Solar Physics Spacecraft Launched by Russia
A Ukrainian Tsyklon 3 rocket launches Russia's Coronas-Photon solar observatory from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia on Jan. 30, 2009.
Credit: National Space Agency of Ukraine.

Russia launched a solar observatory Friday to study the connection between the sun and Earth, marking the first Russian science mission of its scale in more than four years.

The Coronas Photon spacecraft will spend the next three years circling Earth with a suite of instruments designed to measure energetic particles produced by solar flares, the solar atmosphere, and solar activity's relationship with magnetic storms around Earth.

The 4,200-pound satellite launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia at 1330 GMT (8:30 a.m. EST). A Tsyklon 3 rocket hauled the satellite to an orbital perch about 310 miles above the planet and released the craft less than 45 minutes after liftoff, project officials said.

The launch was the first flight of a large Russian science mission in more than four years. Russia has orbited a flurry of smaller satellites since then, but none have equaled Coronas Photon's science ambitions, sophistication, or mass.

Russia's last large-scale scientific satellite was Sich 1M, an Earth observatory that was the victim of a failure of the Tsyklon 3 rocket's third stage in late 2004.

No such problems occurred Friday. Officials received the first signals from Coronas Photon a few minutes after 1500 GMT (10 a.m. EST), confirming the solar panels were deployed and the satellite was healthy.

The satellite is also circling Earth in an orbit "close" to the projected numbers, according to Roscosmos, the Russian space agency.

Coronas Photon, also translated as Koronas Foton, was manufactured by the Research Institute for Electromechanics in Moscow. The science team is led by the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute.

Two other satellites from the Coronas series were launched in 1994 and 2001 to study the sun. Both spacecraft have successfully concluded their missions.

Coronas Photon carries about 1,190 pounds of scientific equipment to measure solar radiation from ultraviolet to gamma ray wavelengths. The broad spectrum, which includes X-rays, will allow scientists to study the energy produced by solar flares, sudden violent explosions that unleash magnetic energy and accelerate charged particles to nearly the speed of light.

"The main feature of our project is the study of high energy processes during solar flares," said Yuri Kotov, Coronas Photon principal investigator.

Solar flares release energy equivalent to millions of exploding hydrogen bombs, or ten million times the energy of a large volcanic eruption, according to NASA.

The observatory's instruments, provided by Russian, Indian and Ukrainian scientists, will analyze the mysterious causes of solar flares. The sensors will also capture high-resolution images of the sun at least every few minutes, giving scientists a detailed view of solar flare development.

Scientists expect Coronas Photon's primary solar telescope to take more than one million images of the sun during the mission.

Other payloads will measure the environment around the spacecraft to detect high-energy particles as they reach Earth. That data will help scientists investigate the relationship between solar storms and space weather near Earth.

Solar activity can impact global climate patterns, communications, power grids, and astronauts and satellites in space. Radiation from solar flares can begin to reach Earth in just eight minutes, so scientists have long dreamed of reliable space weather forecasts based on sun observations.

"We must divide the influence of the sun and the influence of human activity in order to accept decisions of major importance on climate change on our planet," Kotov said.

Solar flares are more common during peaks in the sun's 11-year activity cycle. The next solar maximum is expected in 2011 or 2012.

Coronas Photon's instruments will be used with a handful of other solar observatories to look at the sun during the upcoming "solar max." The satellite is part of the International Living With a Star program, which includes members from the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan, China, and Canada.

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