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Soyuz launches Russian military spy satellite

A Russian military satellite launched Saturday from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome aboard a Soyuz rocket, heading for an unusual orbital altitude of more than 1,200 miles to begin a top secret mission.

The Soyuz launcher took off from Plesetsk, located about 500 miles (800 kilometers) north of Moscow, and headed into orbit with a spacecraft for the Russian Ministry of Defense, military officials said in a statement.

Liftoff of the Soyuz-2.1a rocket occurred at 0700 GMT (2 a.m. EST; 10 a.m. Moscow time) Saturday, according to the defense ministry.

The launcher blasted off from the snow-covered cosmodrome with nearly a million pounds of thrust from its kerosene-fueled engines, then arced northeast to take aim on an orbital plane inclined 67 degrees to the equator.

The first stage’s four booster engines shut down and separated two minutes into the mission, followed by cutoff and jettison of the core stage and a burn with the Soyuz third stage to reach a suborbital trajectory. A Fregat upper stage then fired to maneuver the Russian military payload into the proper orbit for deployment.

The Russian Ministry of Defense declared the launch a success in a post-flight press release. U.S. military tracking data confirmed the successful launch, indicating the Fregat upper stage placed its payload into an unusual orbit more than 1,200 miles (nearly 2,000 kilometers) above Earth. At that altitude, the spacecraft circles Earth once every 127 minutes.

Russian officials officially named the satellite Kosmos 2553, keeping with the country’s naming scheme for military spacecraft. The defense ministry said Kosmos 2553 is a technology demonstration spacecraft with “newly-developed on-board instruments and systems” to be tested under the influence of radiation and charged particles in space.

Some analysts believe Kosmos 2553 is likely an imaging surveillance satellite for the Russian military, possibly the first in a new series of radar reconnaissance satellites called Neitron. Radar satellites can collect all-weather, day-and-night surveillance images.

Russia’s military has debuted several new satellite programs in recent years, including Pion-NKS and Lotos satellites to intercept radio transmissions and help Russian intelligence officers locate foreign shipping traffic, including naval forces. Russia has also launched military spacecraft in the last few years that appear to have tested anti-satellite capabilities in orbit, according to U.S. officials.

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