out the Nivelir project in two stages. In the first stage, the satellites would fly on the Rokot booster and use the Briz-KM upper stage as a passive target for rendezvous and proximity operations. In the second stage, the target would be a satellite built by NPO Lavochkin. The contract for that phase of the project was signed between TsNIIKhM and NPO Lavochkin on 1 December 2011, with Lavochkin acting as a subcontractor to TsNIIKhM. Documentation related to the NPO Lavochkin satellite uses the production code 14F150 and the name Nivelir-L, wh ere the “L” likely stands for “Lavochkin”. The production code for the TsNIIKhM inspector satellites is probably 14F153, which was used in one official document for Cosmos-2504, the last of the Rokot-launched inspectors. Therefore, Cosmos-2519 would seem to be the first 14F150 satellite and Cosmos-2521 the fourth 14F153 satellite.
Meanwhile, it is now clear that a second mission similar to the current one is being prepared for launch. There is procurement documentation for a satellite called 14F150 N2 and the contract signed between OKB Fakel and NIIMash in 2018 shows that a new TsNIIKhM inspector satellite (which would be 14F153 nr. 5) is also under construction. Most likely, the two will be launched together, possibly on the Soyuz-2-1v that is scheduled for launch later this year. As I explained in Reply 325, one of the objectives for the next mission may be to test a stealthy type of material (developed by NII Ferrit-Domen) that will make the inspector satellite more difficult to spot both visually and by radar.
The biggest mystery of the current mission remains Cosmos-2523, the subsatellite that separated from Cosmos-2521 in October 2017, immediately lowered its perigee by 100 km and then remained inert. The single burn it did may point to the use of a solid-fuel propulsion system. TsNIIKhM is known to have studied small solid-propellant engines for cubesat-sized satellites, but it is questionable if these would be capable of performing such a significant maneuver. Possibly, Cosmos-2523 is the satellite called “Napryazheniye” (“Tension” or “Voltage”) which first appears in Russian documentation in 2012 and is sometimes mentioned along with Nivelir as well as Burevestnik.
Last August a US official described Cosmos-2523’s behavior as “inconsistent with anything seen before from on-orbit inspection or space situational awareness capabilities” and alluded to the fact that its mission may be related to space weapons development. That concern may have been sparked in part by the fact that Cosmos-2523 was separated from Cosmos-2521 when the latter was still orbiting in the immediate vicinity of Cosmos-2519 (the two satellites parted company for several months after that). Possibly, DoD interpreted this as a possible simulated ASAT attack by Cosmos-2523 on Cosmos-2519, even though the maneuver resulted in Cosmos-2523 winding up in an orbit with a much lower perigee.
Finally, the available procurement documentation shows that the organizational background of these projects is totally different from that of most traditional military space projects, wh ere the Ministry of Defense awards a contract to a prime contractor operating under the wings of Roscosmos. GNTTs Garant, the organization that awarded the original contracts for both Nivelir and Burevestnik, is a complete mystery. NPK KBM, which seems to play a leading role in Burevestnik, is a weapon manufacturer that is not known to have worked on space projects earlier.
TsNIIKhM traces back its history to 1894 and in the Soviet days was a major manufacturer of ammunition, explosives and solid propellants. Its only known role in the Soviet space program was the delivery of explosive devices for the IS anti-satellite system. In 2005 TsNIIKhM became subordinate to the Federal Service for Technical and Export Control (FSTEK), a Ministry of Defense agency tasked with protecting state secrets and countering cyber espionage. The institute’s responsibilities were apparently further expanded in 2009, when according to its website it became “the Ministry of Defense’s leading institute for the development of promising weapons including new types of ordnance, rocket propellants and explosive devices” and began carrying out “research in key areas of weapon modernization”. Apparently, that expansion of responsibilities also included a key role in top-secret military space projects for orbital inspection and satellite negation.
Hidden behind a thick veil of secrecy, TsNIIKhM seems to be evolving into one of Russia’s most important satellite manufacturers outside the structure of Roscosmos. There is evidence that the company is working on several other secret space projects [I]besides [/I]Nivelir and Burevestnik, but I will write about those later.