Court Injunction Blocks Russian Engine Purchase by ULA for US National Security – Win for SpaceX Yields Uncertainty

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

A US Federal Court has now issued a preliminary injunction that blocks the purchase and importation of Russian rocket engines by United Launch Alliance (ULA) for its Atlas V rocket used in National Security launches for the US Air Force after a filing by SpaceX. But what are the implications?

The US Federal Court of Federal Claims order was issued late Wednesday, April 30, by US Judge Susan G. Braden of the US Court of Federal Claims. The court order is in response to a protest filed by SpaceX against ULA and the US Air Force relating to the uncontested $11 Billion “block buy” launch contract purchase in December of 36 rocket cores for US National Security launches and is also related to US sanctions imposed after Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine and seizing and annexing the Crimea.

The temporary injunction marks a big win for SpaceX but immediately throws future National Security spy satellite and NASA science launches into uncertainty and potential disarray as I reported previously – here and here.

As I posted here last Friday, April 25, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk declared his firms intent to file suit against ULA and the Air Force on Monday, April 28 to break the launch monopoly.

Judge Braden’s injunction followed barely two days later.

Musk said the recent ‘block buy’ launch contract was unfair in blocking SpaceX from competing for launches of surveillance satellites, would cost taxpayers billions of extra dollars in coming years and should be recompetited.

“The national security launches should be put up for competition and they should not be awarded on a sole source, uncompeted basis,” Musk said at the April 25 briefing at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announces lawsuit protesting Air Force launch contracts while speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on April 25, 2014
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announces lawsuit protesting Air Force launch contracts while speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on April 25, 2014

ULA quickly vowed today that they will respond to resolve the injunction and further stated that “This opportunistic action by SpaceX … ignores the potential implications to our National Security.”

Federal Judge Braden’s order specifically states the following; “The preliminary injunction prohibits the United States Air Force and United Launch Alliance, from making any purchases from or payment of money to NPO Energomash or any entity, whether governmental, corporate or individual, that is subject to the control of Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin.”

“IT IS SO ORDERED,” wrote Braden.

The engines at the heart of the Federal preliminary injunction are the RD-180 liquid fueled engines which power ULA’s Atlas V rocket and are manufactured in Russia by NPO Energomash – which is majority state owned by the Russian Federation and subject to the control of Russian Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin, who is specifically named on the US economic sanctions target list.

In response, Rogozin said that sanctions could “boomerang” against the US space program. He said that perhaps NASA should “deliver their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline.”

Thanks to the utter folly of US politicians in shutting down the Space Shuttle program before a replacement crew vehicle was available and repeatedly slashing NASA’s commercial crew budget, American astronauts are now 100% dependent on the Russian Soyuz capsule for rides to the ISS and back for several more years ahead.

NASA has NO immediate alternatives to Russia’s Soyuz – period.

The rocket engine injunction is just the latest fallout impacting a vast swath of US space programs from National Defense to NASA stemming from the dangerously escalating crisis between Ukraine and the Russian Federation in the worst confrontation with the West since the Cold War era.

In response to the worsening Ukraine crisis, Western nations have instituted waves of increasingly harsh economic sanctions against Russia and several key members of the Russian government.

Judge Braden’s injunction stands until she receives clarification otherwise from US government entities that the engine purchase is not covered by the Federal government santions.

The order remains in effect “unless and until the court receives the opinion of the United States Department of the Treasury, and the United States Department of Commerce and United States Department of State, that any such purchases or payments will not directly or indirectly contravene Executive Order 13,661.”

ULA issued a swift statement today – received by Universe Today – from ULA’s general counsel Kevin G. MacCary, in response to Judge Braden’s preliminary injunction.

“ULA is deeply concerned with this ruling and we will work closely with the Department of Justice to resolve the injunction expeditiously. In the meantime, ULA will continue to demonstrate our commitment to our National Security on the launch pad by assuring the safe delivery of the missions we are honored to support.”

“SpaceX’s attempt to disrupt a national security launch contract so long after the award ignores the potential implications to our National Security and our nation’s ability to put Americans on board the International Space Station.”

The Atlas V rocket, powered by the Russian made RD-180 engines, will also be used as the launch vehicle by two of the three companies vying for the next round of commercial crew contracts aimed at launching US astronauts to the ISS. The contracts will be awarded by NASA later this year.

“This opportunistic action by SpaceX appears to be an attempt to circumvent the requirements imposed on those who seek to meet the challenging launch needs of the nation and to avoid having to follow the rules, regulations and standards expected of a company entrusted to support our nation’s most sensitive missions,” said ULA.

ULA is a joint venture between aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin, formed in 2006. It has conducted 81 consecutive launches with 100% mission success – including many NASA science and mission probes like Orion EFT-1, Curiosity, MAVEN, TDRS and more.

Judge Braden furthermore made clear that her order did not include prior RD-180 engine purchases.

“The scope of this preliminary injunction does not extend to any purchase orders that have been placed or moneys paid to NPO Energomash prior to the date of this
Order [April 30, 2014].”

ULA has a two year contingency supply of the RD-180’s and blueprints to begin production, if needed.

However in the event of a cutoff by Russia or US court injuncions, it would take ULA at least three to five years to start and certify RD-180 engine production somewhere in the US, a ULA spokesperson told me recently at Cape Canaveral.

This possibly leaves a 1 to 3 year gap with no Atlas V 1st stage engine supply.

SpaceX claims they can fill part of the launch gap. But their Falcon rockets are not yet certified for National Security launches.

“So far we are most of the way through the certification process. And so far there have been zero changes to the rocket. Mostly it’s just been a paperwork exercise.”

“In light of international events, this seems like the wrong time to send hundreds of millions of dollars to the Kremlin,” said Musk during the April 25 press briefing at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

SpaceX is suing the Air Force for the right to compete for US national security satellites launches using Falcon 9 rockets such as this one which successfully launched the SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX is suing the Air Force for the right to compete for US national security satellites launches using Falcon 9 rockets such as this one which successfully launched the SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for my continuing articles as the Ukraine crisis escalates and court orders fly – with uncertain and potentially dire consequences for US National Security and NASA.

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

Ken Kremer

Curiosity rover launches to Mars atop Atlas V rocket on Nov. 26, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer
NASA’s Curiosity rover launches to Mars atop Atlas V rocket on Nov. 26, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Atlas V 1st stage is powered by Russian made RD-180 engines.
Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

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

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

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

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

Urgent repairs are in progress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Kremer

Stunning Astrophoto Captures Awe Inspiring NASA Rocket Launch Amidst Star Trails – Gallery

The rotation of the Earth captured in the trails of the stars over Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Jan 23, 2014. NASA’s latest Tracking & Data Relay Satellite, TDRS-L, is seen here hitching a fiery ride to orbit atop an Atlas-V rocket, as viewed from the Turn Basin on Kennedy Space Center just a few miles away. Credit: Mike Killian/www.MikeKillianPhotography.com/AmericaSpace
see Atlas V/TDRS-L Launch Galley below
Story updated[/caption]

Space photographer Mike Killian has captured an absolutely stunning astrophoto of this week’s Atlas V blastoff that innovatively combines astronomy and rocketry – its the streak shot featured above. See additional Atlas launch imagery below – and here.

Mike’s awe inspiring imagery melds Thursday night’s (Jan. 23) spectacular Atlas V liftoff of NASA’s latest Tracking & Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) from Cape Canaveral, Florida, with brilliant star trails, reflecting the Earth’s rotation, moving in the crystal clear dark sky overhead and brilliantly glowing xenons and flaming reflections in the waters beneath.

Update 30 Jan:
This fabulous star trails/streak image has been featured as the APOD on Jan 30, 2014.

TDRS-L awaits launch atop Atlas V rocket. Credit: Mike Killian/mikekillianphotography.com
TDRS-L awaits launch atop Atlas V rocket. Credit: Mike Killian/mikekillianphotography.com

The 3.8 ton TDRS-L communications satellite was successfully delivered by the Atlas V to orbit where it will become an essential member of NASA’s vital network to relay all the crucial science and engineering data from a wide variety of science satellites – including the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V launched at 9:33 p.m. from Pad 40.

Read my complete Atlas V/TDRS-L launch story – here.

Killian’s very creative image makes it looks as though the fiery rocket plume is slicing and dicing a path though the wandering stars as its thundering off the pad, arcing out over the Atlantic Ocean and soaring on to orbit.

And it’s all perfectly framed – as detailed below in my interview with Mike Killian.

Water reflection shot of NASA TDRS-L satellite launch aboard Atlas V rocket on Jan. 23, 2014. Credit: Walter Scriptunas II - www.scriptunasimages.com
Water reflection shot of NASA TDRS-L satellite launch aboard Atlas V rocket on Jan. 23, 2014. Credit: Walter Scriptunas II – www.scriptunasimages.com

Mike is a space friend of mine and we recently spent launch week together photographing the Jan. 9 Antares rocket launch from NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia, amidst the bone chilling cold of the Polar Vortex – which by the way has returned! See a photo of us freezing together at NASA Wallops – below!!

See our Antares launch imagery – here and here.

Be sure to enjoy the Atlas V gallery herein including more space photog friends including Jeff Seibert, Alan Walters, Walter Scriptunas II and nasatech.net

NASA TDRS-L relay satellite launch aboard Atlas V rocket on Jan. 23, 2014. Credit: Jeff Seibert/wired4space.com
NASA TDRS-L relay satellite launch aboard Atlas V rocket on Jan. 23, 2014. Credit: Jeff Seibert/wired4space.com

Mike’s magnificent new astrophoto was snapped from the Press Site at the Kennedy Space Center – located right next to the world famous countdown clock and the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB).

The two launch sites – NASA Wallops and Cape Canaveral/NASA Kennedy Space Center – sit about 800 miles apart on the US East Coast.

His stunning new astrophoto was several years in the making and the result of rather careful planning and of course some good luck too.

Mike is a very experienced and exceptionally talented and accomplished photographer in general.

So for the benefit of Universe Today readers, I asked Mike to describe how he planned, executed and processed the fabulous Jan. 23 star trail/Atlas launch photo.

“I’ve wanted to attempt this shot for 2 years now & finally the conditions for it came together Thursday night – no moonlight, no clouds, barely a breeze, mostly dry air & enough TIME between sunset and liftoff to capture some descent star trails,” Mike Killian told me.

What was the shooting time and equipment involved?

“Approximate total shooting time was about 3 hours, 380 20-second exposures @ ISO 400, shot with a Canon T4i w/ a 11-16mm Tokina 2.8 lens,” said Killian.

“For the launch I adjusted those setting for the rocket’s bright flame, did that exposure, then took the images and stacked using Photoshop. All images are the exact same framing.”

Killian took the photos from right along the edge of the water basin at the Press Site at the Kennedy Space Center, located right next to the VAB where NASA’s Saturn V Moon rockets and Space Shuttles were processed for launch.

NASA TDRS-L relay satellite launch aboard Atlas V rocket on Jan. 23, 2014. Credit: Jeff Seibert/wired4space.com
NASA TDRS-L relay satellite launch aboard Atlas V rocket on Jan. 23, 2014. Credit: Jeff Seibert/wired4space.com

Why shoot from Kennedy Space Center instead of Cape Canaveral?

“I chose to shoot from the water’s edge at Turn Basin mainly because of the water, I always like a nice reflection from the xenon lights and the launch itself.

“Plus I knew nobody would shoot from there, as both the VAB roof & Cape Canaveral were available for media to view from (both have fantastic views).”

“I wanted to do something different.”

“Generally we get an hour or so at whatever area we are shooting any given launch from, before heading back to the press site.”

“But since the Turn Basin is AT the press site, the location was open for several hours due to TDRS-L being a night launch.”

“So I had enough time to attempt this shot from about as close as you can get (4 miles or so)!

Is Mike pleased with the result?

“I’m happy with how this one came out!” Mike ecstatically told me.

For some background on the VAB and the imminent end of public tours inside – read my new VAB story, here.

And here’s my daytime shot showing the Turn Basin and Mike’s approximate shooting location at the KSC Press Site. Mike is shooting in the opposite direction – from waters edge looking to the right.

View of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and the Turn Basin adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center Press Center and the countdown clock. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
View of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and the Turn Basin adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center Press Center and the countdown clock. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Orion, Chang’e-3, Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, LADEE, Mars and more news.

Ken Kremer

Remote camera shot of NASA TDRS-L relay satellite launch aboard Atlas V rocket on Jan. 23, 2014. Credit: Walter Scriptunas II - www.scriptunasimages.com
Remote camera shot of NASA TDRS-L relay satellite launch aboard Atlas V rocket on Jan. 23, 2014. Credit: Walter Scriptunas II – www.scriptunasimages.com
The TDRS-L mission begins as the Atlas V-401 roars from the pad. Credit: nasatech.net
The TDRS-L mission begins as the Atlas V-401 roars from the pad. Credit: nasatech.net
NASA’s TDRS-L blasts off atop Atlas V rocket on Jan. 23, 2014. Credit: Mike Killian/mikekillianphotography.com
NASA’s TDRS-L blasts off atop Atlas V rocket on Jan. 23, 2014. Credit: Mike Killian/mikekillianphotography.com

Spectacular Go Pro TDRS Launch Video by Matthew Travis

Space journalists Ken Kremer/Universe Today (left) and Mike Killian  and Alan Walters  of AmericaSpace (center, right) setting remote cameras at Antares launch pad amidst bone chilling cold for the photos featured herein.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Space journalists Ken Kremer/Universe Today (left) and Mike Killian and Alan Walters of AmericaSpace (center, right) setting remote cameras at Antares launch pad amidst bone chilling cold. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace
Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace

Spectacular Nighttime Blastoff Sends Critical NASA TDRS Communications Relay Skyward from Cape – Photo Gallery

The dual Atlas V rocket engines roar to life on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41. The launch vehicle will boost NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, or TDRS-L, spacecraft to Earth orbit. Liftoff was at 9:33 p.m. EST on Jan. 23, 2014.
Credit: NASA
Story updated[/caption]

A spectacular nighttime blastoff lit up the evening skies for hundreds of miles around the Florida Space coast on a mission that sent a critical NASA communications relay satellite to orbit this evening, Jan. 23.

NASA’s huge Tracking and Data Relay Satellite L (TDRS-L) is now safely in orbit following tonight’s successful launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The Atlas V rocket was launched at 9:33 p.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 41 into crystal clear skies that gave excited spectators an uncommonly long and stunning launch spectacle that was well worth the wait.

The 3.8 ton TDRS-L satellite will become part of a network providing high-data-rate communications to the International Space Station (ISS), Hubble Space Telescope, launch vehicles and a host of other research spacecraft that relay absolutely critical flight, telemetry and science data.

Water reflection shot of NASA TDRS-L satellite launch aboard Atlas V rocket on Jan. 23, 2014. Credit: Walter Scriptunas II - www.scriptunasimages.com
Water reflection shot of NASA TDRS-L satellite launch aboard Atlas V rocket on Jan. 23, 2014. Credit: Walter Scriptunas II – www.scriptunasimages.com

The recently launched Orbital Sciences Cygnus cargo carrier also relays data via the TDRS system.

The ISS, Hubble and all these other spacecraft could not function without the TDRS network of relay satellites.

Liftoff of NASA”s TDRS-L atop Atlas V rocket on Jan. 23, 2014 from CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. Credit: NASA
Liftoff of NASA”s TDRS-L atop Atlas V rocket on Jan. 23, 2014 from CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. Credit: NASA

The TDRS-L satellite will also be used to track and relay vital information for the maiden launch of NASA’s next generation Orion human spaceflight capsule slated for Fall 2014.

Read my latest Orion update – here.

“TDRS-L and the entire TDRS fleet provide a vital service to America’s space program by supporting missions that range from Earth-observation to deep space discoveries,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

“TDRS also will support the first test of NASA’s new deep space spacecraft, the Orion crew module, in September. This test will see Orion travel farther into space than any human spacecraft has gone in more than 40 years.”

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket successfully launched NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS-L) payload at 9:33 p.m. EST today from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: Ben Cooper/Launch photography
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket successfully launched NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS-L) payload at 9:33 p.m. EST today from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: Ben Cooper/Launch photography

TDRS-L arrived in geosynchronous transfer orbit about two hours after liftoff. It will orbit at an altitude of 22,300 miles.

The venerable Atlas V rocket is one of the most reliable and well built rockets in the world.

Indeed the Atlas V has been entrusted to launch many high value missions for NASA and the Defense Department- such as Curiosity, JUNO and the X-37 B.

Clear of the lightning wires, the Atlas 5-401 accelerates to orbit. Credit: nasatech.net
Clear of the lightning wires, the Atlas 5-401 accelerates to orbit. Credit: nasatech.net

The last Atlas V launch from the Cape occurred in November 2013 and sent NASA’s MAVEN Mars orbiter on a voyage to the Red Planet.

NASA’s Mars bound MAVEN spacecraft launches atop Atlas V booster at 1:28 p.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 18, 2013. Image taken from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s Mars bound MAVEN spacecraft launches atop Atlas V booster at 1:28 p.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 18, 2013. Image taken from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

And the two stage rocket is being man-rated right now to launch humans to low Earth orbit in the near future.

The Atlas V has been chosen to launch two of the upcoming astronaut ‘space taxis’ as part of NASA’s commercial crew initiative to launch human crews to the International Space Station.

Just today, Sierra Nevada Corp announced that their Dream Chaser mini shuttle will launch to orbit on its first flight on Nov. 1, 2016.

TDRS-L is the 12th in this series of communications satellites.

It is identical to the TDRS-K spacecraft launched in 2013, which was the first of the third generation of TDRS satellites.

They were built by Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, Calif., and have a 15 year design lifetime.

NASA will now conduct a three month in orbit checkout.

TDRS-M, the next spacecraft in this series, is on track to be ready for launch in late 2015.

TDRS-L awaits launch atop Atlas V rocket. Credit: Mike Killian/mikekillianphotography.com
TDRS-L awaits launch atop Atlas V rocket. Credit: Mike Killian/mikekillianphotography.com

This is the third generation of TDRS satellites.

“The TDRS fleet began operating during the space shuttle era with the launch of TDRS-1 in 1983. Of the 11 TDRS spacecraft placed in service to date, eight still are operational. Four of the eight have exceeded their design life,” said NASA.

The Atlas V launched in the 401 configuration vehicle, which includes a 4-meter diameter payload fairing and no solid rocket motors. The first stage was powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine. The Centaur upper stage was powered by a single Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10A-4 engine.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Orion, Chang’e-3, Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, LADEE, Mars and more news.

Ken Kremer

Pictured in Astrotech’s payload processing facility on 3 January 2014, TDRS-L resembles an enormous insect and will form the 12th member of NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite family. Photo Credit: Mike Killian Photography/AmericaSpace
Pictured in Astrotech’s payload processing facility on 3 January 2014, TDRS-L resembles an enormous insect and will form the 12th member of NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite family. Photo Credit: Mike Killian Photography/AmericaSpace
Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace
Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace

Star Trek’s Geordi LeForge Explains NASA’s new MAVEN Mars Orbiter

Star Trek actor LeVar Burton Shares MAVEN’s Story in a New NASA public service announcement (PSA). Credit: NASA
Watch the PSA below[/caption]

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Star Trek actor and space enthusiast LeVar Burton stars in a new action packed NASA public service announcement (PSA) about the agency’s next Mars-bound spacecraft, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft slated for blast off in barely two days time on Nov. 18 from the Florida Space Coast.

Burton played the beloved character of chief engineer ‘Geordi LeForge’ aboard the legendary Starship Enterprise on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” – known by audiences worldwide.

And Burton gives an appropriately other worldly narration in the NASA PSA containing exciting new animations explaining the goals and science behind the MAVEN Mars orbiter and how it will accomplish its tasks.

I was privileged to meet chief engineer ‘Geordi LeForge’ at a prior NASA launch event.

He is genuinely and truly dedicated to advancing science and education through his many STEM initiatives and participation in educational programming like the NASA PSA.

MAVEN will study the Red Planet’s atmosphere like never before and in unprecedented detail and is the first mission dedicated to studying Mars upper atmosphere.

MAVEN’s is aimed at unlocking one of the greatest Martian mysteries; Where did all the water go ? And when did the Red Planet’s water and atmosphere disappear ?

MAVEN’s suite of nine science instruments will help scientists understand the history, mechanism and causes of the Red Planet’s dramatic climate change over billions of years.

Burton’s PSA will be used at MAVEN scheduled events around the country and will also be shared on the web and social media, according to NASA. The goal is to educate the public about MAVEN and NASA’s efforts to better understand the Red Planet and the history of climate change there.

Be sure to check out the new video – below:



Video caption: NASA is returning to Mars! This NASA Public Service Announcement regarding the MAVEN mission is presented by LeVar Burton in which he shares the story about NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission—or MAVEN—and how it will explore Mars’ climate history and gather clues about the question scientists have been asking for decades. MAVEN will look at specific processes at Mars that led to the loss of much of its atmosphere…and MAVEN data could tell scientists a lot about the history of climate change on the Red Planet.

“NASA is thrilled to have LeVar Burton explain this mission to the greater public,” said Bert Ulrich, NASA’s multimedia liaison for film and TV collaborations in a NASA statement. “Thanks to Burton’s engaging talents and passion for space exploration, audiences of all ages will be able to share in the excitement of NASA’s next mission to Mars.”

MAVEN is targeted to launch Monday, Nov. 18 at 1:28 p.m. EST atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

You can watch the launch live on NASA TV

Stay tuned here for continuing MAVEN and MOM news and Ken’s MAVEN launch reports from on site at the Kennedy Space Center press site.

Ken Kremer

…………….

Learn more about MAVEN, MOM, Mars rovers, Orion and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Nov 15-20: “MAVEN Mars Launch and Curiosity Explores Mars, Orion and NASA’s Future”, Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, 8 PM

Dec 11: “Curiosity, MAVEN and the Search for Life on Mars”, “LADEE & Antares ISS Launches from Virginia”, Rittenhouse Astronomical Society, Franklin Institute, Phila, PA, 8 PM

Damaged Dream Chaser Can be Fixed and Program to Move Forward with Flight Tests – Video

Left landing gear tire visibly failed to deploy as private Dream Chaser spaceplane approaches runway at Edwards Air Force Base, Ca. during first free flight landing test on Oct. 26, 2013 – in this screenshot. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.
Watch approach and landing test video below[/caption]

The privately built Dream Chaser ‘space taxi’ that was damaged after landing during its otherwise successful first ever free-flight glide test on Saturday, Oct 26, is repairable and the program will live on to see another day, says the developer Sierra Nevada Corp., (SNC).

The Dream Chaser engineering test vehicle skidded off the runway and landed sideways when its left landing gear failed to deploy at the last second during touchdown on runway 22L at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president for SNC Space Systems, at a media teleconference.

The primary goal of the Oct. 26 drop test was to see whether the Dream Chaser mini-shuttle would successfully fly free after being released by an Erickson Air-Crane from an altitude of over 12,000 feet and glide autonomously for about a minute to a touchdown on the Mojave desert landing strip.

“We had a very successful day with an unfortunate anomaly at the end of the day on one of the landing gears,” said Sirangelo.

Dream Chaser is one of three private sector manned spaceships being developed with funding from NASA’s commercial crew program known as Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative to develop a next-generation crew transportation vehicle to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station – totally lost following the space shuttle retirement.

Following helicopter release the private Dream Chaser spaceplane starts glide to runway at Edwards Air Force Base, Ca. during first free flight landing test on Oct. 26, 2013 - in this screenshot.   Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.
Following helicopter release the private Dream Chaser spaceplane starts glide to runway at Edwards Air Force Base, Ca. during first free flight landing test on Oct. 26, 2013 – in this screenshot. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.

The unmanned approach and landing test (ALT) accomplished 99% of its objectives and was only marred by the mechanical failure of the left tire to drop down and deploy for a safe and smooth rollout.

SNC released a short 1 minute video of the test flight – see below – showing the helicopter drop, dive, glide and flare to touchdown. The failure of the landing gear to drop is clearly seen. But the video cuts away just prior to touchdown and does not show the aftermath of the skid or damage to the vehicle.

“The Dream Chaser spacecraft automated flight control system gently steered the vehicle to its intended glide slope. The vehicle adhered to the design flight trajectory throughout the flight profile. Less than a minute later, Dream Chaser smoothly flared and touched down on Edwards Air Force Base’s Runway 22L right on centerline,” said SNC in a statement with the video.

The vehicle is “repairable and flyable again,” Sirangelo noted.

More good news is that the ships interior was not damaged and the exterior can be fixed.

Dream Chaser measures about 29 feet long with a 23 foot wide wing span and is about one third the size of NASA’s space shuttle orbiters.

Left landing gear failed to deploy as private Dream Chaser spaceplane approaches runway at Edwards Air Force Base, Ca. during first free flight landing test on Oct. 26, 2013 - in this screenshot.   Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.
Left landing gear failed to deploy as private Dream Chaser spaceplane approaches runway at Edwards Air Force Base, Ca. during first free flight landing test on Oct. 26, 2013 – in this screenshot. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.

Since there was no pilot in the cockpit no one was injured. That also meant that no evasive action could be taken to drop the gear.

“We don’t think it’s actually going to set us back,” Sirangelo noted. “In some interesting way, it might actually accelerate it.

NASA’s commercial crew initiative aims at restoring America’s manned spaceflight access to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS) – perhaps by 2017 – following the forced shutdown of the Space Shuttle program in 2011.

Until an American commercial space taxi is ready for liftoff, NASA is completely dependent on the Russian Soyuz capsule for astronaut rides to the ISS at a cost of roughly $70 million per seat.

Because Congress continues to significantly cut NASA’s budget further delays can be expected – inevitably meaning more payments to Russia and no savings for the American tax payer.

SNC was awarded $227.5 million in the current round of NASA funding and must successfully complete specified milestones, including up to five ALT drop tests to check the aerodynamic handling in order to receive payment.

Following helicopter release the private Dream Chaser spaceplane starts glide to runway at Edwards Air Force Base, Ca. during first free flight landing test on Oct. 26, 2013 - in this screenshot.   Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.
Following helicopter release the private Dream Chaser spaceplane starts glide to runway at Edwards Air Force Base, Ca. during first free flight landing test on Oct. 26, 2013 – in this screenshot. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.

This particular vehicle had been intended to fly two test flights. Further drop tests were planned with a new test vehicle to be constructed.

The way forward is being evaluated.

“We don’t think there is going to be any significant delay to the program as a result of this. This was meant to be a test vehicle with a limited number of flights,” Sirangelo said.

SNC and NASA have assembled a team to investigate the cause of the anomaly.

“SNC cannot release any further video at this time,” said SNC.

Dream Chaser is a reusable mini shuttle that launches from the Florida Space Coast atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket and lands on the shuttle landing facility (SLF) runway at the Kennedy Space Center, like the space shuttle.

Ken Kremer

MAVEN and MOM Missions from NASA and India Plan Martian Science Collaboration in Orbit

After years of hard work by dedicated science and engineering teams, a new pair of Mars orbiter science missions from Earth are in the final stages of prelaunch processing and are nearly set to blast off for the Red Planet in November.

If all goes well, NASA’s MAVEN orbiter and India’s MOM (Mars Orbiter Mission) will “work together” to help solve the mysteries of Mars atmosphere, the chief MAVEN scientist told Universe Today at a NASA briefing today (Oct. 28).

“We plan to collaborate on some overlapping objectives,” Bruce Jakosky told me. Jakosky is MAVEN’s principal Investigator from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

MAVEN and MOM will join Earth’s armada of five operational orbiters and surface rovers currently exploring the Red Planet.

India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) Spacecraft attached to the 4th stage of PSLV-C25 and ready for heat shield closure. It is slated to launch on Nov. 5, 2013. Credit: ISRO
India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) Spacecraft attached to the 4th stage of PSLV-C25 and ready for heat shield closure. It is slated to launch on Nov. 5, 2013. Credit: ISRO

MOM is India’s first mission to Mars. Its also first in line to this year’s Martian on ramp and is slated to lift off in barely one week on Nov. 5 atop the most powerful version of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rocket from a seaside launch pad in Srihanikota, India.

The 1,350 kilogram (2,980 pound) MOM orbiter, also known as ‘Mangalyaan’, is the brainchild of ISRO, the Indian Space Research Organization.

NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN Mission (MAVEN) spacecraft launches in three weeks on Nov. 18 atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket from a seaside pad on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Both MAVEN and MOM will study the Red Planets atmosphere. Although they are independent and carrying different science payloads the two missions do have some common goals.

“There are some overlapping objectives between MAVEN and MOM,” Jakosky said.

“We have had some discussions with the MOM science team.”

Magnetometer science instrument boom juts out from MAVEN solar panel during launch processing inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Magnetometer science instrument boom juts out from MAVEN solar panel during launch processing inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Both orbiters are due to arrive at Mars in September 2014 after 10 month interplanetary cruises and will enter different elliptical orbits after main engine braking burns.

MAVEN is the first spacecraft from Earth devoted to investigating and understanding the upper atmosphere of Mars.

The purpose is to study specific processes and determine how and why Mars lost virtually all of its atmosphere billions of years ago and what effect that had on the history of climate change and habitability.

“The major questions about the history of Mars center on the history of its climate and atmosphere and how that’s influenced the surface, geology and the possibility for life,” said Jakosky.

“MAVEN will focus on understanding the history of the atmosphere, how the climate has changed through time, and how that influenced the evolution of the surface and the potential for habitability by microbes on Mars.”

“We don’t know the driver of the change.”

“Where did the water go and where did the carbon dioxide go from the early atmosphere? What were the mechanisms?”

“That’s what driving our exploration of Mars with MAVEN,” said Jakosky.

One of the significant differences between MOM and MAVEN regards methane detection – which is a potential marker for Martian life. Some 90% of Earth’s atmospheric methane derives from living organisms.

MOM has a methane sensor but not MAVEN.

“We just had to leave that one off to stay focused and to stay within the available resources ,” Jakosky told me.

MAVEN carries nine sensors in three instrument suites.

The Particles and Fields Package, provided by the University of California at Berkeley with support from CU/LASP and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., contains six instruments to characterize the solar wind and the ionosphere of Mars. The Remote Sensing Package, built by CU/LASP, will determine global characteristics of the upper atmosphere and ionosphere. The Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer, built by Goddard, will measure the composition of Mars’ upper atmosphere.

MOM’s science complement comprises the tri color Mars Color Camera to image the planet and its two moons, Phobos and Deimos; the Lyman Alpha Photometer to measure the abundance of hydrogen and deuterium and understand the planets water loss process; a Thermal Imaging Spectrometer to map surface composition and mineralogy, the MENCA mass spectrometer to analyze atmospheric composition, and the Methane Sensor for Mars to measure traces of potential atmospheric methane down to the ppm level.

Graphic outlines India’s first ever probe to explore the Red Planet known as the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM).  Launch is set for Nov. 5 from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre SHAR, Srihairkota, India. Credit: ISRO
Graphic outlines India’s first ever probe to explore the Red Planet known as the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Launch is set for Nov. 5 from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre SHAR, Srihairkota, India. Credit: ISRO

“At the point where we [MAVEN and MOM] are both in orbit collecting data we do plan to collaborate and work together with the data jointly,” Jakosky told me.

“We agreed on the value of collaboration and will hold real discussions at a later time,” he noted.

NASA is providing key communications and navigation support to ISRO and MOM through the agency’s trio of huge tracking antennas in the Deep Space Network (DSN).

Over the course of its one-Earth-year primary mission, MAVEN will observe all of Mars’ latitudes at altitudes ranging from 93 miles to more than 3,800 miles.

MAVEN will execute five deep dip maneuvers during the first year, descending to an altitude of 78 miles. This marks the lower boundary of the planet’s upper atmosphere.

MAVEN has sufficient fuel reserves on board to continue observations for more than a decade.

The spacecraft will function as an indispensible orbital relay by transmitting surface science data through the “Electra” from NASA’s ongoing Curiosity and Opportunity rovers as well as the planned 2020 rover.

Stay tuned here for continuing MAVEN and MOM news and my launch reports from on site at the Kennedy Space Center press center.

Ken Kremer

…………….

Learn more about MAVEN, Mars rovers, Orion and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Nov 15-19: “MAVEN Mars Launch and Curiosity Explores Mars, Orion and NASA’s Future”, Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, 8 PM

NASA’s MAVEN Mars orbiter, chief scientist Prof. Bruce Jakosky of CU-Boulder and Ken Kremer of Universe Today inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 27, 2013. MAVEN launches to Mars on Nov. 18, 2013 from Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s MAVEN Mars orbiter, chief scientist Prof. Bruce Jakosky of CU-Boulder and Ken Kremer of Universe Today inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 27, 2013. MAVEN launches to Mars on Nov. 18, 2013 from Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Spacesuited Astronauts Climb Aboard Boeing CST-100 Commercial Crew Capsule for Key Tests

A pair of NASA astronauts donned their spacesuits for key fit check evaluations inside a test version of the Boeing Company’s CST-100 commercial ‘space taxi’ which was unveiled this week for the world’s first glimpse of the cabin’s interior.

Boeing is among a trio of American aerospace firms, including SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp, seeking to restore America’s capability to fly humans to Earth orbit and the space station using seed money from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

Astronauts Serena Aunon and Randy Bresnik conducted a day long series of technical evaluations inside a fully outfitted, full scale mock up of the CST-100, while wearing NASA’s iconic orange launch-and-entry flight suits from the space shuttle era.

During the tests, Boeing technicians monitored the astronauts ergonomic ability to work in the seats and move around during hands on use of the capsules equipment, display consoles and storage compartments.

The purpose of the testing at Boeing’s Houston Product Support Center is to see what works well and what needs modifications before fixing the final capsule design for construction.

“It’s an upgrade,” said astronaut Serena Aunon at the evaluation. “It is an American vehicle, of course it is an upgrade.”

This is an interior view of The Boeing Company's CST-100 spacecraft, which features LED lighting and tablet technology.  Image Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz
This is an interior view of The Boeing Company’s CST-100 spacecraft, which features LED lighting and tablet technology.
Image Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz

Former NASA Astronaut Chris Ferguson, the commander of the final shuttle flight (STS-135) by Atlantis, is leading Boeing’s test effort as the director of Boeing’s Crew and Mission Operations.

“These are our customers. They’re the ones who will take our spacecraft into flight, and if we’re not building it the way they want it we’re doing something wrong,” said Ferguson.

“We’ll probably make one more go-around and make sure that everything is just the way they like it.”

The CST-100 is designed to carry a crew of up to 7 astronauts, or a mix of cargo and crew, on missions to low-Earth orbit (LEO) and the International Space Station (ISS) around the middle of this decade.

Although it resembles Boeing’s Apollo-era capsules from the outside, the interior employs state of the art modern technology including sky blue LED lighting and tablet technology.

Check out this video showing the astronauts and engineers during the CST-100 testing

Nevertheless Boeing’s design goal is to keep the flight technology as simple as possible.

“What you’re not going to find is 1,100 or 1,600 switches,” said Ferguson. “When these guys go up in this, they’re primary mission is not to fly this spacecraft, they’re primary mission is to go to the space station for six months. So we don’t want to burden them with an inordinate amount of training to fly this vehicle. We want it to be intuitive.”

The CST-100 crew transporter will fly to orbit atop the venerable Atlas V rocket built by United Launch Alliance (ULA) from Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The CST-100 crew capsule awaits liftoff aboard an Atlas V launch vehicle at Cape Canaveral in this artist’s concept. Credit: Boeing
The CST-100 crew capsule awaits liftoff aboard an Atlas V launch vehicle at Cape Canaveral in this artist’s concept. Credit: Boeing

Boeing is aiming for an initial three day manned orbital test flight of the CST-100 during 2016, says John Mulholland, Boeing vice president and program manger for Commercial Programs.

The 1st docking mission to the ISS would follow in 2017 – depending on the very uncertain funding that Congress approves for NASA.

The Atlas V was also chosen to launch one of Boeing’s commercial crew competitors, namely the Dream Chaser mini shuttle built by Sierra Nevada Corp.

Boeing CST-100 capsule mock-up, interior view. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Boeing CST-100 capsule early mock-up, interior view. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

NASA’s CCP program is fostering the development of the CST-100 as well as the SpaceX Dragon and Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser to replace America’s capability to launch humans to space that was lost following the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle orbiters two years ago in July 2011.

Since 2011, every American astronaut has been 100% dependent on the Russians and their Soyuz capsule to hitch a ride to the ISS.

“We pay one of our [ISS] partners, the Russians, $71 million a seat to fly,” says Ed Mango, CCP’s program manager. “What we want to do is give that to an American company to fly our crews into space.”

Simultaneously NASA and its industry partners are designing and building the Orion crew capsule and SLS heavy lift booster to send humans to the Moon and deep space destinations including Near Earth Asteroids and Mars.

Ken Kremer

Interior view of Boeing CST-100 commercial crew capsule. Credit: NASA
Interior view of Boeing CST-100 commercial crew capsule. Credit: NASA

Debby Dousing Delta 4 Heavy Launch Hopes for June 28

Image Caption: National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) spy satellite arrives at Cape Canaveral Launch Pad 37 for mounting on top Delta 4 Heavy Rocket slated for June 28, 2012 blastoff. Credit: United Launch Alliance
See Photo Gallery below

Debby is doing a real number on vast swaths of Florida, dumping up to 15 inches of rain, unleashing deadly tornadoes and dousing hopes of launching a mighty triple barreled Delta IV Heavy rocket on Thursday morning, June 28, with a super secret spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

Tropical Storm Debby has destroyed homes, killed at least 1 person and will wreak havoc as it tracks across central Florida from the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic Coast over the next two days – just north of Cape Canaveral, Florida and the Delta 4 Heavy launch pad at Space Launch Complex 37.

The last Delta 4 Heavy to blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov 21, 2010. Credit: Alan Walters – awaltersphoto.com

The odds of launching the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta 4 Heavy on June 28 have dropped to just 30 percent favorable. The outlook improves slightly to 40 % favorable on Friday, June 29 according to the official Air Force weather forecast.

The launch window for Thursday’s ULA Delta 4 Heavy launch stretches from 6:16 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and comes just 8 days after the last spy satellite blasted off on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral on June 20 – launch story here.


Image Caption: Fog and heavy rain obscure view of triple barreled Delta 4 Heavy rocket protected inside Mobile Gantry from outside high security perimeter gate at Launch Pad 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com

The clandestine NROL-15 payload was bolted atop the Delta 4 Heavy booster several weeks ago.

See the photo gallery below provided to Universe Today showing the shrouded upper stage being hoisted on top of the booster.

This will be only the 6th launch of the 232 foot tall Delta 4 Heavy booster and the first one to feature the upgraded RS-68A first stage engines, delivering 702,000 pounds of thrust each.

A suspect vent relief rocket valve was successfully changed out by technicians over the weekend and will not delay the launch, ULA spokesperson Jessica Rye told Universe Today.

The powerful Delta 4 Heavy rocket and NROL-15 payload are due to be unveiled at pad 37 on Wednesday evening, June 27- depending on Debby !. .

Ken Kremer

Photo Gallery: NROL-15 Spy satellite delivery and mounting atop Delta 4 Heavy Rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station – Space Launch Complex 37. Credit: United Launch Alliance

Hush, Hush US Spy Satellite Blasts Off atop Milestone Atlas Rocket

Image Caption: Spy Satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office blasts off atop Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 8:28 a.m. EDT. Credit: Jeff Seibert/wired4space.com

A top secret US national security Spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) roared mightily to space this morning (June 20) through picturesque layers of broken clouds an Atlas V rocket at 8:28 a.m. EDT (1228 GMT) from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

Basically nothing is publicly known about the specifications or mission of the vital payload, dubbed NROL-38, launched in support of America’s national defense.

The classified mission entered a total news blackout and cutoff of the live webcast some five minutes after launch when the rocket’s first stage and upper stage engine separated successfully and before the secret satellite was deployed and reached orbit.

The flight marked a key milestone as the 50th successful launch of the combined Atlas V and Delta IV booster families collectively known as the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) built by United Launch Alliance (ULA). The maiden launch took place in 2002.

Image Caption: NROL-38 Spy Satellite soars to space on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 8:28 a.m. EDT on Jun 20, 2012. Credit: Jeff Seibert/wired4space.com

ULA was formed in 2006 as a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin who were originally in competition at the start of the EELV program.

“This morning’s flawless launch is the product of many months of hard work and collaboration of government and industry teams. We hit it out of the park again as we continue to deliver superior vigilance from above for the Nation,” remarked Col James D. Fisher, Director of Office of Space Launch.

Threatening clouds and gusting winds remained within acceptable levels and did not delay the launch.

The 19 story Atlas booster first stage was powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine and the Centaur upper stage was powered by a single Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne RL10A-4 engine.


Image Caption: NROL-38 Spy Satellite liftoff on June 20, 2012 atop Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com

“Congratulations to the NRO and to all the mission partners involved in this critical national security launch,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Mission Operations. “This launch marks an important milestone as we celebrate the 50th successful Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) mission, with 31 Atlas V and 19 Delta IV missions flown since August 2002.”

The NROL-38 spy satellite is the first of three critical NRO missions slated for launch by ULA over the next two months. The NRO is based in Chantilly, Va. and the U.S. Government agency responsible for designing, building, launching, and maintaining America’s intelligence satellites.

Indeed the next NRO satellite is currently scheduled for blastoff in the early morning hours of June 28 atop a Delta 4 Heavy booster rocket, now the most powerful rocket in the US arsenal following the forced retirement of NASA’s trio of Space Shuttle orbiters and which will surely put on a spectacular sky show !

The likewise classified NROL-15 mission will lift off next Thursday from Space Launch Complex-37 at Cape Canaveral.



Image Caption: NROL-38 Spy Satellite liftoff on June 20, 2012 atop Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

The EELV Program was developed by the United States Air Force to provide assured access to space for Department of Defense and other government payloads, achieve significant cost savings and reliably meet launch schedule targets as older booster such as the Titan were phased out.

“Twelve of the 50 EELV launches have been NRO missions and these have been vital to our overall mission of delivering on commitments critical to our national security,” said Bruce Carlson, director, National Reconnaissance Office. “I thank and congratulate ULA and the EELV program for the tremendous performance and achievement of this very impressive and noteworthy milestone.”


Image Caption: NROL-38 Spy Satellite atop Atlas V rocket pierces cloud layers after liftoff on June 20, 2012. Credit: Ken Kremer

ULA will be getting some competition. SpaceX Corporation – which recently dispatched the first private spacecraft (Dragon) to dock at the ISS – will compete in the bidding to launch future US national security payloads.

Ken Kremer