December 29, 2011:
A year after losing three navigation satellites to a faulty Proton rocket, Russia recently lost a Meridian military communications satellite when a Soyuz-2 launcher malfunctioned and sent the satellite crashing back to earth. This was to have been the fifth Meridian placed in orbit and this loss may have a serious impact on Russian military communications. The old Molniya communications birds have all worn out and the new Meridians have had too many failures.
Last May Russia launched the fourth Meridian 2 military communications satellite. The Meridian model is replacing the 1960s era Molniya communications birds. Over a hundred Molniya satellites have been launched in the last half century, with a 94 percent success rate. Initially, eight Molniyas were needed in orbit to cover the entire planet. That was later reduced to four, as the basic Molniya design was improved. The last Molniya was launched in 2005 and was to be replaced by the Meridian 1 series. The first Meridian 1 went up in 2006 but did not last as long as expected and was deactivated after 30 months. The second Meridian went up in 2009 but failed to achieve the proper orbit. The third Meridian, in 2010, was a success. The fourth one, earlier this year, was also a success. But three of five Meridian launches so far have been failures.
The new Meridian 2 borrows a lot of technology from the GLONASS navigation satellites. The GLONASS birds are very advanced, as they are meant to compete with the American GPS. The original Molniya satellites were simply relays for teletype, telegraph, or radio. But as new communications needs developed (TV, digital) these were added. Like most Russian satellites, the early Molniyas only lasted a few years. This meant there was little risk of getting stuck with obsolete technology up there, or having to wait a long time to put a new communications tech into service. Meridian is built to Western standards and expected to last a lot longer and do a lot more. But Meridians are also a lot more expensive and take longer to build.
Russia has had several satellite and launcher disasters in the past year, causing a shakeup in their space agency. Over a decade of neglect after the end of the Cold War (in 1991), and the flight of the best talent to more lucrative jobs, left Russia with some serious quality control problems.