Atlas V Roars to Space with Sophisticated New Missile Warning Surveillance Satellite

[/caption]CAPE CANAVERAL – An Atlas V rocket carrying a highly sophisticated Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) GEO-1 satellite for the United States Air Force lifted off from the seaside Space Launch Complex-41 at 2:10 p.m. EDT on Saturday (May 7) into a gorgeous clear blue sky following a one day delay due to cloudy weather conditions surrounding the Florida space coast on Friday.

SBIRS GEO-1 is the maiden satellite in a new constellation of next generation military space probes that will provide US military forces with an early warning of missile launches that could pose a threat to US national security.

Atlas V rocket roars to space with SBIRS GEO-1 satellite Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on May 7, 2011.
Credit: Alan Walters/
“Today, we launched the next generation missile warning capability. It’s taken a lot of hard work by the government-industry team and we couldn’t be more proud. We look forward to this satellite providing superb capabilities for many years to come,” said General Gen. William Shelton, Air Force Space Command commander in a statement.

The planned quartet of SBIRS satellites will deliver a quantum leap in infrared event detection and reporting compared to the current generation of orbiting Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites, according to Michael Friedman of Lockheed Martin in an interview with Universe Today at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

“The SBIRS GEO satellites will have both a scanning and starring sensor with faster revisit rates. They will be able to detect missile launches from the earliest stages of the boost phase and track the missiles to determine their trajectory and potential impact points,” said Friedman.

“SBIRS can see targets quicker and characterize the actual missile,’” explained Steve Tatum of Lockheed Martin at KSC.

In addition to providing improved and persistent missile warning capabilities in a global arena, SBIRS will simultaneously support missile defense, technical intelligence, battlespace awareness and defense of the US homeland.

“The 10,000 pound SBIRS GEO-1 satellite is the size of two Hummers. About 9000 people in 23 states were involved in constructing the satellite.”

“SBIRS GEO-2 will launch in the next year or two,” Friedman told me.

“GEO-2 is built and undergoing testing now,” added Tatum.

The $1.2 Billion SBIRS satellite was launched into a 22,000 mile high Geosynchronous orbit by the 189 foot tall Atlas V rocket. The Atlas rocket was in the 401 vehicle configuration with no solid rocket motors and includes a 4-meter diameter payload fairing.

The first stage was powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine and the Centaur upper stage was powered by a single Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne RL-10A engine.

SBIRS GEO-1 satellite bolted atop Atlas V Centaur rocket at Space Launch Complex 41 prior to launch. SBIRS is housed inside a 4 meter diameter Payload Fairing. Credit: Ken Kremer

The Atlas V rocket was built and launched by United Launch Alliance (ULA). This marks the 50th successful launch for ULA since the company was formed in December 2006.

“With this launch, ULA continues to demonstrate its commitment to 100 percent mission success,” said Michael Gass, ULA President and CEO. “This milestone is a testament to the dedicated employees that for every mission deliver excellence, best value and continuous improvement to our customers.”

Read my Atlas V SBIRS preview story here:
Atlas Rocket Poised for Blast Off with Advanced Missile Early Warning Spy Satellite

SBIRS GEO-1 Launch Photo Album by the Universe Today team of Ken Kremer and Alan Walters:

Atlas V rocket and bird soar skywards at Florida Space Coast
Liftoff of Atlas V rocket with SBIRS GEO-1 satellite as an Egret flies into camera field of view on May 7, 2011 at 2:10 p.m. EDT. View from the Press Site at the Kennedy Space Center:
Credit: Ken Kremer --
Atlas V rocket soars off pad 41 with SBIRS GEO-1 satellite for the US Air Force as another bird flies into camera field of view on May 7, 2011 at 2:10 p.m. EDT. View from the Press Site at the Kennedy Space Center: Credit: Ken Kremer
Atlas V SBIRS GEO-1 launch from Cape Canaveral on May 7, 2011. Credit: Alan Walters/
Atlas V SBIRS GEO-1 launch from Cape Canaveral on May 7, 2011. Credit: Alan Walters/
Exhaust trail from Atlas V SBIRS GEO-1 launch on May 7, 2011. Credit: Ken Kremer
Ken Kremer with Atlas V rocket and SBIRS GEO-1 satellite at Launch Pad 41, prior to blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: Ken Kremer

US Military X-37B rolls out to Atlas Launch Pad poised for March 4 launch – Photo Album

The second X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-2) built for the US Air Force was rolled out today (March 3) to the Atlas rocket launch pad at Space Launch Complex-41(SLC-41) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The experimental OTV-2 is poised to blast off on Friday, March 4 on an Atlas V rocket in a launch window that extends from 3:39 pm to 5:39 p.m. EST. The X-37B is encapsulated in a 5 meter fairing.

The secret cargo and experiments loaded aboard are shrouded behind a veil of military security.

UPDATE: Due to weather concerns, the launch has been postponed until Saturday, March 5. Weather is predicted to improve to 40% favorable for launch.

Air Force technicians are completing final preparations for the late afternoon blast off of the bronze colored rocket topped by the extra long payload fairing to accommodate the OTV-2.

The rocket is sitting atop the mobile launch platform and was pushed about 1800 feet from the 31 story Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) to launch pad 41 by twin diesel powered trackmobiles. See my photo album of today’s X-37B rollout and close up visit to the Atlas rocket at SLC-41.

“No major changes were required from the OTV-1 flight based on post-flight assessments, but we did make a few minor modifications based on lessons learned from the first flight,” Tracy Bunko, Maj, USAF of the Air Force Press Desk told me in an interview.

“We’re pleased with what we’ve seen so far. Technology assessments are ongoing in areas including re-entry guidance, navigation, and control, thermal protection systems, and flight actuation systems.”

“We want to potentially test the landing capabilities in stronger wind conditions,” Bunko explained.

Read the mission preview and launch report by Jason Rhian

X-37B at Space Launch Complex 41 slated for March 4, 2011 launch after rollout of Atlas V rocket
from Vertical Integration Facility (left) pad 41 (right) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer
Atlas V rocket with X-37B bolted atop at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida poised for March 4 launch. Credit: Ken Kremer
The X-37B is poised for launch on March 4, 2011 after rollout to pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer
X-37B is encapsulated in a Swiss made five meter fairing.
Credit: Ken Kremer
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) and Atlas V rocket bathed in xenon lights after March 3 rollout at Space Launch Complex-41 (SLC-41) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
Launch scheduled for March 4. Credit: Ken Kremer
Photo taken from roof of CBS News building at KSC press site

Sequence of Photos showing rollout of Atlas V rocket, from right to left

March 3 rollout of X-37B Vertical Integration Facility (right) to Launch Pad 41 (left) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

March 3 rollout of X-37B Vertical Integration Facility (right) to Launch Pad 41 (left) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer
March 3 rollout of X-37B Vertical Integration Facility (right) to Launch Pad 41 (left) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

AEHF-1 Rides Atlas V To Orbit


The U.S. Air Force successfully launched the first Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite (AEHF-1) on top of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket Saturday, Aug. 14 at 7:07 a.m. EDT. The Atlas V lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC 41) riding a pillar of flame across the morning sky. The window for the launch was two hours long, however it wasn’t needed, the launch occurred on the first attempt. 

“As we expected it was a totally successful launch.” said U.S. Air Force Captain Glorimar Rodriguez.

The AEHF constellation of satellites will replace the aging Milstar satellites. The more-modern AEHF is designed to ensure rapid communications for military leaders. This new, jam-proof system will be the link between the president and the armed forces in the event of a nuclear attack. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor to construct both the AEHF fleet of satellites as well as the mission control center where the satellites will be operated.

AEHF launch. Credit: Alan Walters ( for Universe Today

There are a number of U.S. allies that are involved with the AEHF program and can use these satellites once the system is activated. Some of these allies include the Netherlands, Canada and the United Kingdom.

When the system is complete it will be comprised of three functioning satellites and a spare satellite. These satellites will be inter-connected and are capable of communicating with one another. They will provide the military with vital communications-related data including, but not limited to, maps, video and targeting data. When operational, the AEHF constellation will be operated by the 4th Space Operations Squadron, who are stationed at Schriever Air Force Base, CO.

Pre-launch. Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41. Credit: Alan Walters ( for Universe Today

Mini Space Shuttle Launches on Secret Mission

A secret Air Force space plane launched on an Atlas V Thursday night at 7:52 p.m. EDT (2352 GMT) on a classified mission. The vehicle, the umanned X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, looks like a mini space shuttle and has the capability to remain in orbit for 270 days. The purpose of this vehicle – for this mission and for the future – is unknown, but the Air Force says this newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft will demonstrate autonomous orbital flight, reentry and landing.

Although the mission is secret, the launch was open to the media and was webcast live by the United Launch Alliance, and included live Twitter updates from the Air Force Space Command. Shortly after main engine cutoff, however, the webcast ended and no more updates were provided about the rocket and the vehicle’s activities.

The mission duration has not been disclosed, but the Air Force said technologies to be tested during the flight include advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics, high temperature structures and seals, reusable insulation and lightweight electromechanical flight systems.

Liftoff occurred on time; and the stages separated 4 minutes and 31 seconds into the flight, and engine cutoff came at about 17 minutes after launch.

X-37B. Credit: US Air Force

The X-37B is 9 meters long and 4.5 meter wide (29 X 15 ft) and its payload bay is 2.1 by 1.2 meters (7 by 4 feet). The vehicle was built at Boeing Phantom Works, based on an orbital and re-entry demonstrator design initially developed by NASA, then handed over to the Pentagon.

Rumors of an X-37B launch have been circulating since 2008.

Originally the vehicle was scheduled for launch in from the payload bay of the Space Shuttle , but that plan was axed following the Columbia accident.

Comparing the X-37B to the space shuttle, the orbiters 56 meters (184 feet) long, has a wingspan of 23 meters (78 feet), and weighs 2 million kg (4.5 million pounds.)

The space shuttle can haul payloads up to 29,500 pounds, while the OTV can only handle up to 226 kg (500 pounds.)

The X37-B will land on a runway in California and will be controlled remotely from the ground. In the future, the Air Force said they hope to conduct experiments and rendezvous with other spacecraft.

See our preview article about the X37-B.

Enjoy more launch images from Alan Walters:

Launch of the X37- B. Credit: Alan Walters ( for Universe Today.
Launch of the X37-B. Credit: Alan Walters ( for Universe Today

The Solar Dynamics Observatory Soars to Study the Sun

The Solar Dynamics Observatory launched successfully – and beautifully – Thursday morning from Cape Canaveral Launch Complex 41 to begin a 5-year mission that will provide streaming, high-definition views of our sun. It was the 100th launch of the Atlas/Centaur combo, and was a gorgeous sight as it roared and soared into the blue Florida sky. “It was great; a beautiful launch,” said Dean Pesnell, SDO Project Scientist, immediately after the launch. “The rocket rises so slowly off the pad — it is wonderful to see. This is third Atlas launch I’ve seen and this is the best one so far.”

Amazingly, viewers here at Kennedy Space Center saw the Atlas rocket fly close to a sundog just as the spacecraft reached Max-Q, creating a ripple effect around the spacecraft. “We saw this sundog come out and SDO flew right through it. Then the sun dog disappeared,” said Pesnell. “This may be the first time we’ve sent a probe through a sundog, and people will be studying this, so already we are learning things about our atmosphere from SDO.”

See this amazing video shot by a 13-year-old girl in attendance at the KSC VIP site that shows the sundog and shockwave. (as noted by Jon Hanford in the comments).

Today’s countdown was extremely smooth as the high winds that thwarted Wednesday’s launch attempt calmed as the opening of the launch window approached. After counting down to the planned T-4 minute hold, launch managers proceeded directly to launch at the beginning of the window at 10:23 a.m. EST.

Project Scientist Dean Pesnell describing the launch. Image: Nancy Atkinson

“I was a little worried about the clouds coming in,” said Tom Woods, Principal Investigator for the EVE instrument on SDO, the EUV Variability Experiment, which will be studying the extreme ultraviolet radiation of the Sun. “But we were very excited to see SDO launch today, as otherwise it would have been a 10-day delay until the next attempt. It was a wonderful launch!”

“It was so beautiful,” said Lika Guhathakurta, SDO program scientist immediately following the launch as we walked together back to the press building. “I can still feel the rumbling in my stomach!”

SDO science team celebrates after the launch: Dean Pesnell, Jennifer Rumburg, Chris St. Cyr, and Lika Guhathakurta. Image: Nancy Atkinson

Called the “Crown Jewel” of NASA’s fleet of solar observatories, SDO is a technologically advanced spacecraft that will take images of the sun every 0.75 seconds and daily send back about 1.5 terabytes of data to Earth — the equivalent of downloading 380 full-length movies every day.

SDO launch. Credit: Nancy Atkinson

“We’re going to be able to better understand the Sun as a star,” said Guathakurta, “but SDO will also give us a comprehensive view of how it interacts with the Earth and everything else in the solar system.

The sun’s dynamic processes affect everyone and everything on Earth. SDO will explore activity on the sun that can disable satellites, cause power grid failures, and disrupt GPS communications. SDO also will provide a better understanding of the role the sun plays in Earth’s atmospheric chemistry and climate.

Vapor trail from the Atlas rocket after the SDO launch. Image: Nancy Atkinson

A contrail from the launch appeared only in the region of Earth’s atmosphere where conditions were right for cloud formation. “There weren’t any clouds there, but we provided the very fine particles so that a contrail cloud appeared,” said Pesnell.

A later update confirmed that SDO separated from the Centaur and the spacecraft’s solar arrays deployed on time and correctly, and are now generating power.

Here’s the video of the launch from NASA TV: