NASA Completes Critical Space Communications Network with Spectacular Launch of Final TDRS Science Relay Satellite

NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-M (TDRS-M), which is the third and final in a series of next generation science communications satellites, was successfully launched Aug. 18, 2017 at 8:29 a.m. EDT by a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. TDRS-M has been placed into orbit following separation from the upper stage. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Today marked the end of an era for NASA as the last of the agency’s next generation Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TRDS) that transmit the critical science data and communications for the Hubble Space Telescope and human spaceflight missions to the International Space Station, successfully rocketed to orbit this morning, Fri. Aug 18 from the Florida Space Coast.

The spectacular liftoff of the strangely fish-like TDRS-M science relay comsat atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket occurred at 8:29 a.m. EDT a.m. (2:29 GMT) Aug. 18 from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The weather cooperated with relatively thin but artistic clouds and low winds and offered spectators a spectacular launch show that will not forget.

NASA’s $408 million next generation Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TRDS) looks like a giant alien fish or cocooned creature. But actually plays an unparalleled role in relaying critical science measurements, research data and tracking observations gathered by the International Space Station (ISS), Hubble and a plethora of Earth science missions.

“TDRS is a critical national asset have because of its importance to the space station and all of our science missions, primarily the Hubble Space Telescope and Earth science missions that use TDRS,” said Tim Dunn, NASA’s TDRS-M launch director.

NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-M (TDRS-M), which is the third and final in a series of next generation science communications satellites, was successfully launched Aug. 18, 2017 at 8:29 a.m. EDT by a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. TDRS-M has been placed into orbit following separation from the upper stage. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

TDRS-M will provide high-bandwidth communications to spacecraft in low-Earth orbit. The TDRS network enables continuous communication with the International Space Station, the Hubble Space Telescope, the Earth Observing System and other programs supporting human space flight, said satellite builder Boeing, the prime contractor for the mission.

TDRS-M is the last of three satellites to be launched in the third generation of TDRS satellites. It is also the final satellite built based on Boeing’s 601 spacecraft bus series.

NASA plans to switch to much higher capacity laser communications for the next generation of TDRS-like satellites and therefore opted to not build a fourth third generation satellite after TDRS-M.

Inside the Astrotech payload processing facility in Titusville, FL,NASA’s massive, insect like Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, or TDRS-M, spacecraft is undergoing preflight processing during media visit on 13 July 2017. TDRS-M will transmit critical science data gathered by the ISS, Hubble and numerous NASA Earth science missions. It is being prepared for encapsulation inside its payload fairing prior to being transported to Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket on 3 August 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“The TDRS fleet is a critical connection delivering science and human spaceflight data to those who can use it here on Earth,” said Dave Littmann, the TDRS project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

“TDRS-M will expand the capabilities and extend the lifespan of the Space Network, allowing us to continue receiving and transmitting mission data well into the next decade.”

Launch of ULA Atlas V on TDRS-M mission for NASA from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Aug. 18, 2017 at 8:29 a.m. EDT. Credit: Julian Leek

TDRS-M joins a constellation of 9 TDRS satellites already in orbit and ups the fleet to ten orbiting satellites.

Evolution of NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) System. Credit: NASA

The Atlas V rocket and Centaur upper stage delivered TDRS-M to its desired preliminary orbit.
“Trajectory analysis in. Injection accuracy was within 1% of prediction #TDRSM,” tweeted ULA CEO Torey Bruno.

Several hours after the launch ground controllers reported the satellite was in good health.

On tap now is a four month period or orbit checkout by prime contractor Boeing as well as a series of five significant orbit raising maneuvers from its initial orbit to Geostationary orbit over the Pacific Ocean.

“This TDRS-M milestone is another step forward in Boeing’s commitment to developing technologies to support future NASA near-Earth, moon, Mars and deep space missions – and to do so affordably, drawing on our 40-plus years of strong Boeing-NASA partnership,” said Enrico Attanasio, executive director, Department of Defense and Civil Programs, Boeing Satellite Systems.

Ground controllers will then move it to its final orbit over the Atlantic Ocean.

NASA plans to conduct additional tests before putting TDRS-M into service early next year over the Atlantic.

Blastoff of NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-M (TDRS-M) on Aug. 18, 2017 at 8:29 a.m. EDT by a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida – as seen from the VAB roof. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The importance of the TDRS constellation of satellites can’t be overstated.

Virtually all the communications relay capability involving human spaceflight, such as the ISS, resupply vehicles like the SpaceX cargo Dragon and Orbital ATK Cygnus and the soon to launch human space taxis like crew Dragon, Boeing Starliner and NASA’s Orion deep space crew capsule route their science results voice, data, command, telemetry and communications via the TDRS network of satellites.

The TDRS constellation enables both space to space and space to ground communications for virtually the entire orbital period.

The two stage Atlas V rocket stands 191 feet tall.

TDRS-M, spacecraft, which stands for Tracking and Data Relay Satellite – M is NASA’s new and advanced science data relay communications satellite that will transmit research measurements and analysis gathered by the astronaut crews and instruments flying abroad the International Space Station (ISS), Hubble Space Telescope and over 35 NASA Earth science missions including MMS, GPM, Aura, Aqua, Landsat, Jason 2 and 3 and more.

The TDRS constellation orbits 22,300 miles above Earth and provide near-constant communication links between the ground and the orbiting satellites.

TRDS-M will have S-, Ku- and Ka-band capabilities. Ka has the capability to transmit as much as six-gigabytes of data per minute. That’s the equivalent of downloading almost 14,000 songs per minute says NASA.

The TDRS program is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

TDRS-M is the third satellite in the third series of NASA’s American’s most powerful and most advanced Tracking and Data Relay Satellites. It is designed to last for a 15 year orbital lifetime.

The first TDRS satellite was deployed from the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983 as TDRS-A.

TDRS-M was built by prime contractor Boeing in El Segundo, California and is the third of a three satellite series – comprising TDRS -K, L, and M. They are based on the Boeing 601 series satellite bus and will be keep the TDRS satellite system operational through the 2020s.

TDSR-K and TDRS-L were launched in 2013 and 2014.

Configuration diagram of NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellites. Credit: NASA

The Tracking and Data Relay Satellite project is managed at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

TDRS-M was built as a follow on and replacement satellite necessary to maintain and expand NASA’s Space Network, according to a NASA description.

The gigantic satellite is about as long as two school buses and measures 21 meters in length by 13.1 meters wide.

It has a dry mass of 1800 kg (4000 lbs) and a fueled mass of 3,454 kilogram (7,615 lb) at launch.

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite TDRS-M, CRS-12, ORS 5 and NASA and space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

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

Ken Kremer

Curiosity Majestically Blasts off on ‘Mars Trek’ to ascertain ‘Are We Alone?’

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Atop a towering inferno of sparkling flames and billowing ash, Humankinds millennial long quest to ascertain “Are We Alone ?” soared skywards today (Nov. 26) with a sophisticated spaceship named ‘Curiosity’ – NASA’s newest, biggest and most up to date robotic surveyor that’s specifically tasked to hunt for the ‘Ingredients of Life’ on Mars, the most ‘Earth-like’ planet in our Solar System.

‘Mars Trek – Curiosity’s Search for Undiscovered Life’ zoomed to the heavens with today’s (Nov. 26) pulse pounding blastoff of NASA’s huge Curiosity Mars rover mounted atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at 10:02 a.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory MSL) rover blasts off for Mars atop an Atlas V rocket on Nov. 26 at 10:02 a.m. EST from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

Curiosity’s noble goal is to meticulously gather and sift through samples of Martian soil and rocks in pursuit of the tell-tale signatures of life in the form of organic molecules – the carbon based building blocks of life as we know it – as well as clays and sulfate minerals that may preserve evidence of habitats and environments that could support the genesis of Martian microbial life forms, past or present.

The Atlas V booster carrying Curiosity to the Red Planet vaulted off the launch pad on 2 million pounds of thrust and put on a spectacular sky show for the throngs of spectators who journeyed to the Kennedy Space Center from across the globe, crowded around the Florida Space Coast’s beaches, waterways and roadways and came to witness firsthand the liftoff of the $2.5 Billion Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover.

Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover blasts off for Mars atop an Atlas V rocket on Nov. 26 at 10:02 a.m. EST from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The car-sized rover, Curiosity, which has 10 science instruments designed to search for signs of life, including methane, and to help determine if this gas is from a biological or geological source. Credit: Ken Kremer

The car sized Curiosity rover is the most ambitious, important and far reaching science probe ever sent to the Red Planet – and the likes of which we have never seen or attempted before.

“Science fiction is now science fact,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters at the post launch briefing for reporters at KSC. “We’re flying to Mars. We’ll get it on the ground… and see what we find.”

“’Ecstatic’ – in a word, NASA is Ecstatic. We have started a new Era in the Exploration of Mars with this mission – technologically and scientifically. MSL is enormous, the equivalent of 3 missions frankly.”

“We’re exactly where we want to be, moving fast and cruising to Mars.”

Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover blasts off for Mars atop an Atlas V rocket on Nov. 26 at 10:02 a.m. EST from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Mike Deep/David Gonzales

NASA is utilizing an unprecedented, rocket powered precision descent system to guide Curiosity to a pinpoint touch down inside the Gale Crater landing site, with all six wheels deployed.

Gale Crater is 154 km (96 mi) wide. It is dominated by layered terrain and an enormous mountain rising some 5 km (3 mi) above the crater floor which exhibits exposures of minerals that may have preserved evidence of ancient or extant Martian life.

“I hope we have more work than the scientists can actually handle. I expect them all to be overrun with data that they’ve never seen before.”

“The first images from the bottom of Gale Crater should be stunning. The public will see vistas we’ve never seen before. It will be like sitting at the bottom of the Grand Canyon,” said McCuistion.

Topography of Gale Crater - Curiosity Mars rover landing site
Color coding in this image of Gale Crater on Mars represents differences in elevation. The vertical difference from a low point inside the landing ellipse for NASA's Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (yellow dot) to a high point on the mountain inside the crater (red dot) is about 3 miles (5 kilometers). Credit: NASA

The 197 ft tall Atlas booster’s powerful liquid and solid fueled engines ignited precisely on time with a flash and thunderous roar that grew more intense as the expanding plume of smoke and fire trailed behind the rapidly ascending rockets tail.

The Atlas rockets first stage is comprised of twin Russian built RD-180 liquid fueled engines and four US built solid rocket motors.

The engines powered the accelerating climb to space and propelled the booster away from the US East Coast as it majestically arced over in between broken layers of clouds. The four solids jettisoned 1 minute and 55 seconds later. The liquid fueled core continued firing until its propellants were expended and dropped away at T plus four and one half minutes.

The hydrogen fueled Centaur second stage successfully fired twice and placed the probe on an Earth escape trajectory at 22,500 MPH.

The MSL spacecraft separates and heads on its way to Mars. Credit: NASA TV

The Atlas V initially lofted the spacecraft into Earth orbit and then, with a second burst from the Centaur, pushed it out of Earth orbit into a 352-million-mile (567-million-kilometer) journey to Mars.

MSL spacecraft separation of the solar powered cruise stage stack from the Centaur upper stage occurred at T plus 44 minutes and was beautifully captured on a live NASA TV streaming video feed.

“Our spacecraft is in excellent health and it’s on its way to Mars,” said Pete Theisinger, Mars Science Laboratory Project Manager from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California at the briefing. “I want to thank the launch team, United Launch Alliance, NASA’s Launch Services Program and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for their help getting MSL into space.”

Curiosity punches through Florida clouds on the way to Mars. Credit: Mike Deep/David Gonzales

“The launch vehicle has given us a first rate injection into our trajectory and we’re in cruise mode. The spacecraft is in communication, thermally stable and power positive.”

“I’m very happy.”

“Our first trajectory correction maneuver will be in about two weeks,” Theisinger added.

“We’ll do instrument checkouts in the next several weeks and continue with thorough preparations for the landing on Mars and operations on the surface.”

Curiosity is a 900 kg (2000 pound) behemoth. She measures 3 meters (10 ft) in length and is nearly twice the size and five times as heavy as Spirit and Opportunity, NASA’s prior set of twin Martian robots.

NASA was only given enough money to build 1 rover this time.

“We are ready to go for landing on the surface of Mars, and we couldn’t be happier,” said John Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist from the California Institute of Technology at the briefing. “I think this mission will be a great one. It is an important next step in NASA’s overall goal to address the issue of life in the universe.”

Pete Theisinger, Mars Science Laboratory Project Manager from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and John Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist from the California Institute of Technology at the Nov. 26 post-launch media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), pose with model of Atlas V rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer

Curiosity is equipped with a powerful 75 kilogram (165 pounds) array of 10 state-of-the-art science instruments weighing 15 times more than its predecessor’s science payloads.

Curiosity rover launches to Mars atop an Atlas V rocket on Nov. 26 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Mike Killian/Zero-G News

A drill and scoop located at the end of the robotic arm will gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into analytical laboratory instruments inside the rover. A laser will zap rocks to determine elemental composition.

“We are not a life detection mission.”

“It is important to distinguish that as an intermediate mission between the Mars Exploration Rovers, which was the search for water, and future missions, which may undertake life detection.”

“Our mission is about looking for ancient habitable environments – a time on Mars which is very different from the conditions on Mars today.”

“The promise of Mars Science Laboratory, assuming that all things behave nominally, is we can deliver to you a history of formerly, potentially habitable environments on Mars,” Grotzinger said at the briefing. “But the expectation that we’re going to find organic carbon, that’s the hope of Mars Science Laboratory. It’s a long shot, but we’re going to try.”

Today’s liftoff was the culmination of about 10 years of efforts by the more than 250 science team members and the diligent work of thousands more researchers, engineers and technicians spread around numerous locations across the United States and NASA’s international partners including Canada, Germany, Russia, Spain and France.

“Scientists chose the site they wanted to go to for the first time in history, because of the precision engineering landing system. We are going to the very best place we could find, exactly where we want to go.”

“I can’t wait to get on the ground,” said Grotzinger.

John Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist from the California Institute of Technology and Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters at the post launch briefing for reporters at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer

Complete Coverage of Curiosity – NASA’s Next Mars Rover launched 26 Nov. 2011
Read continuing features about Curiosity by Ken Kremer starting here:

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
Packing a Mars Rover for the Trip to Florida; Time Lapse Video
Test Roving NASA’s Curiosity on Earth

Curiosity Rover ‘Locked and Loaded’ for Quantum Leap in Pursuit of Martian Microbial Life

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NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover, the most technologically complex and scientifically capable robot built by humans to explore the surface of another celestial body, is poised to liftoff on Nov. 26 and will enable a quantum leap in mankind’s pursuit of Martian microbes and signatures of life beyond Earth.

“The Mars Science Lab and the rover Curiosity is ‘locked and loaded’, ready for final countdown on Saturday’s launch to Mars,” said Colleen Hartman, assistant associate administrator in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, at a pre-launch media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

The $2.5 Billion robotic explorer remains on track for an on time liftoff aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at 10:02 a.m. on Nov. 26 from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Atlas V rocket at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. An Atlas V rocket similar to this one utilized in August 2011 for NASAS’s Juno Jupiter Orbiter will blast Curiosity to Mars on Nov. 26, 2011 from Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

NASA managers and spacecraft contractors gave the “Go-Ahead” for proceeding towards Saturday’s launch at the Launch Readiness Review on Wednesday, Nov. 23. The next milestone is to move the Atlas V rocket 1800 ft. from its preparation and assembly gantry inside the Vertical Integration Facility at the Cape.

“We plan on rolling the vehicle out of the Vertical Integration Facility on Friday morning [Nov. 25] ,” said NASA Launch Director Omar Baez at the briefing. “We should be on the way to the pad by 8 a.m.”

The launch window on Nov. 26 is open until 11:14 a.m. and the current weather prognosis is favorable with chances rated at 70 percent “GO”.

“The final launch rehearsal – using the real vehicle ! – went perfectly, said NASA Mars manager Rob Manning, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today. Manning is the Curiosity Chief Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

“I was happy.”

“The folks at KSCs Payload Handling Facility and at JPL’s cruise mission support area (CMSA) – normally a boisterous bunch – worked quietly and professionally thru to T-4 minutes and a simulated fake hold followed by a restart and a recycle (shut down) due to a sail boat floating too close to the range,” Manning told me.

Curiosity rover - Engineering support team working at consoles at JPL. Credit: Rob Manning

Readers may recall that NASA’s JUNO Jupiter orbiter launch in August was delayed by an hour when an errant boat sailed into the Atlantic Ocean exclusion zone.

“This rover, Curiosity rover, is really a rover on steroids. It’s an order of magnitude more capable than anything we have ever launched to any planet in the solar system,” said Hartman.

“It will go longer, it will discover more than we can possibly imagine.”

Curiosity rover explores inside Gale Crater after landing in August 2012. The mast, or rover's "head," rises to about 2.1 meters (6.9 feet) above ground level, about as tall as a basketball player. Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech

Curiosity is locked atop the powerful Alliance Atlas V rocket that will propel the 1 ton behemoth on an eight and one half month interplanetary cruise from the alligator filled swamps of the Florida Space Coast to a layered mountain inside Gale Crater on Mars where liquid water once flowed and Martian microbes may once have thrived.

Curiosity is loaded inside the largest aeroshell ever built and that will shield her from the extreme temperatures and intense buffeting friction she’ll suffer while plummeting into the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 MPH (5,900 m/s) upon arrival at the Red Planet in August 2012.

The Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover is the most ambitious mission ever sent to Mars and is equipped with a powerful 75 kilogram (165 pounds) array of 10 state-of-the-art science instruments weighing 15 times as much as its predecessor’s science payloads.

Curiosity measures 3 meters (10 ft) in length and weighs 900 kg (2000 pounds), nearly twice the size and five times as heavy as NASA’s prior set of twin robogirls – Spirit and Opportunity.

The science team selected Gale crater as the landing site because it exhibits exposures of clays and hydrated sulfate minerals that formed in the presence of liquid water billions of years ago, indicating a wet history on ancient Mars that could potentially support the genesis of microbial life forms. Water is an essential prerequisite for life as we know it.

Gale Crater is 154 km (96 mi) in diameter and dominated by a layered mountain rising some 5 km (3 mi) above the crater floor.

Oblique View of Gale Crater, Mars, with Vertical Exaggeration
Gale Crater, where the rover Curiosity of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission will land in August 2012, contains a mountain rising from the crater floor. This oblique view of Gale Crater, looking toward the southeast, is an artist's impression using two-fold vertical exaggeration to emphasize the area's topography. Curiosity's landing site is on the crater floor northeast of the mountain. The crater's diameter is 96 miles (154 kilometers). The image combines elevation data from the High Resolution Stereo Camera on the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter, image data from the Context Camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and color information from Viking Orbiter imagery.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS

The car sized rover is being targeted with a first of its kind precision rocket powered descent system to touchdown inside a landing ellipse some 20 by 25 kilometers (12.4 miles by 15.5 miles) wide and astride the towering mountain at a location in the northern region of Gale.

Curiosity’s goal is to search the crater floor and nearby mountain – half the height of Mt. Everest – for the ingredients of life, including water and the organic molecules that we are all composed of.

The robot will deploy its 7 foot long arm to collect soil and rock samples to assess their composition and determine if any organic materials are present – organics have not previously been detected on Mars.

Curiosity will also vaporize rocks with a laser to determine which elements are present, look for subsurface water in the form of hydrogen, and assess the weather and radiation environments

“After the rocket powered descent, the Sky-Crane maneuver deploys the rover and we land on the mobility system, said Pete Theisinger, MSL project manager from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., at the briefing.

The rover will rover about 20 kilometers in the first year. Curiosity has no life limiting constraints. The longevity depends on the health of the rovers components and instruments.

“We’ve had our normal challenges and hiccups that we have in these kinds of major operations, but things have gone extremely smoothly and we’re fully prepared to go on Saturday morning. We hope that the weather cooperates, said Theisinger

Missions to Mars are exceedingly difficult and have been a death trap for many orbiters and landers.

“Mars really is the Bermuda Triangle of the solar system,” said Hartman. “It’s the ‘death planet,’ and the United States of America is the only nation in the world that has ever landed and driven robotic explorers on the surface of Mars. And now we’re set to do it again.”

Complete Coverage of Curiosity – NASA’s Next Mars Rover launching 26 Nov. 2011

Read continuing features about Curiosity by Ken Kremer starting here:

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
Packing a Mars Rover for the Trip to Florida; Time Lapse Video
Test Roving NASA’s Curiosity on Earth

Juno Jupiter Orbiter poised at Launch Pad for Aug. 5 Blastoff

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The Atlas V rocket that will power NASA’s new Juno science probe to Jupiter was rolled out to the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41 and now sits poised for blastoff on Friday, Aug. 5 at 15:34 UT (11:34 a.m. EDT) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The Atlas V booster rocket was pushed out of its protective hanger, known as the Vertical Integration Facility, and towards Pad 41 this morning starting at 8:01 a.m. and took about 40 minutes to reach its destination.

Weather forecasters continues to call for a 70 percent chance of favorable conditions at launch time, but the approach of Tropical Storm Emily could throw a wrench in NASA’s plans depending on the track following by the storm over the remaining prelaunch period.

According to continuing weather updates, Emily is dissipating.

Juno Jupiter Orbiter encapsulated inside Payload Fairing atop Atlas V Rocket at Pad 41. NASA’s Juno science spacecraft sits inside the 5 meter diameter payload fairing which is bolted on top of an Atlas V rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Managers approved Juno for flight at this morning’s Launch Readiness Review. The 4 ton Juno spacecraft will embark on a five year trek to Jupiter, our solar system’s largest planet and seek to understand the ingredients necessary for planetary formations.

Juno is perched inside a 5 meter diameter payload fairing and mated to the most powerful version of the Atlas V rocket – an Atlas 551 – with 2.4 million pounds of liftoff thrust. The 20 story tall Atlas 551 uses a standard Atlas booster with five solid rocket boosters in the first stage and a single engine Centaur in the second stage.

The launch window extends for 69 minutes.

The Atlas V is built by United Launch Alliance (ULA).

Juno will orbit Jupiter 33 times and search for the existence of a solid planetary core, map Jupiter’s intense magnetic field, measure the amount of water and ammonia in the deep atmosphere, and observe the planet’s auroras. Each orbit lasts 11 days

The spacecraft will provide the first detailed glimpse of Jupiter’s poles via a specially designed camera. The elliptical orbit will allow Juno to avoid most of Jupiter’s harsh radiation regions that can severely damage the spacecraft systems.

See my photo album from the launch pad published here.

Atlas and Juno at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Juno is slated for an Aug. 5 blastoff to Jupiter. 465,000 gallon Liquid Oxygen tank at right. Credit: Ken Kremer
A bank of remote cameras set up to record the blastoff of Juno spacecraft. Credit: Ken Kremer
Atlas V, Juno and the Flame Trench at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer
Atlas and Juno begin wheeling out from the Vertical Integration Facilty (VIF) to launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Read my continuing features about Juno
JUNO Orbiter Mated to Mightiest Atlas rocket for Aug. 5 Blastoff to Jupiter
Solar Powered Jupiter bound JUNO lands at Kennedy Space Center for blastoff

Solar Powered Jupiter bound JUNO lands at Kennedy Space Center for blastoff

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Juno, NASA’s next big mission bound for the outer planets, has arrived at the Kennedy Space Center to kick off the final leg of launch preparations in anticipation of blastoff for Jupiter this summer.

The huge solar-powered Juno spacecraft will skim to within 4800 kilometers (3000 miles) of the cloud tops of Jupiter to study the origin and evolution of our solar system’s largest planet. Understanding the mechanism of how Jupiter formed will lead to a better understanding of the origin of planetary systems around other stars throughout our galaxy.

Juno will be spinning like a windmill as it fly’s in a highly elliptical polar orbit and investigates the gas giant’s origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere with a suite of nine science instruments.

Technicians at Astrotech's payload processing facility in Titusville, Fla. secure NASA's Juno spacecraft to the rotation stand for testing. The solar-powered spacecraft will orbit Jupiter's poles 33 times to find out more about the gas giant's origins. Credit: NASA/Jack Pfaller

During the five year cruise to Jupiter, the 3,600 kilogram probe will fly by Earth once in 2013 to pick up speed and accelerate Juno past the asteroid belt on its long journey to the Jovian system where it arrives in July 2016.

Juno will orbit Jupiter 33 times and search for the existence of a solid planetary core, map Jupiter’s intense magnetic field, measure the amount of water and ammonia in the deep atmosphere, and observe the planet’s auroras.

The mission will provide the first detailed glimpse of Jupiter’s poles and is set to last approximately one year. The elliptical orbit will allow Juno to avoid most of Jupiter’s harsh radiation regions that can severely damage the spacecraft systems.

Juno was designed and built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, and air shipped in a protective shipping container inside the belly of a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster cargo jet to the Astrotech payload processing facility in Titusville, Fla.

Juno undergoes acoustics testing at Lockheed Martin in Denver where the spacecraft was built. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin

This week the spacecraft begins about four months of final functional testing and integration inside the climate controlled clean room and undergoes a thorough verification that all its systems are healthy. Other processing work before launch includes attachment of the long magnetometer boom and solar arrays which arrived earlier.

Juno is the first solar powered probe to be launched to the outer planets and operate at such a great distance from the sun. Since Jupiter receives 25 times less sunlight than Earth, Juno will carry three giant solar panels, each spanning more than 20 meters (66 feet) in length. They will remain continuously in sunlight from the time they are unfurled after launch through the end of the mission.

“The Juno spacecraft and the team have come a long way since this project was first conceived in 2003,” said Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator, based at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, in a statement. “We’re only a few months away from a mission of discovery that could very well rewrite the books on not only how Jupiter was born, but how our solar system came into being.”

Juno is slated to launch aboard the most powerful version of the Atlas V rocket – augmented by 5 solid rocket boosters – from Cape Canaveral, Fla. on August 5. The launch window extends through August 26. Juno is the second mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program.

NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover will follow Juno to the Atlas launch pad, and is scheduled to liftoff in late November 2011. Read my stories about Curiosity here and here.

Because of cuts to NASA’s budget by politicians in Washington, the long hoped for mission to investigate the Jovian moon Europa may be axed, along with other high priority science missions. Europa may harbor subsurface oceans of liquid water and is a prime target in NASA’s search for life beyond Earth.

Technicians inside the clean room at Astrotech in Titusville, Fla. guide NASA's Juno spacecraft, as it is lowered by overhead crane, onto the rotation stand for testing. Credit: NASA/Jack Pfaller
Technicians at Astrotech unfurl solar array No. 1 with a magnetometer boom that will help power NASA's Juno spacecraft on a mission to Jupiter. Credit: NASA
Juno's interplanetary trajectory to Jupiter. Juno will launch in August 2011 and fly by Earth once in October 2013 during its 5 year cruise to Jupiter. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL

Spectacular Sunset Launch of new US Spy Satellite

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A Delta IV rocket carrying a top secret military payload for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) blasted off Friday evening (March 11) at 6:38 p.m. from Cape Canaveral at Space Launch Complex-37 in Florida.

The NROL-27 payload supports the national defense and all information about its mission and goals is a classified military secret. Some outside observers say NROL-27 may be a powerful military communications satellite for relay of vital national security data rather than a signals intelligence satellite.

See our launch photo gallery below from Alan Walters and Ken Kremer

Delta IV blast off with NROL-27 spy satellite on March 11, 2011 from Cape Canaveral launch pad 37. Credit: Alan Walters. awaltersphoto.com
The NRO is located in Chantilly, VA. and charged with the design, construction and operation of the US fleet of intelligence gathering reconnaissance satellites. Their goal is achieving information superiority for the U.S. Government and Armed Forces.

“This mission helps ensure that crucial NRO resources will continue to strengthen our national defense,” said Col James Ross, 45th Space Wing vice commander.

The sunset liftoff into a clear blue sky was visually stunning. With the winds whipping towards our viewing site along the NASA causeway, the roaring rocket thunder was especially loud. Upper level winds threatened to derail the launch. Liftoff was delayed by about 45 minutes due to strong wind gusts which finally calmed to fall within the launch criteria.

“This is the 50th anniversary year of the NRO. NROL-27 is the fifth of six launches for the NRO in the 2010-2011 time period and marks our most aggressive launch schedule in two decades,” said Loretta Desio, NRO spokesperson, in an interview for Universe Today at the viewing site.

Sunset blastoff of Delta IV with NROL-27 spy satellite on March 11, 2011 from Cape Canaveral launch pad 37. View from the NASA Causeway about 2.7 miles away. Credit: Ken Kremer. kenkremer.com
The NROL-27 satellite is named “Gryphon”.

Colors and works in the logo represent the United States Marine Corps, United States Navy, VA Tech, and fallen veterans. Logo symbols represent the United States Air Force, United States Army and two teammates killed on 9/11,” according to ULA spokesperson Chris Chavez.

The unmanned Delta IV rocket was built by United Launch Alliance (ULA) and launched by the 45th Space Wing stationed at Patrick Air Force Base. ULA is a partnership between Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

“The outstanding ULA, NRO and Air Force partnership made yet another successful mission,” said Lt. Col. William Heuck, 5th Space Launch Squadron commander.

NROL-27 was bolted atop the Delta IV rocket in the Medium + (4,2) configuration with a single liquid fueled booster and two small side mounted solid rocket boosters. The Delta IV stands 62.5 meters (205 feet) tall and can launch payloads up to 13.5 tons into low-Earth orbit and 6.6 tons into toward the geosynchronous orbits used by communications satellites.

The flight entered a news blackout after the successful separation of the payload fairing at about four and one half minutes after blastoff. No further information about the satellite will be forthcoming. The 4 meter diameter composite nose cone protects the satellite during ascent through the Earth’s atmosphere.

“I am extremely proud of the entire government and contractor team who supported this launch, said Col. Alan Davis, Director of the Office of Space Launch in the National Reconnaissance Office.

The Delta IV launch occurred just six days after the Atlas V launch of the second Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-2) — the mini space shuttle on another secret mission. See my Atlas report here.

The Florida Space Coast has seen a surge of rocket launchings in the past month. The Delta IV launch is the last of three successful liftoffs in the past few weeks and follows closely on the heels of the Atlas and the final flight of Space Shuttle Discovery.

Delta IV blasts off with NROL-27 spy satellite on March 11, 2011 from Cape Canaveral launch pad 37. Credit: Alan Walters. awaltersphoto.com
Delta IV arcs away to orbit with NROL-27 spy satellite on March 11, 2011 from Cape Canaveral launch pad 37. View from the NASA Causeway about 2.7 miles away. Credit: Ken Kremer
Twin Solid rocket booster separation from Delta rocket 1st Stage occurred at T+plus 1 minute, 42 seconds. Credit: Ken Kremer
Delta IV blasts off with NROL-27 spy satellite on March 11, 2011 from Cape Canaveral launch pad 37. View from the NASA Causeway. Credit: Ken Kremer
Delta IV blasts off with NROL-27 spy satellite on March 11, 2011 from Cape Canaveral launch pad 37. View from the NASA Causeway about 2.7 miles away. Credit: Ken Kremer
Delta 4 and NROL 27 streak to space. Credit: Ken Kremer
Space Photographers in action including this author, captured at the Delta 4 launch by Spaceflight Now. Photo Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now
Colorful vapor exhaust trails from Delta 4 launch. Credit: Ken Kremer
Delta IV prior to launch from Space Launch Complex-37 at Cape Canaveral. Credit: Alan Walters. awaltersphoto.com
Delta 4 NROL-27 mission patch.
Gryphon logo: Colors and works represent the United States Marine Corps, United States Navy, VA Tech, and fallen veterans. Logo symbols represent the United States Air Force, United States Army and two teammates killed on 9/11.
The patch may contain hidden clues about the mission

SDO Launch Scrub; Try Again Tomorrow

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Note: Nancy Atkinson is at Kennedy Space Center to cover SDO and the STS-130 shuttle mission

Scrub! High winds kept the Solar Dynamics Observatory on the ground for today, but the launch team will try again Thursday (Feb. 11) at 10:26 a.m. EST (15:26 GMT). Weather is 60% go for tomorrow, and winds will be down to about 16 knots but cloud cover may be an issue. Today, winds consistently peaked well above the constraint speed of 20 knots – often well into the 30’s. The winds here at the press site were equally strong, and combined with cool weather, kept most people indoors until the launch team gave the go-ahead.

Winds were predicted to decrease later in the day, so the launch team pushed back the countdown as far into the launch window as possible. Originally slated for a 10:26 a.m. EST launch, they first moved it ahead 30 minutes to 10:56, and then to 11:26, leaving just the built-in hold at T-4 minutes in the countdown, — and more importantly, leaving only four minutes for a possible attempt. The count was able to pick up when the weather officer gave the go-ahead, but as soon as the countdown restarted, the count was automatically stopped because the wind loads had risen again.

The scrub was a disappointment for the SDO team, which has had repeated delays in their timeline leading up to launch. But now SDO and the Atlas V rocket can launch any day that the weather allows, so we’ll be back again tomorrow for another try!

You can follow my updates on Twitter (@Nancy_A) for live, real-time updates. I’ll also be reporting live Thursday morning on AstronomyFM, a 24-hour internet radio dedicated to astronomy and space exploration.

Mars 2016 Methane Orbiter: Searching for Signs of Life

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The new joint Mars exploration program of NASA and ESA is quickly pushing forward to implement an agreed upon framework to construct an ambitious new generation of red planet orbiters and landers starting with the 2016 and 2018 launch windows.

The European-led ExoMars Trace Gas Mission Orbiter (TGM) has been selected as the first spacecraft of the joint initiative and is set to launch in January 2016 aboard a NASA supplied Atlas 5 rocket for a 9 month cruise to Mars. The purpose is to study trace gases in the martian atmosphere, in particular the sources and concentration of methane which has significant biological implications. Variable amounts of methane have been detected by a martian orbiter and ground based telescopes on earth. The orbiter will likely be accompanied by a small static lander provided by ESA and dubbed the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM).

The NASA Mars Program is shifting its science strategy to coincide with the new joint venture with ESA and also to build upon recent discoveries from the current international fleet of martian orbiters and surface explorers Spirit, Opportunity and Phoenix (see my earlier mars mosaics). Doug McCuiston, NASA’s director of Mars Exploration at NASA HQ told me in an interview that, “NASA is progressing quickly from ‘Follow the Water’ through assessing habitability and on to a theme of ‘Seeking the Signs of Life’. Looking directly for life is probably a needle in the haystack, but the signatures of past or present life may be more wide spread through organics, methane sources, etc”.

NASA and ESA will issue an “Announcement of Opportunity for the orbiter in January 2010” soliciting proposals for a suite of science instruments according to McCuiston. “The science instruments will be competitively selected. They are open to participation by US scientists who can also serve as the Principal Investigators (PI’s)”. Proposals are due in 3 months and will be jointly evaluated by NASA and ESA. Instrument selections are targeted for announcement in July 2010 and the entire cost of the NASA funded instruments is cost capped at $100 million.

Mars Trace Gas Mission orbiter slated for 2016 launch is the first spacecraft in the new ESA & NASA Mars Exploration Joint Initiative. Credit: NASA ESA
Mars Trace Gas Mission orbiter slated for 2016 launch is the first spacecraft in the new ESA & NASA Mars Exploration Joint Initiative. Credit: NASA ESA

“The 2016 mission must still be formally approved by NASA after a Preliminary Design Review, which will occur either in late 2010 or early 2011. Funding until then is covered in the Mars Program’s Next Decade wedge, where all new-start missions reside until approved, or not, by the Agency”, McCuiston told me. ESA’s Council of Ministers just gave the “green light” and formally approved an initial budget of 850 million euros ($1.2 Billion) to start implementing their ExoMars program for the 2016 and 2018 missions on 17 December at ESA Headquarters in Paris, France. Another 150 million euros will be requested within two years to complete the funding requirement for both missions.

ESA has had to repeatedly delay its own ExoMars spacecraft program since it was announced several years ago due to growing complexity, insufficient budgets and technical challenges resulting in a de-scoping of the science objectives and a reduction in weight of the landed science payload. The ExoMars rover was originally scheduled to launch in 2009 and is now set for 2018 as part of the new architecture.

The Trace Gas orbiter combines elements of ESA’s earlier proposed ExoMars orbiter and NASA’s proposed Mars Science Orbiter. As currently envisioned the spacecraft will have a mass of about 1100 kg and carry a roughly 115 kg science payload, the minimum deemed necessary to accomplish its goals. The instruments must be highly sensitive in order to be capable of detecting the identity and extremely low concentration of atmospheric trace gases, characterizing the spatial and temporal variation of methane and other important species, locating the source origin of the trace gases and determining if they are caused by biologic or geologic processes. Current photochemical models cannot explain the presence of methane in the martain atmosphere nor its rapid appearance and destruction in space, time or quantity.

An Atlas rocket similar to this vehicle I observed at Cape Canaveral Pad 41 is projected to launch the 2016 Mars orbiter. Credit: Ken Kremer
An Atlas rocket similar to this vehicle I observed at Cape Canaveral Pad 41 is projected to launch the 2016 Mars orbiter. Credit: Ken Kremer

Among the instruments planned are a trace gas detector and mapper, a thermal infrared imager and both a wide angle camera and a high resolution stereo color camera (1 – 2 meter resolution). “All the data will be jointly shared and will comply with NASA’s policies on fully open access and posting into the Planetary Data System”, said McCuiston.
Another key objective of the orbiter will be to establish a data relay capability for all surface missions up to 2022, starting with 2016 lander and two rovers slotted for 2018. This timeframe could potentially coincide with Mars Sample Return missions, a long sought goal of many scientists.

If the budget allows, ESA plans to piggyback a small companion lander (EDM) which would test critical technologies for future missions. McCuiston informed me that, “The objective of this ESA Technology Demonstrator is validating the ability to land moderate payloads, so the landing site selection will not be science-driven. So expect something like Meridiani or Gusev—large, flat and safe. NASA will assist ESA engineering as requested, and within ITAR constraints.” EDM will use parachutes, radar and clusters of pulsing liquid propulsion thrusters to land.

“ESA plans a competitive call for instruments on their 3-4 kg payload”, McCuiston explained. “The Announcement of Opportunity will be open to US proposers as well so there may be some US PI’s. ESA wants a camera to ‘prove’ they got to the ground. Otherwise there is no significant role planned for NASA in the EDM”.

The lander would likely function as a weather station and be relatively short lived, perhaps 8 Sols or martian days, depending on the capacity of the batteries. ESA is not including a long term power source, such as from solar arrays, so the surface science will thus be limited in duration.

The orbiter and lander would separate upon arrival at Mars. The orbiter will use a series of aerobraking maneuvers to eventually settle into a 400 km high circular science orbit inclined at about 74 degrees.

The joint Mars architecture was formally agreed upon last summer at a bilateral meeting between Ed Weiler (NASA) and David Southwood (ESA) in Plymouth, UK. Weiler is NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate and Southwood is ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration. They signed an agreement creating the Mars Exploration Joint Initiative (MEJI) which essentially weds the Mars programs of NASA and ESA and delineates their respective program responsibilities and goals.

“The key to moving forward on Mars exploration is international collaboration with Europe”, Weiler said to me in an interview. “We don’t have enough money to do these missions separately. The easy things have been done and the new ones are more complex and expensive. Cost overruns on Mars Science Lab (MSL) have created budgetary problems for future mars missions”. To pay for the MSL overrun, funds have to be taken from future mars budget allocations from fiscal years 2010 to 2014.

“2016 is a logical starting point to work together. NASA can have a 2016 mission if we work with Europe but not if we work alone. We can do so much more by working together since we both have the same objectives scientifically and want to carry out the same types of mission”. Weiler and Southwood instructed their respective science teams to meet and lay out a realistic and scientifically justifiable approach. Weiler explained to me that his goal and hope was to reinstate an exciting Mars architecture with new spacecraft launching at every opportunity which occurs every 26 months and which advance the state of the art for science. “It’s very important to demonstrate a critical new technology on each succeeding mission”.

More on the 2018 mission plan and beyond in a follow up report.

Mars from orbit.  Valles Marineris and Volcanic region
Mars from orbit. Valles Marineris and Volcanic region

Atlas Launch halted by ORCA; Shuttle Atlantis Next in Line

(Editor’s Note: Ken Kremer is in Florida for Universe Today covering the current launch attempts of the space shuttle and Atlas) Image caption: The Atlas 5 will orbit the commercial Intelsat 14 communications satellite. This photo shows upper portion of rocket and umbilical cord connections leading from mobile launch platform to the decaled 4 meter wide white colored payload fairing and Centaur upper stage. The flight is designated as tail number AV-024. Credit: Ken Kremer

Shortly after midnight on Saturday November 14 the launch of an Atlas 5 rocket poised  at Complex 41 and bathed in xenon lights was suddenly halted when engineers discovered a power dropout with the ORCA, or Ordnance Remote Control Assembly.

Atlas 5 rocket sits atop mobile launch platform at launch pad at Complex 41, Cape Canaveral, Florida on a cloudless day just a few hours prior to the scheduled post midnight launch on 14 November  2009.  Note lightings masts at left and Vertical Integration Facility at right where rocket components are assembled.  Credit: Ken Kremer
Atlas 5 rocket sits atop mobile launch platform at launch pad at Complex 41, Cape Canaveral, Florida on a cloudless day just a few hours prior to the scheduled post midnight launch on 14 November 2009. Note lightings masts at left and Vertical Integration Facility at right where rocket components are assembled. Credit: Ken Kremer

The Atlas was due to blast off at 12: 48 AM EST into the cloudless and calm sky above Cape Canaveral, Florida carrying the commercial Intelsat 14 communications satellite into orbit.  I was observing from the Kennedy Space Center press site along with other media representatives as weather conditions were near perfect and gremlins intervened.   My vantage point at KSC provides a clear and direct view to the base of the Atlas rocket and launch pad.

The scrub was called less than half an hour before the scheduled liftoff time and after propellant loading of the first and second stages had been successfully completed.   Engineers will need to troubleshoot the cause of the temporary power interruption to the ORCA electronics component which is used to control the critical flight events on the Atlas booster.

Technicians must obtain access to the electronics box within the rocket and remove it for further investigation of the technical glitch.  Since there is no access at the pad to gain entry and accomplish this task, the Atlas vehicle must be rolled back off the pad about 1800 feet and into the 30 story tall Vertical Integration Facility.  Therefore the launch team executed the standard detanking of propellants to safe the rocket following the scrub.

Atlas 5 rocket at sunset surrounded by 4 lightening masts at pad 41. Multiple tanks of compressed gaseous nitrogen at 4800 psi in foreground.   A technical glitch with the ORCA electronics unit critical for flight control forced a scrub for what would have been the 19th flight of an Atlas 5.  Credit: Ken Kremer
Atlas 5 rocket at sunset surrounded by 4 lightening masts at pad 41. Multiple tanks of compressed gaseous nitrogen at 4800 psi in foreground. A technical glitch with the ORCA electronics unit critical for flight control forced a scrub for what would have been the 19th flight of an Atlas 5. Credit: Ken Kremer

Atlas 5 rocket at sunset surrounded by 4 lightening masts at pad 41. Multiple tanks of compressed gaseous nitrogen at 4800 psi in foreground. A technical glitch with the ORCA electronics unit critical for flight control forced a scrub for what would have been the 19th flight of an Atlas 5. Credit: Ken Kremer

The launch is being conducted for Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services by United Launch Alliance (ULA).  A new launch date has not been set at this time, a ULA spokesman told me.   As a result of the postponement and rollback, the STS 129 flight will proceed without delay as the countdown clock is ticking towards blast off on November 16 according to NASA officials.

Just hours before the planned Atlas liftoff, I visited pad 41 on a special media tour for close-up photography and remote camera set up.  The twilight sun was setting to the west behind the mighty bronze colored rocket topped by a white colored nose cone which protects the valuable satellite payload from aerodynamic forces as it pierces through the atmosphere.

Ken Kremer with the Atlas launch vehicle at Pad 41 which will fly in the 431 configuration with 3 solid rocket boosters attached to the first stage and a single engine white colored Centaur upper stage. The Atlas 5 was rolled out to launch pad on Nov 12. Note tracks at center. The Intelsat satellite is encapsulated in a 4 meter wide extra extended payload fairing.  A similar Centaur stage impacted the moon as part of the LCROSS mission.
Ken Kremer with the Atlas launch vehicle at Pad 41 which will fly in the 431 configuration with 3 solid rocket boosters attached to the first stage and a single engine white colored Centaur upper stage. The Atlas 5 was rolled out to launch pad on Nov 12. Note tracks at center. The Intelsat satellite is encapsulated in a 4 meter wide extra extended payload fairing. A similar Centaur stage impacted the moon as part of the LCROSS mission.

Ken Kremer with the Atlas launch vehicle at Pad 41 which will fly in the 431 configuration with 3 solid rocket boosters attached to the first stage and a single engine white colored Centaur upper stage. The Atlas 5 was rolled out to launch pad on Nov 12. Note tracks at center. The Intelsat satellite is encapsulated in a 4 meter wide extra extended payload fairing. A similar Centaur stage impacted the moon as part of the LCROSS mission. See my LCROSS photos here.

Launches and Dockings and Robots, Oh My!

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It was a busy weekend in the world of space flight — both present and future — and so we’ll try to fit it all in one article, and include a couple of videos to help tell the stories. Before that, however, just a reminder that the Ares-I-X is slated to roll out to launchpad 39-B early Tuesday morning at 12:01 am EDT, to begin preparations for the scheduled Oct. 27 first test launch. If you’re an early bird, (or a night owl) watch the six-hour trip on NASA TV.

And now on to this weekend’s launch story:

The 600th launch of an Atlas rocket took place on a foggy Sunday morning, Oct. 18, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. A new global weather observatory (DMSP F-18) for America’s military was lofted into polar orbit. Watch the video below, and click here to watch a video of the Centaur upper stage which created a sensation as it flew over Europe later in the day when it dumped a load of excess propellant.

On Saturday, Oct. 17, A Progress cargo spacecraft, delivering 2.5 tons of supplies, successfully docked to the space station at 9:40 pm EDT. Here’s the video replay of that event from NASA TV:

Also on Sunday, nineteen teams pushed their robot competitors to the limit, and three teams claimed a total of $750,000 in NASA prizes at this year’s Regolith Excavation Challenge on Oct. 18. This is the first time in the competition’s three-year history that any team qualified for a cash prize, the largest NASA has awarded to date.

After two days of intense competition hosted at NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., organizers conferred first place prize of $500,000 to Paul’s Robotics of Worcester, Mass. Terra Engineering of Gardena, Calif., was a three-time returning competitor and was awarded second place prize of $150,000, and Team Braundo of Rancho Palos Verde, Calif., took the third place of $100,000 as a first-time competitor.

Competitors were required to use mobile, robotic digging machines capable of excavating at least 330 pounds of simulated moon dirt, known as regolith, and depositing it into a container in 30 minutes or less. The rules required the remotely controlled vehicles to contain their own power sources and weigh no more than 176 pounds.

Read more about the competition here, and see lots more images and videos of the event here.