Tim Furniss/LONDON

RUSSIA LAUNCHED the first three spacecraft, of a planned $200 million, 36-satellite constellation, commercial- digital communications system on 19 February.

The Gonets D1 F1-3 satellites were part of a cargo of six satellites aboard a three-stage Tsyklon booster launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome.

The other three satellites, designated Cosmos 2328-30, are similar craft, but will be operated by the military services. The Cosmos 2328 is the 3,000th object to the launched by Russia and the former Soviet Union since the Sputnik 1 lifted off in 1957.

The new-generation Gonets D1s are up-rated versions of military store-and-forward communications satellites, which have been launched regularly since 1985. Two Gonets D1 test spacecraft were among a sextet launched in 1992.

The Gonets D1s will be operated by the Smolsat consortium, which includes investors NPO PM, NPO Precision Instruments, the Selkhoz Bank and a commercial branch of the health ministry, with $60 million state funding. The initial operational constellation will consist of 12 satellites by the year 2000.

The full constellation of 36 craft, each weighing 230kg, travelling g in six different planes in 1,500km, 82.5°-inclination, circular orbits will offer worldwide digital communications. Applications include real-time messaging, electronic mail, position reporting, and ecological and industrial monitoring, primarily for the Russian Government banks and about 1 million customers.

Later Gonets-series craft, designated Gonets R, may provide global mobile telephone-communications services.

Source: Flight International