Covert NRO Satellite Fades into Capes Cloudy Night Skies Shrouded in Liftoff Secrecy: Gallery – As ULA Atlas Wins Landsat Launch

Covert NROL-52 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office fades into cloudy nighttime skies shrouded in secrecy after liftoff on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket at 3:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL — As one Atlas rocket carrying a covert spy satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) to monitor Earth for national security purposes faded into cloudy nighttime skies over the Cape in the dead of night shrouded in liftoff secrecy, rocket builder United Launch Alliance (ULA) won another significant Atlas launch contract for NASA’s Landsat 9 satellite to monitor the health of Earth’s environment.

Capping two launches from two different rocket companies in four days by ULA and SpaceX followed by the arrival back in port of SpaceX’s ocean landed recovered booster, last week provided all the proof that’s needed to demonstrate that the revitalization of Florida’s Spaceport is well underway and America’s rocket makers are capturing lucrative launch contracts ensuring an upswing nationwide in rocket and spacecraft manufacturing – for critical military surveillance, government, civilian and science needs.

Check out the exciting gallery of Atlas launch imagery and videos including the thrilling droneship return of SpaceX’s 156 foot tall first stage booster back into Port Canaveral less than 4 hours after ULA delivered the classified NROL-52 surveillance satellite to a secret orbit – from this author and several space media colleagues. And check back here as the gallery grows!

A ULA Atlas V launch carrying the covert NROL-52 mission in support of U.S. national security blasted off overnight Sunday, Oct. 15 at 3:28 a.m. EDT (0728 GMT) from seaside Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

“Congratulations to the team who helped make #NROL52 a success! United Launch Alliance, 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., Air Force Space Command, and the Space and Missile Systems Center,” the NRO announced post launch on social media.

It was a case of ‘Going, Going, Gone’ as seemingly endless stormy weather plagued the space coast and the Atlas soon disappeared behind clouds from many but not all vantage points, as the two stage rocket was finally cleared to launch on its fifth try. Postponed three times by poor weather and once due to a technical glitch to fix a faulty second stage transmitter.

Reflecting in a pond a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket blasts off with the covert NROL-52 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office at 3:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The launches were postponed by the downstream impact of Hurricane Irma which forced the base closings of the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and significantly impacted the Florida Space Coast region by causing over $100 million in damage to buildings, homes, businesses, hotels, restaurants, infrastructure and more due to flooding and hurricane force winds.

“We’ve had an incredible month,” said Brig. Gen. Wayne R. Monteith, Commander, 45th Space Wing.

“Not only did we restore our base to full mission capable status just a few hours after Hurricane Irma impacted our coast, but we’ve successfully launched two rockets in less than four days just weeks later.”

Covert NROL-52 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office fades into cloudy nighttime skies shrouded in secrecy after liftoff on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket at 3:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“The 45th Space Wing supported ULA’s Atlas V launch of the NROL-52 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office early morning on Oct. 15!”

“The men and women of the 45th Space Wing continue to make the impossible possible.”

Reflecting in a pond a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket blasts off with the covert NROL-52 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office at 3:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

More than a quarter of all the world’s rocket launches take place from Florida’s burgeoning spaceports.

Covert NROL-52 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office fades into cloudy nighttime skies shrouded in secrecy after liftoff on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket at 3:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“Our team’s resiliency and tireless efforts in launching over 25% of all world-wide launches this year proves why we are the ‘World’s Premier Gateway to Space,’” Montieth gushed in pride.

Meanwhile, NASA selected ULA to provide launch services for the Landsat 9 mission with another Atlas V rocket as soon as late 2020.

“The mission is currently targeted for a contract launch date of June 2021, while protecting for the ability to launch as early as December 2020, on an Atlas V 401 rocket from Space Launch Complex 3E at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California,” said NASA.

The Landsat 9 launch contract is worth $153.8 million.

Landsat 9 is a joint mission between NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

“Landsat 9 will continue the Landsat program’s critical role in monitoring, understanding, and managing the land resources needed to sustain human life.”

“We are honored that NASA has entrusted ULA with launching this critical land imaging satellite,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and chief executive, in a statement.

“ULA’s world-leading performance and reliability, paired with the tremendous heritage of 74 consecutive successful Atlas V launches, provides the optimal value for our customer. We look forward to working together again with our mission partners at NASA’s Launch Services Program, Goddard Space Flight Center and the U.S. Geological Survey in the integration and launch of this significant mission, contributing to the international strategy for examining the health and state of the Earth.”

ULA Atlas V rocket streaks to orbit in this long duration exposure carrying covert NROL-52 payload for the NRO after lift off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Oct. 15, 2017 at 3:28 a.m. EDT at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Jeff Seibert

NROL-52 is the fourth of five launches slated for the NRO in 2017 by both ULA and SpaceX.

“Never before has innovation been more important for keeping us ahead of the game. As the eagle soars, so will the advanced capabilities this payload provides to our national security,” said Colonel Matthew Skeen, USAF, Director, NRO Office of Space Launch, in a statement. “Kudos to the entire team for a job well done.”

Check out this exciting video compilation from remote cameras circling the Atlas pad 41.

Video Caption: Launch of the NROL-52 satellite on an Atlas 5 booster from Pad 41. A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 421 rocket launches the NROL-52 payload on Oct. 15, 2017 at 328 a.m. EDT on the 5th launch attempt. Previous launch attempts were halted by weather issues 3 times, and a faulty telemetry radio that needed to be replaced after the rocket was rolled back to the Pad 41 Vertical Integration Facility. Credit Jeff Seibert

The venerable two stage Atlas V stands 194 feet tall and sports a 100% success record. The first stage generates approx. 1.6 million pounds of liftoff thrust.

This Atlas Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) mission launched in the 421 configuration vehicle, which includes a 4-meter payload fairing (PLF) encapsulating the payload and two strap on solid rocket first stage boosters.

The Atlas first stage booster for this mission was powered by the Russian-built RD AMROSS RD-180 engine, and the Centaur upper stage was powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine.

The dual chamber, dual-nozzle RD-180 is fueled by a mixture of RP-1 kerosene and LOX (liquid oxygen).

The ULA Atlas V first stage powers NROL-52 spy satellite to orbit for the NRO firing the dual chamber, dual-nozzle RD-180 engines after blastoff at 3:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The next NRO launch is scheduled on a ULA Delta IV in December from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

Reflecting in a pond a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket blasts off with the covert NROL-52 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office at 3:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite NROL-52, SpaceX SES-11 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

Liftoff of ULA Atlas V rocket carrying classified NROL-52 payload for the NRO on Oct. 15, 2017 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Julian Leek
United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket streaks to orbit in this long duration exposure carrying covert NROL-52 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office after lift off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Oct. 15, 2017 at 3:28 a.m. EDT at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Reflecting in a pond a ULA Atlas V rocket stands poised for launch with the NROL-52 surveillance satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office prior to blastoff on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Reflown SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage booster arrives at sunrise atop OCISLY droneship being towed into the mouth of Port Canaveral, FL on Oct. 15, 2017 after successfully launch SES-11 UHDTV comsat to orbit on Oct. 11, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com
ULA Atlas V rocket blasts off carrying covert NROL-52 payload for the NRO from Space Launch Complex-41 on Oct. 15, 2017 at 3:28 a.m. EDT at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Jeff Seibert

Clandestine Black Ops NRO Satellite Launches into the Black over Florida Spaceport Skies on ULA Atlas V on 5th Try

United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket streaks to orbit in this long duration exposure carrying covert NROL-52 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office after lift off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Oct. 15, 2017 at 3:28 a.m. EDT at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL — A clandestine black ops satellite supporting US national defense launched into the black skies over Florida’s spaceport in the dead of night Sunday, Oct. 15, on a mission for the U.S. governments National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) that lit up the night skies offering a spectacular vista on its journey to orbit.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V launch carrying the covert NROL-52 mission in support of U.S. national security blasted off early Sunday, Oct. 15 at 3:28 a.m. EDT (0728 GMT) from seaside Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

“Congratulations to the team who helped make #NROL52 a success! United Launch Alliance, 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., Air Force Space Command, and the Space and Missile Systems Center,” the NRO announced post launch on social media.

“Thanks. It was our privilege to serve your mission,” tweeted ULA CEO Tory Bruno in reply.

“Today’s launch is a testament to the tireless dedication of the ULA team, demonstrating why ULA continues to serve as our nation’s most dependable and successful launch provider,” said Laura Maginnis, ULA vice president of Government Satellite Launch, in a statement.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the classified NROL-52 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office in support of national security lifted off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Oct. 15, 2017 at 3:28 a.m. EDT at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Atlas V hauling NROL-52 soon arced over eastwards as it accelerate skywards to deliver the covert satellite to geosynchronous transfer orbit.

As the goals of the secret satellite mission were completely clouded from view perhaps it’s somewhat fitting that overhead clouds furtively rolled in as launch time approached and partially obscured our view – which nevertheless was magnificent!

The Atlas V thundered off pad 41 right at the opening of the middle of the night launch window providing absolutely stunning views to spectators ringing the space coast region as it steaked to orbit – darting in and out of the surprisingly thick cloud layer and affording witnesses who wisely woke up a spectacle they won’t forget.

The top secret payload literally launched into the black. Several minutes after liftoff ULA’s live launch webcast coverage entered a communications blackout.

“At the request of our [NRO] customer, we will wrap up our live #AtlasV #NROL52 [coverage],” said ULA.

Liftoff of ULA Atlas V rocket carrying classified NROL-52 payload for the NRO on Oct. 15, 2017 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Julian Leek

“Never before has innovation been more important for keeping us ahead of the game. As the eagle soars, so will the advanced capabilities this payload provides to our national security,” said Colonel Matthew Skeen, USAF, Director, NRO Office of Space Launch, in a statement. “Kudos to the entire team for a job well done.”

“It’s always a good day when our nation launches an NRO payload that provides vital information to help keep our nation strong and protect us from enemies who wish to do us harm.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the classified NROL-52 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office in support of national security lifted off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Oct. 15, 2017 at 3:28 a.m. EDT at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The fifth time was finally the charm for the oft postponed launch that initially was delayed from late September into early October by the impact of Hurricane Irma on the Florida Space Coast that caused over $100 million in damage to homes, businesses, marinas, parks and more in Brevard county.

The NROL-52 launch attempt was then scrubbed 4 more times due to lingering awful bouts of rains squalls and threating high winds and even a technical glitch with the S-band transmitter on the second stage of the ULA Atlas V rocket.

Fixing the transmitter required that the Atlas rocket be rolled back off the launch pad and into the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at pad 41 to replace the faulty equipment and verify its reliable operation.

“After recovering from Hurricane Irma that came through the area last month, and the last week’s weather challenges, the team found the right opportunity today to deliver this critical national asset to orbit,” Maginnis stated.

The ULA Atlas V launch of NROL-52 for the U.S. governments National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) concluded a launch double header this week on the Florida Space Coast that began with the sunset launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 of the SES-11 commercial satellite on Wednesday, Oct 11. The Falcon 9 first stage soft landed minutes later on an ocean going platform.

The venerable two stage Atlas V stands 194 feet tall and sports a 100% success record. The first stage generates approx. 1.6 million pounds of liftoff thrust.

This Atlas Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) mission launched in the 421 configuration vehicle, which includes a 4-meter payload fairing (PLF) and two strap on solid rocket first stage boosters.

The Atlas booster for this mission was powered by the Russian-built RD AMROSS RD-180 engine, and the Centaur upper stage was powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine.

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is a joint Department of Defense–Intelligence Community organization responsible for developing, launching, and operating America’s intelligence satellites to meet the national security needs of our nation.

The NRO runs a vast fleet of powerful orbital assets hosting a multitude of the most advanced, wide ranging and top secret capabilities.

NROL-52 was launched for the NRO on an intelligence gathering mission in support of US national defense.

The possible roles for the reconnaissance payload include signals intelligence, eavesdropping, imaging and spectroscopic observations, early missile warnings and much more.

This marks the 6th and final Atlas V launch of the year.

The NROL-52 mission marks ULA’s seventh launch of 2017 and 26th for the National Reconnaissance Office.

NROL-52 is the 74th flight of the Atlas V rocket and the seventh in the 421 configuration.

“I want to thank the entire ULA team and our mission partners at the NRO and U.S. Air Force who made this, our 26th NRO launch, successful,” said Maginnis.

Up close view of payload fairing encapsulating NROL-52 spysat for the National Reconnaissance Office atop ULA Atlas V rocket. Liftoff is slated for 4:07 a.m. ET, Oct. 5, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NROL-52 is the fourth of five launches slated for the NRO in 2017 by both ULA and SpaceX.

The next NRO launch is scheduled on a ULA Delta IV in December from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

Reflecting in a pond a ULA Atlas V rocket stands poised for launch with the NROL-52 surveillance satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office prior to blastoff on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite NROL-52, SpaceX SES-11 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

ULA Atlas V rocket will deliver the classified NROL-52 spysat to orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office. Liftoff targeted for 4:07 a.m. ET, Oct. 5, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The NROL-52 mission patch depicts an eagle bursting through a red, white and blue shield as a representation of the agency’s resolve to breaking through barriers in pursuit of innovative technologies and capabilities. Credit: NRO
NROL-52 poster. Credit: NRO/ULA

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Captures Lovely Blue Marble during Gravity Assist Swing-by to Asteroid Bennu

A color composite image of Earth taken on Sept. 22, 2017 by the MapCam camera on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft just hours after the spacecraft completed its Earth Gravity Assist at a range of approximately 106,000 miles (170,000 kilometers). Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid mission captured a lovely ‘Blue Marble’ image of our Home Planet during last Fridays (Sept. 22) successful gravity assist swing-by sending the probe hurtling towards asteroid Bennu for a rendezvous next August on a round trip journey to snatch pristine soil samples.

The newly released color composite image of Earth was taken on Sept. 22 by the spacecrafts MapCam camera.

It was taken at a range of approximately 106,000 miles (170,000 kilometers), just a few hours after OSIRIS-REx completed its critical Earth Gravity Assist (EGA) maneuver.

“NASA’s asteroid sample return spacecraft successfully used Earth’s gravity on Friday, Sept. 22 to slingshot itself on a path toward the asteroid Bennu, for a rendezvous next August,” the agency confirmed after receiving the eagerly awaited telemetry.

OSIRIS-Rex, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security – Regolith Explorer, is NASA’s first ever asteroid sample return mission.

As it swung by Earth at 12:52 p.m. EDT on Sept. 22, OSIRIS-REx passed only 10,711 miles (17,237 km) above Antarctica, just south of Cape Horn, Chile.

The probe departed Earth by following a flight path that continued north over the Pacific Ocean and has already travelled 600 million miles (1 billion kilometers) since launching on Sept. 8, 2016.

OSIRIS-REx flight path over Earth’s surface during the Sept. 22, 2017 slingshot over Antarctica at 12:52 a.m. EDT targeting the probe to Asteroid Bennu in August 2018. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/University of Arizona

The preplanned EGA maneuver provided the absolutely essential gravity assisted speed boost required for OSIRIS-Rex to gain enough velocity to complete its journey to the carbon rich asteroid Bennu and back.

The mission was only made possible by the slingshot which provided a velocity change to the spacecraft of 8,451 miles per hour (3.778 kilometers per second).

“The encounter with Earth is fundamental to our rendezvous with Bennu,” said Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a statement.

“The total velocity change from Earth’s gravity far exceeds the total fuel load of the OSIRIS-REx propulsion system, so we are really leveraging our Earth flyby to make a massive change to the OSIRIS-REx trajectory, specifically changing the tilt of the orbit to match Bennu.”

The spacecraft conducted a post flyby science campaign by collecting images and science observations of Earth and the Moon that began four hours after closest approach in order to test and calibrate its onboard suite of five science instruments and help prepare them for OSIRIS-REx’s arrival at Bennu in late 2018.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft OTES spectrometer captured these infrared spectral curves during Earth Gravity Assist on Sept. 22 2017, hours after the spacecraft’s closest approach. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/Arizona State University

The MapCam camera Blue Marble image is the first one to be released by NASA and the science team.

The image is centered on the Pacific Ocean and shows several familiar landmasses, including Australia in the lower left, and Baja California and the southwestern United States in the upper right.

“The dark vertical streaks at the top of the image are caused by short exposure times (less than three milliseconds),” said the team.

“Short exposure times are required for imaging an object as bright as Earth, but are not anticipated for an object as dark as the asteroid Bennu, which the camera was designed to image.”

The instrument will gather additional data and measurements scanning the Earth and the Moon for three more days over the next two weeks.

“The opportunity to collect science data over the next two weeks provides the OSIRIS-REx mission team with an excellent opportunity to practice for operations at Bennu,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

“During the Earth flyby, the science and operations teams are co-located, performing daily activities together as they will during the asteroid encounter.”

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on the first U.S. mission to sample an asteroid, retrieve at least two ounces of surface material and return it to Earth for study. Liftoff was at 7:05 p.m. EDT on September 8, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft originally departed Earth atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket under crystal clear skies on September 8, 2016 at 7:05 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Everything with the launch and flyby went exactly according to plan for the daring mission boldly seeking to gather rocks and soil from carbon rich Bennu.

OSIRIS-Rex is equipped with an ingenious robotic arm named TAGSAM designed to collect at least a 60-gram (2.1-ounce) sample and bring it back to Earth in 2023 for study by scientists using the world’s most advanced research instruments.

View of science instrument suite and TAGSAM robotic sample return arm on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Probe is slated for Sep. 8, 2016 launch to asteroid Bennu from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite NASA mission and launch 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

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft OVIRS spectrometer captured this visible and infrared spectral curve, which shows the amount of sunlight reflected from the Earth, after the spacecraft’s Earth Gravity Assist on Sept. 22, 2017. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sampler Slingshots Around Earth Friday, Sept. 22 – Catch It If You Can!

Artist’s concept shows the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft passing by Earth on Sept. 22, 2017. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/University of Arizona

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Barely a year after NASA’s OSIRIS-REx robotic asteroid sampler launched on a trailblazing mission to snatch a soil sample from a pristine asteroid and return it to Earth for research analysis, the probe is speeding back home for a swift slingshot around our home planet on Friday Sept. 22 to gain a gravity assist speed boost required to complete its journey to the carbon rich asteroid Bennu and back.

As it swings by Earth NASA’s first ever asteroid sample return mission, OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security – Regolith Explorer), will pass only 11,000 miles (17,000 kilometers) above Earth just before 12:52 p.m. EDT on Friday.

And NASA is asking the public to try and ‘Catch It If You Can’ – by waving hello and/or taking snapshots during and after the probes high speed flyby.

Plus you can watch NASA Facebook Live event at Noon Friday: https://www.facebook.com/NASAGoddard/

OSIRIS-REx will be approaching Earth at a velocity of about 19,000 mph on Friday as it begins flying over Australia during the Earth Gravity Assist (EGA) maneuver.

Since blastoff from the Florida Space Coast on Sept. 8, 2016 the probe has already racked up almost 600 million miles on its round trip journey from Earth and back to set up Friday’s critical gravity assist maneuver to Bennu and back.

As OSIRIS-REx continues along its flight path the spacecraft will reach its closest point to Earth over Antarctica, just south of Cape Horn, Chile. It will gain a velocity boost of about 8400 mph.

The spacecraft will also conduct a post flyby science campaign by collecting images and science observations of Earth and the Moon four hours after closest approach to calibrate its five science instruments.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft, return capsule and payload fairings inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center is being processed for Sep. 8, 2016 launch to asteroid Bennu from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The allure of Bennu is that it is a carbon rich asteroid – thus OSIRIS-REx could potentially bring back samples infused with the organic chemicals like amino acids that are the building blocks of life as we know it.

“We are interested in that material because it is a time capsule from the earliest stages of solar system formation,” OSIRIS-Rex Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta told Universe Today in a prelaunch interview with the spacecraft in the cleanroom at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

The do or die gravity assist plunge is absolutely essential to set OSIRIS-REx on course to match the asteroid’s path and speed when it reaches the vicinity of asteroid Bennu a year from now in October 2018.

“The Earth Gravity Assist is a clever way to move the spacecraft onto Bennu’s orbital plane using Earth’s own gravity instead of expending fuel,” says Lauretta, of the University of Arizona, Tucson.

Just how close to Earth will OSIRIS-REx be during its flyby on Friday? The spacecraft will come within 11,000 miles (17,000 km) of the Earth’s surface as it passes over Antarctica at 12:52 a.m. EDT. on Sept. 22, 2017. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/University of Arizona

Bennu’s orbit around the Sun is tilted at a six-degree inclination with respect to Earth’s orbital plane.

The asteroid is 1,614-foot (500 m) in diameter and crosses Earth’s orbit around the sun every six years.

Numerous NASA spacecraft – including NASA’s just completed Cassini mission to Saturn – utilize gravity assists around a variety of celestial bodies to gain speed and change course to save vast amounts of propellant and time in order to accomplish science missions and visit additional target objects that would otherwise be impossible.

The flyby will be a nail-biting time for NASA and the science team because right afterwards the refrigerator sized probe will be out of contact with engineers – unable to receive telemetry for about an hour.

“For about an hour, NASA will be out of contact with the spacecraft as it passes over Antarctica,” said Mike Moreau, the flight dynamics system lead at Goddard, in a statement.

“OSIRIS-REx uses the Deep Space Network to communicate with Earth, and the spacecraft will be too low relative to the southern horizon to be in view with either the Deep Space tracking station at Canberra, Australia, or Goldstone, California.”

NASA says the team will regain communication with OSIRIS-REx roughly 50 minutes after closest approach over Antarctica at about 1:40 p.m. EDT.

The post flyby science campaign is set to begin at 4:52 p.m. EDT, Friday, Sept. 22.

United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on the first U.S. mission to sample an asteroid, retrieve at least two ounces of surface material and return it to Earth for study. Liftoff was at 7:05 p.m. EDT on September 8, 2016 in this remote camera view taken from inside the launch pad perimeter. Note the newly install crew access arm and white room for astronaut flights atop Atlas starting in early 2018. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft originally departed Earth atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket under crystal clear skies on September 8, 2016 at 7:05 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Everything with the launch went exactly according to plan for the daring mission boldly seeking to gather rocks and soil from carbon rich Bennu.

View of science instrument suite and TAGSAM robotic sample return arm on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Probe is slated for Sep. 8, 2016 launch to asteroid Bennu from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

OSIRIS-Rex is equipped with an ingenious robotic arm named TAGSAM designed to collect at least a 60-gram (2.1-ounce) sample and bring it back to Earth in 2023 for study by scientists using the world’s most advanced research instruments.

“The primary objective of the OSIRIS-Rex mission is to bring back pristine material from the surface of the carbonaceous asteroid Bennu,” OSIRIS-Rex Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta told me in the prelaunch interview in the KSC cleanroom with the spacecraft as the probe was undergoing final launch preparations.

“We are interested in that material because it is a time capsule from the earliest stages of solar system formation.”

“It records the very first material that formed from the earliest stages of solar system formation. And we are really interested in the evolution of carbon during that phase. Particularly the key prebiotic molecules like amino acids, nucleic acids, phosphates and sugars that build up. These are basically the biomolecules for all of life.”

1 day to Earth flyby for OSIRIS-Rex

NASA and the mission team is also inviting the public to get engaged by participating in the Wave to OSIRIS-REx social media campaign.

“Individuals and groups from anywhere in the world are encouraged to take photos of themselves waving to OSIRIS-REx, share them using the hashtag #HelloOSIRISREx and tag the mission account in their posts on Twitter (@OSIRISREx) or Instagram (@OSIRIS_REx).

Participants may begin taking and sharing photos at any time—or wait until the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft makes its closest approach to Earth at 12:52p.m. EDT on Friday, Sept. 22.”

The probe’s flight path during the flyby will pass through the ring of numerous satellites orbiting in geosynchronous orbit, but none are expected to be within close range.

Members of the OSIRIS-REx mission team celebrate the successful spacecraft launch on Sept. 8, 2016 atop ULA Atlas V at the post-launch briefing at the Kennedy Space Center, FL. Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta is 4th from right, NASA Planetary Science Director Jim Green is center, 5th from left. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite NASA mission and launch 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

Dr Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and Dr. Ken Kremer, Universe Today point to NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center on Aug. 20, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA’s Tracking Data Relay Satellite-M Vital for Science Relay Poised for Liftoff Aug. 18 – Watch Live

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-M (TDRS-M) stands on the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station poised for liftoff on Aug. 18, 2017. The rocket rolled out to the pad two days earlier on Aug. 16. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – The last of NASA’s next generation Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TRDS) that looks like a giant alien fish or cocooned creature but actually plays an absolutely vital 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 is poised for blastoff Friday, Aug. 18, morning from the Florida Space Coast.

Liftoff atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket of NASA’s $408 million eerily insectoid-looking TDRS-M science relay comsat atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket is scheduled to take place from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 8:03 a.m. EDT (2:03 GMT) Aug. 18.

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. Launch on ULA Atlas V slated for August 2017 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Atlas V/TDRS-M launch stack was rolled out from the ULA Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) to pad 41 Wednesday morning, Aug 16 starting at about 9:10 a.m. EDT. The quarter mile move took about 50 minutes and went off without a hitch.

“The spacecraft, Atlas V rocket and all range equipment are ready,” said NASA launch director Tim Dunn at today’s pre-launch news conference at the Kennedy Space Center. “And the combined government and contractor launch team is prepared to launch TDRS-M — a critical national space asset for space communications.”

The rocket and spacecraft sailed through the Flight Readiness Review (FRR) and Launch Ready Review (LRR) over the past few days conducted by NASA, ULA and Boeing and the contractor teams.

The two stage Atlas V rocket stands 191 feet tall.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-M (TDRS-M) stands on the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station poised for liftoff on Aug. 18, 2017. The rocket rolled out from the VIF the pad two days earlier on Aug. 16. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

You can witness the launch with you own eyes from many puiblic beaches, parks and spots ringing the Kennedy Space Center.

If you can’t personally be here to witness the launch in Florida, you can always watch NASA’s live coverage on NASA Television and the agency’s website.

The NASA/ULA/TDRS-M launch coverage will be broadcast on NASA TV beginning at 7:30 a.m. as the countdown milestones occur on Aug. 18 with additional commentary on the NASA launch blog:

https://blogs.nasa.gov/tdrs/

You can watch the launch live at NASA TV at – http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

The launch window opens at 8:03 a.m. EDT extends for 40 minutes from 8:03 a.m. to 8:43 a.m.

In the event of delay for any reason, the next launch opportunity is Saturday, Aug. 19 with NASA TV coverage starting about 7:30 a.m. EDT. The launch window opens at 7:59 a.m. EDT.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-M (TDRS-M) stands on the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station poised for liftoff on Aug. 18, 2017 The rocket rolled out to the pad two days earlier on Aug. 16. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The weather looks quite good at this time with an 80% chance of favorable conditions at launch time according to U.S. Air Force meteorologists with the 45th Space Wing Weather Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base. The primary concerns on Aug. 18 are for thick clouds and cumulus clouds.

The odds remain at 80% favorable for the 24 hour scrub turnaround day on Aug. 19.

The launch was originally scheduled for Aug. 3 but was delayed a few weeks when the satellite’s Omni S-band antenna was damaged during final spacecraft closeout activities.

The Omni S-band antenna was bumped during final processing activities prior to the planned encapsulation inside the nosecone, said a Boeing official at the prelaunch media briefing and had to be replaced and then retested. It is critical to the opening phases of the mission for attitude control.

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 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 communcations for virtually the entire orbital period.

Plus it’s a super busy time at the Kennedy Space Center. Because, if all goes well Friday’s launch will be the second this week!

The excitement of space travel got a big boost at the beginning of the week with the lunchtime blastoff of a SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft on a cargo mission carrying 3 tons of science and supplies to the space station. Read my onsite articles here.

Blastoff of SpaceX Dragon CRS12 on its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017 as seen from the VAB roof. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The success of Monday’s SpaceX cargo Dragon rendezvous and berthing to the ISS is virtually entirely dependent on the TDRS network of satellites. That network will be enhanced with Fridays planned liftoff of NASA’s TDRS-M science relay comsat.

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.”

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-M (TDRS-M) stands on the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station poised for liftoff on Aug. 18, 2017. The rocket rolled out to the pad two days earlier on Aug. 16. 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.

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

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.

TDRS-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.

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 was assembled inside the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at SLC-41 and was rolled out to the launch pad 2 days before liftoff with the TDRS-M science relay comsat comfortably encapsulated inside the nose cone.

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 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

………….

Learn more about the upcoming ULA Atlas TDRS-M NASA comsat on Aug. 18, 2017 , SpaceX Dragon CRS-12 resupply launch to ISS on Aug. 14, Solar Eclipse, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:

Aug 17-18: “TDRS-M NASA comsat, SpaceX CRS-12 resupply launches to the ISS, Intelsat35e, BulgariaSat 1 and NRO Spysat, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, ULA Atlas/John Glenn Cygnus launch to ISS, SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity and Opportunity explore Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Science Laden SpaceX Dragon Set for Aug. 14 ISS Launch, Testfire Inaugurates Triad of August Florida Liftoffs: Watch Live

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket rests horizontally at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 13 Aug. 2017 while being processed for liftoff of the Dragon CRS-12 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) slated for 14 Aug. 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – A triad of August liftoffs from the Florida Space Coast inaugurates Monday, Aug. 14 with a science laden commercial SpaceX Dragon bound for the International Space Station (ISS) – loaded with over 3 tons of NASA science, hardware and supplies including a cosmic ray detector, medical research experiments dealing with Parkinson’s disease and lung tissue, vegetable seeds, mice and much more, following a successful engine test firing of the Falcon 9 booster on Thursday.

“Static fire test of Falcon 9 complete,” SpaceX confirmed via Twitter soon after completion of the test at 9:10 a.m. EDT, Aug 10. (1310 GMT) “—targeting August 14 launch from Pad 39A for Dragon’s next resupply mission to the @Space_Station.”

Check out our photos & videos herein of the Aug. 10 static first test of the Falcon 9 first stage that paves the path to blastoff – as witnessed live by Ken Kremer and Jeff Seibert.

The triple headed sunshine state space spectacular kicks off with Monday’s lunchtime launch of the next unmanned SpaceX Dragon cargo freighter to the ISS from seaside pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, now targeted for Aug. 14 at 12:31 p.m. EDT (1631 GMT).

The closely spaced trio of space launches marches forward barely 4 days later with liftoff of NASA’s amazingly insectoid-looking TDRS-M science relay comsat slated for Friday morning Aug. 18 atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket.

Lastly, a week after TDRS-M and just 11 days after the SpaceX Dragon an Orbital ATK Minotaur 4 rocket is due to blastoff just before midnight Aug. 25 and carry the ORS 5 mission to orbit for the U.S. military’s Operationally Responsive Space program. The Minotaur IV utilizes three stages from decommissioned Peacekeeper ICBMs formerly aimed at the Russians.

Of course getting 3 rockets off the ground from 3 different companies is all highly dependent on Florida’s hugely fickle hurricane season weather and the ever present reality of potential technical glitches, errant boaters and more – possibly resulting in a domino effect of cascading launch scrubs.

And sandwiched in between the Florida Space Coast blastoffs is the Total Solar ‘Eclipse Across America’ on Monday, Aug. 21 – for the first time in 99 years!

Although KSC and central Florida are not within the path of totality, the sun will still be about 85% obscured by the Moon.

So if you’re looking for bang for the space buck, the next two weeks have a lot to offer space and astronomy enthusiasts.

1st Reused SpaceX Dragon cargo craft lifts off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 5:07 p.m. June 3, 2017 on CRS-11 mission carrying 3 tons of research equipment, cargo and supplies to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Dragon resupply ship dubbed Dragon CRS-12 counts as SpaceX’s twelfth contracted commercial resupply services (CRS) mission to the International Space Station for NASA since 2012.

SpaceX conducts successful static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket on Aug. 10, 2017 at Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fl as seen from Playalinda causeway. Liftoff of the uncrewed Dragon CRS-12 resupply mission for NASA to the International Space Station (ISS) is scheduled for Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch this video of the Aug. 10 static hotfire test:

Video Caption: Hot fire test of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in preparation for it launching the NASA CRS-12 Dragon resupply mission to the International Space Station from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

The 20-foot high, 12-foot-diameter Dragon CRS-12 vessel is carrying more than 6,400 pounds ( 2,900 kg) of science experiments and research instruments, crew supplies, food water, clothing, hardware, gear and spare parts to the million pound orbiting laboratory complex. 20 mice are also onboard. This will support dozens of the 250 research investigations and experiments being conducted by Expedition 52 and 53 crew members.

SpaceX conducts successful static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket on Aug. 10, 2017 at Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fl as seen from Playalinda causeway. Liftoff of the uncrewed Dragon CRS-12 resupply mission for NASA to the International Space Station (ISS) is scheduled for Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

If you can’t personally be here to witness the launch in Florida, you can always watch NASA’s live coverage on NASA Television and the agency’s website.

The SpaceX/Dragon CRS-12 launch coverage will be broadcast on NASA TV beginning noon on Aug. 14 with additional commentary on the NASA launch blog.

SpaceX will also offer their own live webcast beginning approximately 15 minutes before launch at about 12:16 p.m. EDT.

You can watch the launch live at NASA TV at – http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

You can also watch the launch live at SpaceX hosted Webcast at – spacex.com/webcast

In the event of delay for any reason, the next launch opportunity is Tuesday, Aug. 15 with NASA TV coverage starting about 11:30 a.m. EDT.

The weather looks decent at this time with a 70% chance of favorable conditions at launch time according to U.S. Air Force meteorologists with the 45th Space Wing Weather Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base. The primary concerns on Aug. 14 are cumulus clouds and the potential for precipitation in the flight path.

The odds remain at 70% favorable for the 24 hour scrub turnaround day on Aug. 15.

Everything is currently on track for Monday’s noontime launch of the 230 foot tall SpaceX Falcon 9 on the NASA contracted SpaceX CRS-12 resupply mission to the million pound orbiting lab complex.

However since the launch window is instantaneous there is no margin for error. In case any delays arise during the countdown due to technical or weather issues a 24 hour scrub to Tuesday will result.

The lunchtime launch coincidently offers a convenient and spectacular opportunity for fun for the whole family as space enthusiasts flock in from around the globe.

Plus SpaceX will attempt a land landing of the 156 foot tall first stage back at the Cape at Landing Zone 1 some 8 minutes after liftoff – thus a double whammy of space action !!– punctuated by multiple loud sonic booms at booster landing time that will figuratively knock your socks off.

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster deploys quartet of landing legs moments before precision propulsive ground touchdown at Landing Zone 1 on Canaveral Air Force Station barely nine minutes after liftoff from Launch Complex 39A on 3 June 2017 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the Dragon CRS-11 resupply mission to the International Space Station for NASA. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

To date SpaceX has successfully recovered 13 boosters; 5 by land and 8 by sea, over the past 18 months. It’s a feat straight out of science fiction but aimed at drastically slashing the high cost of access to space.

The recent BulgariaSat-1 and Iridium-2 missions counted as the eighth and ninth SpaceX launches of 2017.

CRS-12 marks the eleventh SpaceX launch of 2017 and will establish a new single year record.

In contrast to the prior CRS-11 mission which flew a recycled Dragon, the CRS-12 Dragon is newly built.

The CRS-12 Dragon will be the last newly built one, says NASA. The remaining SpaceX CRS mission will utilize reused spaceships.

The Falcon 9 is also new and will attempt a land landing back at the Cape at Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1).

If the Aug. 14 launch occurs as scheduled, the Dragon will reach its preliminary orbit about 10 minutes later and deploy its life giving solar arrays. Dragon then begins a 2 day orbital chase of the station via a carefully choreographed series of thruster firings that bring the commercial spacecraft to rendezvous with the space station on Aug. 16.

Dragon will be grappled with the station’s Canadian built robotic arm at approximately 7 a.m. EDT on Aug. 16 by astronauts Jack Fischer of NASA and Paolo Nespoli of ESA (European Space Agency). It then will be installed on the Harmony module.

The Dragon spacecraft will spend approximately one month attached to the space station, returning to Earth in mid-September with results of earlier experiments.

Dragon CRS-12 is SpaceX’s third contracted resupply mission to launch this year for NASA.

The prior SpaceX cargo ships launched on Feb 19 and June 3, 2017 on the CRS-10 and CRS-11 missions to the space station. CRS-10 is further noteworthy as being the first SpaceX launch of a Falcon 9 from NASA’s historic pad 39A.

SpaceX leased pad 39A from NASA in 2014 and after refurbishments placed the pad back in service this year for the first time since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011.

Previous launches include 11 Apollo flights, the launch of the unmanned Skylab in 1973, 82 shuttle flights and five SpaceX launches.

Cargo Manifest for CRS-12:

TOTAL CARGO: 6415.4 lbs. / 2910 kg

TOTAL PRESSURIZED CARGO WITH PACKAGING: 3642 lbs. / 1652 kg
• Science Investigations 2019.4 lbs. / 916 kg
• Crew Supplies 485 lbs. / 220 kg
• Vehicle Hardware 747.4 lbs. / 339 kg
• Spacewalk Equipment 66.1 lbs. / 30 kg
• Computer Resources 116.8 lbs. / 53 kg

UNPRESSURIZED 2773.4 lbs. / 1258 kg
• Cosmic-Ray Energetics and Mass (CREAM) 2773.4 lbs. / 1258 kg

The CREAM instrument from the University of Maryland will be stowed for launch inside the Dragon’s unpressurized trunk. Astronauts will use the stations robotic arm to pluck it from the trunk and attach it to the exposed porch of the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM).

The Cosmic-Ray Energetics and Mass investigation (CREAM) instrument from the University of Maryland, College Park involves placing a balloon-borne instrument aboard the International Space Station to measure the charges of cosmic rays over a period of three years. CREAM will be attached to the Japanese Experiment Module Exposed Facility. Existing CREAM hardware used for balloon flights. Credit: NASA

Here is a NASA description of CREAM:

The Cosmic Ray Energetics and Mass (CREAM) instrument, attached to the Japanese Experiment Module Exposed Facility, measures the charges of cosmic rays ranging from hydrogen to iron nuclei. The data collected from the CREAM instrument will be used to address fundamental science questions on the origins and history of cosmic rays. CREAM’s three-year mission will help the scientific community build a stronger understanding of the fundamental structure of the universe.

The LRRK2 experiment seeks to grow larger crystals of the protein to investigate Parkinson’s disease and help develop new therapies:

Here is a NASA description of LRRK2:

Crystallization of Leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 (LRRK2) under Microgravity Conditions (CASIS PCG 7) will use the orbiting laboratory’s microgravity environment to grow larger versions of this important protein, implicated in Parkinson’s disease. Developed by the Michael J. Fox Foundation, Anatrace and Com-Pac International, researchers will look to take advantage of the station’s microgravity environment which allows protein crystals to grow larger and in more perfect shapes than earth-grown crystals, allowing them to be better analyzed on Earth. Defining the exact shape and morphology of LRRK2 would help scientists to better understand the pathology of Parkinson’s and aid in the development of therapies against this target.

Watch this Michael J. Fox video describing the LRRK2 crystallization experiment:

Video Caption: ISS National Lab SpaceX CRS-12 Payload Overview: Michael J. Fox Foundation. The Michael J. Fox Foundation is sending an experiment to the ISS National Lab to investigate the LRRK2 protein, a key target in identifying the makeup of Parkinson’s disease.

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite CRS-12, TRDS-M, and ORS 5 and NASA 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

………….

Learn more about the upcoming SpaceX Dragon CRS-12 resupply launch to ISS on Aug. 14, ULA Atlas TDRS-M NASA comsat on Aug. 18, 2017 Solar Eclipse, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:

Aug 12-14: “SpaceX CRS-12 resupply launches to the ISS, Intelsat35e, BulgariaSat 1 and NRO Spysat, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, ULA Atlas/John Glenn Cygnus launch to ISS, SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity and Opportunity explore Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Up close view of SpaceX Dragon CRS-11 resupply vessel atop Falcon 9 rocket and delivering 3 tons of science and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA. Liftoff occurred 3 June 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com
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

Dream Chaser Mini-Shuttle to Fly ISS Resupply Missions on ULA Atlas V

Artist’s concept of the Sierra Nevada Corporation Dream Chaser spacecraft launching atop the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in the 552 configuration on cargo missions to the International Space Station. Credit: ULA

The first two missions of the unmanned Dream Chaser mini-shuttle carrying critical cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA will fly on the most powerful version of the Atlas V rocket and start as soon as 2020, announced Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) and United Launch Alliance (ULA).

“We have selected United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket to launch our first two Dream Chaser® spacecraft cargo missions,” said SNC of Sparks, Nevada.

Dream Chaser will launch atop the commercial Atlas V in its most powerful configuration, dubbed Atlas V 552, with five strap on solid rocket motors and a dual engine Centaur upper stage while protectively tucked inside a five meter diameter payload fairing – with wings folded.

Blast off of Dream Chaser loaded with over 5500 kilograms of cargo mass for the space station crews will take place from ULA’s seaside Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spacecraft docks at the International Space Station.
Credits: Sierra Nevada Corporation

The unique lifting body design enables runway landings for Dream Chaser, similar to the NASA’s Space Shuttle at the Shuttle Landing Facility runway at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The ULA Atlas V enjoys a 100% success rate. It has also been chosen by Boeing to ferry crews on piloted missions of their CST-100 Starliner astronaut space taxi to the ISS and back. The Centaur upper stage will be equipped with two RL-10 engines for both Dream Chaser and Starliner flights.

“SNC recognizes the proven reliability of the Atlas V rocket and its availability and schedule performance makes it the right choice for the first two flights of the Dream Chaser,” said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of SNC’s Space Systems business area, in a statement.

“Humbled and honored by your trust in us,” tweeted ULA CEO Tory Bruno following the announcement.

Liftoff of the maiden pair of Dream Chaser cargo missions to the ISS are expected in 2020 and 2021 under the Commercial Resupply Services 2 (CRS2) contract with NASA.

Rendering of Launch of SNC’s Dream Chaser Cargo System Aboard an Atlas V Rocket. Credit: SNC

“ULA is pleased to partner with Sierra Nevada Corporation to launch its Dream Chaser cargo system to the International Space Station in less than three years,” said Gary Wentz, ULA vice president of Human and Commercial Systems.

“We recognize the importance of on time and reliable transportation of crew and cargo to Station and are honored the Atlas V was selected to continue to launch cargo resupply missions for NASA.”

By utilizing the most powerful variant of ULA’s Atlas V, Dream Chaser will be capable of transporting over 5,500 kilograms (12,000 pounds) of pressurized and unpressurized cargo mass – including science experiments, research gear, spare part, crew supplies, food, water, clothing and more per ISS mission.

“In addition, a significant amount of cargo, almost 2,000 kilograms is directly returned from the ISS to a gentle runway landing at a pinpoint location,” according to SNC.

“Dream Chaser’s all non-toxic systems design allows personnel to simply walk up to the vehicle after landing, providing immediate access to time-critical science as soon as the wheels stop.”

“ULA is an important player in the market and we appreciate their history and continued contributions to space flights and are pleased to support the aerospace community in Colorado and Alabama,” added Sirangelo.

Under the NASA CRS-2 contract awarded in 2016, Dream Chaser becomes the third ISS resupply provider, joining the current ISS commercial cargo vehicle providers, namely the Cygnus from Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia and the cargo Dragon from SpaceX of Hawthorne, California.

NASA decided to plus up the number of ISS commercial cargo providers from two to three for the critical task of ensuring the regular delivery of critical science, crew supplies, provisions, spare parts and assorted gear to the multinational crews living and working aboard the massive orbiting outpost.

NASA’s CRS-2 contracts run from 2019 through 2024 and specify six cargo missions for each of the three commercial providers.

By adding a new third provider, NASA simultaneously gains the benefit of additional capability and flexibility and also spreads out the risk.

Both SpaceX and Orbital ATK suffered catastrophic launch failures during ISS resupply missions, in June 2015 and October 2014 respectively, from which both firms have recovered.

Orbital ATK and SpaceX both successfully launched ISS cargo missions this year. Indeed a trio of Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft have already launched on the Atlas V, including the OA-7 resupply mission in April 2017.

Orbital ATK’s seventh cargo delivery flight to the International Space Station -in tribute to John Glenn- launched at 11:11 a.m. EDT April 18, 2017, on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX has already launched a pair of resupply missions this year on the CRS-10 and CRS-11 flights in February and June 2017.

Unlike the Cygnus which burns up on reentry and Dragon which lands via parachutes, the reusable Dream Chaser is capable of low-g reentry and runway landings. This is very beneficial for sensitive scientific experiments and allows much quicker access by researchers to time critical cargo.

1st Reused SpaceX Dragon cargo craft lifts off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 5:07 p.m. June 3, 2017 on CRS-11 mission carrying 3 tons of research equipment, cargo and supplies to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Dream Chaser has been under development for more than 10 years. It was originally developed as a manned vehicle and a contender for NASA’s commercial crew vehicles. When SNC lost the bid to Boeing and SpaceX in 2014, the company opted to develop this unmanned variant instead.

A full scale test version of the original Dream Chaser is currently undergoing ground tests at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California. Approach and landing tests are planned for this fall.

Other current cargo providers to the ISS include the Russian Progress and Japanese HTV vessels.

Watch for Ken’s onsite 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.

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
Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser engineering test article in flight during prior captive-carry tests. Credit: NASA

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.

Is Time To Go Back to Uranus and Neptune? Revisiting Ice Giants of the Solar System

We've Got To Go Back!


I look forward to all the future missions that NASA is going to be sending out in the Solar System. Here, check this out. You can use NASA’s website to show you all the future missions. Here’s everything planned for the future, here’s everything going to Mars.

Now, let’s look and see what missions are planned for the outer planets of the Solar System, especially Uranus and Neptune. Oh, that’s so sad… there’s nothing.

Uranus, seen by Voyager 2. Image credit: NASA/JPL

It’s been decades since humanity had an up close look at Uranus and Neptune. For Uranus, it was Voyager 2, which swept through the system in 1986. We got just a few tantalizing photographs of the ice giant planet and it’s moons.

Mosaic of the four highest-resolution images of Ariel taken by the Voyager 2 space probe during its 1986 flyby of Uranus. Credit: NASA/JPL

What’s that?

Oberon, as imaged by the Voyager 2 probe during its flyby on Jan. 24, 1986. Credit: NASA

What’s going on there?

Color composite of the Uranian satellite Miranda, taken by Voyager 2 on Jan. 24, 1986, from a distance of 147,000 km (91,000 mi). Credit: NASA/JPL

What are those strange features? Sorry, insufficient data.

And then Voyager 2 did the same, zipping past Neptune in 1989.

Reconstruction of Voyager 2 images showing the Great Black spot (top left), Scooter (middle), and the Small Black Spot (lower right). Credit: NASA/JPL

Check this out.

Neptune’s largest moon Triton photographed on August 25, 1989 by Voyager 2. Credit: NASA

What’s going here on Triton? Wouldn’t you like to know more? Well, too bad! You can’t it’s done, that’s all you get.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we’ve studied all these other worlds. I’m glad we’ve had orbiters at Mercury, Venus, everything at Mars, Jupiter, and especially Saturn. We’ve seen Ceres and Vesta, and the Moon up close. We even got a flyby of Pluto and Charon.

It’s time to go back to Uranus and Neptune, this time to stay.

And I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Scientists at NASA recently published a report called the Ice Giant Mission Study, and it’s all about various missions that could be sent to explore Uranus, Neptune and their fascinating moons.

The team of scientists who worked on the study considered a range of potential missions to the ice giants, and in the end settled on four potential missions; three that could go to Uranus, and one headed for Neptune. Each of them would cost roughly $2 billion.

Uranus is closer, easier to get to, and the obvious first destination of a targeted mission. For Uranus, NASA considered three probes.

The first idea is a flyby mission, which will sweep past Uranus gathering as much science as it can. This is what Voyager 2 did, and more recently what NASA’s New Horizons did at Pluto. In addition, it would have a separate probe, like the Cassini and Galileo missions, that would detach and go into the atmosphere to sample the composition below the cloudtops. The mission would be heavy and require an Atlas V rocket with the same configuration that sent Curiosity to Mars. The flight time would take 10 years.

NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover blasts off for Mars atop a stunningly beautiful Atlas V rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The main science goal of this mission would be to study the composition of Uranus. It would make some other measurements of the system as it passed through, but it would just be a glimpse. Better than Voyager, but nothing like Cassini’s decade plus observations of Saturn.

I like where this is going, but I’m going to hold out for something better.

The next idea is an orbiter. Now we’re talking! It would have all the same instruments as the flyby and the detachable probe. But because it would be an orbiter, it would require much more propellant. It would have triple the launch mass of the flyby mission, which means a heavier Atlas V rocket. And a slightly longer flight time; 12 years instead of 10 for the flyby.

Because it would remain at Uranus for at least 3 years, it would be able to do an extensive analysis of the planet and its rings and moons. But because of the atmospheric probe, it wouldn’t have enough mass for more instruments. It would have more time at Uranus, but not a much better set of tools to study it with.

Okay, let’s keep going. The next idea is an orbiter, but without the detachable probe. Instead, it’ll have the full suite of 15 scientific instruments, to study Uranus from every angle. We’re talking visible, doppler, infrared, ultraviolet, thermal, dust, and a fancy wide angle camera to give us those sweet planetary pictures we like to see.

Study Uranus? Yes please. But while we’re at it, let’s also sent a spacecraft to Neptune.

The labeled ring arcs of Neptune as seen in newly processed data. The image spans 26 exposures combined into a equivalent 95 minute exposure, and the ring trace and an image of the occulted planet Neptune is added for reference. (Credit: M. Showalter/SETI Institute).

As part of the Ice Giants Study, the researchers looked at what kind of missions would be possible. In this case, they settled on a single recommended mission. A huge orbiter with an additional atmospheric probe. This mission would be almost twice as massive as the heaviest Uranus mission, so it would need a Delta IV Heavy rocket to even get out to Neptune.

As it approached Neptune, the mission would release an atmospheric probe to descend beneath the cloudtops and sample what’s down there. The orbiter would then spend an additional 2 years in the environment of Neptune, studying the planet and its moons and rings. It would give us a chance to see its fascinating moon Triton up close, which seems to be a captured Kuiper Belt Object.

Unfortunately there’s no perfect grand tour trajectory available to us any more, where a single spacecraft could visit all the large planets in the Solar System. Missions to Uranus and Neptune will have to be separate, however, if NASA’s Space Launch System gets going, it could carry probes for both destinations and launch them together.

The goal of these missions is the science. We want to understand the ice giants of the outer Solar System, which are quite different from both the inner terrestrial planets and the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn.

The Solar System. Credit: NASA

The gas giants are mostly hydrogen and helium, like the Sun. But the ice giants are 65% water and other ices made from methane and ammonia. But it’s not like they’re big blobs of water, or even frozen water. Because of their huge gravity, the ice giants crush this material with enormous pressure and temperature.

What happens when you crush water under this much pressure? It would all depend on the temperature and pressure. There could be different types of ice down there. At one level, it could be an electrically conductive soup of hydrogen and oxygen, and then further down, you might get crystallized oxygen with hydrogen ions running through it.

Hailstones made of diamond could form out of the carbon-rich methane and fall down through the layers of the planets, settling within a molten carbon core. What I’m saying is, it could be pretty strange down there.

We know that ice giants are common in the galaxy, in fact, they’ve made up the majority of the extrasolar planets discovered so far. By better understanding the ones we have right here in our own Solar System, we can get a sense of the distant extrasolar planets turning up. We’ll be better able to distinguish between the super earths and mini-neptunes.

Artist’s impression of the Milky Way’s 100 billion exoplanets. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Kornmesser (ESO)

Another big question is how these planets formed in the first place. In their current models, most planetary astronomers think these planets had very short time windows to form. They needed to have massive enough cores to scoop up all that material before the newly forming Sun’s solar wind blasted it all out into space. And yet, why are these kinds of planets so common in the Universe?

The NASA mission planners developed a total of 12 science objectives for these missions, focusing on the composition of the planets and their atmospheres. And if there’s time, they’d like to know about how heat moves around, their constellations of rings and moons. They’d especially like to investigate Neptune’s moons Triton, which looks like a captured Kuiper Belt Object, as it orbits in the reverse direction from all the other moons in the Solar System.

In terms of science, the two worlds are very similar. But because Neptune has Triton. If I had to choose, I’d go with a Neptune mission.

Neptune and its large moon Triton as seen by Voyager 2 on August 28th, 1989. (Credit: NASA).

Are you excited? I’m excited. Here’s the bad news. According to NASA, the best launch windows for these missions would be 2029 or 2034. And that’s just the launch time, the flight time is an additional decade or more on top of that. In other words, the first photos from a Uranus flyby could happen in 2039 or 2035, while orbiters could arrive at either planet in the 2040s. I’m sure my future grandchildren will enjoy watching these missions arrive.

But then, we have to keep everything in perspective. NASA’s Cassini mission was under development in the 1980s. It didn’t launch until 1997, and it didn’t get to Saturn until 2004. It’s been almost 20 years since that launch, and almost 40 years since they started working on it.

I guess we need to be more patient. I can be patient.

Cygnus Soars to Space on Atlas Carrying SS John Glenn on Course to Space Station

Orbital ATK’s seventh cargo delivery flight to the International Space Station -in tribute to John Glenn- launched at 11:11 a.m. EDT April 18, 2017, on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Orbital ATK’s Cygnus supply ship soared to space from the Florida Space Coast at lunchtime today, Tuesday, April 18, drenched in sunshine and carrying the ‘SS John Glenn’ loaded with over three and a half tons of precious cargo – bound for the multinational crew residing aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Just like clockwork, Orbital ATK’s seventh cargo delivery flight to the station launched right on time at 11:11 a.m. EDT Tuesday at the opening of the launch window atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The ‘SS John Glenn’ Cygnus resupply spacecraft was manufactured by NASA commercial cargo provider Orbital ATK. The vehicle is also known alternatively as the Cygnus OA-7 or CRS-7 mission.

“This was a great launch,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA’s deputy manager of the International Space Station program, at the post launch media briefing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

‘We have a vehicle on its way to the ISS.”

Orbital ATK’s 7th cargo delivery flight to the International Space Station launched at 11:11 a.m. EDT April 18, 2017 carrying the SS John Glenn atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, as seen from the VAB roof at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Huge crowds gathered at public viewing areas ringing Cape Canaveral and offering spectacular views from Playalinda Beach to the north, the inland waterway and more beautiful space coast beaches to the south.

Near perfect weather conditions and extended views of the rocket roaring to orbit greeted all those lucky enough to be on hand for what amounts to a sentimental third journey to space for American icon John Glenn.

The launch was carried live on NASA TV with extended expert commentary. Indeed this launch coverage was the final one hosted by NASA commentator George Diller- the longtime and familiar ‘Voice of NASA’ – who is retiring from NASA on May 31.

The serene sky blue skies with calm winds and moderate temperatures were punctuated with wispy clouds making for a thrilling spectacle as the rocket accelerated northeast up the US East Coast on a carefully choreographed trajectory to the massive orbiting outpost.

“The status of the spacecraft is great!” said Frank Culbertson, a former shuttle and station astronaut and now Orbital ATK’s Space Systems Group president.

Liftoff of Orbital ATK SS John Glenn OA-7 mission atop ULA Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on April 18, 2017, as seen from VAB roof at KSC. Credit: Julian Leek

The mission is named the ‘S.S. John Glenn’ in tribute to legendary NASA astronaut John Glenn – the first American to orbit Earth back in February 1962.

Glenn was one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts selected by NASA. At age 77 he later flew a second mission to space aboard Space Shuttle Discovery- further cementing his status as a true American hero.

Glenn passed away in December 2016 at age 95. He also served four terms as a U.S. Senator from Ohio.

A picture of John Glenn in his shuttle flight suit and a few mementos are aboard.

After a four day orbital chase Cygnus will arrive in the vicinity of the station on Saturday, April 22.

“It will be captured at about 6 a.m. EDT Saturday,” Montalbano elaborated.

Expedition 51 astronauts Thomas Pesquet of ESA (European Space Agency) and Peggy Whitson of NASA will use the space station’s Canadian-built robotic arm to grapple Cygnus, about 6:05 a.m. Saturday.

They will use the arm to maneuver and berth the unmanned vehicle to the Node-1 Earth-facing nadir port on the Unity module.

Cygnus will remain at the space station for about 85 days until July before its destructive reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, disposing of several thousand pounds of trash.

The countdown for today’s launch of the 194-foot-tall two stage United Launch Alliance (ULA) rocket began when the rocket was activated around 3 a.m. The rocket was tested during a seven-hour long countdown.

This is the third Cygnus to launch on an Atlas V rocket from the Cape. The last one launched a year ago on March 24, 2016 during the OA-6 mission. The first one launched in December 2015 during the OA-4 mission. Each Cygnus is named after a deceased NASA astronaut.

“We’re building the bridge to history with these missions,” said Vernon Thorp, ULA’s program manager for Commercial Missions. “Every mission is fantastic and every mission is unique. At the end of the day every one of these missions is critical.”

“The Atlas V performed beautifully,” said Thorpe at the post launch briefing.

The other Cygnus spacecraft have launched on the Orbital ATK commercial Antares rocket from NASA Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s eastern shore.

Cygnus OA-7 is loaded with 3459 kg (7626 pounds) of science experiments and hardware, crew supplies, spare parts, gear and station hardware to the orbital laboratory in support over 250 research experiments being conducted on board by the Expedition 51 and 52 crews. The total volumetric capacity of Cygnus exceeds 27 cubic meters.

The official OA-7 payload manifest includes the following:

TOTAL PRESSURIZED CARGO WITH PACKAGING: 7,442.8 lbs. / 3,376 kg

• Science Investigations 2,072.3 lbs. / 940 kg
• Crew Supplies 2,103.2 lbs. / 954 kg
• Vehicle Hardware 2,678.6 lbs. / 1,215 kg
• Spacewalk Equipment 160.9 lbs. / 73 kg
• Computer Resources 4.4 lbs. / 2 kg
• Russian Hardware 39.7 lbs. / 18 kg

UNPRESSURIZED CARGO (CubeSats) 183 lbs. / 83 kg

The Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-7 (OA-7) mission launched aboard an Atlas V Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) in the 401 configuration vehicle. This includes a 4-meter-diameter payload fairing in its longest, extra extended configuration (XEPF) to accommodate the enhanced, longer Cygnus variant being used.

“ULA is excited to be a part of the team that delivered such an important payload to astronauts aboard the ISS,” said Gary Wentz, ULA vice president of Human and Commercial Systems, in a statement.

“Not only are we delivering needed supplies as the first launch under our new RapidLaunch™ offering, but we are truly honored to launch a payload dedicated to John Glenn on an Atlas V, helping to signify the gap we plan to fill as we start launching astronauts from American soil again in 2018.”

The first stage of the Atlas V booster is powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine. There are no side mounted solids on the first stage. The Centaur upper stage is powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine.

Overall this is the 71st launch of an Atlas V and the 36th utilizing the 401 configuration.

The 401 is thus the workhorse version of the Atlas V and accounts for half of all launches.

The Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft named for Sen. John Glenn, one of NASA’s original seven astronauts, stands inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida behind a sign commemorating Glenn on March 9, 2017. Launch slated for April 18 on a ULA Atlas V. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s onsite launch reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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

Ken Kremer

Orbital ATK SS John Glenn CRS-7 launch vehicle with the Cygnus cargo spacecraft bolted to the top of the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket is poised for launch at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on April 18, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com