Contracted to a Moscow state company, the Kremlin prevented the launch, which took place five years ago from the United States

One of Russia's first victims after annexing Ukrainian territories was the Spanish Paz satellite

PHOTO/Ministerio de Defensa - The actors who starred in the public presentation of Paz in 2011: Roberto Lopez (Hisdesat); Antón Cuadrado (Airbus Espacio): the Minister of Defence, Carme Chacón; the President of the CDTI and the Secretary of State for Defence, Constantino Méndez

The Spanish satellite Paz was one of the victims of Russian President Vladimir Putin's first assault on Ukraine's borders. Moscow obstructed its launch for nearly four years despite friendly attempts and diplomatic demarches by Spain at the highest level to try to get the green light from the Kremlin.

However, the device has just completed its first five years in orbit thanks to SpaceX, the company owned by billionaire Elon Musk, giving it priority and catapulting the satellite into space on 22 February 2018 aboard a Falcon 9 launcher from California's Vandenberg base.

But it should have happened on a Russian Dnepr rocket many years earlier. This was stipulated in the contract signed in October 2010 between the strategic services company Hisdesat, now headed by Miguel Ángel García Primo, and the Russian state-owned company Kosmotras.

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However, Russia's annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and the sanctions imposed by the European Union changed everything. Also implemented by the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, they provoked retaliation from the Kremlin.

One measure adopted by Moscow was to cut off the arrival of Russian tourists to the coasts of southern Spain. Another was to cancel imports of meat and perishable goods. A third was to delay sine die the launch of Paz, Spain's first radar-equipped satellite, into space.

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Double problem: Ukrainian launcher and annexation of Crimea

The lack of authorisation from the Kremlin for the launch of the Dnepr launcher with Paz on board derailed the plans of the then Minister of Defence, Pedro Morenés, and the current head of Hispasat and then CEO of Hisdesat, Miguel Ángel Panduro, the company that owned the satellite, whose main contractor was the current Airbus Space Systems España.

The delay lasted for nearly five years, forcing Hisdesat to keep its huge 1.4-tonne, 5-metre-long, 2.4-metre-diameter platform in storage. In June 2011, at the official presentation of the satellite, the then Minister of Defence, Carme Chacón, announced that Paz "should be in orbit by 2013". 

She did not count on Russia's annexation of Crimea or Vladimir Putin's reprisals, which prevented the contract with the Russian company Kosmotras from coming to fruition. Eventually, Hisdesat denounced the contract and took Kosmotras to the Paris Chamber of Arbitration to get the money advanced back. It did not succeed.

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Why was a Russian rocket chosen? Selecting the Dnepr launcher to position the Spanish satellite in space was not a whim, nor was it based on price reasons, around 20 million euros, much cheaper than the European Ariane 5 launcher. The reason is to be found in Germany.

Hisdesat opted for the reliability offered by the Dnepr launcher, a Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile called the R-36M, coded SS-18 Satan by NATO and converted to space rocket duties and carrying satellites into low Earth orbit. 

The Dnepr was the same one that had placed the German radar satellites TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X into orbit at 514 km altitude in June 2007 and June 2010, respectively, similar to the Spanish Paz except for the Spanish X-band radar, which is much more advanced than that of the Germans. However, its Dnepr rocket manufacturer was the Ukrainian company Yuzhnoe, which is why Vladimir Putin hindered its take-offs.

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Five years in orbit and five more to come

The Paz project is part of the National Earth Observation Programme (PNOTS), which came into being in July 2007, when the then Minister of Defence, José Antonio Alonso, and the Minister of Industry, Tourism and Trade, Joan Clos, signed an agreement to develop and build a synthetic aperture radar satellite (SAR), together with Ingenio, an optical satellite whose launch on 17 November 2020 failed due to a lethal anomaly in the Vega rocket that carried it.

Having overcome the problems of its launch into orbit, Paz is fulfilling its main mission, which is to cover the security and defence needs of the Spanish Armed Forces by taking more than 100 submetric images daily, both day and night, and regardless of weather conditions. Hisdesat has confirmed that it maintains its vital constants and that its forecast is "to remain in service for another five years".

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The complex, high-resolution, three-dimensional, Peace-quality imagery, duly unravelled by analysts at the Armed Forces Intelligence Centre (CIFAS) led by Army Major General Antonio Romero, facilitates decision-making by the Spanish Armed Forces and the National Intelligence Centre. For example, they provide intelligence and surveillance to the Operations Command, which is piloted by Air Lieutenant General Francisco Braco, resulting in operational guidelines for Spanish military units on missions abroad.

Paz incorporates on board a state-of-the-art receiver for automatic ship identification (AIS) from the Canadian company exactEarth, of which Hisdesat is the largest shareholder. The advantage offered by Paz is that Hisdesat has managed to simultaneously merge the data provided by the SAR radar with the captured AIS signals, which makes it possible to monitor the maritime environment worldwide.

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A dual-purpose satellite, both civil and military, Hisdesat also dedicates its satellite to commercial and governmental functions, in particular for the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Ecological Transition. Its advanced X-band radar enables territory observation for different applications, e.g. border control, environmental monitoring, infrastructure planning, disaster assessment and high-resolution mapping.

Under the direction of Airbus Space Systems, the manufacturing of the X-band antenna and different parts of the satellite counted on the technological contributions of national companies such as Acorde, Airbus CRISA, Arquimea, Cachinero, Elatesa, Erzia, HV Sistemas, Indra, Inventia, Langa, Sener Aeroespacial, Tecnobit, TTI Norte, the National Institute for Aerospace Technology (INTA) and the polytechnic universities of Madrid, Catalonia and Alcalá de Henares.

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