Soviet Satellites and Mapping

John Davies’ website has announced that his and Alexander Kent’s book The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World will be released by University of Chicago Press. Details for the book on the press website show 272 pages and 282 (!) colour plates and a publication month of October 2017. Having read what the authors have written elsewhere about Soviet maps, I’m really looking forward to the book. In particular, I’m hoping it will offer not just more information on how the Soviet military prepared their maps but also some insight into why and for who.

The technical military challenges that drove both American and Soviet cartographic projects during the Cold War were very similar, which leaves the differences in practice between them begging for explanation. Take, for example, the apparent difference in exploiting satellite geodesy. Both countries very swiftly exploited the fact that perturbations in satellite orbits revealed new details on gravity and, by extension, the shape of the earth. They also must have recognized that satellites made better targets for intercontinental triangulation than rockets, stars, or the sun and moon, all conventional targets at the time.

As a result, Sputnik effectively sidelined an American-led terrestrial program of geodetic measurements for the International Geophysical Year that had been under development since 1954. Led by William Markowitz of the US Naval Observatory, using dual-rate cameras of his own design, the program distributed cameras to observatories around the world to make simultaneous moon observations during 1957. Using an approach to triangulation similar to that used during eclipses, the promised precision was to within about 90 feet at each observatory. Uncertainties in the position of the moon meant the 1957 observations never delivered geodetic results, but more substantially the entire concept had been rendered obsolete.

Consequently, in addition to measurement projects that were added to other scientific satellites, the US launched its first dedicated geodetic satellite in 1962. ANNA-1B was a joint Department of Defense-NASA project that carried instruments to enable both triangulation and trilateration. Its launch came only two years after the US lofted its first photo-reconnaissance satellite, which makes sense because both satellites were part of the effort to find and target Soviet strategic missiles.

Intriguingly, then, it was six more years before the Soviet Union launched its own dedicated geodetic satellite. The first of the Sfera series (Russian for “Geoid”) satellites (11F621) flew in 1968, launched from the rocket base at Pleketsk. Built by design bureau OKB-10 on the popular KAUR satellite bus, the Sfera satellites were equipped with lights and radio transmitters similar to those on ANNA-1B. Operational flights ran from 1973 to 1980.

A similar difference was apparent in the case of satellites equipped with cameras for mapping, as opposed to high-resolution reconnaissance photography. A dedicated mapping satellite was among the planned elements of the first US reconnaissance satellite system, the Air Force’s SAMOS (or Satellite and Missile Observation System). That camera, the E-4, never flew, but the Army’s very similar project ARGON was grafted onto the CIA Corona program. ARGON was rendered obsolete by the inclusion of small mapping cameras on subsequent satellite systems but after ARGON’s first launch in 1961 – only one year after the very first US reconnaissance satellite – the US was never without a mapping capacity in orbit.

In the USSR, on the other hand, the first dedicated mapping satellite came quite late. The Zenit-4MT, program name Orion (11F629), was a variant of the main Soviet series of photo-reconnaissance satellites. First launched in 1971 and accepted into operational service in 1976, Orion began flying nine years after the first Soviet photo-reconnaissance satellite was launched. Unlike the Americans, who integrated mapping cameras into other photo-reconnaissance satellites, the Soviets seem to have continued to fly dedicated cartographic systems for the remainder of the Cold War (this is early 2000s information, so it may be obsolete now). Zenit-4MT (Orion) was followed in the early 1980s by the Yantar-1KFT, program name Siluet/Kometa (11F660), a system which combined the propulsion and instrument modules of the latest Soviet photo-reconnaissance satellite with the descent canister from the Zenit-4MT. Flying alongside Kometa was an upgraded Zenit, the Zenit-8, program name Oblik, an interim design introduced because of delays in the former.

I hope The Red Atlas or someone else can explain more about what was happening here, because it certainly looks like the Soviet Union was making very different decisions from the Americans when it came to satellite geodesy and cartography.

Source Notes: Information on Soviet satellites comes from a range of sources, much of it in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. For the Orion series, Philip S. Clark, “Orion: The First Soviet Cartographic Satellites,” JBIS vol. 54 (2001), pp. 417–23. For Siluet/Kometa, Philip S. Clark, “Classes of Soviet/Russian Photoreconnaissance Satellites,”JBIS vol. 54 (2001), pp. 344–650. On the launch of Sfera from Pleketsk, Bart Hendrickx,”Building a Rocket Base in the Taiga: The Early Years of the Plesetsk Launch Site (1955-1969) (Part 2),” JBIS vol. 66, Supplement 2 (2013), pp. 220 (and online). For the Markowitz moon camera, Steven J.  Dick, “Geodesy, Time, and the Markowitz Moon Camera Program: An Interwoven International Geophysical Year Story,” in Globalizing Polar Science: Reconsidering the International Polar and Geophysical Years, edited by Roger D. Launius, James Roger Fleming, and David H. DeVorkin (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

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