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15 Jul, 2007 00:54

Famous Russian space centre turns 50

It is 50 years since work began on the Plesetsk space centre in the far north of Russia. The site soon played a key role in the Soviet military and space programmes, and remains an important part of Russia's defence strategy.

The construction of the Plesetsk cosmodrome started in 1957 and was completed within two years. It was a top secret.

Located in Russia’s northern Arkhangelsk region it was originally designed by the Soviet Union as a site to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Due to its location its range covered more of the United States than the Soviet Union's better known Baikonur pad did.

The secret of the Plesetsk site was revealed by a British physics teacher in 1966 who analyzed the orbit of a Soviet satellite and discovered it could not have been launched from Baikonur – a fact the USSR refused to officially admit until 1983.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led the Baikonur site to become the property of the newly independent Kazakhstan.

Moscow now spends the equivalent of billions of U.S. dollars renting the launch pad and it remains the only cosmodrome on the former Soviet territory that can launch manned space ships.

But Plesetsk has one big advantage. Staff live much closer to the technical facilities and it requires less maintenance.

Two years ago Russia started a programme to boost space industry and infrastructure.

For now the Plesetsk launching pad is used to put into orbit multi-purpose satellites. And over the last 50 years around 2,000 unmanned space vehicles were launched from there.

The cosmodrome is now upgrading its Soyuz rocket carriers and designing new ones.

The Russian space agency says that it is theoretically possible to launch manned spaceships from Plesetsk but it’s too costly for now although it remains a long-term ambition.