Most Powerful Atlas V Delivers a Most Spectacular Nighttime Sky Show Launch for US Navy

Blastoff of ULA Atlas V rocket lofting MUOS-3 to orbit for the US Navy from Space Launch Complex-41 at 8:04 p.m. EST on Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace
See launch gallery below![/caption]

Launching on its milestone 200th mission, the most powerful version of the venerable Atlas-Centaur rocket put on a most spectacular nighttime sky show on Tuesday evening, (Jan. 20) that mesmerized spectators along the Florida Space Coast on a mission to deliver a powerful new next-generation communications satellite to orbit for the US Navy.

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the third Mobile User Objective System satellite (MUOS-3) for the United States Navy successfully launched to geostationary orbit from Space Launch Complex-41 at 8:04 p.m. EST from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Jan. 20, 2015.

The MUOS-3 launch opened ULA’s planned 13 mission manifest for 2015 with a boisterous bang as the Atlas V booster thundered off the seaside space coast pad.

Streak shot of United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the third Mobile User Objective System satellite to orbit for the United States Navy as it launched from Space Launch Complex-41 at 8:04 p.m. EST on Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: John Studwell/AmericaSpace
Streak shot of United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the third Mobile User Objective System satellite to orbit for the United States Navy as it launched from Space Launch Complex-41 at 8:04 p.m. EST on Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: John Studwell/AmericaSpace

The MUOS constellation is a next-generation narrowband US Navy tactical satellite communications system designed to significantly improve ground communications to US forces on the move and around the globe.

“The ULA team is honored to deliver this critical mission into orbit for the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force with the support of our many mission partners,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs.

This is the third satellite in the MUOS series and will provide military users 10 times more communications capability over existing systems, including simultaneous voice, video and data, leveraging 3G mobile communications technology. It was built by Lockheed Martin.

Launch of ULA  Atlas V rocket sending MUOS-3 satcom to orbit for the US Navy from Space Launch Complex-41 at 8:04 p.m. EST on Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: Julian Leek
Launch of ULA Atlas V rocket sending MUOS-3 satcom to orbit for the US Navy from Space Launch Complex-41 at 8:04 p.m. EST on Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: Julian Leek

The unmanned Atlas V expendable rocket launched in its mightiest configuration known as the Atlas V 551.

The 206 foot-tall rocket features a 5-meter diameter payload fairing, five Aerojet Rocketdyne first stage strap on solid rocket motors and a single engine Centaur upper stage powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine.

The first stage is powered by the Russian-built dual nozzle RD AMROSS RD-180 engine. Combined with the five solid rocket motors, the Atlas V first stage generates over 2.5 million pounds of liftoff thrust.

The RD-180 burns RP-1 (Rocket Propellant-1 or highly purified kerosene) and liquid oxygen and delivers 860,200 lb of thrust at sea level.

And the rocket needed all that thrust because the huge MUOS-3 was the heftiest payload lofted by an Atlas V booster, weighing in at some 15,000 pounds.

“The MUOS-3 spacecraft is the heaviest payload to launch atop an Atlas V launch vehicle. The Atlas V generated more than two and half million pounds of thrust at liftoff to meet the demands of lifting this nearly 7.5-ton satellite,” noted Sponnick.

The Atlas V 551 rockets into the darkened Florida sky at 8:04 p.m. EST Tuesday, 20 January, to deliver MUOS-3 into orbit. Photo Credit: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace
The Atlas V 551 rockets into the darkened Florida sky at 8:04 p.m. EST Tuesday, 20 January, to deliver MUOS-3 into orbit. Photo Credit: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace

The first Atlas rocket was first launched some 52 years ago.

“Today’s launch was the 200th Atlas-Centaur launch – a very sincere congratulations to the many women and men responsible for the incredible success of the Centaur upper stage over the last 5 decades!”

Overall this was the 52nd Atlas V mission and the fifth in the Atlas V 551 configuration.

The Atlas V 551 version has previously launched two prominent NASA planetary science missions including the New Horizons mission in 2006 that is about to reach Pluto and the Juno orbiter in 2011 that will arrive at Jupiter in July 2016. It was also used to launch MUOS-1 and MUOS-2.

United Launch Alliance successful MUOS-3 mission tonight! 20 Jan 2015.  Photo Credit: Matthew Travis / Zero-G News
United Launch Alliance successful MUOS-3 mission tonight! 20 Jan 2015. Photo Credit: Matthew Travis / Zero-G News

ULA’s second launch in 2015 thunders aloft from the US West Coast with NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive mission (SMAP) next week.

SMAP is the first US Earth-observing satellite designed to collect global observations of surface soil moisture.

SMAP will blastoff from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg AFB at 9:20 a.m. EST (6:20 a.m. PST) on ULA’s Delta II rocket.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the third Mobile User Objective System satellite for the United States Navy launched from Space Launch Complex-41 at 8:04 p.m. EST on Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: United Launch Alliance
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the third Mobile User Objective System satellite for the United States Navy launched from Space Launch Complex-41 at 8:04 p.m. EST on Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: United Launch Alliance

In another major milestone coming soon, the Atlas V is right now being man rated since it was chosen to launch the Boeing CST-100 space taxi, which NASA selected as one of two new commercial crew vehicles to launch US astronauts to the ISS as soon as 2017.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the third Mobile User Objective System satellite for the United States Navy launched from Space Launch Complex-41 at 8:04 p.m. EST on Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: United Launch Alliance
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the third Mobile User Objective System satellite for the United States Navy launched from Space Launch Complex-41 at 8:04 p.m. EST on Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: United Launch Alliance

The next Atlas launch involves NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission (MMS) to study Earth’s magnetic reconnection. It is scheduled for launch on an Atlas V 421 booster on March 12 from Cape Canaveral. See my up close visit with MMS and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center detailed in my story – here.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Completely Clandestine CLIO Climbs through Clouds to Orbit on Mystery Mission

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – On a gloomy night and delayed by rain showers and thick threatening clouds to the very last moment of a two and a half launch window, the completely clandestine satellite known only as CLIO climbed slowly from a Cape Canaveral launch pad atop the thunderous flames of an Atlas V rocket on Tuesday evening on a mysterious mission to orbit.

Under a veil of secrecy for an unknown US government customer, the clouds cleared just enough to finally launch CLIO on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V booster at 8:10 p.m. EDT September 16, 2014 from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

A series of ugly thunderstorms with a deluge of rain shows repeatedly passed by the launch pad forcing a weather related delay from the initial daylight launch time of 5:44 p.m.

The 19 story rocket is protected by a quartet of lighting masts ringing the launch pad. And they did their job last night.

Mysterious CLIO payload shrouded beneath 4-meter-diameter payload fairing in this up close view of the top of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket prior to launch from Space Launch Complex-41 on  Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Mysterious CLIO payload shrouded beneath 4-meter-diameter payload fairing in this up close view of the top of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket prior to launch from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

It was touch and go with the weather at the Cape all evening. None of us knew what would happen with the satellite we know nothing about. So the weather induced hazy view of the pad fit perfectly with the mystery missions hazy motif.

Normally, even the highly secretive US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) claims ownership of their satellites named with what seems to be a random numbering scheme.

But not for CLIO. The only publicly released information is that CLIO was built by Lockheed Martin and derived from their commercial A2100 series satellite bus used for commercial telecommunications satellites among others.

“It is an honor to work with Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company and all of our mission partners to launch this very important satellite,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs, in a statement.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the CLIO mission for Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company launched at 8:10 p.m. EDT September 16, 2014 from Space Launch Complex-41 on  Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the CLIO mission for Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company launched at 8:10 p.m. EDT September 16, 2014 from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“Today’s launch marks ULA’s 11th successful mission this year and the 88th successful mission since ULA was formed in December 2006, a true testament to the team’s focus on mission success, one launch at a time.”

Myself and other media were allowed to visit the launch pad and photograph the rocket up close with the CLIO insignia emblazoned on the payload fairing, shrouding the mysterious satellite beneath.

But even the CLIO insignia is completely nondescript, unlike the rather artistic NRO logos with cool imaginary creatures and a number like NR0-66 for example.

We do know the type of rocket utilized is an Atlas V 401 configuration vehicle, which includes a 4-meter-diameter payload fairing and no solid rocket motors.

Mysterious CLIO and Atlas V rocket prior to launch from Space Launch Complex-41 on  Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Mysterious CLIO and Atlas V rocket prior to launch from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

We do know that the Atlas booster for this mission was powered by a Russian made RD AMROSS RD-180 engine as is customary. The Centaur upper stage was powered by a single Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10A engine, according to ULA.

We do know the launch was successful and certainly a spectacular sight for myself and all the spectators.

Nightfall over CLIO and Atlas V rocket at Space Launch Complex-41 prior to weather delayed Sept. 16, 2014 launch from  Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Nightfall over CLIO and Atlas V rocket at Space Launch Complex-41 prior to weather delayed Sept. 16, 2014 launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

CLIO is presumably somewhere in Earth orbit, circling overhead secretly at unknown altitude(s) and inclination(s).

CLIO marks ULA’s 60th successful mission from Cape Canaveral, the 11th successful mission this year and the 88th successful mission since the company’s formation in 2006.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Extended time exposure partial streak shot of CLIO launch on  September 16, 2014 from Space Launch Complex-41 on  Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Extended time exposure partial streak shot of CLIO launch on September 16, 2014 from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Photographers including Ken Kremer/Universe Today set up cameras to capture up close imagery of Sept. 16, 2014 launch of mysterious CLIO satellite and Atlas V rocket at Space Launch Complex-41 on  Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Photographers including Ken Kremer/Universe Today set up cameras to capture up close imagery of Sept. 16, 2014 launch of mysterious CLIO satellite and Atlas V rocket at Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Atlas V Blasts Off with Clandestine US Spy Satellite Amidst Russian Engine Controversy

An Atlas V rocket thundered to space on Thursday, May 22, carrying a clandestine surveillance satellite for the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) amidst a swirling controversy regarding the boosters long term viability due to its dependence on the continued assured supply of Russian made engines.

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket soared to space with a super secret payload designated NROL-33 in support of US national defense from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 9:09 a.m. EDT.

The launch was carried live on a ULA webcast but was deliberately cutoff after five minutes as part of a preannounced news blackout on the top secret mission.

Nothing is known about the nature of NROL-33 or its covert intelligence gathering mission.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying NROL-33 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral, Florida, on May 22 at 9:09 a.m. EDT.  Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace
United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying NROL-33 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral, Florida, on May 22 at 9:09 a.m. EDT. Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace

The liftoff caps an impressively successful series of four high priority and high value launches by ULA that were accomplished at a rapid pace of barely seven weeks time – speaking volumes about their reliability and diligence.

And the Atlas V also marked the second successful ULA rocket launch in less than one week. It follows on the heels of last weeks blastoff of a ULA Delta IV rocket with an advanced GPS satellite for the US Air Force that benefits hundreds of millions of ordinary users worldwide.

In April, another clandestine surveillance satellite dubbed NROL-67 was also launched on an Atlas V for the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

One can conclude that NROL-67 was certainly a larger and heavier payload compared to NROL-33 since the most powerful version of the Atlas V launcher was used with five strap on solid rocket motors vs. no solids for Thursday’s liftoff. NROL-67 also was housed inside the larger five-meter diameter payload fairing.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying NROL-33 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral, Florida, on May 22 at 9:09 a.m. EDT.  Credit: John Studwell/AmericaSpace
United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying NROL-33 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral, Florida, on May 22 at 9:09 a.m. EDT. Credit: John Studwell/AmericaSpace

But the future of the venerable Atlas V – and therefore even US National Security launches like those of NROL-33 and NROL-67 – is cloudy because each first stage core is powered by a pair of Russian made RD-180 rocket engines whose future supply was cast in doubt by recent statements from Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, lawsuits by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and pointed questions from Congress.

“Moscow is banning Washington from using Russian-made rocket engines, which the US has used to deliver its military satellites into orbit,” Rogozin said at a media briefing held on May 13.

An almost cold war like crisis in US-Russian relations began with Russia’s actions in Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea region earlier this year.

The ongoing Ukraine crisis has resulted in continuing deadly confrontations and the institution of economic sanctions against Russia and several Russian officials, including specifically Rogozin, by the US and Western European nations.

“We proceed from the fact that without guarantees that our engines are used for non-military spacecraft launches only, we won’t be able to supply them to the US,” Rogozin said.

The dual chamber, dual nozzle RD-180 engines are manufactured in Russia by NPO Energomash and has performed flawlessly to date.

Rogozin’s statements could effectively block their export to the US, thus calling into question the reliability of their continued supply for the Atlas V first stage and the ability of the US to launch critical national security payloads.

NASA is also a hefty user of the Atlas V for many of the agency’s science and communication satellites like the Curiosity Mars rover, MAVEN Mars orbiter, MMS, Juno Jupiter orbiter and TDRS.

The Atlas V is also planned as the launcher for two of the three companies – Boeing and Sierra Nevada – vying for the next round of commercial crew space taxi contracts aimed at launching US astronauts to the ISS. The commercial crew contracts will be awarded by NASA later this year.

Despite Rogozin’s threatening statements, the RD-180 export situation is not completely clear and ULA has some engines on hand to last a few years.

“ULA has a two year supply of RD-180 engines already stockpiled in the U.S.,” ULA spokesperson Jessica Rye told me.

“We currently have 16 engines in the U.S.” said Rye.

Five more RD-180 engines are due for delivery later this year.

ULA also issued this recent statement in response to Rogozins’ comments.

“ULA and our NPO Energomash supplier in Russia are not aware of any restrictions.”

Certain national security payloads can also be shifted from the Atlas V to the Delta IV.

“ULA and our Department of Defense customers have always prepared contingency plans in the event of a supply disruption. ULA has two launch vehicles that can support all of customers’ needs. We also maintain a two-year inventory of engines to enable a smooth transition to our other rocket, Delta, which has all U.S.-produced rocket engines.”

Besides Rogozin’s listing on the US economic sanctions target list, he was also named by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in his firms recent attempts to legally block the importation of the RD-180 engines by ULA for the Atlas V as a violation of the US economic sanctions.

Federal Judge Susan Braden initially imposed a temporary injunction blocking the RD-180 imports on April 30. She rescinded that order on May 8, after receiving written communications clarifications from the US Justice and Commerce departments that the engine import did not violate the US government imposed sanctions.

Here’s my earlier articles about Rogozin’s statements, Musk’s suit and more about the effects of economic sanctions imposed by the US and Western nations in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea; here, here, here and here.

ULA remains upbeat.

“Congratulations to all of our mission partners on today’s successful launch of the NROL-33 mission! The ULA team is honored to deliver another critical national security asset to orbit together with the NRO Office of Space Launch and the Air Force,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs.

“Today’s launch occurred six days after last week’s GPS IIF-6 launch – the second time this year that this team has launched back-to-back missions within a week. Successfully launching at this tempo is a testament to the team’s focus on mission success, one-launch-at-a-time, and continuous improvement of our launch processes.”

Watch for Ken’s articles about the ongoing Ukraine crisis with uncertain and potentially dire consequences for US National Security and NASA.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing ULA, Boeing, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket – powered by Russian made RD-180 engines – and Super Secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload poised for launch at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, in March 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket – powered by Russian made RD-180 engines – and Super Secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload poised for launch at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, in March 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Private Dream Chaser Crewed Mini-Shuttle Design Advances through Rigorous Wind Tunnel Tests

The private Dream Chaser mini-shuttle being developed by Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) has successfully completed a series of rigorous wind tunnel tests on scale models of the spacecraft – thereby accomplishing another key development milestone under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to restore America’s human spaceflight access to low Earth orbit.

Engineers from SNC and NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia conducted six weeks of intricate testing with several different Dream Chaser scale model spacecraft to study its reaction to subsonic, transonic and supersonic conditions that will be encountered during ascent into space and re-entry from low-Earth orbit.

The tests are among the milestones SNC must complete to receive continued funding from the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability initiative (CCiCAP) under the auspices of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

The Dream Chaser is among a trio of US private sector manned spaceships being developed with seed money from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program in a public/private partnership to develop a next-generation crew transportation vehicle to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) by 2017 – a capability totally lost following the space shuttle’s forced retirement in 2011.

Since that day, seats on the Russian Soyuz are US astronauts only way to space and back.

The SpaceX Dragon and Boeing CST-100 ‘space taxis’ are also vying for funding in the next round of contracts to be awarded by NASA around late summer 2014.

Dream Chaser commercial crew vehicle built by Sierra Nevada Corp docks at ISS
Dream Chaser commercial crew vehicle built by Sierra Nevada Corp docks at ISS

“What we have seen from our industry partners is a determination to make their components and systems work reliably, and in turn they’ve been able to demonstrate the complex machinery that makes spaceflight possible will also work as planned,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager. “These next few months will continue to raise the bar for achievement by our partners.”

To prepare for the wind tunnel testing, technicians first meticulously hand glued 250 tiny sand grains to the outer surface of the 22-inch long Dream Chaser scale model in order to investigate turbulent flow forces and flight dynamic characteristics along the vehicle that simulates what the actual spacecraft will experience during ascent and re-entry.

Dream Chaser awaits launch atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket
Dream Chaser awaits launch atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket

Testing encompassed both the Dream Chaser spacecraft by itself as well as integrated in the stacked configuration atop the Atlas V launch vehicle that will boost the vehicle to space from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The testing of the Dream Chaser model was conducted at different angles and positions and around the clock inside the Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel at NASA Langley to collect the data as quickly as possible.

“All the data acquired will be used to validate computer models and populate the Dream Chaser spacecraft performance database,” according to NASA test engineer Bryan Falman.

NASA says that the resulting data showed the existing computer models were accurate.

Additonal wind tunnel testing was done at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California and the CALSPAN Transonic Wind Tunnel in New York.

The wind tunnel work will also significantly aid in refining the Dream Chaser’s design and performance as well as accelerate completion of the Critical Design Review (CDR) before the start of construction of the full scale vehicle for orbital flight tests by late 2016.



Video Caption: Engineers used a wind tunnel at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, to evaluate the design of Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spacecraft. Credit: NASA

“The aerodynamic data collected during these tests has further proven and validated Dream Chaser’s integrated spacecraft and launch vehicle system design. It also has shown that Dream Chaser expected performance is greater than initially predicted,” said Mark N. Sirangelo, corporate vice president and head of SNC’s Space Systems.

“Our program continues to fully complete each of our CCiCap agreement milestones assisted through our strong collaboration efforts with our integrated ‘Dream Team’ of industry, university and government strategic partners. We are on schedule to launch our first orbital flight in November of 2016, which will mark the beginning of the restoration of U.S. crew capability to low-Earth orbit.”

The Dream Chaser design builds on the experience gained from NASA Langley’s earlier exploratory engineering work with the HL-20 manned lifting-body vehicle.

“The NASA-SNC effort makes for a solid, complementary relationship,” said Andrew Roberts, SNC aerodynamics test lead. “It is a natural fit. NASA facilities and the extensive work they’ve done with the Dream Chaser predecessor, HL-20, combined with SNC’s engineering, is synergistic and provides great results.”

Dream Chaser will be reusable and can carry a mix of cargo and up to a seven crewmembers to the ISS. It will also be able to land on commercial runways anywhere in the world, according to SNC.

Left landing gear failed to deploy as private Dream Chaser spaceplane approaches runway at Edwards Air Force Base, Ca. during first free flight landing test on Oct. 26, 2103.   Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.  See video below
Left landing gear failed to deploy as private Dream Chaser spaceplane approaches runway at Edwards Air Force Base, Ca. during first free flight landing test on Oct. 26, 2103. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp. See video below

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Sierra Nevada, Boeing, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Curiosity, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Scale models of NASA’s Commercial Crew program vehicles and launchers; Boeing CST-100, Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, SpaceX Dragon. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Scale models of NASA’s Commercial Crew program vehicles and launchers; Boeing CST-100, Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, SpaceX Dragon. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Super Secret Spy Satellite Soars Spectacularly to Space aboard Atlas V booster from Cape Canaveral – Launch Gallery

Blastoff of the Atlas V rocket with the super secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload on April 10, 2014 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace
Launch gallery expanded and updated – with timelapse ![/caption]

A super secret US spy satellite soared spectacularly to space this afternoon from Cape Canaveral atop a very powerful version of the Atlas V rocket on a classified flight for the National Reconnaissance Office.

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V carrying the NROL-67 intelligence gathering satellite on a US national security mission for the NRO lifted off from Space Launch Complex-41 ignited its engines precisely on the targeted time on April 10 at 1:45 p.m. EDT into brilliant blue Florida skies on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

This mighty version of the 191 ft (58 m) tall Atlas V whose thrust was augmented with four strap on solid rocket motors has only been used once before – to loft NASA’s Curiosity rover to the Red Planet back in November 2011.

Atlas V NROL-67 launch photographed by iPhone from Cocoa Beach on April 10, 2014 while swimming. Credit: Nicole Solomon
Atlas V NROL-67 launch photographed by iPhone from Cocoa Beach on April 10, 2014 while swimming with the Florida fish. Credit: Nicole Solomon

Today’s Atlas V launch, as well as another for SpaceX/NASA, was postponed over two weeks ago from March 25 & 30 amidst final launch preparations when an electrical short completely knocked out use of the US Air Force’s crucial tracking radar that is mandatory to insure public safety for all launches on the Eastern Range.

Atlas V/NROL-67 spy satellite soars off Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral on April 10, 2014. Credit: Jeff Seibert/WiredforSpace
Atlas V/NROL-67 spy satellite soars off Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral on April 10, 2014. Credit: Jeff Seibert/Wired4space.com

Nothing is publicly known about the NROL surveillance satellite, its capabilities, orbit or mission or goals.

Due to the covert nature of this mission, the flight entered the now standard total news blackout and the TV transmission ceased barely five minutes after liftoff.

The successful blastoff follows closely on the heels of another Atlas V launch just seven days ago.

On April 3, ULA launched a less powerful version of the Atlas V carrying an Air Force weather satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

Blastoff of the Atlas V rocket with the super secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload on April 10, 2014 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.     Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace
Blastoff of the Atlas V rocket with the super secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload on April 10, 2014 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace
Clear of the catenary lightning wires the Atlas 5-541 booster with its NROL-67 payload roar to orbit on April 10, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: nasatech.net
Clear of the catenary lightning wires the Atlas 5-541 booster with its NROL-67 payload roar to orbit on April 10, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: nasatech.net

“We are honored to deliver this national security asset to orbit together with our customers the NRO Office of Space Launch and the Air Force,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs.

“Successfully launching two missions from two different coasts in just seven days is a testament to the team’s one-launch-at-a-time focus and ULA’s commitment to mission success and schedule reliability.”

Today’s liftoff involved use of the Atlas V in the 541 configuration. The NROL-67 payload was housed inside a 5-meter diameter payload fairing. And a total of four US built Aerojet Rocketdyne solid rocket motors were mounted on the first stage of the booster.

Atlas V/NROL-67 spy satellite soars off Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral on April 10, 2014. Credit: Jeff Seibert/WiredforSpace
Atlas V/NROL-67 spy satellite soars off Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral on April 10, 2014. Credit: Jeff Seibert/Wired4space.com

The Centaur upper stage which boosted NROL-67 to Earth orbit was powered by a single Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10A engine.

The Atlas V first stage was also powered by the dual nozzle RD AMROSS RD-180 engine manufactured in Russia.

Use of the Russian designed and built RD AMROSS RD-180 engine potentially puts Atlas V launches and US National Security launches at risk, if the crisis in Ukraine and Crimea spins out of control as I have reported previously.

“ULA maintains a two year stockpile of the RD-180 engines at all times,” ULA Jessica Rye spokesperson told me recently at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The next ULA launch from the Cape is scheduled for May 15 when a Delta IV rocket will loft the GPS IIF-6 mission for the United States Air Force from Space Launch Complex-37.

Rising quickly from Pad 41 on its RD-180 and 4 SRBs, the Atlas 5-541 vehicle begins its mission to geosync orbit. Credit: nasatech.net
Rising quickly from Pad 41 on its RD-180 and 4 SRBs, the Atlas 5-541 vehicle begins its mission to geosync orbit. Credit: nasatech.net

A SpaceX Falcon 9 is slated to launch on Monday, April 14 at 4:58 p.m. EDT.

The Falcon 9 is lofting a SpaceX Dragon cargo ship and delivering some 5000 pounds of science experiments and supplies for the six man space station crew – under a resupply contract with NASA.

Also packed aboard the Dragon are a pair of legs for NASA’s experimental Robonaut 2 crew member.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Atlas V NROL 67, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Learn more at Ken’s upcoming presentations at the NEAF astro/space convention, NY on April 12/13.

Ken Kremer

Startled Florida space coast sunbathers see sudden blastoff of Atlas V/NROl-67 from Cocoa Beach on April 10, 2014. Credit: Nicolle Solomon by iPhone
Startled Florida space coast sunbathers see sudden blastoff of Atlas V/NROl-67 from Cocoa Beach on April 10, 2014. Credit: Nicole Solomon by iPhone
Timelapse of Atlas V/NROL-67 blastoff on April 10, 2014. Credit: Chuck Higgins
Timelapse of Atlas V/NROL-67 blastoff on April 10, 2014. Credit: Chuck Higgins
April 10, 2014 blastoff of Atlas V rocket with super secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.     Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
April 10, 2014 blastoff of Atlas V rocket with super secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Atlas V rocket and Super Secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload following rollout to Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on March 24, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Atlas V rocket and Super Secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload following rollout to Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. The Atlas V launched on April 10, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

US Spy Sat and SpaceX Set for Double Barreled Blastoffs After Critical Cape Canaveral Radar Revitalized

The Florida Space Coast is about to ignite with a doubled barreled dose of spectacular rocket launches from Cape Canaveral over the next few days that were suddenly postponed two weeks ago amidst final launch preparations when an electrical short completely knocked out use of the US Air Force’s crucial tracking radar that is mandatory to insure public safety.

A pair of liftoffs vital to US National Security and NASA/SpaceX are now slated for April 10 and April 14 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station after revitalizing the radar systems.

The tracking radar is an absolutely essential asset for the Eastern Range that oversees all launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V is now slated to launch on Thursday, April 10 at 1:45 p.m. EDT.

Artwork for Super Secret NROL-67 payload launching on Atlas V rocket. Credit: NRO/ULA
Artwork for Super Secret NROL-67 payload launching on Atlas V rocket. Credit: NRO/ULA

The Atlas V rocket is carrying the super secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

The SpaceX Falcon 9 is slated to launch on Monday, April 14 at 4:58 p.m. EDT.

The Falcon 9 is lofting a SpaceX Dragon cargo ship and delivering some 5000 pounds of science experiments and supplies for the six man space station crew – under a resupply contract with NASA.

The pair of liftoffs of the Atlas V and Falcon 9 boosters for the NRO and SpaceX/NASA had been slated just days apart on March 25 and March 30, respectively.

Falcon 9 and Dragon static fire test on March 8, 2014. Credit: SpaceX
Falcon 9 and Dragon static fire test on March 8, 2014. Credit: SpaceX

I was on site at Cape Canaveral Launch Pad 41 photographing the Atlas V rocket carrying the NRO payload in anticipation of the launch.

Shortly thereafter a fire of unexplained origin in the radar equipment unexpected occurred and knocked the tracking radar off line. When no quick fix was possible, both launches were delayed indefinitely pending repairs.

“The tracking radar experienced an electrical short, overheating the unit and rendering the radar inoperable,” said the USAF in a statement I received from the 45th Space Wing that controls the critical launch control systems, communications, computers and radar elements at the Eastern Range.

On Monday, April 7, the Air Force announced that range repairs were on target and that a retired, inactive radar had been brought back online.

“A radar that was previously in standby status has been brought back to operational status while the repair work is being accomplished,” said the USAF in a statement.

A fully functional tracking radar is an absolute requirement to ensure the success and safety of every rocket launch.

Insufficient maintenance and antiquated equipment due to a lack of US government funding and investment in infrastructure may be at fault for the electrical short.

The Eastern range radar must function perfectly in order to destroy any rocket in a split second in the event it abruptly veers off course towards the nearby populated areas along the Florida Space Coast.

The Atlas V rocket was rolled out earlier today to Space Launch Complex 41 in preparation for Thursday’s NROL-67 launch. The weather forecast shows a 90 percent chance of favorable weather conditions for launch.

The Dragon spacecraft, filled with about 4,600 lbs of cargo bound for the space station, is mated with Falcon 9.  Credit: SpaceX
The Dragon spacecraft, filled with about 4,600 lbs of cargo bound for the space station, is mated with Falcon 9. Credit: SpaceX

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Atlas V NROL 67, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Learn more at Ken’s upcoming presentations at the NEAF astro/space convention, NY on April 12/13.

Ken Kremer

Crucial Radar Outage Scrubs US National Security and SpaceX Launches for Several Weeks from Cape Canaveral

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – The sudden and unexpected outage of a crucial tracking radar that is mandatory to insure public safety, has forced the scrub of a pair of launches planned for this week from Cape Canaveral, FL, that are vital to US National Security, United Launch Alliance, SpaceX and NASA.

The tracking radar is an absolutely essential asset for the Eastern Range that oversees all launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the Kennedy Space Center on the Florida Space Coast.

The pair of liftoffs for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and SpaceX/NASA had been slated just days apart on March 25 and March 30.

Urgent repairs are in progress.

Both launches have now been postponed for a minimum of 3 weeks, according to a statement I received from the 45th Space Wing of the US Air Force that controls the critical launch control systems, communications, computers and radar elements.

An Atlas V rocket carrying the super secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office and a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon cargo freightor bound for the International Space Station (ISS) were both in the midst of the final stages of intensive pre-launch processing activities this week.

The Eastern range radar was apparently knocked out by a fire on March 24, a short time after the early morning rollout of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket to the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral.

“An investigation revealed a tracking radar experienced an electrical short, overheating the unit and rendering it inoperable,” according to today’s explanatory statement from the USAF 45th Space Wing.

“The outage resulted in an inability to meet minimum public safety requirements needed for flight, so the launch was postponed.”

A SpaceX spokesperson likewise confirmed to me that their launch was also on hold.

Artwork for Super Secret NROL-67 payload launching on Atlas V rocket. Credit: NRO/ULA
Artwork for Super Secret NROL-67 payload launching on Atlas V rocket. Credit: NRO/ULA

A fully functional tracking radar is an absolute requirement to ensure the success and safety of any launch.

The range radar must also be functioning perfectly in order to destroy the rocket in a split second in the event it veers off course to the nearby heavily populated areas along the Space Coast.

Myself and other space journalists had been working at Pad 41 on March 24 and setting up our remote cameras to capture spectacular up close views of the blastoff that had then been scheduled for March 25.

Atlas V rocket and Super Secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload following rollout to Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on March 24, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Atlas V rocket and Super Secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload following rollout to Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on March 24, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Insufficient maintenance and antiquated equipment due to a lack of US government funding and investment in infrastructure may be implicated.

The range outage for such an extended period of time reveals a clear vulnerability in US National Security planning.

The Air Force is also looking into the feasibility of reviving an inactive radar as a short term quick fix.

But in order to use the retired backup system, it will also have to re-validated to ensure utility and that all launch control and public safety requirements are fully met.

Simultaneously, the engineering team is recalculating launch trajectories and range requirements.

Such a revalidation process will also require an unknown period of time.

The full impact of putting these two launches on hold for the NRO and SpaceX is not known at this time.

An upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with Dragon cargo capsule bound for the ISS is slated to launch on March 16, 2014 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL.   File photo.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
An upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with Dragon cargo capsule bound for the ISS is slated to launch on March 16, 2014 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. File photo. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Furthermore, the USAF will need to determine the downstream scheduling impact on the very busy manifest of all of the remaining launches throughout 2014 – averaging more than one per month.

Neither the NRO nor NASA and SpaceX have announced firm new launch dates.

The earliest possible Atlas V launch date appears to be sometime in mid-April, but that assessment can change on a dime.

In the meantime, personnel from the 45th Space Wing will continue to work diligently to repair the range radar equipment as quickly as possible.

ULA engineers also rolled the Atlas V rocket back to its processing hanger until a new launch target date is set.

SpaceX likewise awaits a target launch date for the Dragon CRS-3 cargo mission packed with some 5000 pounds of science experiments and supplies for the six man station crew.

It seems likely that the next Orbital Sciences Antares/Cygnus launch to the ISS will also have to be postponed since Dragon and Cygnus berth at the same station port.

Space journalists and photographers pose at Launch Pad 41 during camera setup with the Atlas V rocket slated to loft super secret NROL-67 spy satellite to orbit. Ken Kremer/Universe Today at right.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Space journalists and photographers pose at Launch Pad 41 during camera setup with the Atlas V rocket slated to loft super secret NROL-67 spy satellite to orbit; Ben Cooper, Don Hludiak, Mike Howard, Mike Deep, Matthew Travis, Hap Griffin, Jeff Seibert, Alan Walters, Julian Leek, Ken Kremer/Universe Today at right. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Atlas V NROL 67, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Learn more at Ken’s upcoming presentations at the NEAF astro/space convention, NY on April 12/13 and at Washington Crossing State Park, NJ on April 6. Also at the Quality Inn Kennedy Space Center, Titusville, FL, March 29.

Ken Kremer

Next Generation Military Communications Satellite Launched for US Air Force

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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.

Atlas V rocket and the highly advanced AEHF-2 military communications satellite soar to space on May 4, 2012 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

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.

Launch of AEHF-2 military communications satellite atop Atlas V rocket on May 4, 2012 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

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.

X-37B – The Gift That Keeps On Giving


Video provided courtesy of United Launch Alliance

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.

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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).

OTV USA-226 launched on Mar. 5, 2011 and has helped prove out the mini space plane's design. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

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.

Flawlessly On Course Curiosity Cruising to Mars – No Burn Needed Now

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Curiosity’s interplanetary injection was spot on ! – following her Nov. 26 blastoff aboard the 2 million pound thrust Atlas V booster from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

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.

Deceleration of Mars Science Laboratory in Martian Atmosphere
Artist's Concept depicts the interaction of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft with the upper atmosphere of Mars during the entry, descent and landing (EDL) of the Curiosity rover onto the Martian surface. EDL begins when the spacecraft reaches the top of Martian atmosphere, about 81 miles (131 kilometers) above the surface of the Gale crater landing area, and ends with the rover safe and sound on the surface of Mars some 7 minutes later. During EDL, the spacecraft decelerates from a velocity of about 13,200 miles per hour (5,900 meters per second) at the top of the atmosphere, to stationary on the surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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.

Atlas V rocket and Curiosity Mars rover poised at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral, Florida prior to Nov. 26, 2011 liftoff. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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.

Complete Coverage of Curiosity – NASA’s Next Mars Rover launched 26 Nov. 2011
Read continuing features about Curiosity by Ken Kremer starting here:
NASA Planetary Science Trio Honored as ‘Best of What’s New’ in 2011- Curiosity/Dawn/MESSENGER
Curiosity Mars Rover Launch Gallery – Photos and Videos
Curiosity Majestically Blasts off on ‘Mars Trek’ to ascertain ‘Are We Alone?
Mars Trek – Curiosity Poised to Search for Signs of Life
Curiosity Rover ‘Locked and Loaded’ for Quantum Leap in Pursuit of Martian Microbial Life
Science Rich Gale Crater and NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover in Glorious 3-D – Touchdown in a Habitable Zone
Curiosity Powered Up for Martian Voyage on Nov. 26 – Exclusive Message from Chief Engineer Rob Manning
NASA’s Curiosity Set to Search for Signs of Martian Life
Curiosity Rover Bolted to Atlas Rocket – In Search of Martian Microbial Habitats
Closing the Clamshell on a Martian Curiosity
Curiosity Buttoned Up for Martian Voyage in Search of Life’s Ingredients
Assembling Curiosity’s Rocket to Mars
Encapsulating Curiosity for Martian Flight Test
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action