Image caption: The Delta 4 Heavy rocket and Super secret payload stand poised for launch at 6:13 a.m. EDT on June 29, 2012 following retraction of the mobile service tower. Credit: Ken Kremer
A mighty triple-barreled Delta 4 Heavy rocket with a clandestine military satellite perhaps the size of Hubble was unveiled this evening (June 28) at a seaside launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The 232 foot tall rocket is poised to blast off at 6:13 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The exact launch window, like everything else about the classified mission and the NROL-15 spy satellite is top secret.
The mobile service tower was retracted from around the absolutely gorgeous white and orange colored rocket starting around 8:30 p.m. and the super secret spy satellite being launched for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) – see my photos.
The launch was delayed a day by the lingering devastation caused by Tropical Storm Debby.
Image caption: Delta 4 Heavy rocket and top secret NRO payload are poised for launch on June 29. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com
The United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy is flying for the first time with upgraded RS-68A first stage engines, each of which delivers 720,000 pounds of thrust.
This will be the 6th launch of the Delta 4 Heavy – now the most powerful rocket in the US fleet following the shutdown of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program.
As of 12:45 a.m. June 29 , the countdown is now underway ! Fueling will commence shortly. Stay tuned for a post – launch report
Image Caption: National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) spy satellite arrives at Cape Canaveral Launch Pad 37 for mounting on top Delta 4 Heavy Rocket slated for June 28, 2012 blastoff. Credit: United Launch Alliance
See Photo Gallery below
Debby is doing a real number on vast swaths of Florida, dumping up to 15 inches of rain, unleashing deadly tornadoes and dousing hopes of launching a mighty triple barreled Delta IV Heavy rocket on Thursday morning, June 28, with a super secret spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).
Tropical Storm Debby has destroyed homes, killed at least 1 person and will wreak havoc as it tracks across central Florida from the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic Coast over the next two days – just north of Cape Canaveral, Florida and the Delta 4 Heavy launch pad at Space Launch Complex 37.
The last Delta 4 Heavy to blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov 21, 2010. Credit: Alan Walters – awaltersphoto.com
The odds of launching the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta 4 Heavy on June 28 have dropped to just 30 percent favorable. The outlook improves slightly to 40 % favorable on Friday, June 29 according to the official Air Force weather forecast.
The launch window for Thursday’s ULA Delta 4 Heavy launch stretches from 6:16 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and comes just 8 days after the last spy satellite blasted off on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral on June 20 – launch story here.
Image Caption: Fog and heavy rain obscure view of triple barreled Delta 4 Heavy rocket protected inside Mobile Gantry from outside high security perimeter gate at Launch Pad 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com
The clandestine NROL-15 payload was bolted atop the Delta 4 Heavy booster several weeks ago.
See the photo gallery below provided to Universe Today showing the shrouded upper stage being hoisted on top of the booster.
This will be only the 6th launch of the 232 foot tall Delta 4 Heavy booster and the first one to feature the upgraded RS-68A first stage engines, delivering 702,000 pounds of thrust each.
A suspect vent relief rocket valve was successfully changed out by technicians over the weekend and will not delay the launch, ULA spokesperson Jessica Rye told Universe Today.
The powerful Delta 4 Heavy rocket and NROL-15 payload are due to be unveiled at pad 37 on Wednesday evening, June 27- depending on Debby !. .
Image Caption: Spy Satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office blasts off atop Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 8:28 a.m. EDT. Credit: Jeff Seibert/wired4space.com
A top secret US national security Spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) roared mightily to space this morning (June 20) through picturesque layers of broken clouds an Atlas V rocket at 8:28 a.m. EDT (1228 GMT) from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.
Basically nothing is publicly known about the specifications or mission of the vital payload, dubbed NROL-38, launched in support of America’s national defense.
The classified mission entered a total news blackout and cutoff of the live webcast some five minutes after launch when the rocket’s first stage and upper stage engine separated successfully and before the secret satellite was deployed and reached orbit.
The flight marked a key milestone as the 50th successful launch of the combined Atlas V and Delta IV booster families collectively known as the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) built by United Launch Alliance (ULA). The maiden launch took place in 2002.
Image Caption: NROL-38 Spy Satellite soars to space on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 8:28 a.m. EDT on Jun 20, 2012. Credit: Jeff Seibert/wired4space.com
ULA was formed in 2006 as a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin who were originally in competition at the start of the EELV program.
“This morning’s flawless launch is the product of many months of hard work and collaboration of government and industry teams. We hit it out of the park again as we continue to deliver superior vigilance from above for the Nation,” remarked Col James D. Fisher, Director of Office of Space Launch.
Threatening clouds and gusting winds remained within acceptable levels and did not delay the launch.
The 19 story Atlas booster first stage was powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine and the Centaur upper stage was powered by a single Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne RL10A-4 engine.
Image Caption: NROL-38 Spy Satellite liftoff on June 20, 2012 atop Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com
“Congratulations to the NRO and to all the mission partners involved in this critical national security launch,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Mission Operations. “This launch marks an important milestone as we celebrate the 50th successful Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) mission, with 31 Atlas V and 19 Delta IV missions flown since August 2002.”
The NROL-38 spy satellite is the first of three critical NRO missions slated for launch by ULA over the next two months. The NRO is based in Chantilly, Va. and the U.S. Government agency responsible for designing, building, launching, and maintaining America’s intelligence satellites.
Indeed the next NRO satellite is currently scheduled for blastoff in the early morning hours of June 28 atop a Delta 4 Heavy booster rocket, now the most powerful rocket in the US arsenal following the forced retirement of NASA’s trio of Space Shuttle orbiters and which will surely put on a spectacular sky show !
The likewise classified NROL-15 mission will lift off next Thursday from Space Launch Complex-37 at Cape Canaveral.
Image Caption: NROL-38 Spy Satellite liftoff on June 20, 2012 atop Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer
The EELV Program was developed by the United States Air Force to provide assured access to space for Department of Defense and other government payloads, achieve significant cost savings and reliably meet launch schedule targets as older booster such as the Titan were phased out.
“Twelve of the 50 EELV launches have been NRO missions and these have been vital to our overall mission of delivering on commitments critical to our national security,” said Bruce Carlson, director, National Reconnaissance Office. “I thank and congratulate ULA and the EELV program for the tremendous performance and achievement of this very impressive and noteworthy milestone.”
Image Caption: NROL-38 Spy Satellite atop Atlas V rocket pierces cloud layers after liftoff on June 20, 2012. Credit: Ken Kremer
ULA will be getting some competition. SpaceX Corporation – which recently dispatched the first private spacecraft (Dragon) to dock at the ISS – will compete in the bidding to launch future US national security payloads.
The second satellite in the new constellation of next generation military communications satellites for the US Air Force was successfully launched to orbit today (May 4) atop a powerful Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at Space Launch Complex- 41 in Florida. It will provide worldwide highly secure communications between the President and the Armed Forces.
Blastoff of the expensive and highly capable $1.7 Billion satellite – dubbed Advanced Extremely High Frequency-2 (AEHF-2) – at the precisely appointed time of 2:42 p.m. EDT (1842 GMT) came after a suspect helium valve and spurious signals forced a scrub of the first launch attempt yesterday, May 3, causing a 24 hour postponement of the launch.
“The AEHF satellites will provide the backbone of protection for US strategic satellite communications,” Capt John Francis, of the Space & Missile Systems Center SATCOM Division, told Universe Today in an interview at the Florida launch site.
“I’m thrilled with today’s launch !” Francis told me after witnessing the liftoff.
The United Launch Alliance Atlas V booster stands 197 feet tall. The liquid fueled first stage is powered by a Russian designed RD-180 engine augmented with three Aerojet solid rocket motors strapped on to the side of the first stage. The solids are jettisoned during ascent.
The extremely reliable Atlas V rockets boosted NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory and Juno Jupiter Orbiter to their interplanetary destinations in 2011.
AEHF-2 weighs approximately 13,600 pounds and was built by Lockheed Martin.
The spacecraft was successfully separated from the Centaur upper stage about 51 minutes after liftoff as planned and placed into a preliminary transfer orbit. The Centaur was powered by a single Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne RL10A engine.
On board thrusters and the Hall current thruster electric propulsion system will maneuver the spacecraft over about the next three months to its final orbit about 22,300 miles above the equator.
The AEHF satellite family is a vastly improved and upgraded version of the Lockheed Martin-built Milstar constellation currently on-orbit.
“The AEHF constellation has 10 times more throughput compared to Milstar”, Capt. Francis explained.
“They will provide 24 hour near whole world coverage and have a 14 year lifetime.”
“AEHF-2 can maneuver in orbit. It will take about 100 days to reach its parking orbit and can move to theatre hot spots as needed to assist the local troops such as in Afghanistan”, said Francis.
It will operate 24/7 and provide vastly improved global, survivable, highly secure, protected communications for warfighters operating on ground, sea and air platforms. AEHF will also serve America’s international partners including Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
AEHF-2 is the second satellite in a planned constellation of at least four satellites – and perhaps as many as six satellites – that the military says will eventually replace the aging Milstar system.
“The remaining AEHF satellites will be launched over the next 2 years”, Capt. Francis stated.
A single AEHF satellite provides greater total capacity than the entire five-satellite Milstar constellation. Individual user data rates will be increased five-fold, permitting transmission of tactical military communications, such as real-time video, battlefield maps and targeting data. In addition to its tactical mission, AEHF also provides the critical survivable, protected, and endurable communications links to national leaders including presidential conferencing in all levels of conflict.
The satellite system is used by all levels of the US Government from soldiers in the field in Afghanistan to President Obama in the White House.
As of today, NASA’s car sized Curiosity rover has reached the halfway point in her 352 million mile (567 million km) journey to Mars – No fooling on April 1, 2012.
It’s T Minus 126 days until Curiosity smashes into the Martian atmosphere to brave the hellish “6 Minutes of Terror” – and, if all goes well, touch down inside Gale Crater at the foothills of a Martian mountain taller than the tallest in the continental United States – namely Mount Rainier.
Curiosity will search for the ingredients of life in the form of organic molecules – the carbon based molecules which are the building blocks of life as we know it. The one-ton behemoth is packed to the gills with 10 state of the art science instruments including a 7 foot long robotic arm, scoop, drill and laser rock zapper.
The Curiosity Mars Science laboratory (MSL) rover was launched from sunny Florida on Nov. 26, 2011 atop a powerful Atlas V rocket for an 8.5 month interplanetary cruise from the Earth to Mars and is on course to land on the Red Planet early in the morning of Aug. 6, 2012 EDT and Universal Time (or Aug. 5 PDT).
On March 26, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., successfully ignited the spacecrafts thrusters for the second of six planned trajectory correction maneuvers (TCM’s) to adjust the robot’s flight path during the long journey to achieve a pinpoint landing beside the Martian mountain.
“It is satisfying to get the second maneuver under our belts and know we are headed in the right direction,” said JPL’s Erisa Hines, systems lead for the maneuver. “The cruise system continues to perform very well.”
This maneuver was one-seventh as much as the flight’s first course adjustment, on Jan. 11. The cruise stage is equipped with eight thrusters grouped into two sets of four that fire as the entire spacecraft spins at two rotations per minute. The thruster firings change the velocity of the spacecraft in two ways – along the direction of the axis of rotation and also perpendicular to the axis. Altogether there were more than 60 pulsing maneuvers spaced about 10 seconds apart.
“The purpose is to put us on a trajectory to the point in the Mars atmosphere where we need to be for a safe and accurate landing,” said Mau Wong, maneuver analyst at JPL.
Marking another crucial milestone, the flight team has also powered up and checked the status of all 10 MSL science instruments – and all are nominal.
“The types of testing varied by instrument, and the series as whole takes us past the important milestone of confirming that all the instruments survived launch,” said Betina Pavri of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., science payload test engineer for the mission. “These checkouts provide a valuable calibration and characterization opportunity for the instruments, including camera dark images and a measurement of zero pressure in the vacuum of space for the rover weather station’s pressure sensor.”
Ever since it was the first of MSL’s science instruments to be switched on three months ago, the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) has been collecting valuable measurements about the potentially lethal radiation environment in space and acting as a stunt double for determining the potential health effects on future human travelers to Mars.
RAD has been collecting data on the recent wave of extremely powerful solar flares erupting from the sun.
Curiosity has another 244 million kilometers to go over the next 4 months.
All hopes ride on Curiosity as America’s third and last generation of Mars rovers.
Devastating and nonsensical funding cuts to NASA’s Planetary Science budget have forced NASA to cancel participation in the 2018 ExoMars lander mission that had been joint planned with ESA, the European Space Agency. ESA now plans to forge ahead with Russian participation.
NASA is on course to make the highest leap in human spaceflight in nearly 4 decades when an unmanned Orion crew capsule blasts off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on a high stakes, high altitude test flight in early 2014.
A new narrated animation (see below) released by NASA depicts the planned 2014 launch of the Orion spacecraft on the Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission to the highest altitude orbit reached by a spaceship intended for humans since the Apollo Moon landing Era.
Orion is NASA’s next generation human rated spacecraft and designed for missions to again take humans to destinations beyond low Earth orbit- to the Moon, Mars, Asteroids and Beyond to deep space.
Orion Video Caption – Orion: Exploration Flight Test-1 Animation (with narration by Jay Estes). This animation depicts the proposed test flight of the Orion spacecraft in 2014. Narration by Jay Estes, Deputy for flight test integration in the Orion program.
Lockheed Martin Space Systems is making steady progress constructing the Orion crew cabin that will launch atop a Delta 4 Heavy booster rocket on a two orbit test flight to an altitude of more than 3,600 miles and test the majority of Orion’s vital vehicle systems.
The capsule will then separate from the upper stage, re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at a speed exceeding 20,000 MPH, deploy a trio of huge parachutes and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of California.
Lockheed Martin is responsible for conducting the critical EFT-1 flight under contract to NASA.
Orion will reach an altitude 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS) circling in low orbit some 250 miles above Earth and provide highly valuable in-flight engineering data that will be crucial for continued development of the spaceship.
“This flight test is a challenge. It will be difficult. We have a lot of confidence in our design, but we are certain that we will find out things we do not know,” said NASA’s Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer.
“Having the opportunity to do that early in our development is invaluable, because it will allow us to make adjustments now and address them much more efficiently than if we find changes are needed later. Our measure of success for this test will be in how we apply all of those lessons as we move forward.”
Lockheed Martin is nearing completion of the initial assembly of the Orion EFT-1 capsule at NASA’s historic Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans, which for three decades built all of the huge External Fuel Tanks for the NASA’s Space Shuttle program.
In May, the Orion will be shipped to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for final assembly and eventual integration atop the Delta 4 Heavy rocket booster and launch from Space Launch Complex 37 at nearby Cape Canaveral. The Delta 4 is built by United Launch Alliance.
The first integrated launch of an uncrewed Orion is scheduled for 2017 on the first flight of NASA’s new heavy lift rocket, the SLS or Space Launch System that will replace the now retired Space Shuttle orbiters
Continued progress on Orion, the SLS and all other NASA programs – manned and unmanned – is fully dependent on the funding level of NASA’s budget which has been significantly slashed by political leaders of both parties in Washington, DC in recent years.
On the afternoon of February 24, 2012, at 5:15 p.m. EST local time, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifted off from the pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base carrying in its payload the US Navy’s next-generation narrowband communications satellite MUOS-1. After two scrubbed launches the previous week due to weather, the third time was definitely a charm for ULA, and the launch went nominally (that’s science talk for “awesome”.)
But what made that day, that time the right time to launch? Do they just like ending a work week with a rocket launch? (Not that I could blame them!) And what about the weather… why go through the trouble to prepare for a launch at all if the weather doesn’t look promising? Where’s the logic in that?
As it turns out, when it comes to launches, it really is rocket science.
There are a lot of factors involved with launches. Obviously all the incredible engineering it takes to even plan and build a launch vehicle, and of course its payload — whatever it happens to be launching in the first place. But it sure doesn’t end there.
Launch managers need to take into consideration the needs of the mission, where the payload has to ultimately end up in orbit… or possibly even beyond. Timing is critical when you’re aiming at moving targets — in this case the targets being specific points in space (literally.) Then there’s the type of rocket being used, and where it is launching from. Only then can weather come into the equation, and usually only at the last minute to determine if the countdown will proceed before the launch window closes.
How big that launch window may be — from a few hours to a few minutes — depends on many things.
The most significant deciding factors in when to launch are where the spacecraft is headed, and what its solar needs are. Earth-observing spacecraft, for example, may be sent into low-Earth orbit. Some payloads must arrive at a specific point at a precise time, perhaps to rendezvous with another object or join a constellation of satellites already in place. Missions to the moon or a planet involve aiming for a moving object a long distance away.
For example, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft began its eight-month journey to the Red Planet on Nov. 26, 2011 with a launch aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. After the initial push from the powerful Atlas V booster, the Centaur upper stage then sent the spacecraft away from Earth on a specific track to place the laboratory, with its car-sized Curiosity rover, inside Mars’ Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012. Due to the location of Mars relative to Earth, the prime planetary launch opportunity for the Red Planet occurs only once every 26 months.
Additionally, spacecraft often have solar requirements: they may need sunlight to perform the science necessary to meet the mission’s objectives, or they may need to avoid the sun’s light in order to look deeper into the dark, distant reaches of space.
Such precision was needed for NASA’s Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) spacecraft, which launched Oct. 28, 2011 aboard a ULA Delta II rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The Earth-observing satellite circles at an altitude of 512 miles, sweeping from pole to pole 14 times each day as the planet turns on its axis. A very limited launch window was required so that the spacecraft would cross the ascending node at exactly 1:30 p.m. local time and scan Earth’s surface twice each day, always at the same local time.
All of these variables influence a flight’s trajectory and launch time. A low-Earth mission with specific timing needs must lift off at the right time to slip into the same orbit as its target; a planetary mission typically has to launch when the trajectory will take it away from Earth and out on the correct course.
According to [Eric Haddox, the lead flight design engineer in NASA’s Launch Services Program], aiming for a specific target — another planet, a rendezvous point, or even a specific location in Earth orbit where the solar conditions will be just right — is a bit like skeet shooting.
“You’ve got this object that’s going to go flying out into the air and you’ve got to shoot it,” said Haddox. “You have to be able to judge how far away your target is and how fast it’s moving, and make sure you reach the same point at the same time.”
But Haddox also emphasized that Earth is rotating on its axis while it orbits the sun, making the launch pad a moving platform. With so many moving players, launch windows and trajectories must be carefully choreographed.
It’s a fascinating and complex set of issues that mission managers need to get just right in order to ensure the success of a launch — and thus the success of a mission, whether it be putting a communication satellite into orbit or a rover onto Mars… or somewhere much, much farther than that.
The United States Air Force’s second flight of the X-37B – is headed into extra innings. Known as the Orbital Test Vehicle 2 (OTV-2) this robotic mini space shuttle launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Mar. 5, 2011. Although the U.S. Air Force has kept mum regarding details about the space plane’s mission – it has announced that the OTV-2 has exceeded its endurance limit of 270 days on orbit as of the end of November.
The OTV is launched atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 501 rocket. The space plane is protected within a fairing until it reaches orbit. After separation, the diminutive shuttle begins its mission.
OTV mission USA-226, as it is officially known, is by all accounts going smoothly and the spacecraft is reported to be in good health. The U.S. Air Force has not announced when OTV-2 will be directed to land.
The fact that the space plane will continue to orbit beyond what its stated limits are highlights that the OTV has greater capabilities than what was officially announced. The first OTV flight launched in April of 2011 and landed 224 days later at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The U.S. Air Force is undoubtedly being more judicious with fuel stores on board the robotic spacecraft, allowing for a longer duration flight.
Much like NASA’s retired fleet of space shuttle orbiters, the OTV has a payload bay that allows for payloads and experiments to be conducted on-orbit. What payloads the U.S. Air Force has had on either mission – remains a secret.
Boeing has announced that the X-37B could be modified to conduct crewed missions to and from orbit. Tentatively named the X-37C, this spacecraft would be roughly twice the size of its unmanned cousin. If this variant goes into service it would be used to transport astronauts to and from the orbiting International Space Station (ISS).
The X-37B has become a bit controversial of late. Members of the Chinese press have stated that the space plane raises concerns of an arms race in space. Xinhua News Agency and China Daily have expressed concern that the OTVs could be used to deliver weapons to orbit. The Pentagon has flatly denied these allegations. The clandestine nature of these flights have led to a wide variety of theories as to what the OTVs have been used to ferry to orbit.
For a birds-eye view of where it all started, watch the cool close-up launch video, below taken from within the Atlas pad security fence.
Indeed the launch precision was so good that mission controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadsena, Calif., have announced they postponed the first of six planned course correction burns for the agency’s newest Mars rover by at least a month. The firing had been planned for some two weeks after liftoff.
Curiosity is merrily sailing on a 254 day and 352-million-mile (567-million-kilometer) interplanetary flight from the Earth to Mars that will culminate on August 6, 2012 with a dramatic first-of-its-kind precision rocket powered touchdown inside Gale Crater.
“This was among the most accurate interplanetary injections ever,” said Louis D’Amario of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. He is the mission design and navigation manager for the Mars Science Laboratory.
Video Caption: View from inside the Pad 41 Security Fence at Cape Canaveral. Shot by a Canon 7D still camera during the launch of the Atlas V rocket carrying the MSL Curiosity rover to Mars. Thanks to a sound trigger my camera started firing at three frames per second from just after main engine ignition up until the exhaust plume finally envelops the camera and deadens all sound around it. The frames have been slowed down quite a bit for dramatic effect. Enjoy seeing what it is like for us media personnel who set out our remote cameras for launches at Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Chase Clark/shuttlephotos.com
As of midday Friday, Dec. 2, the spacecraft had already traveled 10.8 million miles (17.3 million kilometers) and is moving at 7,500 mph (12,000 kilometers per hour) relative to Earth and at 73,800 mph (118,700 kilometers per hour) relative to the sun.
An interesting fact is that engineers deliberately planned the spacecraft’s initial trajectory to miss Mars by about 35,000 miles (56,400 kilometers) so that the Centaur upper stage does not hit Mars by accident. Both Centaur and Curiosity are currently following the same trajectory through the vast void of space and the actual trajectory puts them on course to miss Mars by about 38,000 miles (61,200 kilometers).
The Centaur has not been thoroughly cleaned of earthly microbes in the same way as Curiosity – and therefore cannot be permitted to impact the Martian surface and potentially contaminate the very studies Curiosity seeks to carry out in searching for the “Signs of Life”.
For the 8.5 month voyage to Mars, Curiosity and the rocket powered descent stage are tucked inside an aeroshell and are attached to the huge solar powered cruise stage.
The cruise stage is rotating at 2.05 rounds per minutes and is continuously generating electric power – currently about 800 watts – from the gleaming solar arrays. It also houses eight miniature hydrazine fueled thrusters. The propellant is stored inside titanium tanks.
The historic voyage of the largest and most sophisticated Martian rover ever built by humans seeks to determine if Mars ever offered conditions favorable for the genesis of microbial life.
Curiosity is packed to the gills with 10 state of the art science instruments that are seeking to detect the signs of life in the form of organic molecules – the carbon based building blocks of life as we know it.
The car sized robot is equipped with a drill and scoop at the end of its 7 ft long robotic arm to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into two distinct analytical laboratory instruments inside the rover.
Launch video provided courtesy of United Launch Alliance
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – It is a mission years in the making. However, it would not be possible without the hard work of an army’s worth of engineers – and the systems that they built. How many different systems and engines are required to get the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover named Curiosity to the surface of the Red Planet? The answer might surprise you.
Including the two engines that are part of the Atlas V 541 launch vehicle, it will take 50 different engines and thrusters in total to work perfectly to successfully deliver Curiosity to the dusty plains of Mars.
Starting with the launch vehicle itself, there are six separate engines that power the six-wheeled rover, safely ensconced in its fairing, out of Earth’s gravity well. For the first leg of the journey four powerful Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) provided by Aerojet (each of these provides 400,000 lbs of thrust) will launch the rover out of Earth’s atmosphere.
The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas launch vehicle has two rocket engines that provide the remaining amount of thrust required to get MSL to orbit and send the rover on its way to Mars. The first is the Russian-built RD-180 engine (whose thrust is split between two engine bells) the second is the Centaur second stage. There are four Aerojet solid rocket motors that help the booster and Centaur upper stage to separate.
The Centaur’s trajectory is controlled by both thrust vector control of the main engine as well as a Reaction Control System or RCS comprised of liquid hydrazine propulsion systems (there are twelve roll control thrusters on the Centaur upper stage).
MSL’s cruise stage separates entirely from the Centaur upper stage and is on the long road to the Red Planet. The cruise stage has eight one-pound-thrust hydrazine thrusters that are used for trajectory maneuvers for the nine-month journey to Mars. These are used for minor corrections to keep the spacecraft on the correct course.
Curiosity’s first physical encounter with the Martian environment is referred to as Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) – more commonly known as “six minutes of terror” – the point when mission control, back on Earth, loses contact with the spacecraft as it enters the Martian atmosphere.
Video courtesy of Lockheed Martin
Even though Mars only has roughly one percent of Earth’s atmosphere, the friction of the atmosphere caused by a spacecraft impacting it at 13,200 miles per hour (about 5,900 meters per second) – is enough to melt Curiosity if it were exposed to these extremes. The heat shield, located at the base of the cruise stage, prevents this from happening.
The heat shield, provided by Lockheed-Martin, on MSL’s cruise stage is 14.8 feet (4.5 meters) in diameter. By comparison, the heat shields that were used on the Apollo manned missions to the Moon were 13 feet (4 meters) in diameter and the ones that allowed the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity to safely reach the surface of Mars were 8.7 feet (2.65 meters) in diameter.
At this point in the mission eight engines, each providing 68 pounds of thrust come into play. These engines provide all of the trajectory control during EDL – meaning they will fire almost continuously.
Shortly thereafter – BOOM – the parachute deploy. Then the heat shield is ejected. After the parachute slow the spacecraft down to a sufficient degree, both they and the back aeroshell depart leaving just the rover and its jet pack.
During the landing phase the “SkyCrane” comes alive with eight powerful hydrazine engines, each of which give Curiosity 800 pounds of thrust. Aerojet’s Redmond Site Executive, Roger Myers, talked a bit about this segment of the landing, considered by many to be the most dramatic method of getting a vehicle to the surface of Mars.
“Because of the control requirements for the SkyCrane these engines had to be very throttleable,” Myers said. “Keeping the SkyCrane level is a must, you must have very fine control of those engines to ensure stability.”
If all has gone well up to this point, the Curiosity rover will be lowered the remaining distance to the ground via cables. Once contact with the Martian surface is detected, the cables are cut, the SkyCrane’s engines throttle up and the jet pack flies off to conduct a controlled crash (approximately a mile or so away from where Curiosity is located).
Every powered landing on Mars conducted in the U.S. unmanned space program has utilized Aerojet’s thrusters. The reliability of these small engines was recently proven – in a mission that is now almost three-and-a-half decades old.
Voyager recently conducted a course correction some 34 years after it was launched – highlighting the capability of these thrusters to perform well after launch.
“Our engines have allowed missions to fly to every planet in the solar system and we are currently on our way to Mercury and Pluto,” Myers said. “When NASA explores the solar system – Aerojet provides the propulsion components.”