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Unmanned Space Programs Activities 1957-1983

Executive Summary

Since 1976 when the last edition of this study was published, the Soviet Union has continued its unmanned space programs for Earth orbital science, planetary exploration, space applications, and national security, but there have been few great strides. Rather, it has been a period of steady evolution of the satellites used for these purposes.

Of the various types of space activities addressed in this study, the most controversial have certainly become those which support national security goals, with a growing worldwide debate over the "militarization of space." In some minds, this is a debate over whether or not there should be weapons in space; in others, it concerns whether there should be any military uses of space, aggressive or nonaggressive. In general, however, it is the issue of space weapons which has received the most attention.

The Soviet Union has been testing an antisatellite [ASAT] device since 1968, and in 1977, the United States declared the Soviet system operational. In response, the U.S. initiated development of its own ASAT, and called on the Soviet Union to negotiate over

limiting such weapons. Three rounds of talks were held from 1978 to 1979, but they were not resumed following the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan in December 1979.

During the next several years, the expanding budgets for U.S. military space activities and the continuing development of the U.S. ASAT prompted concern in the United States and abroad over what was viewed as the increasing military involvement in space, particularly for weapons purposes. Then, in March 1983, President Reagan began a chain of events which ignited the debate not only about ASAT's, which attack satellites, but the prospects for a space-based ballistic missile defense [BMD] system for attacking ICBM's and SLBM's enroute to their targets.

In a nationally televised address on March 23, 1983, President Reagan called on the scientific community which had developed nuclear weapons to now develop a system to render those weapons "impotent and obsolete." His advisers indicated that one possibility would be to base directed energy weapons (lasers or particle beams) in space to intercept nuclear missiles during boost phase. Thus, the President's idea became known as "Star Wars," conjuring up images of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, even though the President himself had said nothing about where such a ballistic missile defense system would be based. Also, the President initiated only a research program (formally called the Strategic Defense Initiative) and did not make a decision to develop, test or deploy a BMD system. Nevertheless, the ensuing debate focused on the technological and cost implications of deploying a space-based BMD system, and interest naturally grew in what the Soviets were doing in the area of military space operations in general, and space weapons in particular.

The United States and Soviet Union use space for essentially the same military functions, and have done so since the beginning of the space program. Both have military communications, reconnaissance, navigation, meteorological, and geodesy and mapping satellites, and both have or have had space weapons. Although space weapons have become a topic of widespread interest only in the past 2 or 3 years, they have been part of the space program since at least 1959 when the United States launched a missile from an aircraft to intercept a U.S. satellite. Although that program was cancelled, the United States did have an operational ASAT system using ground-launched missiles from 1964 to 1975.

The Soviet Union may have had an ASAT capability as early as 1962 using the Galosh antiballistic missile system deployed around Moscow, because during that year Nikita Khrushchev announced that they had a missile that could "hit a fly in outer space." In any case, they began orbital testing of their current ASAT system in 1968, and 20 tests of the system had been made by the end of 1983. It is this system which the United States declared operational in 1977.

Thus, it is not fair to claim that either side is single-handedly responsible for "militarizing" space, whether that term is used generically to refer to any military activity in space (such as communications), or just to weapons systems. This does not make the debate over the militarization of space any less important, but should place the issue in a broader perspective.

It is not within the purview of this report to enter into the debate concerning space-based BMD, other than to say that it can safely be assumed that the Soviet Union is aware of the advantages (and disadvantages) of developing such a system, and is performing some amount of research in these technology areas. From the unclassified literature, there is no evidence that they have consolidated research activities into an equivalent of the SDI Program, however.

The Soviets have shown interest in negotiating a treaty to ban weapons from space, as has the United States. The initial negotiations over ASAT's resulted from a U.S. initiative. Two years after they ended, the Soviets introduced a draft treaty at the United Nations which would have banned the stationing of weapons in outer space (and therefore would not have affected either the operational Soviet ASAT System or the U.S. ASAT system in development). In August 1983, 5 months after President Reagan's "Star Wars address, the Soviets introduced another draft treaty to ban the use of force in space, which would include ASAT's and space-based BMD, and instituted a unilateral ASAT testing moratorium (without admitting that they already had an ASAT system).

p>At the end of 1983, no negotiations were in progress between the two countries or at a multilateral level, and the debate over space weapons continued at a high pitch.

Although space weapons have occupied the public mind in recent years, the other unmanned activities, space science and space applications, should not be overlooked. In the Soviet program, space science activities continued at a modest pace, and in space applications, significant progress was made in communications and navigation satellites.

Only one more Soviet lunar probe was launched—Luna 24 which returned a third sample from the surface of the Moon. Like the United States, the Soviet Union seems to have temporarily lost interest in sending spacecraft to Earth's only natural satellite. No more attempts were made to send spacecraft to Mars, although the Soviets have indicated that they may do so in 1988. No Soviet attempts were made to send spacecraft to Mercury, Jupiter, or Saturn, planets to which U.S. probes have been sent already. Since 1976, only Venus has been visited by Soviet probes, and a total of eight were launched. The results from the Venus probes have been very good, but the limited scale of the Soviet planetary effort remains quite evident.

The unmanned Soviet Earth Orbital Science Program also continued on a modest scale, although the launch of two observatory class satellites in 1983 (Astron and Prognoz 9) may signify an increased interest in such missions. Few observatory class scientific payloads have been launched in the Soviet program, although the United States has had several major series of these satellites.

The scarcity of unmanned Earth Orbital Space Science Programs is somewhat mitigated by the research which can be performed on the Salyut space stations (see part 2 of this study), but it would appear that the lack of an organization like NASA to support space science in the Soviet Union has relegated it to a comparatively minor role in the overall program.

The most notable gains in the area of unmanned space applications in the Soviet program has been in utilization of geostationary orbit for communications satellites, initiation of the GLONASS navigation satellite system, and the use of a side-looking radar for ocean monitoring, although it should be noted that two other space applications areas, remote sensing and space manufacturing, have achieved substantial results in the manned program (see part 2 of this study).

Although the Soviet Union was the first country to have a domestic communication satellite system, the highly elliptical "Molniya" orbit used for these satellites was of limited utility for international communications, which are better served by satellites in geostationary orbit [GEO] where they maintain the same position relative to a given ground station. The first Soviet geostationary satellite was not launched until 1974, 11 years after the first such U.S. satellite, but by the end of 1983, the Soviets had three different systems in place (Ekran, Raduga, and Gorizont) and at least three more planned (Volna, Loutch, and Gals). Clearly they have found GEO satellites a valuable adjunct to their Molniya system.

The GLONASS navigation satellite system can provide three-dimensional data (altitude, latitude, and longitude) like the U.S. NAVSTAR Global Positioning System. Although the United States had its first NAVSTAR launch in 1978, only seven were in orbit by the end of 1983, all in the developmental (rather than operational) series. By contrast, the Soviets launch the GLONASS satellites three at a time, and accomplished three such launches between 1982 and 1983, for a total of nine satellites in orbit. In this case, the Soviets appear to have progressed further than the United States, even though they started much later. Neither system was operational by the end of 1983.

The launch of Kosmos 1500 in 1983 signaled an expanded interest in performing ocean surveys from space. The spacecraft, with its side-looking radar, was used to help extricate Soviet ships from arctic ice, and continues to be used for ocean surveys with wide dissemination of the data through inexpensive ground stations.

The most notable lack of progress in the Soviet unmanned space applications program was the absence of a geostationary meteorological satellite. It had been promised in 1979 as part of an international weather program, but still had not been launched by the end of 1983.

Thus, it can be said that progress was made in all the areas covered in this volume, but the Soviets still have some distance to go in their space science and space applications programs to catch up with the United States.

Overview of Unmanned Space Programs: 1957-83

The largest component of the Soviet space program, and the U.S. space program as well, is unmanned space activities. These activities include those related to science, applications (such as communications and remote sensing), and national security. The most well known of the Soviet unmanned probes is, of course. Sputnik 1, which ushered in the space age on October 4, 1957.

Although there have been many projects with specific names such as Meteor, Molniya, Venera, Mars, and Luna, the largest number of unmanned launches in the Soviet program have been given the generic designation, Kosmos. By the end of 1983, there had been 1,591 Kosmos spacecraft. The word simply means "space" in Russian, and satellites launched with this name include scientific probes and engineering tests, but the largest single category applies to military missions. Spacecraft which fail once they reach

orbit are often designated Kosmos, too, despite whatever their original mission might have been.

This report is part 3 of the most recent of a series of 5-year reports prepared for the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee l by the Congressional Research Service, and provides information on unmanned scientific, applications, and military space programs. Volume I discusses launch vehicles, launch and tracking sites, international cooperation, organization for Soviet space activities, and how much the Soviets spend on their space activities. Volume II addresses manned space activities, including the space life sciences.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 of this part of the report provide comprehensive details on space science, space applications, and military space programs, respectively. Chapter 2 has been provided to highlight activities from 1981 to 1983, the time during which the report was written. This chapter serves as an overview of the unmanned programs of both the Soviet Union and the United States. Readers interested in more detail on the Soviet flights will find information in the remaining chapters of this volume. Detailed information on U.S. space science and space applications activities is contained in U.S. Civilian Space Programs, volume I and volume II, prepared by the Congressional Research Service for, and published by, the House Committee on Science and Technology in 1981 and 1983, respectively. (2)


The launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, is remembered for its historic role as the world's first artificial satellite, but it should not be forgotten that it was also the first satellite for space science. In fact, it was the scientists who urged both the United States and the Soviet Union to launch satellites to assist in their investigation of atmospheric phenomena during the International Geophysical Year (July 1, 1957 to December 31, 1958).

Both Sputnik and the first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, were launched during the IGY. The United States had not planned that Explorer 1, built by the Army's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, would be the first U.S. satellite, however. Rather, President Eisenhower had established the Vanguard Program to develop a civilian satellite and launch vehicle to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to the peaceful uses of space. The Vanguard Program did not receive very high priority until the launch of Sputnik, however, after which an accelerated schedule resulted in an embarrassing failure when the first launch was attempted on December 6, 1957. Despite his opposition to using a military rocket to carry the first U.S. satellite into orbit, President Eisenhower was forced by events to permit the Army to use its Jupiter C rocket to place Explorer 1 in orbit on January 31, 1958. (3)

Eisenhower continued to insist that the United States have a strictly civilian space program, which ultimately led to the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA]. U.S. military space programs remained under the jurisdiction of the Department of Defense. In the Soviet Union, no such distinction was made. The entire Soviet Space Program is conducted by the Strategic Rocket Force, except for cosmonaut training which is under the jurisdiction of the Soviet Air Force. There is no Soviet equivalent of NASA; scientific input is made primarily through the Soviet Academy of Sciences.


Sputnik 1 revealed characteristics of the ionosphere through variations in its beeping signal, and its orbital perturbations and eventual decay provided information on atmospheric density. This was the beginning of the Soviet Earth Orbital Space Science Program, which has subsequently involved satellites launched under the Kosmos and Interkosmos designations, the latter denoting flights which are conducted cooperatively with other countries. In addition, there have been a few other programs, the most significant of which are the Prognoz series and the Astron satellite. The Kosmos and Interkosmos spacecraft are similar to the satellites in the U.S. Explorer series and generally are single purpose satellites optimized for a specific mission. Prognoz and Astron are observatory class satellites with multiple scientific objectives, in the same category as the U.S. Orbiting Astronomical Observatories, Orbiting Solar Observatories, and High Energy Astronomy Observatories. The United States has done much more with its Earth Orbital Space Science Program than the Soviet Union, although the launch of Prognoz 9 for radio astronomy and Astron for x ray and ultraviolet astronomy in 1983 may signal an increased Soviet interest in such activities.


Although the Soviets were not successful in sending people to the Moon (see volume 2 of this report for a discussion of the "Moon Race"), they did have an active program of unmanned lunar probes from 1959 to 1976. The United States launched unmanned lunar probes from 1958 until 1968, followed by the manned Apollo landings from 1968 to 1972.

The first attempts to send probes to the Moon were made by the United States and met with mixed success. Satellites in the Pioneer series between 1958 and 1960 were meant to either orbit or fly by the Moon, and only one of the nine probes launched accomplished a fly-by mission. The Ranger Program which followed, from 1961 to 1965, was intended to return television pictures of the Moon before the spacecraft made a hard impact on the Moon's surface. The first six Rangers failed (the first two were vehicle tests), although the last three were successful.

During this period, the Soviets launched Luna probes with a variety of missions, including flybys, hard landings, and soft landings. Of the eight Lunas launched from 1959 to 1965, two are considered complete successes in the West. One of these, Luna 3, returned the first pictures of the far side of the Moon in 1959.

From 1966 to 1968, the United States launched two series of lunar probes, Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter. The Surveyor Program, which was much more successful than Pioneer and Ranger, involved probes which could make soft landings on the lunar surface to provide data to be used for the manned Apollo Program. The completely successful Lunar Orbiter Program involved spacecraft which made detailed maps of the lunar surface to provide data on landing sites for the Apollo crews. The Soviets, meanwhile, continued the Luna series, and succeeded in attempts at soft landings and orbiters.

In 1969, attention in the United States turned to the manned Apollo Program, and six crews landed on the Moon through the end of 1972. No further U.S. lunar probes, manned or unmanned, have been launched since that time.

For their part, the Soviets continued the Luna Program, launching orbiters and soft landers. Two different types of landers were developed, one for automated sample return, and the other which deposited roving vehicles called Lunokhods for long-term studies of the lunar surface. Three samples were successfully returned (in 1970, 1972 and 1976), bringing back a total of approximately 330 grams of lunar material (compared with 380 kilograms returned by the six U.S. Apollo crews). The two Lunokhods were launched in1970 and 1973 respectively. No Soviet lunar flights have taken place since the last successful sample return in 1976.

In the field of planetary exploration, the Soviets have never attempted to send unmanned spacecraft as close to the Sun as Mercury, or as far from it as Jupiter and Saturn. By contrast, U.S. probes have visited Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, and one is now en route to Uranus. One of the probes which visited Jupiter (Pioneer 10) became the first manmade object to leave the solar system in 1983.

The Soviets have focussed on Mars and Venus. With Mars, they have had little success, but the results of the Soviets Venera probes has been extremely good.

The Soviets have only admitted to launching seven probes to Mars: one in 1962, two in 1971, and four in 1973. The two in 1971 were combination orbiter/landers, but did not carry biological experiments as did the U.S. orbiter/lander Viking probes in 1975-76. Of the Soviet probes, only one (Mars 5, an orbiter) can be considered a complete success by Western standards, although most returned at least some data about the planet. The primary problem seemed to be in targeting the spacecraft and in ensuring that the braking rockets functioned properly. Two of the landers (Mars 3 and Mars 6) proceeded to the surface correctly, but Mars 3 ceased transmitting 20 seconds after it reached the surface, and contact was lost with Mars 6 just before it reached the surface.

By contrast, the United States had good results from its Mariner 4, 6, and 7 fly-by probes (Mariner 3 was a failure), and Mariner 9, an orbiter, provided the first detailed mapping of the Martian surface in 1972 (Mariner 8 was lost in a launch vehicle failure). The landing of Viking 1 and 2 on the surface of Mars in 1976 provided detailed information on the two landing sites, although results from the experiments designed to determine if there is life on the planet were inconclusive. The Viking 1 lander lasted longer than any of the other Viking spacecraft, returning data until November 1983. The Viking orbiters returned exhaustive data about the Martian surface and Mars' moons, Phobos and Diemos.

At the end of 1983, plans were reportedly underway by the Soviets to launch a probe to Mars in 1988, apparently for detailed studies of Phobos, and the United States was contemplating the launch of a Mars "geoscience/climatology" orbiter in 1990 to attempt to determine what happened to the water that scientists believe once flowed on the planet's surface.

The Soviets have devoted considerable effort to detailed studies the atmosphere and surface of Venus. Between 1961 and 1983, 16 Venera spacecraft had been launched, and two were in orbit around the planet performing mapping studies using side-looking

radars. The United States has devoted less effort to studying Venus, launching five probes between 1962 and 1978, one of which had five separate entry probes for atmospheric studies. The Pioneer Venus 1 orbiter, launched in 1978, continued to return data at the end of 1983, after more than 5 years of operations.

The most startling discoveries about Venus have came from images returned by Venera 9 and 10 in 1975. They were the first to return pictures from the surface of another planet, having landed on Venus a year before the U.S. Vikings reached Mars. The pictures were surprising for several reasons. For example, it had been expected that Venus was a geologically "dead" planet, and that rocks would long since have been eroded by the harsh climatic conditions on the planet's surface. Instead, Venera 9 and 10 found plenty of rocks with sharp cleavages, indicating that Venus was geologically active, a discovery supported by additional Venera and the U.S. Pioneer Venus missions. In addition, it had been thought that it would be relatively dark on the surface since the thick

clouds were thought to obscure most of the sunlight, and Venera 9 and 10 carried spotlights to illuminate the landing area. Instead, it was found that the surface was as bright as Moscow on a cloudy summer day. Thus, the Venera 9 and 10 spacecraft, and their successors including Venera 13 and 14 which returned color photographs showing the surface and atmosphere to be reddish-orange (because of iron oxide in the soil, which is blown up into the clouds by winds), have significantly changed scientific theory about


The Soviets are planning two Venus-related launches in December 1984. Called VEGA, for Venus-Halley's Comet, the probes will drop off landers at Venus, as well as balloons which will float down through Venus' atmosphere for detailed studies of its constituents. The spacecraft buses, which carry imaging equipment, will then continue on to a rendezvous with Halley's Comet in 1986. The United States is not sending any spacecraft to Halley's Comet, although an existing spacecraft has been modified so that it can return data about the Giacobini-Zinner Comet for comparative studies. Originally called the International Sun-Earth Explorer 3 [ISEE], the spacecraft was placed in an orbit half way between the Earth and Sun, and was performing magnetospheric studies in connection with its sister satellites, ISEE 1 and 2, in Earth orbit. ISEE-3 has now been redesignated ICE [International Comet Explorer] and is using onboard propulsion to change its orbit so that it can intercept the comet for comparative studies. Japan and the European Space Agency (a group of 11 European countries) are sending probes to Halley's Comet, and an international agreement has been signed for sharing of the data from all these probes, plus Earth-based studies.

The United States is planning to launch the Venus Radar Mapper [VRM] mission in 1988 which will provide more detailed mapping of the planet's surface. The radars on the Soviet Venera 15 and 16 spacecraft have a resolution of 1-2 kilometers; VRM will have a much better resolution of 200-330 meters.


The several disciplines of communications, meteorology, navigation, Earth resources, geodesy and mapping, and space manufacturing are all examples of what may be termed space applications.

The United States and the Soviet Union both have large space applications programs, although the United States was first in the field and has remained ahead in most respects, including the number of satellites employed for particular applications, the serviceable lifetime of the satellites, and the sophistication of the equipment. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union continues to make steady progress in all applications areas and the operational lifetimes of their payloads are becoming longer.


Space manufacturing is the only area in which the Soviet Union has surpassed the United States by virtue of the work performed by cosmonauts on the long duration Salyut space station missions. Materials processing furnaces have taken advantage of the opportunity provided by microgravity conditions and the high vacuum of space to produce commercial quantities of superpure cadmium-mercury-telluride, an important component of infrared devices, and samples of "new" materials, such as superconductors, glasses, pure metals, alloys and eutectics, semiconductors and crystals which are difficult or impossible to produce on Earth. They have also produced vaccines by electrophoretic techniques. The United States, having experimented with furnaces in Skylab and, briefly, during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project [ASTP], has been forced to wait for the space shuttle to resume similar experiments. The focus on the U.S. materials processing in space program is currently on continuous-flow electrophoresis for vaccine production, which is being performed under a Joint Government-industry arrangement.


Following experiments with both military and civil communications satellites in low Earth orbit, the United States launched the first geostationary communications satellite in 1963. The geostationary orbit is a special orbit 35,800 kilometers above the equator where a satellite can maintain a fixed position relative to any point on Earth because the orbital period of the satellite matches the sidereal period of Earth.

The Soviets did not launch their first geostationary satellite until 1974 primarily because of the greater energy required for a launch vehicle to accomplish such a task from the more northerly Soviet launch sites. In addition, geostationary satellites have a more limited utility for the Soviet Union itself, since so much of its territory is at far northern latitudes which are difficult to reach with transmissions to and from an equatorial orbit. Consequently, the Soviet Union developed a communications satellite system called Molniya, which uses what is appropriately called a Molniya orbit. This is an eccentric orbit with a very high apogee (40,000 kilometers) over the Northern Hemisphere and a low perigee (500 kilometers) over the Southern Hemisphere. Inclined at 63°, these orbits have a 12-hour period (semisynchronous), and provide a long linger time of as much as 8 hours over the Northern Hemisphere. A system of these satellites, then, can provide 24-hour coverage, and the Soviets use Molniya 1 and Molniya 3 satellites for this purpose.

While of less utility for domestic communications, geostationary satellites are nevertheless valuable for international communications, and beginning in 1974 the Soviets began launching geostationary communications satellites. Currently, they have series of Ekran, Raduga, and Gorizont satellites for various types of communications, and they have registered with the International Telecommunications Union for three more series: Loutch (or Luch), Volna, and Gals. The latter apparently will be for military communications. Experimental Loutch and Volna transponders have been flown on other Soviet communications satellites. It would appear that both semisynchronous and geostationary satellites will have major roles to play in Soviet communications plans in the near and long-term future.

In 1968, the Soviets announced that they would form the Intersputnik organization as an alternative to the Intelsat international communications satellite organization which they considered too strongly under the influence of the United States. Intersputnik began operations in 1971 relying entirely on the Molniya system, and only the Soviet Union and it allies joined the system. Even with the advent of Soviet geostationary satellites, few countries have joined Intersputnik instead of Intelsat, and at the end of 1983, there were 108 countries that had joined Intelsat, and 14 which be longed to Intersputnik. Although it has never joined Intelsat, the Soviet Union does use the Intelsat system.


The Soviet Union still has not launched geostationary meteorological satellites, relying instead on the polar orbiting Meteor spacecraft which are somewhat similar to the U.S. NOAA satellites. They have no equivalent of the GOES system, although they had announced plans to launch a geostationary weather satellite in 1979 as part of an international meteorological effort which involved satellites launched by the United States, the European Space Agency, and Japan. By the end of 1983, the Soviet satellite, called GOMS [Geostationary Orbit Meterological Satellite], still had not been launched.

Two generations of Meteor satellites have been used since 1969 to provide cloud-cover imagery. The Sun-synchronous retrograde orbits used by the U.S. NOAA weather satellites was not adopted until 1977 by the Soviet Union, and satellites in these orbits are

designated as Meteor-Priroda (Nature) and primarily perform Earth resources roles.


The United States was first in the Earth remote sensing field, launching the first dedicated remote sensing satellite, Landsat 1 (then called ERTS 1), in 1972. Since then, four more Landsats have been launched. They carry multispectral scanners for gathering data which can be used for a variety of purposes including assessing crop yields, performing mineral surveys, and studying geological features.

The Soviet approach to remote sensing is somewhat different, relying on film cameras rather than scanners. Much of their remote sensing work is performed on the Salyut space stations (in orbits which are inclined at 51.6°), augmented by several 2-week Kosmos flights per year inclined at 82.3°, all of which use film. There have been a few Meteor-Priroda satellites, as mentioned above, which are in Sun-synchronous orbits and use scanners, and Kosmos 1484, launched in 1983 into a Sun-synchronous orbit, may be a closer Soviet equivalent to the U.S. Landsat satellites, but few details have been released.


The United States developed a navigation satellite system called Transit which provides two-dimensional data (latitude and longitude). Satellites launched in this series are called Transit or Nova, the latter being an improved Transit satellite. Although it is technically a Navy program, more than 90 percent of the users are in the civilian sector. The Soviet Union has a similar system. The satellites in this series are given Kosmos designations, and according to analysis by the Kettering Group, there is a constellation of six satellites at 30° plane spacings which apparently serves the military sector, and a constellation of four satellites at 45° plane spacings (called Tsikada) which apparently serves the civilian sector.

The United States decided that it would be useful to have a navigation satellite system which provided three-dimensional data (altitude as well as longitude and latitude), so began development of the NAVSTAR Global Positioning System, which will also provide much greater accuracy than the Transit system. When operational, the system will use 18 satellites in 6 orbital planes. NAVSTAR is expected to be fully operational in 1988, although seven satellites in the developmental series have already been successfully launched. Similarly, the Soviet Union decided to develop a three dimensional system, called GLONASS. The Soviets launch their satellites three at a time. By the end of 1983, there had been three such launches, for a total of nine GLONASS satellites in the experimental series. The first two sets went into the same plane, but the third entered a plane separated by 120° from the first and may signal a move toward an operational status, although the satellites are not equally spaced around each orbital plane.


The KOSPAS/SARSAT Search and Rescue Satellite Program is an international effort which involves satellites launched by the Soviet Union and the United States, and control centers and ground stations in those countries plus Canada, France, Norway, and Britain for receiving messages from aircraft and ships in distress. The SARSAT equipment is launched on U.S. NOAA weather satellites and was developed jointly by the United States, Canada, and France; the KOSPAS equipment was developed by the Soviets and is launched on Kosmos satellites using the Tsikada navigation satellite design. Finland, Bulgaria, and Sweden also participate in the program.

The first Soviet KOSPAS satellite was launched in June 198Z as part of the demonstration phase of the program, and the first rescue took place in September of that year. The second KOSPAS satellite was launched in March 1983; the first Sarsat equipped NOAA satellite was also launched that month. By the end of 1983, more than 60 lives had been saved by the system. (4)


The United States has flown many geodetic flights in order to correlate maps of different parts of the world and for determining the true shape of the geoid from analysis of small perturbations of the orbits. Data from the NASA geodetic missions (such as PAGEOS and LAGEOS) have been published, but not those from DOD missions.

The Soviet Union claims to be interested in geodesy and mapping, but has identified few flights for these purposes. Kosmos satellites in near-circular orbits are presumed to have such roles, along with several others which are subsets of the reconnaissance satellite program.


The distinction between civilian and military space missions is, at best, nebulous. As noted earlier, the Soviet Union has no civilian space agency comparable to NASA, and uses the Kosmos label for all launches other than a few named applications satellite and scientific programs, interplanetary and lunar flights, and programs related to manned spacecraft.


Approximately half of all Kosmos launches have accounted for payloads which disappear from orbit while their orbital parameters indicate that they would not decay from orbit naturally. These recoverable payloads are thought to perform photographic reconnaissance missions, and their flight durations have progressed through four generations from an initial 3 days to more than 7 weeks. The Soviet Union currently obtains almost continuous coverage from one or more "third-generation" satellites whose flight times last for 2 weeks, and "fourth-generation" satellites with lifetimes of either 4 or 6 weeks. This approach to reconnaissance demands a launch rate of approximately 30 satellites per year, in contrast to the U.S. reliance on fewer satellites with much longer lifetimes to provide equivalent coverage. Fourth-generation Kosmos reconnaissance satellites may employ both film return and digital image transmission techniques.

A different type of observation satellite, which uses a nuclear reactor powered side-looking radar capable of penetrating cloud cover and darkness, is used for ocean surveillance. These radar ocean reconnaissance satellites [RORSAT's], are designed so that the nuclear reactor portion separates from the instrument section after the end of the mission, and is boosted into a higher orbit from which it would not naturally decay until the radiation no longer presents a severe health hazard.

On two occasions, however, malfunctions have occurred and the entire satellite has reentered. In January 1978, Kosmos 954 reentered over Canada, spreading radioactive debris over the northern region of that country. When the RORSAT Program resumed 2 years later, a design modification had been made to separate the fuel core, from the reactor vessel following the end of the mission lifetime, normally after the transfer to a higher orbit. In this way, if another malfunction occurred, the most radioactive part of the satellite, the core, would be exposed directly to the heat of reentry increasing the likelihood that it would disintegrate completely before reaching the ground.

The value of this modification was proven in 1982 when Kosmos 1402 suffered a malfunction and the reactor section did not move to the higher orbit. The core did separate from the reactor vessel, however, which was still attached to the instrument section. The less radioactive reactor vessel/instrument section reentered over the Indian Ocean in January 1983. The core disintegrated high over the South Atlantic Ocean the next month. No increase in radioactivity was detected in either area. By the end of 1983, no further satellites had been launched in this series. (5) The United States has no equivalent to the Soviet RORSAT's.

A second class of ocean surveillance satellites use electronic techniques for passive intelligence gathering and are referred to as EORSAT's [electronic ocean reconnaissance satellites]. Both the United States and Soviet Union have these types of satellites. In addition, both countries have other electronic intelligence [ELINT] satellites, sometimes referred to as Ferrets, which focus on geographical areas other than the oceans.

For early warning of ICBM and SLBM launches, the United States uses a system of three geostationary satellites referred to as the Defense Support Program [DSP]. The Soviet Union employs a different approach using nine satellites in highly elliptical Molniya orbits. The Soviet satellites transmit on frequencies close to those used by U.S. interplanetary probes and, despite their presumed military role, the Soviet Union has on request discontinued transmissions at times when NASA is trying to receive critical data from the probes during planetary encounters.


In the Soviet Union, there are several satellites which seem to be used for military communications, including Molniya Is, possibly transponders on geostationary satellites, and two sets of satellites at 74° inclination which are often referred to in the West as "store-dump" satellites. One set is launched eight at a time by a single rocket and it is thought that a constellation of 24 of these form the operational segment of a real-time tactical communication system within a given theater of operations. The second set involves satellites which are launched one at a time into orbits with plane spacing of 120°, and these are thought to perform communications intelligence [COMINT] functions.

The United States relies primarily on several series of geostationary communications satellites. These include the FLTSATCOM [Fleet Satellite Communication] system, the DSCS [Defense Satellite Communications System] series, and transponders leased from jeettimercial satellites for maritime communications (MARISAT and LEASAT). In addition, the U.S. has the Satellite Data System series which are placed in Molniya orbits and provide communications with U.S. bases at far northern latitudes, and which may also provide a link with certain U.S. reconnaissance satellites. (6)


Although public interest in space weapons has only been evident for a short period of time, the first test of a system for destroying orbiting satellites occurred as early as 1959. This was the U.S. Bold Orion Program in which an air-launched missile scored a deliberate near-miss on the U.S. Explorer 6 satellite. The program was subsequently terminated, and the SAINT Program was initiated, an acronym which is alternatively described as having stood for SAtellite INspecTor, SAtellite INTerceptor, or SAtellite Inspection and NegaTion. The program was cancelled in 1962 before any flight tests occurred.

In 1962, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev stated in an interview with American newspaper editors that the Soviet Union had a system that could "hit a fly in outer space." It is possible that he was referring to the Soviet Galosh ABM system which was then being emplaced around Moscow, and remains there today. Following cancellation of the SAINT Program, the United States developed an antisatellite [ASAT] system using nuclear-tipped Thor missiles based on Johnston Island in the Pacific, which President Johnson declared operational in 1964. The system was dismantled in 1975 and although tests were flown during the 1960s, none apparently carried a nuclear warhead.

Beginning in 1968, The Soviets began testing a co-orbital ASAT system using a nonnuclear explosive. Target satellites are launched out of Plesetsk (originally from Tyuratum), followed by the launch of an interceptor from Tyuratam. Attempts have been made to intercept the target in either one or two orbits; only two of the four single orbit tests have been successful. Two types of targeting sensors have been used, radar and an optical sensor. Only the tests using the radar have been successful. Thus, of the twenty tests conducted between 1968 and 1982 (the last time a Soviet ASAT was made), only nine have been successful. The Soviet ASAT has reached altitudes as high as 2,300 kilometers, although the highest altitude at which an interception was attempted was approximately 1,000 kilometers. This indicates that the ASAT might be able to reach U.S. weather, reconnaissance, and Transit navigation satellites (although not the NAVSTAR system which is in a much higher orbit), as well as the space shuttle. As currently configured, it cannot reach U.S. communications and early warning satellites at geostationary orbit, although it is possible that in the future it could be launched on a more capable launch vehicle to reach such altitudes.

It should be noted that there is a class of Kosmos satellites which use orbits with similar characteristics to the Soviet ASAT target, and launches of these satellites are often mistaken by some Western analysts as target launches. Instead, they are probably for radar calibration in which fragments are released to simulate multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles [MIRV's]. Suggestions that these satellites are used to monitor the results of ASAT tests are not supported by analysis of orbital data or their regular appearance at times unrelated to ASAT tests. The radar calibration flights can be identified by their orbital period, which is approximately 94 minutes, as opposed to an ASAT target, which has a period of approximately 96 minutes.

In 1977, the United States declared the Soviet ASAT operational, and embarked on development of a new ASAT system of its own. This system is based on an F-15 aircraft and uses no explosive device. It would destroy a target satellite by direct impact, but had not been tested by the end of 1983. (7) Because it is based on an aircraft, the system is more flexible than the Soviet ASAT system in that the ASAT device can be taken (within limits imposed by the range of the F-15) to where the satellite is located, instead of waiting for the satellite to be in a correct orbital position before launch can take place. Although information on the U.S. ASAT is classified, it is thought that the U.S. ASAT suffers from altitude limitations like the Soviet ASAT, but it also could be placed on a more capable launch vehicle (such as a Minuteman) to reach higher altitudes. If its altitude limitations, as the system is currently configured, are similar to those of the Soviet system, the U.S. ASAT could attack Soviet reconnaissance, weather, and navigation satellites (although not the GLONASS system), and the Salyut space station and associated spacecraft. In addition, if altitude alone was the limitation, Soviet communications and early warning satellites which use Molniya orbits would be vulnerable at perigee, although the perigees occur far out over the ocean and the satellites have high velocities when they reach perigee, so it is questionable as to whether the U.S. ASAT could destroy them or not.

The F-15 ASAT system is expected to be operational in 1987, although the program has encountered stiff opposition from the U.S. Congress, and the development schedule is quite uncertain. (8)

The Soviet Union developed another system which is often categorized as a space weapon, although it was essentially a long range ICBM which would have approached the United States from the south instead of the north. Called FOBS [Fractional Orbital Bombardment System], tests were made between 1967 and 1971. The satellites were recalled after completing slightly less than one orbit, and their ground tracks were primarily over oceans and deserts, far from the United States. It is not thought that they carried nuclear warheads during these tests. No flights have been made since 1971, and it is not known for certain whether the program was abandoned or placed on a standby operational status, although the SALT II agreement (which has never been ratified) included among its agreed provisions the dimantlement of 18 "fractional orbital missile" launchers at Tyuratam, which may have been a reference to this system.

In a March 23, 1983 national address, President Reagan called for research and development on a system to render nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete" by developing a ballistic missile defense system. Although the President never mentioned space, the proposal immediately became known as the "Star Wars" proposal since his advisers stated that components of such a system might be based in space in order to attack ballistic missiles during their boost phase, prior to the deployment of MIRV's.

Reagan's address evoked considerable controversy over the technical feasibility, economic costs, and political wisdom of deploying a BMD system. The United States and Soviet Union signed a treaty in 1972 (the Antiballistic Missile, or ABM, Treaty) allowing each side to have one fixed land-based ABM site, and prohibiting the development, testing, and deployment or air-based, space-based, and mobile land-based ABM systems, although new systems based on "other physical principles' were subject to further negotiations and possible amendments to the treaty. The program proposed by the President, formally called the Strategic Defense Initiative [SDI], does not violate the treaty as long as it remains in the research phase. Among the research programs included in the SDI are directed energy weapons, which include lasers and particle beams. (9)

The Reagan speech, coupled with the imminent testing of the U.S. ASAT system, prompted widespread debate over the "militarization of space" which was continuing with vigor at the end of 1983. For their part, the Soviets introduced a revised draft treaty at the United Nations in 1983 (the first one had been profferred in 1981) calling for a ban on the use of force in space, which would affect both ASAT and space-based BMD systems. In addition, Soviet President Andropov announced a unilateral moratorium on testing ASAT's, promising that the Soviet Union would not be the first to place an ASAT device in space (avoiding admission that it already has such a system). No Soviet ASAT tests have taken place since June 1982.

Whether or not the Soviets are contemplating a "Star Wars" system of their own is difficult to determine from unclassified sources. The Soviets characteristically place considerable emphasis on homeland defense, including air defense and civil defense. These types of activities are "strategic defense," so in that sense they already have a "strategic defense initiative." It has been reported in the Western press that they are developing space-based weapons, although they could be for ASAT rather than BMD purposes, and Pentagon witnesses have stated for many years that the Soviets spend three to five times as much as the United States on directed energy research, although this could be for ground-based rather than space-based applications. No useful conclusions can be drawn from the open literature regarding the existence of a Soviet SDI Program.


As can be seen, the United States has done more than the Soviet Union in both Earth orbital and planetary space science, although the Soviets have achieved spectacular results from their probes to Venus.

In the field of space applications and military space missions, both countries utilize spacecraft for essentially the same purposes, but since the Soviet spacecraft generally have shorter lifetimes, they must be replaced more frequently, resulting in a significantly higher launch rate for the Soviet Union. For example, in 1983, the Soviets launched 27 photographic reconnaissance satellites alone (37 if the Kosmos satellites identified as having Earth resources missions are included), compared with two launched by the United States. The only military space system the Soviets have for which there is no U.S. counterpart is the nuclear-reactor powered radar ocean reconnaissance satellites.

In both countries, it is extremely difficult to differentiate between military and civilian space missions, since the data received from or transmitted via the satellite can serve both sectors. This is particularly true for communications and navigation satellites. Thus, it cannot be said with any certainty that one program is oriented more towards military goals than the other, since both have used space to support the military sector since the earliest days of the space program, and continue to do so.



1. Until 1976, the Aeronautical and Space Sciences Committee.

2. A report on U.S. military space activities is now in preparation by CRS and should be available as a CRS report in the spring of 1985.

3. It was Jan. 31 local time; Feb. 1, Greenwich mean time.

4. An agreement between the Sarsat members and the Soviet Union for the operational phase of the program was signed in October 1984, at which time there were three operational KOSPAS satellites in orbit. The NOAA satellite which carried the Sarsat transponder had ceased operating by that time, although another launch was expected in November 1984.

5. RORSAT launches resumed in June 1984.

6. Aviation Week and Space Technology, Jan. 2, 1984, p. 13.

7. The first test of the U.S. ASAT was conducted in January 1984 against a point in space and was successful.

8. For a discussion of the U.S. ASAT program and congressional debate over its development, see CRS Issue Brief 81123, "Star Wars": Antisatellites and Space-Based BMD, by Marcia S. Smith.

9. For a discussion of the Strategic Defense Initiative and congressional reaction to it, see CRS Issue Brief 81123, "Star Wars": Antisatellites and Space-Based BMD, by Marcia S. Smith.

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