The end of the year turned out to be cosmic for Belarus in the truest sense of the word. In December we learned the names of six Belarusian contenders for a space flight. To be exact, six female contenders. Is Belarus becoming a space power? Yes, many people interpret the training of the first cosmonaut of sovereign Belarus in this way. Others believe that the country gained this status 10 years ago with the launch of its first satellite. But in fact, for Belarus the space age began in the middle of the last century. How did the republic get involved in the space race of world powers and why are Belarusians so eager to conquer outer space? This mission is honorable and prestigious, but that is absolutely not the point. BelTA's YouTube project After the Fact: Lukashenko's Decisions looks at the facts.
Where did Belarus get space technologies from?
A space race began between the Soviet Union and the United States of America in the 1950s. You must remember how the countries began to compete in launching satellites, and a little later in launching animals and humans into the outer space. As one of the USSR's major industrial and scientific hubs Belarus contributed to these events. The contribution of Belarusian scientists and engineers to space exploration cannot be overestimated. They participated in the creation of many technical innovations, without which space flights would have been simply unthinkable
Sergei Zolotoi, Director of the R&D enterprise Geoinformation Systems of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, said: “Quite many collectives worked for the sake of the space industry in Belarus. The Physics Institute of the National Academy of Sciences made instruments for the space industry. They still make optical devices for the International Space Station. The Gomel-based design bureau System Programming took care of math for the Buran shuttle. The Novopolotsk-based Izmeritel Plant made quite a lot of computation equipment. Then there is Integral Company. Peleng Company made optics.”
Research projects focusing on low-temperature plasma were also carried out in Minsk. And the skin of spacecraft is still created on the basis of the technologies developed by scientists from the Belarusian Heat and Mass Transfer Institute.
Why does Belarus need space science if the USSR is long gone?
The collapse of the Soviet Union created an economic crisis. Just as Belarusian enterprises suddenly found themselves cut off from the main target markets, so did scientists from the main industry centers that remained in Russia. Nevertheless, Belarus managed to not only keep the existing potential, but also to create its own national space industry infrastructure. By the decision of Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko the state took the entire Academy of Sciences under its wing. It received a national status, the relevant functions and funding. Since 2004 the academy has been coordinating and regulating space activities in Belarus. And since 2015 the Space Research Agency has been operating as part of the academy.
Today more than 20 scientific and industrial organizations are involved in the space industry of Belarus. They employ about 4,000 specialists. A large strategic space research system has been formed. Belarus produces high-resolution optical systems for satellites, space mirrors, equipment for remote sensing of Earth. Together with Russians Belarusian specialists develop promising technologies.
But why does the small republic need space technologies? Many predicted more down-to-earth goals for it. For instance, there are enough other problems to deal with on top of outer space… However, the president saw outer space as one of the areas that elevate the nation to a higher level of development.
During the opening ceremony of the 31st international congress of the Association of Space Explorers in 2018 Aleksandr Lukashenko said: “I'll say it straight: if it weren't for them – our cosmonauts – it's unlikely that we in Belarus would have taken up this subject. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we were already ashamed not to continue the space theme in Belarus as much as possible. And today we don't regret it. There was a lot of resistance, talks, but nevertheless, I made decisions primarily because these are the newest technologies, the latest technologies that pulled an entire sector of the economy along with them. It helps advance Belarus to new heights, make Belarus one of highly developed civilized states.”
What Belarusians flew into outer space?
Natives of Belarus have already flown into out space three times. The pilot-cosmonaut, twice Hero of the Soviet Union Piotr Klimuk became the first Belarusian in orbit in 1973. The duration of his three flights is more than 78 days. Three space flights are on the record of another Belarusian, who is also a twice Hero of the Soviet Union – Vladimir Kovalyonok. He made them in 1977, 1978 and 1981, spending a total of 216 days in space. Finally, a citizen and Hero of Russia, but a native of Belarus Oleg Novitsky conquered space peaks in 2012, 2016 and 2021, with the total flight time of 531 days and 22 hours in outer space.
The world's first female cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova also has Belarusian roots: her father and mother were born in Mogilev Oblast and Vitebsk Oblast. And a native of Slutsk, Semyon Kosberg was the chief designer of the rocket engine that was part of the third stage of the booster rocket Vostok. Liquid-propellant rocket engines were created under his supervision and helped launch the first cosmonauts into space. The engines helped launch into orbit the spacecraft designed to explore the Moon, Venus and Mars.
In this lineup one cannot help but recall another well-known native of Belarus, a world-famous scientist in the field of cosmonautics Boris Kit. His research and development of fuel for spacecraft made it possible for American Apollos and shuttles to fly into space, including to the Moon.
In other words, Belarusians have been involved in space exploration for a long time, but there have been no citizens of sovereign Belarus among the cosmonauts. It took exactly 20 years to really start the process of selection and preparation of the first Belarusian cosmonaut for the flight.
On 29 November 2001 during his visit to Russia Aleksandr Lukashenko went to the rocket and space corporation Energia. Promising cooperation projects were discussed back then. For example, the possible launch of a joint Belarusian-Russian space satellite. The head of state spent about 2.5 hours at the enterprise. And as a result, he unexpectedly declared: "A cosmonaut from Belarus will definitely fly into space."
A turning point in the history of Belarusian cosmonautics almost happened a few years later, in 2004. When news was released about the possibility of the flight of the first Belarusian cosmonaut, an employee of the Metal-Polymer Research Institute to the ISS. However, the flight did not happen.
How was the first Belarusian satellite created?
In July 2005 Aleksandr Lukashenko again visited Energia Corporation. The president got acquainted with the process of creating the Belarusian space system for remote sensing of Earth and visited the assembly site of the Belarusian spacecraft BelKA. The head of state admitted that he had been nurturing the decision to create a Belarusian satellite for a long time. He wanted not only to preserve the scientific school, but to raise it one more step.
“The decision in favor of creating the satellite was swayed not only by my desire to preserve this school in Belarus, which worked for the sake of the common Soviet space in the past, but because I want to augment it, take it to the next step,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said.
Today scientists describe the president's decision in favor of creating the Belarusian satellite as the key one. It gave a new impetus to the development of the optics industry and the electronics industry in Belarus and without a doubt served as the foundation for creating an entire space industry in the country, stressed Sergei Zolotoi, Director of the R&D enterprise Geoinformation Systems.
The scientist recalled: “The president's decree was signed in 2003 and the first satellite BelKA was made in 2006. It allowed preserving the scientist teams and giving a new boost to the development of an entire space industry in the republic.”
The government passed a number of programs on space industry. Parts, technologies, equipment, and devices were created within their framework. For example, Peleng Company had to develop digital photo cameras for space satellites. Only film cameras were used in the 1990s – early 2000s.
Peleng Company designed equipment of the appropriate standard fit for outer space where temperatures can vary by about 400C. This is why a good temperature control system is needed. The electronics also had to endure biocidal radiation. Calculations were made by the A.V. Lykov Heat and Mass Transfer Institute, Sergei Zolotoi noted.
In order to create a telescope for the satellite, Peleng needed photo-integrated matrixes. “But back then and now the export of photo-integrated matrixes is controlled by the U.S. Department of State. They are not sold to our countries,” Sergei Zolotoi clarified. This is why Integral Company had to create a facility for manufacturing these photo-integrated matrixes. In today's world the availability of such manufacturing facilities is extremely relevant, because Western countries have refused to sell electronics to Belarus and Russia, Sergei Zolotoi is convinced.
Yes, unfortunately, the fate of the first Belarusian satellite was unenviable. The launch at the Baikonur cosmodrome in 2006 ended in failure due to a malfunction of the booster rocket, which was revealed after the launch. As a result, the Belarusian BelKA as well as 16 other satellites never made it to space. But Belarusian engineers acquired colossal experience in creating satellites. And after a few years they achieved their goals. And the Peleng enterprise developed an optical-electronic telescopic complex for the satellite, thanks to which the weight of the apparatus was reduced to 400 kilograms. For comparison, Russian products with similar functionality weighed about 6.5 tonnes at that time.
Did the launch of the second Belarusian satellite recoup the investment?
On 22 July 2012 the Belarusian spacecraft was inserted into orbit. On this day, at about 11 in the morning, Belarus received the first signal from its satellite and became a member of the club of space powers.
“At present all the optoelectronic scanning satellites are used to accomplish national security tasks. You cannot measure the value of these things in economic terms,” the Geoinformation Systems director noted.
When Belarus was launching the first satellite in 2006, there were only 2 or 3 satellites with the resolution of 2 meters in orbit. And the cost of scanning was about $8 per square kilometer while a satellite like that could scan about 100,000km2 every 24 hours. “If you make calculations and sell even 10% of the scanning output, you'd still recoup investments in two years. But the situation changed drastically in 2012. A lot of satellites became available. The cost of scanning at this resolution is now close to about $0.30. In other words, the cost dropped by more than 20 times. But the cost of making a satellite like that did not change much,” Sergei Zolotoi said.
On the one hand, the space data market becomes more and more competitive every year. But on the other hand, when a critical situation happens, one just cannot buy the data. “At present it is impossible to buy high-resolution space data over the territory of Ukraine or Belarus. You simply cannot buy foreign satellite data. If you have no satellite of your own, then you don't have this data,” Sergei Zolotoi explained.
This is why while evaluating the economic effectiveness of the project to create the first Belarusian satellite, it is necessary to take into account not only a direct commercial effect but indirect ones, too. “So far earnings from selling the technologies and devices, which were developed in the course of realizing the project, exceed the cost of making the BKA satellite and operating the entire system by more than $30 million,” Sergei Zolotoi said.
The information transmitted by the satellite is used by tens of organizations in the republic. BKA is indispensable in the work of the border service, surveyors and firefighters. In addition, the satellite contributes to the work of the real sector of the economy and Belarusian science. Most importantly, state-owned enterprises receive information from space free of charge.
Thanks to the remote Earth sensing system the Belarusian Emergencies Ministry receives complete information about temperature anomalies, fires, including in adjacent territories. This is why Sergei Zolotoi recalled when a major fire happened in the Chernobyl exclusion zone in 2019. Two weeks before the fire got close to Belarusian borders the Belarusian Emergencies Ministry had information about the emergency although the Ukrainian side flatly denied the fire had happened. The relevant work was done near the border in order to stop the fire from spreading just in case. “As a result, when the fire reached our border, it was stopped virtually at the border. Four hectares were burned on our side. Several thousand hectares were burned on the Ukrainian side,” the Geoinformation Systems director said.
How many satellites does Belarus have?
Belarus has a total of three spacecraft. A "student" satellite of Belarusian State University is owned by the Education Ministry. The communication satellite Belintersat-1 belongs to the State Authority for Military Industry of Belarus. It was launched into orbit by a Chinese booster rocket and became a key element of the national satellite communications and broadcasting system. The Belintersat ground control complex is located in the town of Stankovo, Dzerzhinsk District. And finally, the third satellite is the BKA. A satellite for the remote sensing of Earth. Today it operates in a group with Russian Canopus satellites.
“Back in the day we started by providing satellite creation services to other countries. Now we can create satellites on our own thanks to manufacturing cooperation. We can launch them into space with someone's help, we don't need cosmodromes. We control the satellite, receive products from it and sell them. Everything is in our hands. Launching a satellite, building a mission control center is a job for many enterprises and thousands of people. For me, our development of related industries was the main thing,” Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko said as he visited the ground control center of the national satellite communication and broadcasting system in 2016.
What will the first cosmonaut of sovereign Belarus do in orbit?
But let's go back to our cosmonauts. On 4 November 2021 at a session of the Supreme State Council of the Union State President of Russia Vladimir Putin suddenly recalled the long-standing proposal of Belarus to include its cosmonaut in the International Space Station (ISS) crew. He said: “We are ready to support this proposal and implement it in the near future. We need to agree the details. They are there, and they are not difficult to agree on.”
After that, as they say, things went into motion. And the parties came to the current stage when a manned flight is becoming more than real.
More than 3,000 Belarusians declared their desire to fly into space. But only six girls were granted a chance to go through the selection process at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center near Moscow. The girls are going through medical selection for now. The medical commission is supposed to issue its recommendations by the end of the year. After that, the Belarusian side will decide on priority applicants. Most likely, the names of the main candidate and the backup one will become known at the beginning of 2023.
They will go through typical stages of training related to spacecraft flight and operation of life support systems. And then they will be taught how to perform scientific experiments during the flight. According to Sergei Zolotoi, the experiments will test the technologies Belarusian scientists are interested in.
“The experiment program is being worked out in association with Roscosmos. It has to be synchronized with the experiments Russia has planned beforehand,” he said.
Sergei Zolotoi is convinced that Belarusian scientists will need years to process the data the Belarusian cosmonaut will acquire during the upcoming flight. “The flight is not supposed to be very lengthy. But in this time the cosmonaut will be able to acquire so much factual information that will need a long time to process afterwards. No doubt, it will benefit our production sector and science,” he stressed.
But will everything really be in vain for those who do not become cosmonauts? While taking to the girls, Aleksandr Lukashenko revealed a little secret to them. It concerned an agreement with Director General of the state corporation Roscosmos Yuri Borisov.
“He says this: well, if their health is acceptable, then they will not get lost, we will use them in the Russian-Belarusian segment of space flights. So don't you worry. Whoever does not fly the first time will fly the next time. There will be enough work for everyone. Thank you very much. I think you and I will meet with many times. I want everything to work out for you. You won't regret joining this team,” the head of state promised.
Belarus and Russia obviously do not intend to stop on this path. On 12 April 2022, on Cosmonautics Day Aleksandr Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin visited the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Amur Oblast. There the presidents agreed on the joint formation of the infrastructure that will provide the countries with an independent access to outer space. Belarus will not only send its representative into orbit as part of a Russian crew, but will also take part in the construction of the Vostochny Cosmodrome.
Aleksandr Lukashenko noted back then: “If it seems to someone that it is some kind of ordinary visit of two presidents to this facility… Speaking from the point of view of Belarus, it is the highest degree of trust. After all, we arrived at a restricted-access facility where you bring almost no one. The appearance of the president of another country, even a kindred, friendly one is still the highest degree of trust on your part, on the part of Russia.”
Belarus went from the development of individual materials and components in the Soviet period to the creation of its own satellites and the mission control center in the years of independence. We just have to wait a bit and a new constellation of Belarusian cosmonauts will join the international team in Earth's orbit. And of course we will tell you more about it.