The panorama of Russian space startups has seen, in the last ten years, a flourishing of projects that have had to clash with insurmountable problems inherent to the scarcity of investments, especially due to embargoes. The situation has been further complicated by the invasion of Ukraine and the resulting conflict.
But someone managed to put three satellites into orbit and experiment with the potential of a system that aims, on the one hand, to challenge the federal Sfera program, and on the other to constitute a low-cost alternative to SpaceX’s Starlink constellation.
On June 27, 2023, a Moscow-based company called Bjuro 1440 launched three experimental 80-kilogram Rassvet-1, the Russian word for Dawn, satellites, which, after an initial misstep, were developed in just three years.
Three months later, in October 2023, Bjuro 1440 announced that Russia’s first Internet call via a low-orbit satellite had been successfully completed through their platform. The test demonstrated, although with still undersized transmission speeds (12 Mb/s in downlink and 7 Mb/s in uplink) the interconnection system between the satellites, their automatic orbit correction system, and the autonomous propulsion system.
Once fully operational, the Rassvet constellation should enable downlink speeds between 50 Mb/s and 1 Gb/s.
A name that evokes Sputnik
The name of this startup evokes the first satellite in history, Sputnik-1 for many reasons.
First of all, like the famous Soviet satellite, it weighs 80 kg, exactly as much as what was called, in the original project, PS-1, i.e. a simplified satellite, Prosteishy Sputnik in Russian.
The number 1440, then, recalls the 1440 orbits that Sputnik-1 made before re-entering the atmosphere on January 4, 1958.Lastly, the word Bjuro which in Russian means office, evokes what was once called OKB, an acronym that stands for Opytnoe konstruktorskoe bjuro, Experimental Design Office.
Bjuro’s 1440 plans
In 2023, Bjuro 1440 promised the launch of experimental Rassvet-2 satellites starting in early 2024 for further testing of inter-satellite communications. The company also declared plans for deploying its Starlink’s rival as early as 2025.
According to initial plans, the 900 satellites will be launched by 2035. The general director of Bjuro 1440, Aleksei Shelobkov, announced that the goal is to begin full operation of the system in 2027 which will provide internet access everywhere in Russia and 75 foreign countries.
But where does Bjuro 1440 come from?
The Bjuro 1440 project is essentially in competition with the federally funded Sfera program, intended among other things to provide similar services. However, it seems that the government is not intent on hindering private rivals, on the contrary.
First called Megafon 1440, announced by the main Russian mobile phone supplier in October 2020, the project then changed hands and became Bjuro 1440. It garnered support from the Russian federal agencies, responsible for communications and digital development, who assigned it frequencies in the Ka and Ku bands, and, given the military importance of the Starlink-like satellite system, also by the Russian Ministry of Defense.
Bjuro 1440, at the end of 2022, was owned 33% by the Moscow fund Mercury Capital Trust, and 45.51% by the president of the Petrosibir AB oil company Timofei Kotenev and the executive of the Russian search engine Yandex Dmitry Stepanov Another Russian businessman, Dmitry Kuznetsov, owns 8.99%.
The company announced it is employing 500 people while continuing to hire and offering salaries up to twice the current industry rates. Bjuro 1440 inaugurated its assembly facilities and mission control room, clearly modeled after SpaceX’s control room in California, and is planning to build more ground infrastructure.
The technological and logistical challenge
Even with sufficient funding, questions remain about how a Russian company could access the know-how needed to build a cutting-edge space system while the country is under heavy sanctions.
According to rumors, Bjuro 1440 may have been trying to reverse engineer the OneWeb satellites, a whole batch of which were left stranded in Russian-controlled Baikonur when Roscosmos canceled the system’s 14th launch following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But the challenge, as well as being technological, is above all logistical. It involves establishing an assembly line for satellites, ground equipment, and end-user terminals, requiring a production capacity far superior to anything ever built in Russia.
Again, the problem arises of how to launch between 10 and 12 Soyuz rockets per year at the peak of system deployment mines, carrying approximately 15 satellites each. The Soyuz S1 launch pad at Vostochny is officially capable of supporting up to a total of 10 launches per year, which were expected to be shared by all civilian users of the rocket.
For comparison, in 2021, OneWeb achieved eight Soyuz launches per year, the highest rate during the system’s deployment, relying on Baikonur and Vostochny. In the same year, the Soyuz family of rockets flew a total of 22 missions.
From the latest press releases from the Bjuro 1440 company, we are likely thinking of a reduction in the number of satellites in the constellation from 900 to 737. Certainly, high-speed internet that reaches all corners of a given territory is a challenge destined to fascinate us for many years.