19 November 2009

In the 1980s as a response to the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the Russians began work on a spaceborne laser system of their own under the name Polyus-Skif. "Polyus" was Russian for "pole" and "Skif" referred to the Scythians, an ancient tribe of warriors from Central Asia. As the work continued, Polyus-Skif would evolve into a spaceborne weapon to attack the American SDI satellites instead of American ICBMs. As the challenges in sending a megawatt-class laser into orbit mounted, the Russian scientists developed the Skif-D (for demonstrator) to test key technologies in orbit. Originally intended for the Proton rocket, the Skif-D was simply too large and would be launched by the larger Energia launcher.

The Skif-D was bigger than Skylab- it was 131 feet long, over 13 feet in diameter and weighed in at 210,000 pounds. It consisted of two sections- the "purposeful" module carried the carbon dioxide tanks and two turbogenerators for the laser as well as a turret for pointing the laser beam. The other section was the "functional block" which carried small rocket engines, the power generation system, solar panels and other control systems.

Though an interim flight test article designated Skif-DM that was launched on 15 May 1987 failed to reach orbit and Gorbachev eventually canceled the program, elements of the Polyus-Skif are alleged to live on in orbit today on the International Space Station.

According to a recent Air & Space article on the Polyus-Skif, the first component of the ISS, the Russian control module Zarya (meaning "dawn") and also called the Functional Cargo Block, was built under contract to NASA in the mid-1990s by the Khrunichev bureau, the same organization that was responsible for the Polyus-Skif. The engineers produced Zarya on time and on budget at a time when the Russian aerospace industry was in crisis. The role of the Zarya is the same as the functional block on the Polyus-Skif- to supply electrical power and for in-orbit stationkeeping. Some spacewatchers have indicated that the Zarya may even be more than just based on the Polyus functional block, it may have even started as a Polyus flight spare- if true, then today's ISS has as its heart a legacy of the Soviet space laser program from the Cold War!

Source: Air & Space Smithsonian, January 2010. "Soviet Star Wars- When the world was on the brink of laser weapons in space" by Dwayne A. Day and Robert G. Kennedy III, p55-60.

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