A Russian launch this month marked the introduction of a new class of national reconnaissance satellite - but mystery surrounds its purpose.

The Cosmos 2344 was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, using a four-stage Proton-K on June 6.

The mission for the Cosmos 2344 is difficult to define. It is too high for photo-reconnaissance, higher than the electronic-intelligence satellite constellations have been, but much lower than early-warning satellites. It is a possibility that the spacecraft entered the wrong orbit.

Analysis by Phillip Clark of the Molniya Space Consultancy in London, UK, shows that the initial orbit was about 150-170km, inclined at 64.8í.

When passing over 62íS, 264íE at 17.52 GMT, the Block DM-2M fourth stage ignited for the first time to enter a 200-2,400 km transfer orbit inclined at 64.5í.

Two ullage motors were discarded in this orbit just as the Block DM-2M main engine ignited for the second time at 18.57 GMT over 63íN, 114íE. When it was shut down, the final orbit was 1,510-2,745 km, inclined at 63.4í.

Although the Proton-K is able to launch a payload of about 10t to the final Cosmos 2344 orbit, the mass of the satellite is possibly closer to 5t. Visual observations show that the satellite is below naked-eye visibility.

The Russian news agency ITAR-TASS stated in the original launch announcement that this satellite is to be operated by the defence ministry, while a pre-launch report stated that it would be used by Russia's military-intelligence organisation.

The orbital altitude used by Cosmos 2344 is completely new for the Russian space programme, although the fourth stage two-burn profile needed to reach the final orbit is an adaptation of the standard one used for launches of geosynchronous-orbit and GLONASS satellites.

"It remains to be seen whether the satellite will be performing its own significant manoeuvres or whether it will remain close to the existing orbit," says Clark.

Source: Flight International