Alexander Velovich/MOSCOW Tim Furniss/LONDON

The Fregat upper stage was tested successfully for the first time on 9 February attached to a Soyuz booster. The Soyuz-Fregat placed into orbit and returned to Earth a dummy payload weighing about 110kg.

The Fregat is a reusable module which has a unique cone-shaped air-inflated screen that protects the payload from heat during re-entry (Flight International, 8-14 February). Fregat has an empty weight of about 1,000kg (2,200lb), can carry up to 5,350kg of fuel and its liquid-fuel rocket engine allows up to 20 ignitions during a mission. The Fregat is equipped with a rescue parachute system which could save a valuable payload in the event of the booster's launch failure.

The first Fregat was recovered in the Orenburg region of Russia about 1,200km (745 miles) south-east of Moscow, but the dummy satellite, which used a different type of heatshield, had not been found at press time.

The Soyuz booster equipped with the Fregat can place a 4,200kg payload into geosynchronous orbit of 1,400km. This is a significant increase on the 3,300kg maximum payload limit of the standard Soyuz-Ikar module.

The first Fregat mission, which included the new stage's engine being fired four times during the in-orbit test, has paved the way for commercial operations for Starsem. The Franco-Russian venture, responsible for the international marketing and operations of Soyuz launches, is to launch two pairs of Cluster science satellites for the European Space Agency on 15 June and 13 July.

The contract requires that at least two successful Soyuz-Fregat launches are conducted before the Cluster missions.

Source: Flight International