Polyus: the Real Death Star?

While suspicion, fear, and fantasy, at times were closely associated with the Cold War period in terms of how the USA and the USSR viewed one another’s respective actions, it became clear that space projects were not exempt from this mutual scrutiny either. One such project which did little to dispel international tensions at the time was the Soviet Union’s top secret satellite Polyus-Skif, which in Russian refers to the North Pole and effectively means “Pole-Barbarian”.  This was in fact a prototype laser armed orbital battlestation.

At 37m long and over 4m across, Polyus-Skif was an enormous 80 tonne spacecraft which possessed its own space resupply tug to control its orbit once in space. Too heavy to be carried to space on the back of the USSR’s standard heavy-lift launcher, the Proton rocket, its launch became a major event for the cosmonautic world, as it was to have been the first object to be taken into space on the Soviet Union’s new and most powerful ever launch vehicle, the superheavy launch system, Energia.

Polyus mounted on its Energia launcher (Image credit: NASA from NASA RP 1357 Mir Hardware Heritage by David S. F. Portree)

Polyus mounted on its Energia launcher (Image credit: NASA from NASA RP 1357 Mir Hardware Heritage by David S. F. Portree)

However as the lower-half of the Polyus-Skif spacecraft would not be able to withstand the vibrations from Energia’s roaring engines, the engineers came up with a extraordinary solution.  Polyus-Skif was mounted upside down on the upper half of the rocket. On its way to space the plan demanded that it would separate from the launcher, rotate 180 degrees and complete its journey into orbit!

So as the largest satellite ever launched in one piece, (even larger than NASA’s Skylab space station), what exactly was Polyus? Well while very few Russians even know in full, and those who do have never disclosed it to the public arena for fear of a ten year prison sentence for disclosing “state secrets”, intended to be armed with a 1 Megawatt carbon dioxide laser Polyus-Skif is widely considered to have been the Soviet answer to the American SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative), nicknamed the ‘Star Wars’ project.

Polyus in launch configuration with the fairing partially cutaway to reveal the vehicle including the FGB-based service/propulsion module.

Polyus in launch configuration with the fairing partially cutaway to reveal the vehicle including the FGB-based service/propulsion module. (Image credit: NASA from NASA RP 1357 Mir Hardware Heritage by David S. F. Portree)

 

SDI was a plan for space-based “shield” outlined by President Reagan on 23 March 1983 as a would-be global defence for the USA from nuclear attacks. While testing of ground-based laser weapons and theoretical research into space-based laser weapons had been going on in the Russian camp for decades “just in case” they ever went to war with America, it seems that Reagan’s speech was the catalyst for the then Soviet leader Yuri Andropov to authorise the full go-ahead on project Polyus-Skif. Unbeknown to the Russians following Reagan’s speech, American research into laser weaponry for space had all but floundered, moreover a Soviet-funded feasibility study of the Strategic Defence Initiative had in fact already found the US space shield concept to be untenable. None-the-less, according to Peter Westwick, history professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, figures in the Kremlin were already entertaining fears of “selective political assassination” from invisible overhead weapons that could “zap you”! Furthermore, to the Russian mind the ‘economically unaccountable’ creation and launch of the US’s Shuttle Orbiter in 1981 led them to believe that it was a transporter vehicle for space-based weapons to an American Earth-orbiting battlestation or a space bomber for bombing Moscow from Earth’s upper atmosphere. The Politburo therefore urgently increased funding to the Polyus-Skif battlestation project in the hope of seeing Soviet high-powered laser lab tests finally turned into anti-missile hardware. So what exactly did the suspected Soviet weapons platform comprise of?

 

To meet the accelerated launch schedule Polyus-Skif borrowed solar panels from the Russian military space stations program, Almaz. For Polyus to produce a laser beam of megawatt proportions it required two bulky generators and carbon dioxide gas tanks to be taken into space. However the Russians realised that the hot gas jets expelled during the process of laser production would initiative movement, something which would disadvantage the battlestation’s prospects of accurately targeting hostile satellites with its laser. To therefore counteract any unwanted motion in the satellite, the weapons platform was forced to become bigger and heavier with the addition of a rotating turret to point the beam.

Testing a giant laser is difficult enough on the Earth’s surface (in fact during its development the laser was mounted on a large Il-76 cargo plane and test fired in flight) , doing it in space would be a stupendous achievement. Yet this seemed to have been not enough, as even more exotic and untried military technology was bolted on to the vehicle. Polyus was also believed to possess a sensor blinding laser and barium cloud generation system to confuse and incapacitate enemy ASAT satellites, stealth radar observational capabilities in the form of a radar and optical sighting system-guided ASAT defensive cannon and a laser communication link which is considered necessary for a spacecraft to function in radio silence. Adding to the craft’s sinister appearance was its menacing black colour scheme; it was coated with matt black paint presumably for purposes of camouflage in space. To confuse the media, “Mir-2” was prominently painted on the vehicle when it was launched.

However, although fed for a time by paranoia in the military, the huge battle station project eventually began to lose momentum as Polyus-Skif ultimately started to face opposition from some on its own side. Russian reluctance and a wide divergence of opinion could be seen almost from the start when in the months after authorising Polyus-Skif, then premier Yuri Andropov endeavoured to create a treaty banning military weapons in space until his final illness. Further political pressure was placed on the scheme by Mikhail Gorbachev and his allies whose state priorities included cutting back on unnecessary spending. Another concern was that the testing of Polyus  would cast doubt on public statements of the USSR’s peaceful intent, according to Yuri Kornilov, Chief Designer of the Salyut Design Bureau, Gorbachev appeared at the Baikonur Cosmodrome before Polyus’ launch prohibiting the on-orbit testing of the spacecraft’s capabilities. As a result the launch in 1987 is believed to have been no more than a ‘dummy run’ of launching the battlestation prototype.

Supporters of this view claim that the 60 tonne Laser Module was never installed onboard, only a ‘dummy’ of identical weight. With the Soviet space shuttle Buran project delayed and a vacant heavy launcher available, Energia provided the opportunity to hurry the battlestation along and at least test some of its apparatus in orbit. Despite its probable laser combat station status, officially the Soviet Union only ever referred to Polyus-Skif as a type of “experimental apparatus” for conducting “peaceful” scientific experiments. As a further means of throwing dust in the American hawk-eyes that were sure to be glued to the Soviet launch at the time, it is also believed that the Russians replaced the laser-beam-producing carbon dioxide gas cargo in the prototype satellite with a mixture of xenon and krypton to be used in scientific experiments.

Polyus-Skif departed Earth from the Baikonur cosmodrome on 15 May 1987. On its way to space however something went wrong. It briefly boosted, but with the main engine failing to provide adequate thrust, it slowed, burned and broke up as it fell back down into the South Pacific ocean. Whatever the true objective, the mission had failed and perhaps due to the condition of the Communist economy at the time, the spacecraft was never rebuilt. To a greater or lesser degree the Polyus-Skif project has remained enveloped in a cloud of mystery to this day, the US Navy has never confirmed or denied attempts to examine the wreckage on the sea floor of the Pacific, nor has any American administration publicly admitted knowledge of the satellite’s existence. With the prototype spacecraft having failed and the mission having died a death along with it, it might be fair to presume that Polyus-Skif would have been a space project with no legacy, however this is not actually the case. Some of its hardware did ultimately make it to space but for more civilised purposes. Its nose cone was incorporated into the Spektr, Priroda, Kristall, and Kvant-2 Mir modules, and it electric block ‘Paddle’ renamed as the  Zarya FGB (Functional Cargo Block) actually became the very first part of the International Space Station.

(Article by Nick Parke, Education Support Officer)