Spectacular Launch of Most Powerful Atlas Completes Constellation of Navy’s Advanced Tactical Comsats – Gallery

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the MUOS-5  mission lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 at 10:30 a.m. EDT.  Credit:  United Launch Alliance
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the MUOS-5 mission lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 at 10:30 a.m. EDT on June 24, 2016. Credit: United Launch Alliance

Today’s (June 24) spectacular launch of the most powerful version of the venerable Atlas V rocket from the sunshine state completes the orbital deployment of a constellation of advanced tactical communications satellites for the U.S. Navy.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket successfully launched the massive MUOS-5 satellite into clear blue skies from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, at 10:30 a.m. EDT – on its way to a geosynchronous orbit location approximately 22,000 miles (37,586 km) above the Earth.

Note: Check back again for an expanding gallery of launch photos and videos

The Mobile User Objective System-5 (MUOS-5) satellite is the last in a five-satellite constellation that will provide military forces with significantly improved and assured communications worldwide. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for the MUOS system.

As launch time neared the weather odds improved to 100% GO and Atlas rumbled off the pad for on time launch that took place at the opening of a 44 minute window.

The launch was broadcast live on a ULA webcast.

The 206 foot tall Atlas rocket roared to space on an expanding plume of smoke and crackling fire from the first stage liquid and solid fueled engines generating over 2.5 million pounds of liftoff thrust.

Their contribution complete, all 5 solid rocket motors were jettisoned with seconds about 2 minutes after liftoff as the liquid fueled first stage continued firing.

The spent first stage separated about 5 minutes after liftoff, as the Centaur second stage fires up for the first of three times over almost three hours to deliver the hefty payload to orbit.

Blastoff of United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket on MUOS-5  mission from Space Launch Complex-41 on June 24, 2016.  Credit: Lane Hermann
Blastoff of United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket on MUOS-5 mission from Space Launch Complex-41 on June 24, 2016. Credit: Lane Hermann

“We are honored to deliver the final satellite in the MUOS constellation for the U.S. Navy,” said Laura Maginnis, ULA vice president, Custom Services, in a statement.

“Congratulations to our navy, air force and Lockheed Martin mission partners on yet another successful launch that provides our warfighters with enhanced communications capabilities to safely and effectively conduct their missions around the globe.”

This is the fifth 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.

Long plume from MUOS-5 Atlas V Launch by United Launch Alliance from Space Launch Complex-41 on June 24, 2016.  Credit: Michael Seeley
Long plume from MUOS-5 Atlas V Launch by United Launch Alliance from Space Launch Complex-41 on June 24, 2016. Credit: Michael Seeley

With MUOS-5 in orbit the system’s constellation is completed.

MUOS-5 will serve as an on orbit spare. 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.

“Like its predecessors, the MUOS-5 satellite has two payloads to support both new Wideband Code Division Multiple Access (WCDMA) waveform capabilities, as well as the legacy Ultra High Frequency (UHF) satellite system. On orbit, MUOS-5 will augment the constellation as a WCDMA spare, while actively supporting the legacy UHF system, currently used by many mobile forces today.”

The prior MUOS-4 satellite was launched on Sept. 2, 2015 – as I reported here.

The 20 story tall Atlas V launched in its most powerful 551 configuration and performed flawlessly.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying MUOS-5 military comsat streaks to orbit atop a vast exhaust plume after liftoff from Space Launch Complex-41 on June 24, 2016.  Credit: Jillian Laudick
United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying MUOS-5 military comsat streaks to orbit atop a vast exhaust plume after liftoff from Space Launch Complex-41 on June 24, 2016. Credit: Jillian Laudick

The vehicle includes a 5-meter diameter payload fairing and five solid rocket boosters that augment the first stage. The Atlas booster for this mission was powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine and the Centaur upper stage was powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine.

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-5 was among the heftiest payloads ever lofted by an Atlas V booster, weighing in at some 15,000 pounds.
The Centaur upper stage was fired a total of three times.

For this mission the payload fairing was outfitted with an upgraded and advanced acoustic system to beet shield the satellite from the intense vibrations during the launch sequence.

This Atlas launch had been delayed several months to rectify a shortfall in the first stage thrust that occurred during the prior mission launching the Orbital ATK OA-6 cargo freighter in March 2016 on a contract mission for NASA to resupply the International Space Station (ISS).

The launch comes just two weeks after blastoff of the ULA Delta IV Heavy, the worlds most powerful rocket, on a mission to deliver a top secret spy satellite to orbit – as I witnessed and reported on here.

“I am so proud of the team for all their hard work and commitment to 100 percent mission success,” Maginnis added.

“It is amazing to deliver our second national security payload from the Cape in just two weeks. I know this success is due to our amazing people who make the remarkable look routine.”

The 15,000 pound MUOS payload is a next-generation narrowband tactical satellite communications system designed to significantly improve ground communications for U.S. forces on the move.

Here’s a detailed mission profile video describing the launch events:

Video caption: Atlas V MUOS-5 Mission Profile launched on June 24, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air force Station. Credit: ULA

The launch was supported by the 45th Space Wing.

“Today’s successful launch is the culmination of the 45th Space Wing, Space and Missile Systems Center, Navy and ULA’s close partnership and dedicated teamwork,” said Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, 45th Space Wing commander and mission Launch Decision Authority, in a statement.

“We continue our unwavering focus on mission success and guaranteeing assured access to space for our nation, while showcasing why the 45th Space Wing is the ‘World’s Premiere Gateway to Space.”

Watch this exciting launch highlights video reel from ULA – including deployment of MUOS-5!

The MUOS-5 launch marked the 63rd Atlas V mission since the vehicle’s inaugural launch in August 2002. To date seven flights have launched in the 551 configuration. These include all four prior MUOS missions as well as NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Juno mission to Jupiter.

Watch my up close remote launch video from the pad with hurling rocks:

Video caption: The sounds and fury of a ULA Atlas V 551 rocket blast off carrying Lockheed Martin built MUOS-5 tactical communications satellite to geosynchronous orbit for US Navy on June 24, 2016 at 10:30 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, as seen in this up close video from remote camera positioned at pad. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch this compilation of dramatic launch videos from Jeff Seibert.

Video Caption: MUOS-5 launch compilation on ULA Atlas 5 rocket on 6/24/2016 from Pad 41 of CCAFS. Credit: Jeff Seibert

The Navy's fifth Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) is encapsulated inside an Atlas V five-meter diameter payload fairing.  Credit: ULA
The Navy’s fifth Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) is encapsulated inside an Atlas V five-meter diameter payload fairing. Credit: ULA

The next Atlas V launch is slated for July 28 with the NROL-61 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

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

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

Ken Kremer

United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket poised for launch on MUOS-5  mission from Space Launch Complex-41 on June 24, 2016.  Credit: Lane Hermann
United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket poised for launch on MUOS-5 mission from Space Launch Complex-41 on June 24, 2016. Credit: Lane Hermann
Artist’s concept of a MUOS satellite in orbit. Credit: Lockheed Martin
Artist’s concept of a MUOS satellite in orbit. Credit: Lockheed Martin
MUOS-5 mission logo. Credit: ULA
MUOS-5 mission logo. Credit: ULA
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the MUOS-5  mission lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 at 10:30 a.m. EDT on June 24, 2016.  Credit:  United Launch Alliance
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the MUOS-5 mission lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 at 10:30 a.m. EDT on June 24, 2016. Credit: United Launch Alliance

Navy Researchers Put Dark Lightning to the SWORD

Discovered “by accident” by NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope in 2010, dark lightning is a surprisingly powerful — yet invisible — by-product of thunderstorms in Earth’s atmosphere. Like regular lightning, dark lightning is the result of a natural process of charged particles within storm clouds trying to cancel out opposing charges. Unlike normal lightning, though, dark lightning is invisible to our eyes and doesn’t radiate heat or light — instead, it releases bursts of gamma radiation.

What’s more, these gamma-ray outbursts originate at relatively low altitudes well within the storm clouds themselves. This means that airplane pilots and passengers flying through thunderstorms may be getting exposed to gamma rays from dark lightning, which are energetic enough to pass through the hull of an aircraft… as well as anything or anyone inside it. To find out how such exposure to dark lightning could affect air travelers, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) is conducting computer modeling tests using their SoftWare for the Optimization of Radiation Detectors — SWORD, for short.

Terrestrial Gamma-ray Flashes (TGFs) are extremely intense, sub-millisecond bursts of gamma rays and particle beams of matter and anti-matter. First identified in 1994, they are associated with strong thunderstorms and lightning, although scientists do not fully understand the details of the relationship to lightning. The latest theoretical models of TGFs suggest that the particle accelerator that creates the gamma rays is located deep within the atmosphere, at altitudes between six and ten miles, inside thunderclouds and within reach of civilian and military aircraft.

These models also suggest that the particle beams are intense enough to distort and collapse the electric field within thunderstorms and may, therefore, play an important role in regulating the production of visible lightning. Unlike visible lightning, TGF beams are sufficiently broad — perhaps about half a mile wide at the top of the thunderstorm — that they do not create a hot plasma channel and optical flash; hence the name, “dark lightning.”

A team of NRL Space Science Division researchers, led by Dr. J. Eric Grove of the High Energy Space Environment (HESE) Branch, is studying the radiation environment in the vicinity of thunderstorms and dark lightning flashes. Using the Calorimeter built by NRL on NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope they are measuring the energy content of dark lightning and, for the first time, using gamma rays to geolocate the flashes.

As a next step, Dr. Chul Gwon of the HESE Branch is using NRL’s SoftWare for the Optimization of Radiation Detectors (SWORD) to create the first-ever simulations of a dark lightning flash striking a Boeing 737. He can calculate the radiation dosage to the passengers and crew from these Monte Carlo simulations. Previous estimates have indicated it could be as high as the equivalent of hundreds of chest X-rays, depending on the intensity of the flash and the distance to the source.

Simulation of a Boeing 737 struck by dark lightning. Green tracks show the paths of gamma rays from the dark flash as they enter the aircraft from below.   (Credit: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory)
Simulation of a Boeing 737 struck by dark lightning. Green tracks show the paths of gamma rays from the dark flash as they enter the aircraft from below.
(Credit: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory)

SWORD simulations allow researchers to study in detail the effects of variation in intensity, spectrum, and geometry of the flash. Dr. Grover’s team is now assembling detectors that will be flown on balloons and specialized aircraft into thunderstorms to measure the gamma ray flux in situ. The first balloon flights are scheduled to take place this summer.

Source: NRL News

New Scripps Research Ship Will Honor Astronaut Sally Ride

Dr. Sally K. Ride, physicist, NASA astronaut, and first American woman to fly in space, will be honored with a U.S. Navy research vessel bearing her name, which will be operated by and homeported at San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

“Dr. Sally Ride inspired millions of people, especially young women and girls, to reach for the stars,” said U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. “Naming the Navy’s new ocean research vessel in her honor is a fitting tribute to her legacy of innovation and discovery.”

Dr. Ride died at her home in La Jolla on July 23, 2012, after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 61.

Sally Ride was a NASA astronaut for 11 years before joining the UCSD faculty as a physics professor.
Sally Ride was a NASA astronaut for 11 years before joining the UCSD faculty as a physics professor and director of the California Space Institute.

Dr. Ride was selected for NASA’s astronaut corps in 1978 and became the first American woman in space aboard Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983. In 1989, she joined the faculty of UC San Diego as professor of physics and was director of the university’s California Space Institute.

“We are touched by the extraordinary honor that this ship is being named for Sally Ride, who, after serving our nation as a pioneering and accomplished astronaut, served on the faculty of UC San Diego for nearly two decades,” said UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla in a Scripps press release. “Her commitment to teaching and inspiring young minds is legendary and we take tremendous pride in this prestigious and well-deserved honor for her legacy and for UC San Diego.”

According to Gary Robbins in an article for the San Diego Union-Tribune “It is common for a research vessel to be named after an explorer or scientist. Scripps’ current fleet of Navy-owned ships includes the Roger Revelle, which bears the name of the late UC San Diego scientist who helped pioneer the study of global warming. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Cape Cod, Mass. is getting a ship named R/V Neil Armstrong.”

Rendering of the R/V Sally Ride
Rendering of the R/V Sally Ride

Designed to operate globally, R/V Sally Ride will continue the Scripps legacy of conducting pioneering ocean exploration and research critical to our understanding of our planet, our oceans, and our atmosphere. As a shared-use, general-purpose ship, R/V Sally Ride will engage in a broad spectrum of research in physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and climate science, including research missions with relevance to the Navy.

As a seagoing laboratory supporting research and education, the new ship will feature modern research instrumentation to fuel scientific exploration, including mapping systems, sensors, and profilers that will investigate features from the seafloor to the atmosphere.

“I can’t think of a more perfect name for the Navy’s new research vessel. Dr. Ride was a trailblazer in every sense of the word in the fields of science and engineering. Dr. Ride’s namesake ship and its crew will continue her legacy of courage, determination, and spirit of discovery.”

– U.S. Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif.

R/V Sally Ride is currently under construction at Dakota Creek Industries Inc. in Anacortes, Washington, and is scheduled for launch in 2015.

Read more on the Scripps news site here, and watch a video on the naming of the vessel below:

Source: Scripps News

Navy Scientists Spot New Solar Structures

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There’s something new under the Sun… well, just above the Sun, actually. Scientists at the Naval Research Laboratory have spotted structures in the Sun’s super-hot corona that may shed some light on the way its magnetic fields evolve — especially near the edges of vast, wind-spewing coronal holes.

Coronal holes are regions where the Sun’s magnetic field doesn’t loop back down but rather streams outward into space. Appearing dark in images captured in ultraviolet wavelengths, these holes in the corona allow solar material to flow directly out into the solar system, in many cases doubling the normal rate of the solar wind.

Recently witnessed by NRL researchers using NASA’s SDO and STEREO solar-observing spacecraft, features called coronal cells exist at the boundaries of coronal holes and may be closely associated with their formation and behavior.

The coronal cells are plumes of magnetic activity that stream upward from the Sun, occurring in clusters. Likened to “candles on a birthday cake”, the incredibly hot (1 million K) plumes extend outwards, punching though the lower corona.

Seen near the center of the Sun’s disk, the cells appear structurally similar to granules — short-lived areas of rising and falling solar material on the Sun’s photosphere — but seen from an angle via STEREO, the cells were witnessed to be much larger, elongated and extending higher into the Sun’s atmosphere. For comparison, granules are typically about 1,000 km in diameter while the coronal cells have been measured at 30,000 km across.

“We think the coronal cells look like flames shooting up, like candles on a birthday cake,” said Neil Sheeley, a solar scientist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. “When you see them from the side, they look like flames. When you look at them straight down they look like cells. And we had a great way of checking this out, because we could look at them from the top and from the side at the same time using observations from SDO, STEREO-A, and STEREO-B.”

Watch a video below of cells made from images acquired by STEREO-B… note how their elongated structure becomes evident as the cells rotate closer to the Sun’s limb.

NRL researchers also noted that the coronal cells appeared when adjacent coronal holes closed and disappeared when the holes opened, suggesting that the holes and cells share the same magnetic structure. In addition, the coronal cells were seen to disappear when a solar filament would erupt nearby, being “extinguished” as the cooler strand of solar material moved across them. Once the filament passed, the cells reformed — again, indicating a direct magnetic association.

The coronal cells were also identified in earlier images from ESA and NASA’s SOHO and Japan’s Hinode spacecraft.

It’s hoped that further study of these candle-like structures will lead to more knowledge of our star’s complex magnetic field and the effects it has on space weather and geomagnetic activity experienced here on Earth.

Read the press release from the Naval Research Laboratory here, and on NASA’s STEREO site here.