Clean Room Tour with NASA’s Next Gen Tracking Data Relay Satellite TDRS-M, Closeout Incident Under Review – Photos

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

ASTROTECH SPACE OPERATIONS/KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – The last of NASA’s next generation Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TRDS) designed to relay critical science data and research observations gathered by the International Space Station (ISS), Hubble and dozens of Earth-orbiting Earth science missions is undergoing final prelaunch clean room preparations on the Florida Space Coast while targeting an early August launch – even as the agency reviews the scheduling impact of a weekend “closeout incident” that “damaged” a key component.

Liftoff of NASA’s $408 million eerily insectoid-looking TDRS-M science relay comsat atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket currently scheduled for August 3 may be in doubt following a July 14 work related incident causing damage to the satellite’s Omni S-band antenna while inside the Astrotech Space Operations facility in Titusville, Florida.

“The satellite’s Omni S-band antenna was damaged during final spacecraft closeout activities,” NASA said in an updated status statement provided to Universe Today earlier today, July 16. NASA did not provide any further details when asked.

Everything had been perfectly on track as of Thursday, July 13 as Universe Today participated in an up close media tour and briefing about the massive probe inside the clean room processing facility at Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Fl.

On July 13, technicians were busily working to complete final spacecraft processing activities before its encapsulation inside the nose cone of the ULA Atlas V rocket she will ride to space, planned for the next day on July 14. The satellite and pair of payload fairings were stacked in separate high bays at Astrotech on July 13.

Alas the unspecified “damage” to the TDRS-M Omni S-band antenna unfortunately took place on July 14.

Up close clean room visit with NASA’s newest science data relay comsat – Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-M (TDRS-M) inside the Astrotech payload processing facility high bay in Titusville, FL. Two gigantic fold out antennae’s, plus space to ground antenna dish visible inside the ‘cicada like cocoon’ with solar arrays below. Omni S-band antenna at top. Launch on ULA Atlas V slated for August 2017 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

TDRS-M was built by Boeing and engineers are now analyzing the damage in a team effort with NASA. However it’s not known exactly during which closeout activity or by whom the damage occurred.

ULA CEO Tory Bruno tweeted that his company is not responsible and referred all questions to NASA. This may indicate that the antennae was not damaged during the encapsulation procedures inside the ULA payload fairing halves.

“NASA and Boeing are reviewing an incident that occurred with the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS-M) on July 14 at Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Florida. The satellite’s Omni S-band antenna was damaged during final spacecraft closeout activities” stated NASA.

Up close look at the NASA TDRS-M satellite Omni S-band antenna damaged during clean room processing on July 14, 2017. Launch on ULA Atlas V is slated for Aug. 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

TDRS-M looks like a giant insect – or a fish depending on your point of view. It was folded into flight configuration for encapsulation in the clean room and the huge pair of single access antennas resembled a cocoon or a cicada. The 15 foot diameter single access antennas are large parabolic-style antennas and are mechanically steerable.

What does TDRS do? Why is it important? How does it operate?

“The existing Space Network of satellites like TDRS provide constant communications from other NASA satellites like the ISS or Earth observing satellites like Aura, Aqua, Landsat that have high bandwidth data that needs to be transmitted to the ground,” TDRS Deputy Project Manager Robert Buchanan explained to Universe Today during an interview in the Astrotech clean room.

“TRDS tracks those satellites using antennas that articulate. Those user satellites send the data to TDRS, like TDRS-M we see here and nine other TDRS satellites on orbit now tracking those satellites.”

“That data acquired is then transmitted to a ground station complex at White Sands, New Mexico. Then the data is sent to wherever those user satellites want the data to be sent is needed, such as a science data ops center or analysis center.”

Once launched and deployed in space they will “take about 30 to 40 days to fully unfurl,” Buchanan told me in the Astrotech clean room.

Astrotech is located just a few miles down the road from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and the KSC Visitor Complex housing the finest exhibits of numerous spaceships, hardware items and space artifacts.

Preflight clean room processing inside the Astrotech payload processing facility preparing NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, or TDRS-M, spacecraft for launch on ULA Atlas V in Aug. 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

At this time, the TDRS-M website countdown clock is still ticking down towards a ULA Atlas V blastoff on August 3 at 9:02 a.m. EDT (1302 GMT) from Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, for a late breakfast delight.

The Aug. 3 launch window spans 40 minutes from 9:02 to 9:42 a.m. EDT.

Whether or not the launch date will change depends on the results of the review of the spacecraft’s health by NASA and Boeing. Several other satellites are also competing for launch slots in August.

“The mission team is currently assessing flight acceptance and schedule. TDRS-M is planned to launch Aug. 3, 2017, on an United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida,” NASA explained.

NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, or TDRS-M, spacecraft will be encapsulated inside these two protective payload fairing halves inside the Astrotech payload processing facility high bay in Titusville, FL. Launch on ULA Atlas V slated for August 2017 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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.

Preflight clean room processing inside the Astrotech payload processing facility preparing NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, or TDRS-M, spacecraft for launch on ULA Atlas V in Aug. 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

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.

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.

Tracking and Data Relay Satellite artwork explains how the TDRS constellation enables continuous, global communications coverage for near-Earth spacecraft. Credit: NASA

TDRS-M will blastoff on a ULA Atlas V in the baseline 401 configuration, with no augmentation of solid rocket boosters on the first stage. The payload fairing is 4 meters (13.1 feet) in diameter and the upper stage is powered by a single-engine Centaur.

TDRS-M will be launched to a Geostationary orbit some 22,300 miles (35,800 km) above Earth.

“The final orbital location for TDRS-M has not yet been determined,” Buchanen told me.

The Atlas V booster is being assembled inside the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at SLC-41 and will be rolled out to the launch pad the day before liftoff with the TDRS-M science relay comsat comfortably encapsulated inside the nose cone.

NASA/contractor team poses with the Boeing built and to be ULA launched Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-M inside the inside the Astrotech payload processing facility clean room high bay in Titusville, FL, on July 13, 2017. Launch on ULA Atlas V slated for August 2017 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Carefully secured inside its shipping container, the TDRS-M satellite was transported on June 23 by a US Air Force cargo aircraft from Boeing’s El Segundo, California facility to Space Coast Regional Airport in Titusville, Florida, for preflight processing at Astrotech.

Watch for Ken’s onsite TDRS-M 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.

USAF Missile Defense SBIRS Observatory Streaks to Orbit during Spectacular Evening Blastoff

ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the USAF SBIRS GEO 3 missile defense satellite streaks to orbit on Jan. 20, 2017 after nighttime blastoff at 7:42 p.m. ET from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – A U.S. Air Force missile defense reconnaissance observatory that will track the telltale infrared signatures of incoming enemy missiles and is vital to America’s national security blasted off in spectacular fashion this evening, Jan. 20, 2017, as it streaked to orbit from the Florida Space Coast.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying the $1.2 Billion Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) GEO Flight 3 infrared imaging satellite lifted off at 7:42 p.m. ET from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. – marking the first US east coast launch of 2017.

The SBIRS GEO Flight 3 was launched to geosynchronous transfer orbit to an altitude approx 22,000 miles (36,000 kilometers) above Earth.

The Atlas V was launched southeast at an inclination of 23.29 degrees. SBIRS GEO Flight 3 separated from the 2nd stage as planned 43 minutes after liftoff.

It is also the first of at least eleven launches of Atlas and Delta rockets by the aerospace firm this year.

The on time launch took place at the opening of the 40 minute launch window and after a 24 hour delay – when the launch was scrubbed yesterday (Jan. 19) after an aircraft flew into the Cape’s restricted airspace and could not be diverted in time before the launch window closed.

ULA also had to address sensor issues with the Atlas rockets RD-180 main engine during Thursday’s countdown.

Due to the scrub, the Atlas liftoff counts as the first launch of the Trump Administration rather the last of the Obama Administration.

With the unpredictable North Korean dictator Kim John Un threatening to launch an upgraded long range intercontinental ballistic missile this year that could potentially strike the United States west coast, SBIRS GEO 3 is more important than ever for our national defense.

ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the USAF SBIRS GEO 3 missile defense satellite streaks to orbit on Jan. 20, 2017 after nighttime blastoff at 7:42 p.m. ET from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Julian Leek

The SBIRS GEO Flight 3 is considered to be one of the highest priority military space programs in defense of the homeland.

The Space Based Infrared System is designed to provide global, persistent, infrared surveillance capabilities to meet 21st century demands in four national security mission areas: missile warning, missile defense, technical intelligence and battlespace awareness.

SBIRS will supplement and replace the legacy Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites currently in orbit and features vastly increased early missile detection and warning capabilities.

“ULA is proud to deliver this critical satellite which will improve surveillance capabilities for our national decision makers,” said Laura Maginnis, ULA vice president of Government Satellite Launch, in a statement.

“I can’t think of a better way to kick off the new year.”

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying SBIRS GEO Flight 3 satellite lifts off at 7:42 p.m. ET on Jan. 20, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

ULA is a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin with 116 successful launches under its belt after today’s liftoff.

The 194-foot-tall commercial Atlas V booster launched in the 401 rocket configuration with approximately 860,000 pounds of sea level first stage thrust powered by the dual nozzle Russian-built RD AMROSS RD-180 engine. There are no thrust augmenting solids attached to the first stage.

The satellite is housed inside a 4-meter diameter large payload fairing (LPF). The Centaur upper stage is powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C engine.

Watch this video showing the detailed mission profile:

Video Caption: An Atlas V 401 configuration rocket will deliver the Air Force’s third Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellite to orbit. SBIRS, considered one of the nation’s highest priority space programs, is designed to provide global, persistent, infrared surveillance capabilities to meet 21st century demands. Credit: ULA

This mission marks the 34th Atlas V mission in the 401 configuration.

“The Atlas V 401 configuration has become the workhorse of the Atlas V fleet, delivering half of all Atlas V missions to date” said Maginnis.

“ULA understands that even with the most reliable launch vehicles, our sustained mission success is only made possible with seamless integration between our customer and our world class ULA team.”

ULA Atlas V rocket carrying SBIRS GEO Flight 3 missile tracking observatory lifts off at 7:42 p.m. ET on Jan. 20, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The two prior SBIRS GEO missions also launched on the ULA Atlas V 401 rocket.

The SBIRS team is led by the Remote Sensing Systems Directorate at the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor, with Northrop Grumman as the payload integrator. Air Force Space Command operates the SBIRS system, according to a ULA description.

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

Ken Kremer

ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the USAF SBIRS GEO 3 missile warning satellite is poised for blastoff from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Jan. 20, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Artwork for ULA Atlas V launch of SBIRS GEO Flight 3 mission on Jan. 19, 2017 from Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: ULA