Officials at the US State Department's "Nuclear Risk Reduction Center " (NRRC) have been told by their Russian counterparts that plans are underway for the launch Wednesday of a city-busting Intercontinental Ballistic Missile from a Russian military missile base, sources have told SPACE.com.
The launch is being billed by Russian space officials as the first step in establishing a 'mini-cosmodrome' at the Dombarovskiy military base to hoist satellites into low earth orbit. The base is southeast of the Ural Mountains near Russia's border with Kazakhstan. The missile's target zone is on the Kamchatka Penninsula in far eastern Siberia. Within three years, an improved upper stage will be able to send half-ton payloads to the moon and planets.
"Launch notification from Russia," was received, the state department source told SPACE.com via e-mail. The source did not wish to be identified. No further information was available as all "information exchanged ... through the NRRC channels is classified."
The alerts are exchanged between Moscow and Washington in keeping with the 'Ballistic Missile Launch Notification Agreement' that was signed by the US and the former-Soviet Union on May 31, 1988. It calls for a 24-hour advance warning of all such launchings.
The Ukrainian-built missile, dubbed "Satan" by NATO durig the height of the Cold War, is the SS-18 and referred to as an RS-18 or a "Voyevoda " (Russian for 'warrior chief') by the Russian press. It is the world's biggest military rocket. It can throw a nine-ton warhead, comprised of up to ten thermonuclear warheads, halfway across the planet in 30-minutes. It uses storable self-igniting propellants much like those of the now-discarded 'Titan' missile.
Anticipating the Launch
Russian missile officials have discussed the planned launching for several weeks . Originally the flight was billed as an exercise to clear the way for making commercial orbital launches from the missile base. Flights of missiles with such toxic fuels are being phased out at Russia's main cosmodrome, Baykonur, in now-independent Kazakhstan, due to the host country's environmental concerns.
But on Monday, Lt-Gen Sergey Khutortsev, chief of staff of the Strategic Missile Troops, told Russian journalists that the main purpose was to certify the missile base for all "combat-training launches of heavy-duty ballistic missiles."
"Although the Voyevoda missiles have been on combat duty for over 20 years in this region," he continued, "there have been no combat-training launches from there." He explained that this was "in compliance with the START-1 which required that telemetric sensors be installed along the entire IBM trajectory."
Up until now, the general explained, "only the trajectory which began in Baykonur had these sensors, and the launches were carried out from there".
If Wednesday's launch is successful, Khutortsev specified, "in the future, this missile in its conversion modification will be able to put into orbit spacecraft from the new mini-cosmodrome".
Missiles of this type have been modified for commercial missions by a small Russian-Ukrainian company named Kosmotras, under the project name 'Dnepr'. Project Manager Yuri Yarygin said in an email interview that there was no commercial angle to this first flight: "Kosmotras is not engaged in the arrangement of this launch," he wrote.
Four commercial Dnepr orbital launchings have been made in the past five years, and more are on contract. They include the first commercial lunar mission, TrailBlazer as well as a series of small scientific satellites How many will be transferred to the Dombarovskiy launch site is not known, but the Kazakh government has insisted that launches of these modified ICBMs from Baikonur be phased out as soon as possible.