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23 July 2020, 14:44

With Pride in Heart: Belarus' achievements in space exploration

Belarus pays special attention to space. The country has made great strides in recent decades. The Belarusian satellite for the remote sensing of Earth, the Belintersat-1 communications satellite and the educational nanosatellite BSU Sat-1 of Belarusian State University are working in low-Earth orbit. The national space science has been gaining steam, from optics to materials science. Belarusian companies produce equipment and components for spacecraft. In an interview with BelTA Chairman of the Presidium of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus (NASB) Vladimir Gusakov talks about the development of a new satellite and the country's prospects for sending a cosmonaut into space.

Belarusian satellites

With the launch of the Belarusian satellite, the country has become one of the space powers. How long was the journey?

The head of state made a decision to create a Belarusian spacecraft and a Belarusian space system for the remote sensing of Earth in 2003. The country needed to lay out the conditions to receive, process and use space data for the needs of different industries. The NASB has become a regulatory body for the space program, and its Geoinformation Systems company - the national operator of the space system.

The first Belarusian satellite was made by Russian Rocket and Space Corporation RSC Energia in 2006. It was launched, however the Dnepr rocket suffered an engine failure and crashed destroying the satellite. The new project was executed by the NASB United Institute of Informatics Problems and Geoinformation Systems, OAO Peleng and the All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Electromechanics.

The Belarusian satellite and a similar Russian satellite Canopus-B No.1 were successfully launched into orbit on 12 July 2012 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. They are part of the joint Russian-Belarusian grouping of Earth remote sensing satellites. In January this year, the National Academy of Sciences and the State Corporation Roscosmos signed an agreement to expand the capabilities of the grouping using the capabilities of the Russian satellites Canopus-B No.3, 4, 5, 6, and Canopus-B-IK.

Having launched the satellite, Belarus got an opportunity to participate in international projects and join international organizations. The country became member of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. An agreement on cooperation in space exploration and use for peaceful purposes between the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus and the UN Office on Space Affairs is in the works. The country has signed and ratified similar intergovernmental cooperation agreements with Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. Today it is safe to say that Belarus has developed a space industry which involves more than 20 research and manufacturing organizations, about 4,000 professionals, and a large strategic system of space exploration.

What industries use space data most today? Is there any interest in our space images abroad?

Thanks to the launch of the satellite, Belarus has secured its information sovereignty in the field of Earth remote sensing data. Belarusian space images are used by more than 20 enterprises and organizations of 11 government agencies. Information from the Belarusian satellite is used to ensure national security, monitor natural and man-made emergencies, study the state of natural landscapes, agriculture, state land registry, road renovation and construction. Satellite images are used to make topographical and navigational maps, in geo-surveying and aerospace education. Space data is the cornerstone of many information technologies.

The Belarusian space system for the remote sensing of Earth has spurred the development of many related industries in the country such as optical-electronic engineering (OAO Peleng), microelectronic components (OAO Integral), software, materials, components for space systems (National Academy of Sciences). Images from the Belarusian spacecraft are also sold to foreign customers, mostly Russia and Kazakhstan.

A number of technical solutions were developed during the creation of the Belarusian satellite. As of June 2020, these solutions generated $27 million in profit.

The Belarusian spacecraft has been operating in low-Earth orbit for eight years already. Do you plan to continue operating it?

The technical condition of the spacecraft allows predicting its operability until the end of 2021. All onboard systems of the spacecraft are operating normally, the satellite is performing all of its tasks and functions properly. This is due to the efforts of highly qualified technical specialists of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus and the manufacturer (Russia's VNIIEM Corporation).

The expected useful life of such satellites is five years. Its operation until the end of 2021 is almost equivalent to the development of another similar spacecraft. In other words, we actually saved money that would be needed to develop another satellite. The decision to extend the operation of the spacecraft after 2021 will be made most likely in the second half of the next year, based on an analysis of its technical condition.

Belarusian State University has launched its nanosatellite into orbit. How actively do the university and academic science collaborate in the space industry?

Belarusian State University is a leading educational institution in the aerospace field in Belarus. The BSU Sat-1 scientific and educational nanosatellite developed by Belarusian State University and launched from China's Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in 2018, is used for training. At the Center of Aerospace Education at Belarusian State University there is a station for handling and receiving information from a student satellite. So the nanosatellite can be used as a flying laboratory. Students have an opportunity to study space technologies in real conditions.

Academic and university science actively collaborate in the space field. Research institutions of the National Academy of Sciences and the Education Ministry joined forces for the Belarusian space program of 2008-2012. Now we are working on the subprogram "Exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes" of the state program "Science-intensive technologies and equipment" for 2016-2020. In addition, academic and university research centers carried out a wide range of joint research while implementing six Union State space research and technical programs in 1999-2017. Now work continues on two more Union State space programs.

Projects with foreign partners

When will the Russian-Belarusian satellite be launched? What are the advantages of the new spacecraft over the existing one?

- The new satellite is under development now. The preliminary design stage is coming to a close. After that, its technical characteristics, terms of development and launch, cost of work will be finalized. The Russian-Belarusian spacecraft will have a spatial resolution of 0.35 m (the existing satellite - 2 m). The new satellite will significantly surpass the existing one in such basic parameters as image resolution and productivity, it will have an improved stereo mode and a new video mode.

The capabilities of the new spacecraft will make it possible to address a number of new tasks related to national security, monitoring of the territory of Belarus and adjacent lands. The new satellite will help make an inventory of natural resources, industrial infrastructure and utility services, monitor processes in agriculture, forestry, fishing, water and other industries, create and update topographic maps with the scale of up to 1:25 000 and city maps with the scale of up to 1:10 000. It will also be useful for drawing general geographic and thematic maps, digital elevation models, monitoring pollution and degradation of natural resources, responding to emergency situations, and conducting environmental monitoring.

The EAEU countries intend to create a Eurasian space grouping. Could you tell us more about your plans to combine satellite resources?

Of all the EAEU member states, only Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan have satellites in orbit. In 2016, the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council decided to develop proposals on the integration of the national space systems of the Union. The proposals were approved and the development of an interstate program began in December 2018.

The document is aimed at addressing urgent organizational and technical issues in accordance with the state policy pursued by the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, the Ministry of Digital Development, Innovation and Aerospace Industry of Kazakhstan and the State Corporation Roscosmos to develop international cooperation of the EAEU countries in space activities.

The program envisages the development of a joint orbital grouping of satellites of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia, a common space data bank and new satellites. Plans are in place for two satellites similar to the Russian-Belarusian spacecraft. They will be equipped with Belarusian-made imaging equipment. Belarus will also upgrade the ground infrastructure of its space system in order to integrate it with other EAEU countries.

In 2018, Belarus hosted the International Congress of the Association of Space Explorers. Has the country been able to strengthen ties with foreign partners?

Hosting such a large-scale international event in the country has become both a matter of pride for the NASB and an opportunity to become more widely involved in international space activities. The Congress was attended by over 80 cosmonauts and astronauts from 18 countries, as well as leading foreign and Belarusian scientists and specialists. The total number of participants of the Congress was more than 450 people. The guests praised the scientific and technical potential of Belarus and the achievements of Belarusian scientists, specialists and industrialists in the space sector.

The Congress became an important stage in the development of international scientific and technical cooperation. It contributed to strengthening the status of Belarus as a space power, enhancing the authority of Belarusian space science, expanding mutually beneficial cooperation between Belarusian and foreign businessmen, scientists and specialists. The forum undoubtedly added a new impetus to the development of space exploration by Belarus and the attraction of a young generation of space explorers.

One of the practical results of the forum was the participation of the NASB as a scientific partner in the SIRIUS international scientific project in 2018. The project is run by the Institute of Biomedical Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) of the United States in cooperation with organizations-partners of Germany, Italy, Japan and other countries.

During the new phase of the SIRIUS international experiment, the crew is to spend eight months in isolation simulating an expedition to the Moon. Does Belarus plan to participate?

A cooperation agreement has been signed between the Academy of Sciences of Belarus and the Institute of Biomedical Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences. An employee of the Central Botanical Garden of the National Academy of Sciences Daniil Dubar passed the competitive selection and joined the international crew that spent four months in isolation in a special ground complex.

We plan to continue participation in the project. Our representative is a candidate for inclusion in the crew of the ground complex for eight months of isolation. Moreover, an agreement has been reached with the organizers of the project to conduct a number of experiments during this period. They have been initiated by the Center of Brain of the Institute of Physiology of the NASB.


What famous cosmonauts are related to Belarus?

Belarusian nationals who were in space are well-known in our country. Two-time Hero of the Soviet Union Pyotr Klimuk and Vladimir Kovalenok made their flights in the Soviet times. Oleg Novitsky is a pilot-cosmonaut of the Russian Federation. Both Klimuk and Kovalenok were sent into orbit three times, Novitsky - twice. Other cosmonauts have Belarusian roots as well. These are Valentina Tereshkova, Oleg Artemyev, Anton Shkaplerov, Georgy Grechko. Belarusians have made and continue making a great contribution to the development of cosmonautics in the USSR and Russia, working as designers, technical engineers, scientists and managers of organizations and enterprises.

Do you think it is possible that one day a cosmonaut representing Belarus will go into space?

In my opinion, it is necessary to expand the country's presence in space. The plan to prepare and send into orbit the first cosmonaut of sovereign Belarus may seem very ambitious. However, the first steps in this direction are being taken already.

During the meeting with Director General of the State Corporation Roscosmos Dmitry Rogozin in January 2020 we reached an agreement that Belarusian scientists will visit the Gagarin Research & Test Cosmonaut Training Center in order to get familiar with its operation. We've sent a list of the employees of research organizations of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus whom we intend to send there. The organizations include the Radiobiology Institute, the Central Botanical Garden, the Applied Science Center for Bioresources, and the Physiology Institute.

These NASB representatives can be later viewed as potential Belarusian candidates, who can be trained in the Gagarin Research & Test Cosmonaut Training Center and participate in space flights. The possibility of evaluating their fitness for space flights is being discussed.

The NASB representatives will visit the Gagarin Research & Test Cosmonaut Training Center once all the coronavirus restrictions are lifted. The possibility of participation of NASB representatives in Roscosmos' ground experiments using research products of Belarusian scientists will be discussed during the visit as well.


A space exploration agency was established in Belarus in 2015. What tasks has it been able to accomplish since then?

The agency takes care of coordinating all the space-related efforts in the country. Its primary task is to organize the operation and development of the Belarusian space system for the remote sensing of Earth. The agency interacts with the State Authority for Military Industry of Belarus and the authority's subordinate enterprises and organizations in matters concerning the use of the communications satellite Belintersat-1, the development of unmanned aerial vehicles, and core equipment for satellites. Apart from that, the agency performs expert evaluation of work and services, which are done in Belarus, and confirms or declines that the work and the services are space-related and can be exempted from VAT.

Since its inception the agency has been one of the organizers of the Belarusian Space Congress. Seven congresses have been held so far. The eighth one was supposed to take place in October, however, unfortunately, due to the current epidemic situation it has been postponed till 2021.

One of the main tasks of the agency is to advance international cooperation in space exploration. Belarus traditionally cooperates with Russia most intensively in matters of space exploration and usage. Two space exploration programs of the Union State of Belarus and Russia are in progress now – Technology-SG and Integration-SG. The former is dedicated to the development of comprehensive technologies for creating materials, devices, and key components of space hardware while the latter is aimed at updating and harmonizing legislative support, organizational support, software and hardware to enable the use of remote Earth sensing systems of Belarus and Russia.

Cooperation in the area of space exploration develops vigorously with other countries of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Commonwealth of Independent States, too. Belarus takes an active part in the development of a Eurasian technology platform for space and geoinformation technologies. Apart from that, Belarus now presides in the CIS Interstate Council for Outer Space.

What space technologies of Belarusian design deserve praise?

I can state with confidence that today the Belarusian space industry has reached the world-class technological level. OAO Peleng makes optic and electronic equipment for high-detail footage. Core equipment of Belarusian make is used in all the Russian satellites of the Canopus series as well as other Russian space satellites made for foreign customers as part of commercial contracts. OAO Integral now makes a broad range of new electronic components for space equipment. The components are used by manufacturers of missiles, rockets, and space equipment in Russia and non-CIS states. Organizations of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus have designed and introduced innovative technologies for data processing, for manufacturing new products and materials for space applications. Software has been developed to run space systems and handle various monitoring tasks.

Let me give you one illustrative example. In 2018 the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency launched an orbiter to Mercury. The orbiter was fitted with multilayer screens made by the Applied Science Center for Materials Science of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus. The screens are designed to protect the orbiter from electromagnetic radiation in outer space.

In the future we see prospects of creating a series of satellites and experimental research technologies to use the satellites for the sake of development of various branches of the Belarusian economy. We would like to create new materials for outer space. As a result we will be able to talk about high effectiveness and high returns on investments in the supranational space industry.

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