Atlas V Launch of Navy’s Revolutionary MUOS-4 Tactical Comsat Produces Exotic Skyshow

ULA Atlas V rocket successfully launches MUOS-4 for the U.S. Navy on Sept. 2, 2015 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: ULA
See launch gallery below[/caption]

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – Today’s (Sept. 2) stunningly successful launch of the US Navy’s revolutionary MUOS-4 tactical communications satellite atop a mighty Atlas V rocket produced an unexpectedly exotic skyshow beyond compare for lucky spectators all around the Florida Space Coast, as it thundered off a Cape Canaveral launch pad and simultaneously generated house and bone rattling vibrations.

Seasoned and long time launch enthusiasts have rarely if ever never seen anything like this morning’s spectacular predawn launch of the Mobile User Objective System-4 (MUOS-4) satellite for the US Navy at 6:18 a.m. EDT aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

As the rocket arced over eastwards above the Atlantic Ocean the huge vapor trail turned utterly exotic – producing a whitish oval glow that appeared out of nowhere, and looked to me like a moving and living creature as it moved downwards and forwards. Although the rocket appeared to head towards the Earth’s horizon it was actually being propelled to orbit by the most powerful variant of the Atlas V rocket.

Exotic vapor produced by launch of MUOS-4 communications satellite for the US Navy atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 2, 2015. Credit: Dawn Leek Taylor/Space Head News
Exotic vapor trail produced by launch of MUOS-4 communications satellite for the US Navy atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 2, 2015. Credit: Dawn Leek Taylor/Space Head News

The alien looking trail was fortuitously highlighted by glint from the sun that may have been enhanced by a slight delay of some 19 minutes from the originally planned launch time of 5:59 a.m. EDT as the launch team worked to resolve a technical issue.

Local residents in the Titusville, Fl, area and surroundings told me that their houses and windows shook this morning from the powerful roar and thunderous sound waves pulsing away from the Atlas V rocket. Sleeping children were awoken, close to school time anyway! And another gentleman said he felt it inside the shower with running water – having misunderstood the launch time!

The MUOS-4 launch by United Launch Alliance had also been postponed by 48 hours from Monday morning Aug. 31 due to threatening weather expected from Tropical Storm Erika which most likely would have obliterated today’s uniquely beautiful experience!

Blastoff of MUOS-4 US Navy communications satellite on United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 2, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Blastoff of MUOS-4 US Navy communications satellite on United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 2, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Lockheed Martin-built MUOS-4 satellite was successfully orbited by the Atlas V and is already talking from space to the satellite control team at the Naval Spacecraft Operations Control facility in Naval Base Ventura County, Point Mugu, Calif.

MUOS-4 will enable near-global coverage for a new secure military communications network offering enhanced capabilities for mobile forces.

“Today’s successful launch will enable the MUOS constellation to reach global coverage,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs.

“The Lockheed Martin-built MUOS-4 satellite will deliver voice, data, and video communications capability, similar to a cellular network, to our troops all over the globe.”

Weird exhaust trail from launch of MUOS-4 communications satellite for the US Navy atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 2, 2015 by Titusville, FL  resident Ashley Crouch. Credit: Ashley Crouch
Weird exhaust trail from launch of MUOS-4 communications satellite for the US Navy atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 2, 2015 by Titusville, FL resident Ashley Crouch. Credit: Ashley Crouch

MUOS is a next-generation narrowband tactical satellite communications system designed to significantly improve ground communications for U.S. forces on the move.

This is the fourth satellite in the MUOS series and will provide military users up to 16 times more communications capability over existing systems, including simultaneous voice, video and data, leveraging 3G mobile communications technology.

With MUOS-4 in orbit the system’s initial constellation is completed. It provides the MUOS network with near-global coverage. Communications coverage for military forces now extends further toward the North and South poles than ever before, according to Lockheed Martin officials.

Exotic vapor produced by launch of MUOS-4 communications satellite for the US Navy atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 2, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Exotic vapor trail produced by launch of MUOS-4 communications satellite for the US Navy atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 2, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The unmanned Atlas V expendable rocket launched in its mightiest configuration known as the Atlas V 551 with five solid rocket boosters augmenting the first stage.

The 206 foot-tall rocket features a 5-meter diameter payload fairing, five Aerojet Rocketdyne first stage strap on solid rocket motors and a single engine Centaur upper stage powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine.

The first stage is powered by the Russian-built dual nozzle RD AMROSS RD-180 engine. Combined with the five solid rocket motors, the Atlas V first stage generates over 2.5 million pounds of liftoff thrust.

The RD-180 burns RP-1 (Rocket Propellant-1 or highly purified kerosene) and liquid oxygen and delivers 860,200 lb of thrust at sea level.

And the rocket needed all that thrust because the huge MUOS-4 was among the heftiest payloads ever lofted by an Atlas V booster, weighing in at some 15,000 pounds.

MUOS-4, the next satellite scheduled to join the U.S. Navy’s Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) secure communications network, launched on Sept 2, 2015 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida and is responding normally to ground control.  Credit: Lockheed Martin
MUOS-4, the next satellite scheduled to join the U.S. Navy’s Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) secure communications network, launched on Sept 2, 2015 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida and is responding normally to ground control. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Ken is onsite for launch coverage from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the Kennedy Space Center.

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

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about MUOS-4 US Navy launch, Orion, SLS, SpaceX, Boeing, ULA, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orbital ATK, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Sep 2/3: “MUOS-4 launch, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Antares and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Weird exhaust trail from launch of MUOS-4 communications satellite for the US Navy atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 2, 2015 by Titusville, FL  resident Ashley Crouch. Credit: Ashley Crouch
Weird exhaust trail from launch of MUOS-4 communications satellite for the US Navy atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 2, 2015 by Titusville, FL resident Ashley Crouch. Credit: Ashley Crouch
Liftoff of MUOS-4 comsat for US Navy on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 2, 2015. Credit: Julian Leek/Space Head News
Liftoff of MUOS-4 comsat for US Navy on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 2, 2015. Credit: Julian Leek/Space Head News
MUOS-4 US Navy communications satellite and Atlas V rocket at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL for launch on Sept. 2, 2015 at 5:59 a.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
MUOS-4 US Navy communications satellite and Atlas V rocket at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL for launch on Sept. 2, 2015 at 5:59 a.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk Sues Government to Break US Air Force’s National Security Launch Monopoly

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
Story updated[/caption]

Elon Musk, CEO and founder of the upstart commercial launch venture SpaceX, announced at a press conference today, Friday, April 25, that SpaceX is filing suit against the Federal Government to protest and break the US Air Force’s awarding of lucrative launch contracts for high priority national security satellites to a sole rocket provider – United Launch Alliance (ULA) – on a non competitive basis.

The gloves are officially off in the intensely mounting duel over multibillion dollar Air Force military launch contracts between SpaceX and ULA.

“The official protest document will be available Monday, April 28th at www.freedomtolaunch.com and will be filed with the United States Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C.,” said SpaceX in an official statement.

Musk said the Air Force launch contract with ULA amounted to a continuing monopoly, was unfair by blocking SpaceX from competing for launches of surveillance satellites and would cost taxpayers billions of extra dollars in coming years.

“What we feel is that this is not right – that the national security launches should be put up for competition and they should not be awarded on a sole source, uncompeted basis,” said Musk at the briefing called on short notice and held 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

The latest Air Force launch contract dated to December 2013 guarantees the “block buy” purchase of 36 rocket cores from ULA for national security launches for the DOD, NRO and other government agencies, at a significantly reduced cost compared to earlier contracts.

A further 14 cores were to be awarded on a competitive basis, including bids from SpaceX and others who seek to gain Air Force certification. Several of those launch awards have now been deferred indefinitely.

ULA is a joint venture between aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin, formed in 2006, that has launched over 80 satellites to orbit and beyond including many NASA science and mission probes like Orion EFT-1, Curiosity, MAVEN, TDRS and more.

It manufactures the Delta IV and Atlas V unmanned, expendable rocket families that are currently the only boosters certified to launch the high value military payloads at issue in the lawsuit announced on Friday by Musk.

The newest versions of the Delta and Atlas rockets – known as EELV’s (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles) have had nearly flawless records of success since being introduced some dozen years ago by the companies individually, before the ULA merger.

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

Musk wants his company’s newer and he says much cheaper Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets to be certified by the Air Force and included in the competition for launch contracts.

To date the Falcon 9 has launched only 9 times. Only four of those were in the new and more powerful configuration needed by the Air Force.

Musk is not asking that the launches be awarded outright to SpaceX. But he does want the Air Force contract cancelled and re-competed.

“We’re just protesting and saying that the launches should be competed,” Musk said.

“If we compete and lose that’s fine. But why were they not even competed? That just doesn’t make sense.”

“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.”

“Since this is a large multiyear contract, why not wait a few months for the certification process to complete. And then do the competition. That seems very reasonable to me.”

Musk said it costs four times more to launch ULA’s Delta or Atlas rocket vs. a SpaceX Falcon rocket.

“The ULA rockets are basically four times more expensive than ours. So this contract is costing US taxpayers billions of dollars for no reason.”

“Each launch by ULA costs American taxpayers roughly $400 million per launch. They are insanely expensive. I don’t know why they are so expensive.”

The Falcon 9 lists for about $60 Million per launch, but rises to about $100 million after the certification costs are included, Musk explained.

“So yes the certification does make our Falcon 9 rocket more expensive. But not 400% more expensive.”

“Our rockets are 21st century design,” said Musk to obtain the most efficiency. He said ULA’s designs date back to the 90s and earlier with heritage hardware.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters including Universe Today in Cocoa Beach, FL prior to SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec 3, 2013 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters including Universe Today in Cocoa Beach, FL prior to SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec 3, 2013 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

To date the Falcon 9 has already been used three times under a $1.6 Billion contract with NASA to launch the private SpaceX Dragon resupply vessel to the International Space Station (ISS) – most recently a week ago during the April 18 blastoff of the SpaceX CRS-3 mission from Cape Canaveral.

It is also being used to launch highly expensive communications satellites like SES-8 and Thaicom-6 for private companies to geostationary orbits.

“It just seems odd that if our vehicle is good enough for NASA and supporting a $100 billion space station, and it’s good enough for launching NASA science satellites, for launching complex commercial geostationary satellites, then there’s no reasonable basis for it not being capable of launching something quite simple like a GPS satellite,” said Musk.

“Our only option is to file a protest.”

Furthermore as I wrote here in a prior article, US National Security launches are now potentially at risk due to the ongoing crisis between Russian, Ukraine and Crimea because the RD-180 first stage engines powering the Atlas V are designed and manufactured in Russia by NPO Energomash, majority owned by the Russian Federation.

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

“The head of the Russian space sector, Dmitry Rogozin, was sanctioned by the White House in March 2014 in the wake of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine,” says SpaceX.

The RD-180 engine supply could be cut off in a worst case scenario if economic sanctions against Russia are increased by the Western allies.

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, it would take 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.

The Delta IV rockets and engines by contrast are manufactured in the US.

“In light of international events, this seems like the wrong time to send hundreds of millions of dollars to the Kremlin,” said Musk.

“Yet, this is what the Air Force’s arrangement with ULA does, despite the fact that there are domestic alternatives available that do not rely on components from countries that pose a national security risk.”

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

Super Secret Spy Satellite Soars Spectacularly to Space aboard Atlas V booster from Cape Canaveral – Launch Gallery

Blastoff of the Atlas V rocket with the super secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload on April 10, 2014 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace
Launch gallery expanded and updated – with timelapse ![/caption]

A super secret US spy satellite soared spectacularly to space this afternoon from Cape Canaveral atop a very powerful version of the Atlas V rocket on a classified flight for the National Reconnaissance Office.

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V carrying the NROL-67 intelligence gathering satellite on a US national security mission for the NRO lifted off from Space Launch Complex-41 ignited its engines precisely on the targeted time on April 10 at 1:45 p.m. EDT into brilliant blue Florida skies on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

This mighty version of the 191 ft (58 m) tall Atlas V whose thrust was augmented with four strap on solid rocket motors has only been used once before – to loft NASA’s Curiosity rover to the Red Planet back in November 2011.

Atlas V NROL-67 launch photographed by iPhone from Cocoa Beach on April 10, 2014 while swimming. Credit: Nicole Solomon
Atlas V NROL-67 launch photographed by iPhone from Cocoa Beach on April 10, 2014 while swimming with the Florida fish. Credit: Nicole Solomon

Today’s Atlas V launch, as well as another for SpaceX/NASA, was postponed over two weeks ago from March 25 & 30 amidst final launch preparations when an electrical short completely knocked out use of the US Air Force’s crucial tracking radar that is mandatory to insure public safety for all launches on the Eastern Range.

Atlas V/NROL-67 spy satellite soars off Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral on April 10, 2014. Credit: Jeff Seibert/WiredforSpace
Atlas V/NROL-67 spy satellite soars off Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral on April 10, 2014. Credit: Jeff Seibert/Wired4space.com

Nothing is publicly known about the NROL surveillance satellite, its capabilities, orbit or mission or goals.

Due to the covert nature of this mission, the flight entered the now standard total news blackout and the TV transmission ceased barely five minutes after liftoff.

The successful blastoff follows closely on the heels of another Atlas V launch just seven days ago.

On April 3, ULA launched a less powerful version of the Atlas V carrying an Air Force weather satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

Blastoff of the Atlas V rocket with the super secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload on April 10, 2014 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.     Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace
Blastoff of the Atlas V rocket with the super secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload on April 10, 2014 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace
Clear of the catenary lightning wires the Atlas 5-541 booster with its NROL-67 payload roar to orbit on April 10, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: nasatech.net
Clear of the catenary lightning wires the Atlas 5-541 booster with its NROL-67 payload roar to orbit on April 10, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: nasatech.net

“We are honored to deliver this national security asset to orbit together with our customers the NRO Office of Space Launch and the Air Force,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs.

“Successfully launching two missions from two different coasts in just seven days is a testament to the team’s one-launch-at-a-time focus and ULA’s commitment to mission success and schedule reliability.”

Today’s liftoff involved use of the Atlas V in the 541 configuration. The NROL-67 payload was housed inside a 5-meter diameter payload fairing. And a total of four US built Aerojet Rocketdyne solid rocket motors were mounted on the first stage of the booster.

Atlas V/NROL-67 spy satellite soars off Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral on April 10, 2014. Credit: Jeff Seibert/WiredforSpace
Atlas V/NROL-67 spy satellite soars off Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral on April 10, 2014. Credit: Jeff Seibert/Wired4space.com

The Centaur upper stage which boosted NROL-67 to Earth orbit was powered by a single Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10A engine.

The Atlas V first stage was also powered by the dual nozzle RD AMROSS RD-180 engine manufactured in Russia.

Use of the Russian designed and built RD AMROSS RD-180 engine potentially puts Atlas V launches and US National Security launches at risk, if the crisis in Ukraine and Crimea spins out of control as I have reported previously.

“ULA maintains a two year stockpile of the RD-180 engines at all times,” ULA Jessica Rye spokesperson told me recently at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The next ULA launch from the Cape is scheduled for May 15 when a Delta IV rocket will loft the GPS IIF-6 mission for the United States Air Force from Space Launch Complex-37.

Rising quickly from Pad 41 on its RD-180 and 4 SRBs, the Atlas 5-541 vehicle begins its mission to geosync orbit. Credit: nasatech.net
Rising quickly from Pad 41 on its RD-180 and 4 SRBs, the Atlas 5-541 vehicle begins its mission to geosync orbit. Credit: nasatech.net

A SpaceX Falcon 9 is slated to launch on Monday, April 14 at 4:58 p.m. EDT.

The Falcon 9 is lofting a SpaceX Dragon cargo ship and delivering some 5000 pounds of science experiments and supplies for the six man space station crew – under a resupply contract with NASA.

Also packed aboard the Dragon are a pair of legs for NASA’s experimental Robonaut 2 crew member.

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.

Ken Kremer

Startled Florida space coast sunbathers see sudden blastoff of Atlas V/NROl-67 from Cocoa Beach on April 10, 2014. Credit: Nicolle Solomon by iPhone
Startled Florida space coast sunbathers see sudden blastoff of Atlas V/NROl-67 from Cocoa Beach on April 10, 2014. Credit: Nicole Solomon by iPhone
Timelapse of Atlas V/NROL-67 blastoff on April 10, 2014. Credit: Chuck Higgins
Timelapse of Atlas V/NROL-67 blastoff on April 10, 2014. Credit: Chuck Higgins
April 10, 2014 blastoff of Atlas V rocket with super secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.     Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
April 10, 2014 blastoff of Atlas V rocket with super secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. 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
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. The Atlas V launched on April 10, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Advanced Satellite Blasts Off from Cape Canaveral: Launch Gallery

Early this morning a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral in a gorgeous pre-dawn launch, sending the third Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF-3) satellite for the United States Air Force to orbit. The rocket lifted off from Launch Complex-41 at 4:10 am EDT (08:10 UTC) on Wednesday, September 18, 2013. Thanks to John O’Connor from nasatech.net for sharing his beautiful launch images with Universe Today.

This launch leads the way for a second launch today: the historic Orbital Sciences Antares commercial rocket carrying the first fully functional Cygnus commercial resupply vehicle to orbit from NASA’s Wallops Island Facility on a demonstration mission bound for the International Space Station.

The AEHF-3 will provide a state-of-the-art communications system for the US military and Department of Defense.

See more launches images below:

Awaiting its mission on Space Launch Complex 41, the Atlas 5 - 531/AEHF-3 stands ready as the weather slowly cleared. Credit and copyright: John O'Connor/nasatech.net,
Awaiting its mission on Space Launch Complex 41, the Atlas 5 – 531/AEHF-3 stands ready as the weather slowly cleared. Credit and copyright: John O’Connor/nasatech.net,
As the furious vibrations shake cascades of ice off of the liquid oxygen tank the Atlas 5-531 reaches for the sky and its supersynchronous transfer orbit. Credit and copyright: John O'Connor/nasatech.net.
As the furious vibrations shake cascades of ice off of the liquid oxygen tank the Atlas 5-531 reaches for the sky and its supersynchronous transfer orbit. Credit and copyright: John O’Connor/nasatech.net.
Halfway through the lightning wires, the Atlas 5 accelerates to its rendezvous with a supersynchronous transfer orbit. Credit and copyright: John O'Connor/nasatech.net.
Halfway through the lightning wires, the Atlas 5 accelerates to its rendezvous with a supersynchronous transfer orbit. Credit and copyright: John O’Connor/nasatech.net.
Through a cloud on its way to orbit, the Atlas 5 - 531 vehicle and it AEHF-3 payload dapple the clouds with light....  Credit and copyright: John O'Connor/nasatech.net.
Through a cloud on its way to orbit, the Atlas 5 – 531 vehicle and it AEHF-3 payload dapple the clouds with light…. Credit and copyright: John O’Connor/nasatech.net.
...and come out the top, amid the night, resplendent on a seething tower of dawn and thunder. Credit and copyright: John O'Connor/nasatech.net.
…and come out the top, amid the night, resplendent on a seething tower of dawn and thunder. Credit and copyright: John O’Connor/nasatech.net.

Launch Gallery: Delta 4 Sends Military Satellite to Orbit

Who doesn’t like a good launch? These images and videos from last night’s launch of United Launch Alliance’s Delta 4 rocket are just pretty. The rocket boosted an international military communications satellite to orbit following a beautiful night-time launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 8:29 pm EDT on August 7 (00:29 UTC on August 8, 2013). The 21-story-tall Delta 4 included four solid-fuel strap-on boosters for extra oomph. As @OxyAstro said on Twitter last night, “I like to think of the Delta IV as an apartment building sitting on a few million lbs of thrust.”

Images here are from John O’Connor at Nasatech.net, and enjoy a close-up video of the launch, below, from Matthew Travis.

A standard video view of the launch is below.

On board was the WGS-6 (Wideband Global Satcom)a big 6,000 kg (13,200 lb) satellite that is part of a military communications network shared by the United States, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and New Zealand.

As flames from the hydrogen-rich ignition coil around the boosters the RS-68 main engine comes up to full power. Credit: John O'Connor/nasatech.net
As flames from the hydrogen-rich ignition coil around the boosters the RS-68 main engine comes up to full power. Credit: John O’Connor/nasatech.net

Rising from the launch table the Delta IV/WGS-6 mission begins. Credit: John O'Connor/nasatech.net
Rising from the launch table the Delta IV/WGS-6 mission begins. Credit: John O’Connor/nasatech.net
Clear of the lightning towers the WGS-6 mission streaks to super-sync geo orbit. Credit: John O'Connor/nasatech.net.
Clear of the lightning towers the WGS-6 mission streaks to super-sync geo orbit. Credit: John O’Connor/nasatech.net.

Gallery: Atlas 5 Launches US Navy’s Heavyweight MUOS-2 Satellite into Orbit

A heavyweight next generation of military communications satellites was launched on July 19, 2013 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, in Florida. The Mobile User Objective System (MUOS)-2 satellite launched on board a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, and is now in the process of reaching to its final geostationary orbit.

Images here are courtesy of John O’Connor from the Nasatech website.

The satellite weighed nearly 7,000 kg (15,000 pounds) making it one of the heaviest payloads ever launched with an Atlas 5.

See more launch images below:

The launch of the Mobile User Objective System satellite (MUOS-2), a Navy communications satellite aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, on July 19, 2013. Credit and copyright: John O'Connor/Nasatech.net
The launch of the Mobile User Objective System satellite (MUOS-2), a Navy communications satellite aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, on July 19, 2013. Credit and copyright: John O’Connor/Nasatech.net

It will take about eight days to maneuver MUOS-2 into geostationary orbit according to Captain Paul Ghyzel, the Navy’s MUOS program manager.

The US Navy says the new satellite is the second satellite in a new system that supports a worldwide, multi-Service population of users in the ultra-high frequency band. The system provides increased communications capabilities, and is designed to support users that require greater mobility, higher data rates and improved operational availability.

The MUOS-1 launched in February 2012 and there will be five such satellites in the system that are described as being like orbital cell phone towers to span the globe.

The network will cost a total of $5 billion.

The launch of the Mobile User Objective System satellite (MUOS-2), a Navy communications satellite aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, on July 19, 2013. Credit and copyright: John O'Connor/Nasatech.net
The launch of the Mobile User Objective System satellite (MUOS-2), a Navy communications satellite aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, on July 19, 2013. Credit and copyright: John O’Connor/Nasatech.net
Arcing out on an easterly course to geosync orbit the Atlas V/MUOS-2 vehicle accelerates. Credit and copyright: John O'Connor/Nasatech.net
Arcing out on an easterly course to geosync orbit the Atlas V/MUOS-2 vehicle accelerates. Credit and copyright: John O’Connor/Nasatech.net

See more MUOS-2 launch images from John at Nasatech.net.

Air Force’s Secret X-37B Space Plane Launches on Third Mission

Rising slowly on over 800,000 lbs of thrust, the Atlas V-OTV 3 mission begins. Credit: John O’Connor/nasatech

An Atlas V rocket launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station today, carrying the Air Force’s X-37B space plane into orbit on its third classified mission. Launch took place at 1:03 EST (18:03 UTC) for the unmanned Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), which looks like a mini space shuttle.

The U.S. Air Force has not released any details of what may be on board the vehicle or what its mission may be. United Launch Alliance provided a webcast of the launch, but the broadcast was ended “at the request of our customer (the Air Force),” when the space plane successfully reached orbit.

See a video of the launch, below.

The X-37B is launched like a satellite and rides inside the fairing of the Atlas rocket. The X-37B can operate at in low Earth orbit for extended periods of time – the previous mission stayed in orbit for 469 days – and can re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and land on autopilot, landing just like a plane on a runway at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Well into its roll program, the Atlas V-501 gracefully arcs across the blue skies. Credit: John O’Connor/nasatech

While looking much like the space shuttle, the X-37B is about 1/4 the size of NASA’s space shuttle’s and is built using composites lighter than aluminum, and it uses a new type of leading wing tiles, called Tough Rock, instead of the shuttle’s carbon-carbon tiles. It runs on solar power allowing for longer missions.

The plane itself is not so secretive – the Air Force has released images of it while it is on the ground – but its mission and payload are what are kept confidential. The mission could be Earth observation, surveillance or spying, or perhaps deploying a satellite.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V is rolled to the pad at Space Launch Complex-41 in preparation for launch of the Air Force?s third Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-3) mission. Credit: ULA

The launch was delayed several times so that ULA could investigate a glitch during a launch back in October.

“We had a little bit of concern with our upper stage engine, so we wanted to do some investigation and look into what was going on with that engine prior to (launch of the Orbital Test Vehicle),” said Jessica Rye, a ULA spokesperson.

In past missions, satellite watchers and amateur astronomers have kept tabs on the X-37B’s orbital whereabouts, and thanks to them, we expect to be able to provide small details about the space plane’s mission in the coming months.

More information: ULA

Secret X-37B Mini Space Shuttle Could Land Today

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After more than a year in orbit, the US Air Force’s clandestine mini-space shuttle will likely land at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California sometime this week, with some reports saying it could land as early as today, Wednesday, June 13, 2012. It has been in orbit since March 5, 2011, but like the first X-37B mission that flew in 2010 and spent 224 days in space, the Air Force has not issued any information of what the craft is doing or where it is orbiting. However, amateur skywatchers and amateur satellite trackers have been keeping an eye on where the OTV-2 has been.

After launch it had a 331 km (206-mile)orbit inclined 42.8 degrees to the equator, but in the summer of 2011 the orbit was raised slightly to 337 km (209 miles).
The craft looks like a miniature space shuttle, and is 8.8 meters (29 feet) long with a wing span of 4.2 meters (14 feet). It can weigh up to about 5,000 kg (11,000 pounds) fueled for launch. The reported in-space design life is 270 days, but sources say that good performance on this mission enabled ground controllers to keep it aloft significantly longer.

Jeremy Eggers, a spokesman for the 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg was quoted by ABC News that the spacecraft’s first available landing opportunity will be Wednesday, depending on weather and technical conditions. The landing window extends through June 18, but Eggers says any landing is a “day-by-day situation based on the conditions.”

Secretive X-37B Space Plane Will be Landing Soon

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After nearly 15 months on a secret mission, the Air Force’s X-37B, an unmanned, reusable space plane, will soon be coming back home. A news release from the Vandenberg Air Force Base says the landing is expected to occur during the early- to mid-June timeframe, although the exact landing date and time will depend on technical and weather considerations. The mini space plane has been in orbit since March 5, 2011.

This is the second mission of the Orbital Test Vehicles to fly in the X-37B program with the second space plane, OTV-2. The first X-37B mission flew in 2010, spending 224 days in space. This original vehicle has been refurbished and is scheduled to go back into space for another mission sometime in October of this year.

As for the second space plane, its long mission has been termed a success, although no mission specifics have been released. It launched on March 5, 2011 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Since then, the press release said, Vandenberg crews have conducted extensive, periodic training in preparation for landing.

“The men and women of Team Vandenberg are ready to execute safe landing operations anytime and at a moment’s notice,” said Col. Nina Armagno, 30th Space Wing commander. The space professionals from the 30th Space Wing will monitor the de-orbit and landing of the vehicle.

Seen here is the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, compared with proposed X-37C crewed vehicle, the space shuttle and the Atlas V booster that is currently used to launch the OTV. Image Credit: AIAA/Grantz/Boeing

The mini spaceplane is 8.8 meters (29 feet) long with a wing span of 4.2 meters (14 feet). It can weigh up to about 5,000 kg (11,000 pounds) fueled for launch. The reported in-space design life is 270 days, but sources say that good performance on this mission enabled ground controllers to keep it aloft significantly longer.

While no news of its orbital parameters have been released, skywatchers and amateur satellite trackers have been keeping an eye on where the OTV-2 has been. After launch it had a 331 km (206-mile)orbit inclined 42.8 degrees to the equator, but in the summer of 2011 the orbit was raised slightly to 337 km (209 miles).

Vandenberg said they would provide more details when available.

Source: Vandenberg AFB

Delta IV Rocket Launches from Cape Canaveral with US Military Satellite

A beautiful night for a launch Thursday evening as a heavy-lift Delta IV rocket thundered off the launchpad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, sending a broadband communications satellite into orbit for the US military. Observers at the launch site said they could see the rocket several minutes into the flight, witnessing the separation of the strap-on boosters.

The WGS-4 mission is the fourth satellite for the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) system. The WGS satellites will provide enhanced communications capabilities to US soldiers in the field for the next decade and beyond.
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