Russia restores contact with lost satellite

MOSCOW Wed Feb 2, 2011 9:00am EST

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia restored contact on Wednesday with a military satellite that went missing the day before after entering into the wrong orbit, in the latest setback to the Kremlin's ambitious space programme.

The GEO-IK-2 satellite, designed to measure the shape of the Earth, blasted off from the Plesetsk launchpad in northern Russia on Tuesday but mission control soon lost contact with it.

The mishap follows a failed launch two months ago of three satellites at the centre of a Russian global satellite navigation network designed to rival the U.S.-made GPS system.

"The parametres of the satellite's orbit have been established. Currently, there is stable contact with it," Russia's Space Forces Commander, Lieutenant General Oleg Ostapenko, said in a defence ministry statement.

A commission of experts is studying whether the off-kilter satellite has been stranded in a useless orbit, forsaking its intended mission, the ministry said.

The low-orbit Geo-IK-2 was designed to probe the Earth's gravitational field for potential military use in guiding ballistic missiles. Its civilian use included monitoring tectonic plate movement, ice conditions and ocean tides.

Interfax news agency cited space industry sources as saying that only a long and painstaking investigation can say why the satellite now appears to be on the wrong orbit.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has put strong emphasis on Russia's "satellite navigation sovereignty." But the botched December launch cost Moscow over $168 million and delayed by six months plans to complete its GLONASS system.

Space Agency chief Anatoly Perminov last week said three new GLONASS satellites worth 2.5 billion rubles ($83 million) would be launched in May and June to replace those that fell into the Pacific Ocean in December.

The lost satellites were the last of 24 needed for Russia to fully deploy GLONASS, a project that has its roots in Cold War technology used to guide strategic missiles.

Russia has spent over $2 billion in the last decade on the system, personally promoted by Putin to help build Russia's technological independence and stimulate production of domestic consumer devices such as smartphones and vehicle sat-navs.

In a stunt to publicise the new system, Putin even fitted his dog Connie with a collar bearing a GLONASS transmitter.

(Additional reporting by Gleb Bryanski; Editing by Maria Golovnina)