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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite NROL-52, SpaceX SES-11 and NASA and space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

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

Ken Kremer

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

USAF Missile Defense SBIRS Observatory Streaks to Orbit during Spectacular Evening Blastoff

ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the USAF SBIRS GEO 3 missile defense satellite streaks to orbit on Jan. 20, 2017 after nighttime blastoff at 7:42 p.m. ET from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – A U.S. Air Force missile defense reconnaissance observatory that will track the telltale infrared signatures of incoming enemy missiles and is vital to America’s national security blasted off in spectacular fashion this evening, Jan. 20, 2017, as it streaked to orbit from the Florida Space Coast.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying the $1.2 Billion Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) GEO Flight 3 infrared imaging satellite lifted off at 7:42 p.m. ET from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. – marking the first US east coast launch of 2017.

The SBIRS GEO Flight 3 was launched to geosynchronous transfer orbit to an altitude approx 22,000 miles (36,000 kilometers) above Earth.

The Atlas V was launched southeast at an inclination of 23.29 degrees. SBIRS GEO Flight 3 separated from the 2nd stage as planned 43 minutes after liftoff.

It is also the first of at least eleven launches of Atlas and Delta rockets by the aerospace firm this year.

The on time launch took place at the opening of the 40 minute launch window and after a 24 hour delay – when the launch was scrubbed yesterday (Jan. 19) after an aircraft flew into the Cape’s restricted airspace and could not be diverted in time before the launch window closed.

ULA also had to address sensor issues with the Atlas rockets RD-180 main engine during Thursday’s countdown.

Due to the scrub, the Atlas liftoff counts as the first launch of the Trump Administration rather the last of the Obama Administration.

With the unpredictable North Korean dictator Kim John Un threatening to launch an upgraded long range intercontinental ballistic missile this year that could potentially strike the United States west coast, SBIRS GEO 3 is more important than ever for our national defense.

ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the USAF SBIRS GEO 3 missile defense satellite streaks to orbit on Jan. 20, 2017 after nighttime blastoff at 7:42 p.m. ET from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Julian Leek

The SBIRS GEO Flight 3 is considered to be one of the highest priority military space programs in defense of the homeland.

The Space Based Infrared System is designed to provide global, persistent, infrared surveillance capabilities to meet 21st century demands in four national security mission areas: missile warning, missile defense, technical intelligence and battlespace awareness.

SBIRS will supplement and replace the legacy Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites currently in orbit and features vastly increased early missile detection and warning capabilities.

“ULA is proud to deliver this critical satellite which will improve surveillance capabilities for our national decision makers,” said Laura Maginnis, ULA vice president of Government Satellite Launch, in a statement.

“I can’t think of a better way to kick off the new year.”

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying SBIRS GEO Flight 3 satellite lifts off at 7:42 p.m. ET on Jan. 20, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

ULA is a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin with 116 successful launches under its belt after today’s liftoff.

The 194-foot-tall commercial Atlas V booster launched in the 401 rocket configuration with approximately 860,000 pounds of sea level first stage thrust powered by the dual nozzle Russian-built RD AMROSS RD-180 engine. There are no thrust augmenting solids attached to the first stage.

The satellite is housed inside a 4-meter diameter large payload fairing (LPF). The Centaur upper stage is powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C engine.

Watch this video showing the detailed mission profile:

Video Caption: An Atlas V 401 configuration rocket will deliver the Air Force’s third Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellite to orbit. SBIRS, considered one of the nation’s highest priority space programs, is designed to provide global, persistent, infrared surveillance capabilities to meet 21st century demands. Credit: ULA

This mission marks the 34th Atlas V mission in the 401 configuration.

“The Atlas V 401 configuration has become the workhorse of the Atlas V fleet, delivering half of all Atlas V missions to date” said Maginnis.

“ULA understands that even with the most reliable launch vehicles, our sustained mission success is only made possible with seamless integration between our customer and our world class ULA team.”

ULA Atlas V rocket carrying SBIRS GEO Flight 3 missile tracking observatory lifts off at 7:42 p.m. ET on Jan. 20, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The two prior SBIRS GEO missions also launched on the ULA Atlas V 401 rocket.

The SBIRS team is led by the Remote Sensing Systems Directorate at the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor, with Northrop Grumman as the payload integrator. Air Force Space Command operates the SBIRS system, according to a ULA description.

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

Ken Kremer

ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the USAF SBIRS GEO 3 missile warning satellite is poised for blastoff from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Jan. 20, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Artwork for ULA Atlas V launch of SBIRS GEO Flight 3 mission on Jan. 19, 2017 from Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: ULA

Awesome Atlas Ferocious Fury Delivers Next Gen High Speed EchoStar 19 Internet Sat to Orbit for America

Fiery blastoff of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the EchoStar XIX satellite from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., at 2:13 p.m. EST on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Fiery blastoff of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the EchoStar XIX satellite from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., at 2:13 p.m. EST on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – The mighty Atlas V rocket put on an awesome display of ferocious fury Sunday afternoon delivering a rousing display of rocketeering capability that propelled a new next generation high speed internet satellite to orbit for North America to the delight of spectators gathered around the Florida Space Coast.

The 15,000 pound satellite will also delight American home and business subscribers users of HughesNet® – who should soon see dramatic improvements in speed and capability promised by satellite builder Space Systems Loral (SSL).

With the fiery blastoff of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket, EchoStar XIX – the world’s highest capacity broadband satellite – roared to space off Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., at 2:13 p.m. EST on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016.

“EchoStar XIX will dramatically increase capacity for HughesNet® high-speed satellite Internet service to homes and businesses in North America,” according to ULA.

“EchoStar XIX will be the world’s highest capacity broadband satellite in orbit.”

Also known as Jupiter 2, it will deliver more speed, more data and more advanced features to consumers and small businesses from coast to coast, says EchoStar.

Liftoff on the sunny Florida afternoon was delayed some 45 minutes to deal with a technical anomaly that cropped up during the final moments of the countdown with launch originally slated for 1:27 p.m. EST.

Incoming bad weather threatened to delay the blastoff but held off until dark clouds and rains showers hit the Cape about half an hour after the eventual launch at 2:13 p.m.

EchoStar 19 is based on the powerful SSL 1300 platform as a multi-spot beam Ka-band satellite.

It is upgraded from the prior series version.

“Building from their experience on the highly successful EchoStar XVII broadband satellite, SSL and Hughes collaboratively engineered the specific design details of this payload for optimum performance.”

EchoStar 19 was delivered to a geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO). It will be stationed at 97.1 degrees West longitude.

Fiery blastoff of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the EchoStar XIX satellite from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., at 2:13 p.m. EST on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Fiery blastoff of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the EchoStar XIX satellite from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., at 2:13 p.m. EST on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

EchoStar 19 was ULA’s final mission of 2016, ending another year of 100% success rates stretching back to the company’s founding back in 2006, as a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

This is ULA’s 12th and last launch in 2016 and the 115th successful launch since December 2006.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket streak to orbit carrying EchoStar XIX satellite after lift off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., at 2:13 p.m. EST on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket streaks to orbit carrying EchoStar XIX satellite after lift off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., at 2:13 p.m. EST on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“ULA is honored to have been entrusted with the launch of the EchoStar XIX satellite,” said Gary Wentz, ULA vice president of Human and Commercial Systems, in a statement.

“We truly believe that our success is only made possible by the phenomenal teamwork of our employees, customers and industry partners.”

Ignition and liftoff of United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket delivering EchoStar 19 satellite to orbit from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., at 2:13 p.m. EST on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Ignition and liftoff of United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket delivering EchoStar 19 satellite to orbit from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., at 2:13 p.m. EST on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The 194-foot-tall commercial Atlas V booster launched in the 431 rocket configuration with approximately 2 million pounds of first stage thrust. This is the 3rd launch of the 431 configuration – all delivered commercial communications satellites to orbit.

Three solid rocket motors are attached to the Atlas booster to augment the first stage powered by the dual nozzle RD AMROSS RD-180 engine.

The satellite is housed inside a 4-meter diameter extra extended payload fairing (XEPF). The Centaur upper stage was powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C engine.

“As we celebrate 10 years, ULA continues to be the nation’s premier launch provider because of our unmatched reliability and mission success,” Wentz elaborated.

“The Atlas V continues to provide the optimum performance to precisely deliver a range of missions. As we move into our second decade, we will maintain our ongoing focus on mission success, one launch at a time even as we transform the space industry, making space more accessible, affordable and commercialized.”

Artwork for ULA Atlas V launch of EchoStar 19 high speed Internet satellite on Dec. 18, 2016 from  Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.  Credit: ULA
Artwork for ULA Atlas V launch of EchoStar 19 high speed Internet satellite on Dec. 18, 2016 from Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: ULA

December has been an extremely busy time for launches at the Cape, with three in the past week and a half supported by U.S. Air Force’s 45th Space Wing. These include NASA’s CYGNSS hurricane mission launch by an Orbital ATK Pegasus rocket on Dec. 15; and the WGS-8 military communications satellite launch for the US Air Force by a ULA Delta 4 rocket on Dec. 7.

“Congratulations to ULA and the entire integrated team who ensured the success of our last launch capping off what has been a very busy year,” said Col. Walt Jackim, 45th Space Wing vice commander and mission Launch Decision Authority.

“This mission once again clearly demonstrates the successful collaboration we have with our mission partners as we continue to shape the future of America’s space operations and showcase why the 45th Space Wing is the ‘World’s Premiere Gateway to Space.'”

A ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the EchoStar 19 high speed internet satellite is poised for blastoff from  Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the EchoStar 19 high speed internet satellite is poised for blastoff from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

Ken Kremer

ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the EchoStar 19 high speed internet satellite is poised for blastoff from  Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the EchoStar 19 high speed internet satellite is poised for blastoff from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Fuel Control Valve Faulted for Atlas Launch Anomaly, Flights Resume Soon

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the OA-6 mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the OA-6 mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

A critical fuel control valve has been faulted for the Atlas V launch anomaly that forced a premature shutdown of the rockets first stage engines during its most recent launch of a Cygnus cargo freighter to the International Space Station (ISS) last month – that nevertheless was successful in delivering the payload to its intended orbit.

Having identified the root cause of the engine shortfall, workers for Atlas rocket builder United Launch Alliance (ULA), have now stacked the booster slated for the next planned liftoff in the processing facility at their Cape Canaveral launch pad, the company announced in a statement Friday.

The Atlas rockets Centaur upper stage fired longer than normal after the first stage anomaly, saving the day by making up for the significant lack of thrust and “delivering Cygnus to a precise orbit, well within the required accuracy,” ULA said.

ULA says it hopes to resume launches of the 20 story tall rocket as soon as this summer, starting with the MUOS-5 communications satellite payload for the U.S. Navy.

Following a painstaking investigation to fully evaluate all the data, the ULA engineering team “determined an anomaly with the RD-180 Mixture Ratio Control Valve (MRCV) assembly caused a reduction in fuel flow during the boost phase of the flight,” the company confirmed in a statement.

The Atlas V first stages are powered by the Russian-made RD AMROSS RD-180 engines. The dual nozzle powerplants have been completely reliable in 62 Atlas launches to date.

The RD-180s are fueled by a mixture of RP-1 kerosene and liquid oxygen stored in the first stage.

Up close view of dual nozzle RD-180 first stage engines firing during blastoff of United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the GPS IIF-12 mission on Feb. 5, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close view of dual nozzle RD-180 first stage engines firing during blastoff of United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the GPS IIF-12 mission on Feb. 5, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Centaur RL10C-1 second stage powerplant had to make up for a thrust and velocity deficiency resulting from a 6 second shorter than planned firing of the first stage RD-180 engines.

“The Centaur [upper stage] burned for longer than planned,” Lyn Chassagne, ULA spokesperson, told Universe Today.

Indeed Centaur fired for a minute longer than planned to inject Cygnus into its proper orbit.

“The first stage cut-off occurred approximately 6 seconds early, however the Centaur was able to burn an additional approximately 60 seconds longer and achieve mission success, delivering Cygnus to its required orbit,” said ULA.

MUOS-5 was originally supposed to blastoff on May 5. But the liftoff was put on hold soon after the Atlas V launch anomaly experienced during the March 22, 2016 launch of the Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-6 supply ship to the ISS for NASA.

Since then, ULA mounted a thorough investigation to determine the root cause and identify fixes to correct the problem with RD-180 Mixture Ratio Control Valve (MRCV) assembly, while postponing all Atlas V launches.

ULA has inspected, analyzed and tested their entire stockpile of RD-180 engines.

Last Friday, the Atlas V first stage for the MUOS-5 launch was erected inside ULA’s Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The five solid motors have been attached and the Centaur is next.

In this configuration, known as Launch Vehicle on Stand (LVOS) operation, technicians can further inspect and confirm that the RD-180 engines are ready to support a launch.

The two stage Atlas V for MUOS-5 will launch in its most powerful 551 configuration with five solid rocket boosters attached to the first stage, a single engine Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 Centaur upper stage and a 5-meter-diameter payload fairing.

The RD-180s were supposed to fire for 255.5 seconds, or just over 4 minutes. But instead they shut down prematurely resulting in decreased velocity that had to be supplemented by the Centaur RL10C-1 to get to the intended orbit needed to reach the orbiting outpost.

The liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen fueled Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine was planned to fire for 818 seconds or about 13.6 minutes. The single engine produces 22,900 lbf of thrust.

The Atlas V first and second stages are preprogrammed to swiftly react to a wide range of anomalous situations to account for the unexpected. The rocket and launch teams conduct countless simulations to react to off nominal situations.

“The Atlas V’s robust system design, software and vehicle margins enabled the successful outcome for this mission,” Chassagne said.

“As with all launches, we will continue to focus on mission success and work to meet our customer’s needs.”

ULA currently sports a year’s long manifest of future Atlas V launches in the pipeline. It includes a wide range of payloads for NASA, US and foreign governments, and military and commercial customers – all of who are depending on ULA maintaining its string of 106 straight launches with a 100% record of success since the company formed in 2006.

The Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-6 space freighter was loaded with 3513 kg (7700 pounds) of science experiments and hardware, crew supplies, spare parts, gear and station hardware for the orbital laboratory in support of over 250 research experiments being conducted on board by the Expedition 47 and 48 crews.

Inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a Cygnus cargo spacecraft is being prepared for the upcoming Orbital ATK Commercial Resupply Services-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. The Cygnus was named SS Rick Husband in honor of the commander of the STS-107 mission. On that flight, the crew of the space shuttle Columbia was lost during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003. The Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a Cygnus cargo spacecraft was being prepared for the Orbital ATK Commercial Resupply Services-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. The Cygnus was named SS Rick Husband in honor of the commander of the STS-107 mission. On that flight, the crew of the space shuttle Columbia was lost during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003. The Cygnus lifted off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Cygnus successfully arrived and berthed at the ISS on March 26 as planned.

An exact date for the MUOS-5 launch has yet to be confirmed on the Eastern Range with the US Air Force.

ULA is in the process of coordinating launch dates with customers for their remaining Atlas V launches in 2016.

MUOS-4 US Navy communications satellite stowed inside huge 5 meter diameter payload fairing atop Atlas V rocket at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL set for launch on Sept. 2, 2015. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
MUOS-4 US Navy communications satellite stowed inside huge 5 meter diameter payload fairing atop Atlas V rocket at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL set for launch on Sept. 2, 2015. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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.

ULA says they expect minimal impact and foresee completing all launches planned for 2016, including the top priority OSIRIS-REx asteroid mission for NASA which has a specific launch window requirement.

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

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

Atlas V Engine Anomaly Forces Thrust Makeup During Cygnus Launch, Next Flight Delayed

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the OA-6 mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the OA-6 mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. The first stage is powered by RD-180 engines that shut down 6 seconds early for an undetermined reason. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – This week’s Atlas V rocket launch of a Cygnus cargo ship to the International Space Station (ISS) apparently experienced a first stage engine anomaly during the climb to space that required a longer firing of the boosters upper stage engine so the payload could successfully achieve the required orbit.

The stunningly beautiful nighttime blastoff of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V from the Florida space coast on Tuesday, March 22, was not quite as flawless as initially thought and marred by the early engine shutdown which has now forced a postponement of the next planned Atlas V launch as company engineers painstakingly evaluate the data.

“The Centaur [upper stage] burned for longer than planned,” Lyn Chassagne, spokesperson for rocket maker ULA, told Universe Today.

“The ULA engineering team is reviewing the data to determine the root cause of the occurrence.”

The Centaur RL10C-1 powerplant had to make up for a thrust and velocity deficiency resulting from a 6 second shorter than planned firing of the Atlas V’s first stage RD-180 engines.

Indeed the Centaur had to fire for a minute longer than planned to inject Cygnus into its target orbit.

“The first stage cut-off occurred approximately 6 seconds early, however the Centaur was able to burn an additional approximately 60 seconds longer and achieve mission success, delivering Cygnus to its required orbit.”

“The team is evaluating the occurrence as part of the standard post-flight data analysis. Following successful spacecraft separation, Centaur performed a disposal burn,” Chessagne elaborated.

The two stage ULA Atlas V lifted off on time at 11:05 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, March 22, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, under a picturesque moonlit sky carrying an Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft on a resupply mission for NASA to the ISS.

Following a 21-minute ascent, the S.S. Rick Husband Cygnus spacecraft was successfully deployed into its intended orbit approximately 144 miles above the Earth, inclined at 51.6 degrees to the equator, Orbital ATK confirmed in a statement.

The Russian-made RD AMROSS RD-180 engines power the Atlas V first stage and the dual nozzle powerplants have been completely reliable in 62 Atlas launches to date.

The RD-180s were supposed to fire for 255.5 seconds, or just over 4 minutes. But instead they shut down prematurely resulting in decreased velocity that had to be supplemented by the Centaur RL10C-1 to get to the intended orbit need to reach the orbiting outpost.

The liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen fueled Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine was planned to fire for 818 seconds or about 13.6 minutes. The single engine produces 22,900 lbf of thrust.

The cause of the first stage engine shortfall has not been announced. ULA has launched a thorough investigation to determine root cause as to whether for example it’s the RD-180 engine itself, a faulty sensor, fuel related, ground support equipment or a myriad of some other rocket components or issues.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V launch vehicle lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying a Cygnus resupply spacecraft on the Orbital ATK CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Liftoff was at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016.  The first stage is powered by RD-180 engines that shut down 6 seconds early for an undetermined reason. The spacecraft will deliver 7,500 pounds of supplies, science payloads and experiments.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V launch vehicle lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying a Cygnus resupply spacecraft on the Orbital ATK CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Liftoff was at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016. The spacecraft will deliver 7,500 pounds of supplies, science payloads and experiments. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Although the Atlas V did successfully launch and deploy the commercial Cygnus CRS-6/OA-6 spacecraft into the required orbit, the Centaur was pressed into extra duty in real time to propel the payload.

The Atlas V first and second stages are preprogrammed to swiftly react to a wide range of anomalous situations to account for the unexpected. The rocket and launch teams conduct countless simulations to react to off nominal situations.

“The Atlas V’s robust system design, software and vehicle margins enabled the successful outcome for this mission,” Chassagne said.

“As with all launches, we will continue to focus on mission success and work to meet our customer’s needs.”

At the post launch media briefing, ULA program manager for NASA missions Vern Thorp, said that “ in a little over 20 minutes we went from liftoff to delivering Cygnus into exactly the orbit that it wanted to be in. This was our second successful cargo mission [for Orbital ATK] since December.”

“We were targeting a 230 kilometer circular orbit and we came very close to that as we normally do, just a fraction of a kilometer off. Well within the normal dispersions.”
“We nailed it. We got Cygnus where it wants to go.”

Asked about the Centaur he said that the prelaunch predictions are based on preliminary trajectories and can vary depending on the actual conditions at launch.

“What I do know is that Centaur nailed the orbit. Like every mission, we’re going to do a very, very detailed post-flight review. We always do and we always have done that. That’s to make sure that everything performed properly. From everything we’ve seen so far, the mission was pretty nominal.”

Now as a result of the post-flight review into the engine anomaly and velocity shortfall, the next launch of the “Atlas V carrying the MUOS-5 mission for the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force has been delayed to no earlier than May 12,” Chassagne added.

ULA needs to “further review the data anomaly experienced during the OA-6 mission.”

“The delay will allow additional time to review the data and to confirm readiness for the MUOS-5 mission.”

The Atlas V/MUOS-5 mission will lift off from the same pad at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, whenever a launch target date is announced by ULA.

ULA Atlas V rockets to orbit with Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-6 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016. Credit: Julian Leek
ULA Atlas V rockets to orbit with Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-6 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016. Credit: Julian Leek

Meanwhile the Cygnus CRS-6/OA-6 spacecraft continues chasing down the ISS for a planned arrival early Saturday morning, March 26.

The spacecraft will arrive at the station on Saturday, March 26. At that time Expedition 47 Commander Tim Kopra of NASA and Flight Engineer Tim Peake of ESA (European Space Agency) will grapple Cygnus, using the space station’s robotic arm, at approximately 6:40 a.m.

NASA TV coverage of rendezvous and grapple will begin at 5:30 a.m.

The Cygnus CRS-6/OA-6 payload of more than 16,000 pounds (7200 kg) weighed in as the heaviest payload to launch on an Atlas V to date.

A Cygnus cargo spacecraft named the SS Rick Husband  is being prepared inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center for upcoming Orbital ATK CRS-6/OA-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. The Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A Cygnus cargo spacecraft named the SS Rick Husband is being prepared inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for upcoming Orbital ATK CRS-6/OA-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. The Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Cygnus has been named the S.S. Rick Husband in honor of Col. Rick Husband, the late commander of Space Shuttle Columbia, which was tragically lost with its crew of seven NASA astronauts during re-entry on its final flight on Feb. 1, 2003.

Watch for Ken’s ongoing Cygnus launch reports.

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

Ken Kremer

Orbital ATK CRS-6 launch vehicle with the Cygnus cargo spacecraft bolted to the top of the Atlas V rocket is poised for launch at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on March 22, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orbital ATK CRS-6 launch vehicle with the Cygnus cargo spacecraft bolted to the top of the Atlas V rocket is poised for launch at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on March 22, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

ULA Skips Competitive Bid for Air Force GPS Launch Contract, Door Opens to SpaceX

Atlas V rocket - powered by Russian made RD-180 engines - 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
File photo of Atlas V rocket – powered by Russian made RD-180 engines – 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

United Launch Alliance (ULA) has decided to skip the bidding competition for launch of the next generation U.S. Air Force GPS military navigation satellites, a company spokesperson confirmed to Universe Today, meaning that rival SpaceX is set to win its first military launch contract as the only other certified contract contender.

Since bids for the new GPS launch contract – which were the first to be opened by the military to a competitive bidding process since 2006 – were due on Monday, Nov. 16, the door has opened for SpaceX to apparently prevail with the launch services contract, by default, since they are the only other American company certified to launch U.S. Air Force military satellites. Continue reading “ULA Skips Competitive Bid for Air Force GPS Launch Contract, Door Opens to SpaceX”

Aerojet-Rocketdyne Seeks to Buy United Launch Alliance for $2 Billion

America’s premier rocket launch services provider United Launch Alliance, or ULA, may be up for sale according to media reports, including Reuters and the Wall Street Journal. Any such sale would result in a major shakeup of the American rocket launching business with far reaching implications.

Aerojet-Rocketdyne has apparently made a bid to buy ULA for approximately $2 Billion in cash, based on behind the scenes information gathered from unnamed sources.

ULA was formed in 2006 as a 50:50 joint venture between aerospace giants Lockheed Martin and Boeing that combined their existing expendable rocket fleet families – the Atlas V and Delta IV – under one roof.

According to Reuters, Aerojet Rocketdyne recently proffered a $2 billion cash offer to buy ULA from Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

“Aerojet Rocketdyne board member Warren Lichtenstein, the chairman and chief executive of Steel Partners LLC, approached ULA President Tory Bruno and senior Lockheed and Boeing executives about the bid in early August,” sources told Reuters.

ULA’s Bruno declined to comment on the story via twitter.

“Wish I could, but as a matter of policy, we don’t comment on this type of story,” Bruno tweeted in response to inquiries.

Aerojet-Rocketdyne currently is a major supplier to ULA by providing first and second stage engines for use in the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets. They also manufacture the Space Shuttle Main Engines now being repurposed as the RS-25 to serve as first stage engines for NASA’s mammoth new SLS deep space rocket.

Since 2006 ULA has enjoyed phenomenal launch success with its venerable fleet of Atlas V and Delta IV rockets and also enjoyed a virtual launch monopoly with the US Government and for the nations most critical national security military payloads.

And just last week, ULA conducted its 99th launch with the successful blastoff of an Atlas V with the MUOS-4 military communications satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for the U.S. Navy.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-7 mission for the U.S. Air Force launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on July 23, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-7 mission for the U.S. Air Force launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on July 23, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

But the recent emergence of rival SpaceX – founded by billionaire Elon Musk – with the lower cost Falcon 9 rocket and the end of the ULA’s launch monopoly for high value military and top secret spy satellites has the potential to undermine ULA’s long term business model and profitability. In May, the US Air Force certified the SpaceX Falcon 9 for national security payload launches.

Furthermore a Congressional ban on importing the Russian-made RD-180 first stage engines that power the Atlas V rocket, that takes effect in a few years, has threatened the rockets future viability. The Atlas V dependence on Russia’s RD-180’s landed at the center of controversy after Russia invaded Crimea in the spring of 2014.

To date the Atlas V enjoys a 100 percent success rate after over 50 launches.

The Falcon 9 no longer enjoys a 100 percent success rate after the launch failure on June 28, 2015 on a critical NASA cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

The Atlas V will also serve as the launch vehicle for Boeing’s new ‘Starliner’ space taxi to transport astronauts to the ISS as soon as 2017 – detailed in my onsite story here.

In response to the Congressional RD-180 engine ban and relentless cost pressures from SpaceX, ULA CEO Tory Bruno and ULA Vice President for Advanced Concepts and Technology George Sowers announced ULA will develop a cost effective new rocket named Vulcan using American made engines.

“To be successful and survive ULA needs to transform to be more of a competitive company in a competitive environment,” Dr. Sowers told Universe Today in a wide ranging interview regarding the rationale and goals of the Vulcan rocket.

Vulcan is ULA’s next generation rocket to space and slated for an inaugural liftoff in 2019.

Vulcan - United Launch Alliance (ULA)  next generation rocket is set to make its debut flight in 2019.  Credit: ULA
Vulcan – United Launch Alliance (ULA) next generation rocket is set to make its debut flight in 2019. Credit: ULA

However, Lockheed Martin and Boeing are only providing funds to ULA on a quarterly basis to continue development of the Vulcan.

Vulcan’s first stage will most likely be powered by the BE-4 engine being developed by the secretive Blue Origin aerospace firm owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos.

Interestingly, ULA is also evaluating the AR-1 liquid fueled engine being developed by Aerojet-Rocketdyne.

The final decision on which engine to use is expected sometime in 2016.

The engine choice could clearly be impacted if Aerojet-Rocketdyne buys ULA.

Aerojet-Rocketdyne has also sought to buy the rights to manufacture the Atlas V from ULA, which is currently planned to be retired several years after Vulcan is introduced.

To this writer, ULA would seem to be worth far more than $2 Billion. They own manufacturing and rocket launch facilities on both coasts and in several states.

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

Ken Kremer

Most Powerful Atlas V Delivers a Most Spectacular Nighttime Sky Show Launch for US Navy

Blastoff of ULA Atlas V rocket lofting MUOS-3 to orbit for the US Navy from Space Launch Complex-41 at 8:04 p.m. EST on Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace
See launch gallery below![/caption]

Launching on its milestone 200th mission, the most powerful version of the venerable Atlas-Centaur rocket put on a most spectacular nighttime sky show on Tuesday evening, (Jan. 20) that mesmerized spectators along the Florida Space Coast on a mission to deliver a powerful new next-generation communications satellite to orbit for the US Navy.

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the third Mobile User Objective System satellite (MUOS-3) for the United States Navy successfully launched to geostationary orbit from Space Launch Complex-41 at 8:04 p.m. EST from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Jan. 20, 2015.

The MUOS-3 launch opened ULA’s planned 13 mission manifest for 2015 with a boisterous bang as the Atlas V booster thundered off the seaside space coast pad.

Streak shot of United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the third Mobile User Objective System satellite to orbit for the United States Navy as it launched from Space Launch Complex-41 at 8:04 p.m. EST on Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: John Studwell/AmericaSpace
Streak shot of United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the third Mobile User Objective System satellite to orbit for the United States Navy as it launched from Space Launch Complex-41 at 8:04 p.m. EST on Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: John Studwell/AmericaSpace

The MUOS constellation is a next-generation narrowband US Navy tactical satellite communications system designed to significantly improve ground communications to US forces on the move and around the globe.

“The ULA team is honored to deliver this critical mission into orbit for the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force with the support of our many mission partners,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs.

This is the third satellite in the MUOS series and will provide military users 10 times more communications capability over existing systems, including simultaneous voice, video and data, leveraging 3G mobile communications technology. It was built by Lockheed Martin.

Launch of ULA  Atlas V rocket sending MUOS-3 satcom to orbit for the US Navy from Space Launch Complex-41 at 8:04 p.m. EST on Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: Julian Leek
Launch of ULA Atlas V rocket sending MUOS-3 satcom to orbit for the US Navy from Space Launch Complex-41 at 8:04 p.m. EST on Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: Julian Leek

The unmanned Atlas V expendable rocket launched in its mightiest configuration known as the Atlas V 551.

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-3 was the heftiest payload lofted by an Atlas V booster, weighing in at some 15,000 pounds.

“The MUOS-3 spacecraft is the heaviest payload to launch atop an Atlas V launch vehicle. The Atlas V generated more than two and half million pounds of thrust at liftoff to meet the demands of lifting this nearly 7.5-ton satellite,” noted Sponnick.

The Atlas V 551 rockets into the darkened Florida sky at 8:04 p.m. EST Tuesday, 20 January, to deliver MUOS-3 into orbit. Photo Credit: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace
The Atlas V 551 rockets into the darkened Florida sky at 8:04 p.m. EST Tuesday, 20 January, to deliver MUOS-3 into orbit. Photo Credit: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace

The first Atlas rocket was first launched some 52 years ago.

“Today’s launch was the 200th Atlas-Centaur launch – a very sincere congratulations to the many women and men responsible for the incredible success of the Centaur upper stage over the last 5 decades!”

Overall this was the 52nd Atlas V mission and the fifth in the Atlas V 551 configuration.

The Atlas V 551 version has previously launched two prominent NASA planetary science missions including the New Horizons mission in 2006 that is about to reach Pluto and the Juno orbiter in 2011 that will arrive at Jupiter in July 2016. It was also used to launch MUOS-1 and MUOS-2.

United Launch Alliance successful MUOS-3 mission tonight! 20 Jan 2015.  Photo Credit: Matthew Travis / Zero-G News
United Launch Alliance successful MUOS-3 mission tonight! 20 Jan 2015. Photo Credit: Matthew Travis / Zero-G News

ULA’s second launch in 2015 thunders aloft from the US West Coast with NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive mission (SMAP) next week.

SMAP is the first US Earth-observing satellite designed to collect global observations of surface soil moisture.

SMAP will blastoff from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg AFB at 9:20 a.m. EST (6:20 a.m. PST) on ULA’s Delta II rocket.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the third Mobile User Objective System satellite for the United States Navy launched from Space Launch Complex-41 at 8:04 p.m. EST on Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: United Launch Alliance
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the third Mobile User Objective System satellite for the United States Navy launched from Space Launch Complex-41 at 8:04 p.m. EST on Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: United Launch Alliance

In another major milestone coming soon, the Atlas V is right now being man rated since it was chosen to launch the Boeing CST-100 space taxi, which NASA selected as one of two new commercial crew vehicles to launch US astronauts to the ISS as soon as 2017.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the third Mobile User Objective System satellite for the United States Navy launched from Space Launch Complex-41 at 8:04 p.m. EST on Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: United Launch Alliance
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the third Mobile User Objective System satellite for the United States Navy launched from Space Launch Complex-41 at 8:04 p.m. EST on Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: United Launch Alliance

The next Atlas launch involves NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission (MMS) to study Earth’s magnetic reconnection. It is scheduled for launch on an Atlas V 421 booster on March 12 from Cape Canaveral. See my up close visit with MMS and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center detailed in my story – here.

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

Ken Kremer