Proton (satellite program)

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Proton 1, 2, 3, and 4
A Proton satellite
Mission typeAstronomy
OperatorSoviet Union
  • 1965-054A (Proton 1)
  • 1965-087A (Proton 2)
  • 1966-060A (Proton 3)
  • 1968-103A (Proton 4)
Spacecraft properties
Launch mass
  • 12,200 kg (26,900 lb) (Proton 1)
  • 12,200 kg (26,900 lb) (Proton 2)
  • 12,200 kg (26,900 lb) (Proton 3)
  • 17,000 kg (37,000 lb) (Proton 4)
Start of mission
Launch date
  • Proton 1: 16 July 1965 11:16 (1965-07-16UTC11:16Z) UTC
  • Proton 2: 2 November 1965 12:28 (1965-11-02UTC12:28Z) UTC
  • Proton 3: 6 July 1966 12:57 (1966-07-06UTC12:57Z) UTC
  • Proton 4: 16 November 1968 11:40 (1968-11-16UTC11:40Z) UTC
RocketUR-500 (1–3), Proton-K (4)
Launch siteBaikonur Cosmodrome Site 81/23 (1–3), Baikonur Cosmodrome Site 81/24 (4)
End of mission
Decay date
  • Proton 1: 11 October 1965 (1965-10-12Z)
  • Proton 2: 6 February 1966 (1966-02-07Z)
  • Proton 3: 6 September 1966 (1966-09-07Z)
  • Proton 4: 24 July 1969 (1969-07-25Z)
Orbital parameters
Reference systemGeocentric
Eccentricity.030 (1–3), .017 (4)
Perigee altitude
  • Proton 1: 183 kilometres (114 mi)
  • Proton 2: 189 kilometres (117 mi)
  • Proton 3: 185 kilometres (115 mi)
  • Proton 4: 248 kilometres (154 mi)
Apogee altitude
  • Proton 1: 589 kilometres (366 mi)[1]
  • Proton 2: 608 kilometres (378 mi)[2]
  • Proton 3: 585 kilometres (364 mi)[3]
  • Proton 4: 477 kilometres (296 mi)
Inclination63.5° (1–3), 31.5° (4)
Period~92 minutes (1–4)

Proton (Russian: протон) ('proton') was a Soviet series of four cosmic ray and elementary particle detecting satellites. Orbited 1965–68, three on test flights of the UR-500 ICBM and one on a Proton-K rocket, all four satellites completed their missions successfully, the last reentering the Earth's atmosphere in 1969.


The Proton satellites were heavy automated laboratories launched 1965–68 to study high energy particles and cosmic rays.[5] These satellites were built to utilize the test launches of the UR-500, a heavy two-stage ICBM designed by Vladimir Chelomey's OKB-52 to carry a 100-megaton nuclear payload. Each Proton was housed in a purpose-built third stage added to the UR-500 stack.[6]

Spacecraft design[edit]

Schematic of the Proton satellite

Protons 1–3 were largely identical craft massing 12,200 kg (26,900 lb), with scientific packages developed under the supervision of Academician Sergey Nikolayevich Vernov of Moscow State University's Scientific-Research Institute of Nuclear Physics.[6] Experiments included a gamma-ray telescope, a scintillator telescope, and proportional counters.[7] The counters were able to determine the total energy of each super-high energy cosmic particle individually, a capability no prior satellite had possessed. Though the equipment had been developed eight years earlier (by Professor N. L. Grigorov), the UR-500 was the first booster powerful enough to orbit a satellite carrying the sensitive particle counter.[8] The counters could measure cosmic rays with energy levels up to 100 million eV.[9]

Proton 3 also was equipped with a gas-Cerenkov-scintillator telescope[10] to attempt to detect the newly postulated fundamental particle, the quark. The entire experiment package massed 4,000 kg (8,800 lb) and was composed of metal, plastic, and paraffin blocks.[9]

Telemetry was relayed via a 19.910 MHz beacon. Four solar panels powered the crafts, which were cooled by heat exchangers. The Protons were spin-stabilized, their attitude controlled by jet and an on-board dampener. Satellite systems were controlled by an internal computer.[7]

Proton 4 was considerably more massive at 17,000 kg (37,000 lb). Its primary instrument was an ionization calorimeter composed of steel bars and plastic scintillators. A measuring device comprising one lump of carbon and another of polyethylene[9] provided data on cosmic rays and the energy spectrum in orbit, the possible collisions of cosmic ray particles with atmospheric nuclei of hydrogen, carbon, and iron, and continued the search for the quark.[4]


Proton 1[edit]

Proton 1 was launched into Earth orbit 16 July 1965 11:16 UTC from Baikonur Cosmodrome Site 81/23,[11] though the launch was threatened by a leak in the oxidizer pipeline resulting in nitrogen tetroxide spilling on electrical wires. Early in the flight, launch specialists only received signals indicating that the satellite was functioning. Eventually, however, Proton 1 performed normally, returning physics data on ultra-high-energy cosmic particles. Its mission lasted 45 days,[5] and the satellite reentered Earth's atmosphere 11 October 1965.[12]

Proton 2[edit]

The virtually identical Proton 2 was launched 2 November 1965 12:28 UTC, also from Baikonur Cosmodrome Site 81/23.[11] It reentered Earth's atmosphere on 6 February 1966.[12] At the time of their launch, American experts believed the first Protons were experimental space station components due to their weight and the Soviet use of the word "station" in describing the observatory satellites.[13][14]

Proton 3[edit]

Proton 3 as seen from Gemini 11, 13 September 1966
Proton 3 as seen from Gemini 11, 13 September 1966[15]

After an unsuccessful launch of the third test UR-500 on 24 March 1966 14:39 UTC, Proton 3 was successfully launched into Earth orbit from Baikonur Cosmodrome Site 81/23 on 6 July 1966 12:57 UTC[11] on the fourth and final UR-500 test flight[5] and began searching for quarks and other elementary particles of fractional electron charge.[9] The satellite returned data for most, if not all, of its short time in orbit,[16] reentering Earth's atmosphere on 16 September 1966.[12] Shortly before reentry, Proton 3 was observed tumbling once per second over the Indian Ocean by the crew of Gemini 11.[17]

Proton 4[edit]

After the end of the run of UR-500 test launches, the rocket (now designated Proton) and its successors were largely employed in the launch of the Zond lunar spacecraft. However, on 16 November 1968 11:40 UTC, the final and much larger Proton 4 was launched into orbit via Proton-K rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome Site 81/24 to continue the search for the quark and supplement the earlier Proton satellites' cosmic ray measurements.[9] This final Proton reentered Earth's atmosphere on 24 July 1969.[12]


The Proton satellites were heralded by Soviet media as the start of a new stage in Soviet space exploration.[18] The success of Proton afforded Chelomey a status in the Soviet rocket industry equal to that of Sergei Korolev of OKB-1 (developer of Sputnik, Vostok, and Voskhod) and Mikhail Yangel of OKB-456 (an important designer of military missiles). The UR-500, originally named "Gerkules" (Russian: Геркулес) ('Hercules'), was renamed "Proton" when news reports conflated the launcher and its payload. Though the Proton was never used in the ICBM role it had been built for, the rocket became an extraordinarily successful booster for commercial satellites, serving well into the 1990s.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Proton 1". NASA Space Science Data Coordinated Archive. Retrieved 23 October 2020.
  2. ^ "Proton 2". NASA Space Science Data Coordinated Archive. Retrieved 23 October 2020.
  3. ^ "Proton 3". NASA Space Science Data Coordinated Archive. Retrieved 23 October 2020.
  4. ^ a b "Proton 4". NASA Space Science Data Coordinated Archive. Retrieved 23 October 2020.
  5. ^ a b c Wade, Mark. "UR-500". Archived from the original on 26 October 2020. Retrieved 23 October 2020.[dead link]
  6. ^ a b Chertok, Boris (2011). Rockets and People. Volume IV, The Moon Race. Washington D.C.: NASA. p. 21. OCLC 775599532.
  7. ^ a b William R. Corliss (1967). Scientific Satellites. Washington D.C.: Science and Technical Information Division, Office of Technology Utilization, National Aeronautics and Space Administration. pp. 779–780.
  8. ^ "Aeronautics and Astronautics, 1965" (PDF). NASA. p. 342. Retrieved 24 April 2020.
  9. ^ a b c d e Hart, Douglas M. (1987). The Encyclopedia of Soviet Spacecraft. New York: Exeter Books. pp. 82–83. OCLC 17249881.
  10. ^ "MEASUREMENTS OF THE COSMIC RAY SPECTRA IN THE 1010-1013 RANGE FROM THE PROTON-1, 2, 3 SATELLITES". Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on Cosmic Rays, held in Budapest, 25 August – 4 September 1969. p. 567.
  11. ^ a b c McDowell, Jonathan. "Launch Log". Jonathon's Space Report. Retrieved 30 December 2018.
  12. ^ a b c d McDowell, Jonathan. "Satellite Catalog". Jonathon's Space Report. Retrieved 23 October 2020.
  13. ^ "News Digest (Soviets launched)". Aviation Week and Space Technology. New York: McGraw Hill Publishing Company. 8 November 1965. Retrieved 23 October 2020.
  14. ^ "Aeronautics and Astronautics, 1965" (PDF). NASA. p. 333. Retrieved 24 April 2020.
  15. ^ Bruce S. Maccabee (August 2000). "Gemini 11 UFO".
  16. ^ "Aeronautics and Astronautics, 1966" (PDF). NASA. p. 285. Retrieved 26 August 2021.
  17. ^ "Gemini 11 Demonstrates Pilot Capabilities". Aviation Week and Space Technology. New York: McGraw Hill Publishing Company. 19 September 1966. p. 27. Retrieved 25 August 2021.
  18. ^ a b Asif A. Siddiqi. Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945–1974 (PDF). Washington D.C.: NASA. p. 339-440, 967, 971. OCLC 1001823253.

External links[edit]