Russian satellite network to close NSR communication gaps

Russian icebreaker Vladimir Ignatyuk in the McMurdo Sound in Antarctica. Credit: National Science Foundation

Russia plans to launch five satellites between 2018 and 2022 to establish a “comprehensive communications system” for the Northern Sea Route (NSR).

These new satellites compose of a Highly Elliptical Orbit (HEO) communications system, which Nikolay Nikiforov, the communications minister of Russia, stressed will be “highly-effective”. While circular orbits are typically used for satellites, elliptical orbits, which follow the long curve of an ellipse, allow satellites to dwell for longer amounts of time at a point in the sky during the approach to, and descent from, the furthest point from the Earth, or apogee. This means that polar and high latitude areas can be covered.

The Russian space communication system currently operating in the Arctic employs 12 satellites and covers 40% of the territory. This will grow to 100% when the HEO system is in place.

The project is estimated to cost Rub62 billion (USD1 billion), plus Rub12.7 billion (USD200 million) for operational maintenance of the system from 2022 to 2032, Nikiforov estimated. The federal budget will issue money to launch the project, while the operational costs should be covered from customer fees.

The development should gradually improve safety on the NSR for Russian vessels, as there will no longer be a communications “blind area” in the Arctic, commented Dmitry Rogozin, the vice prime minister of Russia. Currently, Russian shipping companies must purchase information from Western communication service providers to monitor ice and other conditions, he said.

The Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations said all vessels operating in the area could use the HEO system for emergency communications if needed. Rogizin added that it is expected that the improved communication system will boost the development of the NSR.

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