X-37B Air Force Space Plane Launches on 4th Mystery Military Mission and Solar Sailing Test

Blastoff of the X-37B spaceplane on United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket with the OTV-4 AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Story updated with additional details and photos[/caption]

The X-37B, a reusable Air Force space plane launched today, May 20, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on its fourth mission steeped in mystery as to its true goals for the U.S . military and was accompanied by ten tiny cubesat experiments for NASA and the NRO, including a solar sailing demonstration test for The Planetary Society.

The military space plan successfully blasted off for low Earth orbit atop a 20 story United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket on the clandestine Air Force Space Command 5 (AFSPC-5) satellite mission for the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office at 11:05 a.m. EDT (1505 GMT) today, May 20, from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The weather cooperated for a spectacular liftoff from the Florida space coast, which was webcast live by ULA until five minutes after launch when it went into a communications blackout shortly after announcing the successful ignition of the Centaur upper stage.

The exact launch time was classified until it was released by the Department of Defense this morning. Early this morning the four hour launch window was narrowed down to two small windows of opportunity.

USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle launches atop  United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni
USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle launches atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni

Among the experiments for the flight are 10 CubeSats housed in the Aft Bulkhead Carrier (ABC) located below the Centaur upper stage. Together they are part of the National Reconnaissance Office’s (NRO’s) Ultra Lightweight Technology and Research Auxiliary Satellite (ULTRASat). The 10 CubeSats in ULTRASat are managed by the NRO and NASA. They are contained in eight P-Pods from which they will be deployed in the coming days.

Also aboard the X-37B is a NASA materials science experiment called METIS and an advanced Hall thruster experiment. The Hall thruster is a type of electric propulsion device that produces thrust by ionizing and accelerating a noble gas, usually xenon.

Following primary spacecraft separation the Centaur will change altitude and inclination in order to release the CubeSat spacecraft.

They are sponsored by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and NASA and were developed by the U.S. Naval Academy, the Aerospace Corporation, the Air Force Research Laboratory, California Polytechnic State University, and The Planetary Society.

LightSail marks the first controlled, Earth orbit solar sail flight according to the non-profit Planetary Society. Photons from the sun should push on the solar sails.

“The purpose of this LightSail demonstration test is to verify telemetry, return photos return and to test the deployment of the solar sails,” said Bill Nye, the Science Guy), and President of The Planetary Society, during the X-37B launch webcast.

“LightSail is comprised of three CubeSats that measure about 30 cm by 10 cm.”

“It’s smaller than a shoebox, everybody! And the sail that will come out of it is super shiny mylar. We’re very hopeful that the thing will deploy properly, the sunlight will hit it and we’ll get a push.”

United Launch Alliance Atlas V launch of USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle on May 20, 2015. Credit: Julian Leek
United Launch Alliance Atlas V launch of USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle on May 20, 2015. Credit: Julian Leek

The Boeing-built X-37B is an unmanned reusable mini shuttle, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) and is flying on the OTV-4 mission. It launches vertically like a satellite but lands horizontally like an airplane and functions as a reliable and reusable space test platform for the U.S. Air Force.

“ULA is honored to launch this unique spacecraft for the U.S Air Force. Congratulations to the Air Force and all of our mission partners on today’s successful launch! The seamless integration between the Air Force, Boeing, and the entire mission team culminated in today’s successful launch of the AFSPC-5 mission” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs.

The two stage Atlas V stands 206 feet tall and weighs 757,000 pounds.

The X-37B was carried to orbit by the Atlas V in its 501 configuration which includes a 5.4-meter-diameter payload fairing and no solid rocket motors. The Atlas first stage booster for this mission was powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine generating some 850,000 pounds of thrust and fired for approximately the first four and a half minutes of flight. The Centaur upper stage was powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine.

The X-37B space plane was to separate from the Centaur about 19 minutes after liftoff. The Centaur continued firing separately with the CubeSat deployment, including the Planetary Society’s LightSail test demoonstration, into a different orbit later.

Overall this was ULA’s sixth launch of the 501 configuration the 54th mission to launch on an Atlas V rocket. This was also ULA’s fifth launch in 2015 and the 96th successful launch since the company was formed in December 2006.

The OTV is somewhat like a miniature version of NASA’s space shuttles.

Boeing has built two OTV vehicles. But it is not known which of the two vehicles was launched today.

Altogether the two X-37B vehicles have spent a cumulative total of 1367 days in space during the first three OTV missions and successfully checked out the vehicles reusable flight, reentry and landing technologies.

The 11,000 pound (4990 kg) state-of -the art reusable OTV space plane was built by Boeing and is about a quarter the size of a NASA space shuttle. It was originally developed by NASA but was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2004.

USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle poised for launch atop  United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni
USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle poised for launch atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni

All three OTV missions to date have launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida and landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Future missions could potentially land at the shuttle landing facility at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

The first OTV mission launched on April 22, 2010, and concluded on Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days in orbit.

The following flights were progressively longer in duration. The second OTV mission began March 5, 2011, and concluded on June 16, 2012, after 468 days on orbit. The third OTV mission launched on Dec. 11, 2012 and landed on Oct. 17, 2014 after 674 days in orbit.

The vehicle measures 29 ft 3 in (8.9 m) in length with a wingspan of 14 ft 11 in (4.5 m). The payload bay measures 7 ft × 4 ft (2.1 m × 1.2 m). The space plane is powered by Gallium Arsenide Solar Cells with Lithium-Ion batteries.

Among the primary mission goals of the first three flights were check outs of the vehicles capabilities and reentry systems and testing the ability to send experiments to space and return them safely. OTV-4 will shift somewhat more to conducting research.

“We are excited about our fourth X-37B mission,” Randy Walden, director of the USAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office, said in a statement. “With the demonstrated success of the first three missions, we’re able to shift our focus from initial checkouts of the vehicle to testing of experimental payloads.”

US Air Force X-37B OTV-4 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to planned 20 May 2015 launch.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
US Air Force X-37B OTV-4 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to planned 20 May 2015 launch. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

Ken Kremer

Launch of the X-37B spaceplane on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket with the AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: ULA
Launch of the X-37B spaceplane on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket with the AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: ULA
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket successfully launched the AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT today, Wednesday, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: ULA
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket successfully launched the AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT today, Wednesday, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: ULA

Air Force X-37B Spaceplane Launches on May 20 with Military, NASA and LightSail Payloads: Watch Live

Fourth flight of the secretive U.S. Air Force X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is set for blastoff on May 20, 2015 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Photo: Boeing
Story updated with further details and photos[/caption]

All systems are currently “GO” for the fourth launch of the US Air Force’s secretive unmanned, X-37B military space plane this Wednesday, May 20, on a flight combining both US national security experimental payloads as well as civilian science experiments sponsored by NASA, US Universities, commercial companies, and the solar sailing LightSail test from the Planetary Society.

LightSail marks the first controlled, Earth orbit solar sail flight according to the non-profit Planetary Society. It will launch as a separate cubesat experiment. NASA also has an advanced materials science experiment flying aboard the robotically controlled X-37B.

The X-37B is set for blastoff atop a two stage United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 501 rocket on the AFSPC-5 mission under contract for the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.

The Boeing-built X-37B is an unmanned reusable mini shuttle, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) and is flying on the OTV-4 mission. It launches vertically like a satellite but lands horizontally like an airplane.

Although virtually all the goals of the X-37B program are shrouded in secrecy, some details on the national security objectives have emerged and there are several unclassified experiments flying along as secondary objectives on the rocket and space plane, among them are experiments for NASA and the Planetary Society.

LightSail launches aboard the X-37B on May 20, 2015.  Credit: The Planetary Society
LightSail launches aboard the X-37B on May 20, 2015. Credit: The Planetary Society

Among the primary mission goals of the first three flights were check outs of the vehicles capabilities and reentry systems and testing the ability to send experiments to space and return them safely. OTV-4 will shift somewhat more to conducting research.

“We are excited about our fourth X-37B mission,” Randy Walden, director of the USAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office, said in a statement. “With the demonstrated success of the first three missions, we’re able to shift our focus from initial checkouts of the vehicle to testing of experimental payloads.”

Liftoff will take place from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, at some point during a four hour launch period that opens at 10:45 a.m. EDT and extends until 2:45 p.m. EDT on May 20.

ULA announced that the Launch Readiness Review was completed on Monday and everything is progressing normally toward the AFSPC-5 launch. The rocket is fully assembled and the space plane is encapsulated inside the 5 meter diameter payload fairing. It rolled out to the pad today, Tuesday, May 19.

You can watch the Atlas launch live via a ULA webcast here: http://www.ulalaunch.com

The ULA webcast begins at 10:45 a.m. EDT on May 20. The precise launch time is classified and won’t be announced until Wednesday morning.

The weather prognosis has improved markedly to a 60 percent chance of favorable weather conditions, up from only a 40 percent chance this past weekend.

The primary weather concerns are for violations of the launch weather rules related to cumulus clouds, surface electric fields, anvil clouds and lightning.

Launch officials are hopeful that acceptable launch conditions will occur sometime during the lengthy four hour launch window.

In the event of a 24 hour delay due to weather or technical issues, the outlook drops to only a 30% chance of favorable weather conditions during the launch window.

The OTV is somewhat like a miniature version of NASA’s space shuttles. Boeing has built two OTV vehicles.

2nd X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle Successfully Completes 1st Flight by landing at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., on June 16, 2012.  The record setting mission lasted 469 days in earth orbit.  Designed to be launched like a satellite and land like an airplane, the second X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, built by Boeing for the United States Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, is an affordable, reusable space vehicle. Credit: Boeing. See landing video below
2nd X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle Successfully Completes 1st Flight by landing at Vandernberg AFB, Calif., on June 16, 2012. It is designed to be launched like a satellite and land like an airplane. Credit: Boeing.

Altogether the two X-37B vehicles have spent a cumulative total of 1367 days in space during the first three OTV missions and successfully checked out the vehicles reusable flight, reentry and landing technologies.

The reusable space plane is designed to be launched like a satellite and land on a runway like an airplane and a NASA space shuttle. The X-37B is one of the newest and most advanced reentry spacecraft.

The 11,000 pound (4990 kg) state-of -the art reusable OTV space plane was built by Boeing and is about a quarter the size of a NASA space shuttle. It was originally developed by NASA but was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2004.

All three OTV missions to date have launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida and landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Future missions could potentially land at the shuttle landing facility at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

The first OTV mission launched on April 22, 2010, and concluded on Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days in orbit.

USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle poised for launch atop  United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni
USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle poised for launch atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni

The following flights were progressively longer in duration. The second OTV mission began March 5, 2011, and concluded on June 16, 2012, after 468 days on orbit. The third OTV mission launched on Dec. 11, 2012 and landed on Oct. 17, 2014 after 674 days in orbit.

The vehicle measures 29 ft 3 in (8.9 m) in length with a wingspan of 14 ft 11 in (4.5 m). The payload bay measures 7 ft × 4 ft (2.1 m × 1.2 m). The space plane is powered by Gallium Arsenide Solar Cells with Lithium-Ion batteries.

The OTV-4 mission will shift its focus at least somewhat from tests of the vehicles performance to more on science experiments both with extra capacity available on the Atlas V rocket and payload space aboard the X-37B itself.

“We’re very pleased with the experiments lined-up for our fourth OTV Mission OTV-4,” Walden noted.

“We’ll continue to evaluate improvements to the space vehicle’s performance, but we’re honored to host these collaborative experiments that will help advance the state-of-the-art for space technology

Among the experiments for the flight are 10 CubeSats. They will launch in the Aft Bulkhead Carrier (ABC) located below the Centaur upper stage that contains eight P-Pods to release the CubeSats.

Following primary spacecraft separation the Centaur will change altitude and inclination in order to release the CubeSat spacecraft, ULA said in a statement.

They are sponsored by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and NASA and were developed by the U.S. Naval Academy, the Aerospace Corporation, the Air Force Research Laboratory, California Polytechnic State University, and Planetary Society.

NASA is also flying an advanced materials science payload on the X-37B called the Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS) investigation that will build on more than a decades worth of materials science research on the International Space Station (ISS) research.

“By flying the Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS) investigation on the X-37B, materials scientists have the opportunity to expose almost 100 different materials samples to the space environment for more than 200 days. METIS is building on data acquired during the Materials on International Space Station Experiment (MISSE), which flew more than 4,000 samples in space from 2001 to 2013, NASA said in a statement.

“By exposing materials to space and returning the samples to Earth, we gain valuable data about how the materials hold up in the environment in which they will have to operate,” said Miria Finckenor, the co-investigator on the MISSE experiment and principal investigator for METIS at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

“Spacecraft designers can use this information to choose the best material for specific applications, such as thermal protection or antennas or any other space hardware.”

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

Ken Kremer

United Launch Alliance to launch USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle on May 20, 2015. Credit: Julian Leek
United Launch Alliance to launch USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle on May 20, 2015. Credit: Julian Leek
US Air Force X-37B OTV-4 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to planned 20 May 2015 launch. This up close view of the nose cone holding the secretive  X-37B shows the umbilical line attachments. Credit: Ken Kremer
US Air Force X-37B OTV-4 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to planned 20 May 2015 launch. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The X-37B is similar in many ways to NASA's space shuttle - but it is far smaller and unmanned. Photo Credit: Air Force
The X-37B is similar in many ways to NASA’s space shuttle – but it is far smaller and unmanned. Photo Credit: Air Force
US Air Force X-37B OTV-2 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to 5 March 2011 launch. This up close view of the nose cone holding the secretive  X 37-B shows the umbilical line attachments. Credit: Ken Kremer
US Air Force X-37B OTV-2 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to 5 March 2011 launch. This up close view of the nose cone holding the secretive X 37-B shows the umbilical line attachments. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

You Can Vote to Name America’s New Rocket from ULA

Help ULA name America’s next rocket to space. Credit: ULA
Voting Details below
Watch ULA’s March 25 Delta Launch Live – details below
Update 3/26: 2 new names have been added to the voting list – Zeus and Vulcan !
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United Launch Alliance (ULA) is asking the public for your help in naming their new American made rocket, now under development that “represents the future of space”- and will replace the firms current historic lines of Atlas and Delta rocket families that began launching back near the dawn of the space age.

Eagle, Freedom or GalaxyOne – those are the names to choose from for the next two weeks, from now until April 6.

UPDATE 3/26: 2 new names have been added to the voting list – Zeus and Vulcan !

ULA says the names were selected from a list of over 400 names submitted earlier this year by ULA’s 3400 employees and many space enthusiasts.

ULA has set up a simple voting system whereby you can vote for your favorite name via text or an online webpage.

Currently dubbed the “Next Generation Launch System,” or NGLS, ULA’s new president and CEO Tory Bruno is set to unveil the next generation rockets design and name at the National Space Symposium on April 13 in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“ULA’s new rocket represents the future of space – innovative, affordable and reliable,” said Bruno, in a statement.

“More possibilities in space means more possibilities here on earth. This is such a critical time for space travel and exploration and we’re excited to bring all of America with us on this journey into the future.”

The NGLS is ULA’s response to what’s shaping up as a no holds barred competition with SpaceX for future launch contracts where only the innovative and those who dramatically cut the cost of access to space will survive.

The first flight of the NGLS is slated for 2019.

Here’s how you can cast your vote for America’s next rocket to April 6, 2015:

Visit the website: http://bit.ly/rocketvote

OR

Voters can text 22333 to submit a vote for their favorite name. The following key can be used to text a vote:

• ULA1 for “Eagle”
• ULA2 for “Freedom”
• ULA3 for “GalaxyOne”

3/26 Update: Zeus and Vulcan have been added to the voting list

One small step for ULA, one giant leap for space exploration. Vote to name America’s next ride to space: Eagle, Freedom, or GalaxyOne? #rocketvote http://bit.ly/rocketvote
One small step for ULA, one giant leap for space exploration. Vote to name America’s next ride to space: Eagle, Freedom, or GalaxyOne? #rocketvote http://bit.ly/rocketvote

“Name America’s next ride to space. Vote early, vote often … ” says Bruno.

I have already voted – early and often.

Over 11,000 votes were tallied in just the first day.

Currently ULA is the nation’s premier launch provider, launching at a rate of about once per month. 13 launches are planned for 2015- as outlined in my earlier article here.

But ULA faces stiff and relentless pricing and innovative competition from NewSpace upstart SpaceX, founded by billionaire Elon Musk.

NGLS is ULA’s answer to SpaceX – they must compete in order to survive.

To date ULA has accomplished a 100 percent mission success for 94 launches since the firms founding in 2006 as a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. They have successfully launched numerous NASA, national security and commercial payloads into orbit and beyond.

Planetary missions launched for NASA include the Mars rovers and landers Phoenix and Curiosity, Pluto/New Horizons, Juno, GRAIL, LRO and LCROSS.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft onboard launches from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41, Thursday, March 12, 2015, Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
ULA’s new rocket will launch from this pad in 2019
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft onboard launches from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41, Thursday, March 12, 2015, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

ULA’s most recent launch for NASA involved the $1.1 Billion Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission comprised of four formation flying satellites which blasted to Earth orbit atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, during a spectacular nighttime blastoff on March 12, 2015. Read my onsite reports – here and here.

“Space launch affects everyone, every day, and our goal in letting America name its next rocket is to help all Americans imagine the future of endless possibilities created by affordable space launch,” Bruno added.

NGLS will include some heritage design from the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, but will feature many new systems and potentially some reusable systems – to be outlined by Bruno on April 13.

ULA plans to phase out the Delta IV around 2019 when the current contracts are concluded. The Atlas V will continue for a transitional period.

The Atlas V is also the launcher for Boeing’s CST-100 manned space taxi due to first launch in 2017.

NGLS will launch from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, the same pad as for the Atlas V, as well as from Vandenberg AFB, Calif.

ULA’s next Delta IV launch with GPS IIF-9 is scheduled shortly for Wednesday, March 25, with liftoff at 2:36 p.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral.

Live webcast begins at 2:06 p.m. Live link here – http://www.ulalaunch.com/webcast.aspx

Vote now!

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

Ken Kremer

Tory Bruno, ULA President and CEO, speaks about the ULA launch of NASA’s Orion EFT-1 mission on Delta IV Heavy rocket in the background at the Delta IV launch complex 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
Tory Bruno, ULA President and CEO, speaks about the ULA launch of NASA’s Orion EFT-1 mission on Delta IV Heavy rocket in the background at the Delta IV launch complex 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

NASA Unravels Mysteries of Magnetic Reconnection with Nighttime Blastoff of MMS Satellite Quartet – Watch Live

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – A state of the art quartet of identical science satellites aimed at unraveling the mysteries of the process known as magnetic reconnection is slated for a spectacular nighttime blastoff tonight, March 12, atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The $1.1 Billion Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission is comprised of four formation flying and identically instrumented observatories whose objective is providing the first three-dimensional views of a fundamental process in nature known as magnetic reconnection.

Magnetic reconnection is a little understood natural process whereby magnetic fields around Earth connect and disconnect while explosively releasing vast amounts of energy. It occurs throughout the universe.

Liftoff is slated for 10:44 p.m. EDT Thursday March 12 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The launch window extends for 30 minutes. You can watch the MMS launch live on NASA TV, below, starting at 8 p.m.



Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

Spectators ringing the Florida space coast region and ranging well beyond should be treated to a magnificent fireworks display and skyward streak of perhaps several minutes – weather and clouds permitting.

Currently the weather forecast is 70 percent “GO” for favorable conditions at launch time. The primary concerns for a safe and successful launch are for cumulus clouds and thick clouds.

In the event of a 24 hour delay for any reason the weather forecast is 60 percent “GO.”

Technicians work on NASA’s 20-foot-tall Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mated quartet of stacked observatories in the cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
Technicians work on NASA’s 20-foot-tall Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mated quartet of stacked observatories in the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The 195 foot tall rocket and encapsulated MMS satellite payload were rolled out to Space Launch Complex-41 on Wednesday March 10 at 10 a.m. on the Mobile Launch Platform (MLP) about 1800 feet from the Vertical Integration Facility or VIF to the Cape Canaveral pad.

The two stage Atlas V rocket will deliver the MMS constellation to a highly elliptical orbit.

The venerable rocket with a 100% success rate will launch in the Atlas V 421 configuration with a 4-meter diameter Extra Extended Payload Fairing along with two Aerojet Rocketdyne solid rocket motors attached to the Atlas booster first stage.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 421 rocket is poised for blastoff at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex-41 in preparation for launch of NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science mission on March 12, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 421 rocket is poised for blastoff at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex-41 in preparation for launch of NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science mission on March 12, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The Atlas first stage is powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine and the Centaur upper stage is powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10A engine producing 22,300 lb of thrust.

The first stage is 12.5 ft in diameter and fueled with liquid propellants. The RD-180 burns RP-1 highly purified kerosene and liquid oxygen and delivers 860,200 lb of sea level thrust.

This is ULA’s 4th launch in 2015, the 53nd Atlas V mission and the fourth Atlas V 421 launch.

“This is the perfect time for this mission,” said Jim Burch, principal investigator of the MMS instrument suite science team at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas.

“MMS is a crucial next step in advancing the science of magnetic reconnection. Studying magnetic reconnection near Earth will unlock the ability to understand how this process works throughout the entire universe.”

After a six month check out phase the probes will start science operation in September.

Unlike previous missions to observe the evidence of magnetic reconnection events, MMS will have sufficient resolution to measure the characteristics of ongoing reconnection events as they occur.

The four probes were built in-house by NASA at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland where I visited them during an inspection tour by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

I asked Bolden to explain the goals of MMS during a one-on-one interview.

“MMS will help us study the phenomena known as magnetic reconnection and help us understand how energy from the sun – magnetic and otherwise – affects our own life here on Earth,” Bolden told Universe Today.

“MMS will study what effects that process … and how the magnetosphere protects Earth.”

MMS measurements should lead to significant improvements in models for yielding better predictions of space weather and thereby the resulting impacts for life here on Earth as well as for humans aboard the ISS and robotic satellite explorers in orbit and the heavens beyond.

The best place to study magnetic reconnection is ‘in situ’ in Earth’s magnetosphere. This will lead to better predictions of space weather phenomena.

Magnetic reconnection is also believed to help trigger the spectacular aurora known as the Northern or Southern lights.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the agency’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, mission personnel, Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, during visit to the cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the agency’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, mission personnel, Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, during visit to the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

MMS is a Solar Terrestrial Probes Program, or STP, mission within NASA’s Heliophysics Division

Watch for Ken’s ongoing MMS coverage and he’ll be onsite at the Kennedy Space Center in the days leading up to the launch on March 12.

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

Ken Kremer

NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) Spacecraft Set for March Blastoff to study Earth’s Magnetic Reconnection Events

NASA’s first mission dedicated to study the process in nature known as magnetic reconnection undergoing final preparation for launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida in just under two weeks time.

The Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission is comprised of a quartet of identically instrumented observatories aimed at providing the first three-dimensional views of a fundamental process in nature known as magnetic reconnection.

Magnetic reconnection is the process whereby magnetic fields around Earth connect and disconnect while explosively releasing vast amounts of energy. It occurs throughout the universe.

“Magnetic reconnection is one of the most important drivers of space weather events,” said Jeff Newmark, interim director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“Eruptive solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and geomagnetic storms all involve the release, through reconnection, of energy stored in magnetic fields. Space weather events can affect modern technological systems such as communications networks, GPS navigation, and electrical power grids.”

The four MMS have been stacked on top of one another like pancakes, encapsulated in the payload fairing, transported to the launch pad, hoisted and mated to the top of the 195-foot-tall rocket.

NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) observatories are shown here in the clean room being processed for a March 12, 2015 launch from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.  Credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky
NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) observatories are shown here in the clean room being processed for a March 12, 2015 launch from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky

The nighttime launch of MMS on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket should put on a spectacular sky show for local spectators along the Florida space coast as well as more distant located arcing out in all directions.

Liftoff is slated for 10:44 p.m. EDT Thursday March 12 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The launch window extends for 30 minutes.

Artist rendition of the four MMS spacecraft in orbit in Earth’s magnetic field. Credit: NASA
Artist rendition of the four MMS spacecraft in orbit in Earth’s magnetic field. Credit: NASA

After a six month check out phase the probes will start science operation in September.

Unlike previous missions to observe the evidence of magnetic reconnection events, MMS will have sufficient resolution to measure the characteristics of ongoing reconnection events as they occur.

The four probes were built in-house by NASA at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland where is visited them during an inspection tour by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

I asked Bolden to explain the goals of MMS during a one-on-one interview.

“MMS will help us study the phenomena known as magnetic reconnection and help us understand how energy from the sun – magnetic and otherwise – affects our own life here on Earth,” Bolden told Universe Today.

“MMS will study what effects that process … and how the magnetosphere protects Earth.”

MMS measurements should lead to significant improvements in models for yielding better predictions of space weather and thereby the resulting impacts for life here on Earth as well as for humans aboard the ISS and robotic satellite explorers in orbit and the heavens beyond.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the agency’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, mission personnel, Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, during visit to the cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the agency’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, mission personnel, Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, during visit to the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The best place to study magnetic reconnection is ‘in situ’ in Earth’s magnetosphere. This will lead to better predictions of space weather phenomena.

“This is the perfect time for this mission,” said Jim Burch, principal investigator of the MMS instrument suite science team at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas.

“MMS is a crucial next step in advancing the science of magnetic reconnection. Studying magnetic reconnection near Earth will unlock the ability to understand how this process works throughout the entire universe.”

Magnetic reconnection is also believed to help trigger the spectacular aurora known as the Northern or Southern lights.

MMS is a Solar Terrestrial Probes Program, or STP, mission within NASA’s Heliophysics Division.

Watch for Ken’s ongoing MMS coverage and he’ll be onsite at the Kennedy Space Center in the days leading up to the launch on March 12.

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

Ken Kremer
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Learn more about MMS, Mars rovers, Orion, SpaceX, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Mar 6: “MMS Update, Future of NASA Human Spaceflight, Curiosity on Mars,” Delaware Valley Astronomers Assoc (DVAA), Radnor, PA, 7 PM.

Mar 10-12: “MMS, Orion, SpaceX, Antares, Curiosity Explores Mars,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Assembly Completed on Powerful Delta IV Rocket Boosting Maiden Orion Capsule Test Flight

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – Assembly of the powerful Delta IV rocket boosting the pathfinder version of NASA’s Orion crew capsule on its maiden test flight in December has been completed.

Orion is NASA’s next generation human rated vehicle that will eventually carry America’s astronauts beyond Earth on voyages venturing farther into deep space than ever before – beyond the Moon to Asteroids, Mars and other destinations in our Solar System.

The state-of-the-art Orion spacecraft is scheduled to launch on its inaugural uncrewed mission, dubbed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), in December 2014 atop the Delta IV Heavy rocket. It replaces NASA’s now retired space shuttle orbiters.

The triple barreled Delta IV Heavy is currently the most powerful rocket in America’s fleet following the retirement of the NASA’s Space Shuttle program.

Engineers from the rocket’s manufacturer – United Launch Alliance (ULA) – took a major step forward towards Orion’s first flight when they completed the integration of the three primary core elements of the rockets first stage with the single engine upper stage.

These three RS-68 engines will power each of the attached Delta IV Heavy Common Booster Cores (CBCs) the will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
These three RS-68 engines will power each of the attached Delta IV Heavy Common Booster Cores (CBCs) that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

All of the rocket integration work and preflight processing took place inside ULA’s Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF), at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Universe Today recently visited the Delta IV booster during an up close tour inside the HIF facility last week where the rocket was unveiled to the media in a horizontally stacked configuration. See my Delta IV photos herein.

The HIF building is located at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37), on Cape Canaveral, a short distance away from the launch pad where the Orion EFT-1 mission will lift off on Dec. 4.

“The day-to-day processing is performed by ULA,” said Merri Anne Stowe of NASA’s Fleet Systems Integration Branch of the Launch Services Program (LSP), in a NASA statement.

“NASA’s role is to keep a watchful eye on everything and be there to help if any issues come up.”

The first stage is comprised of a trio of three Delta IV Common Booster Cores (CBCs).

Side view shows trio of Common Booster Cores (CBCs) with RS-68 engines powering the Delta IV Heavy rocket resting horizontally in ULA’s HIF processing facility at Cape Canaveral that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014 from Launch Complex 37.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Side view shows trio of Common Booster Cores (CBCs) with RS-68 engines powering the Delta IV Heavy rocket resting horizontally in ULA’s HIF processing facility at Cape Canaveral that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014 from Launch Complex 37. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Each CBC measures 134 feet in length and 17 feet in diameter. They are equipped with an RS-68 engine powered by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants producing 656,000 pounds of thrust. Together they generate 1.96 million pounds of thrust.

This past spring I visited the HIF after the first two CBCs arrived by barge from their ULA assembly plant in Decatur, Alabama, located about 20 miles west of Huntsville.

The first CBC booster was attached to the center booster in June. The second one was attached in early August, according to ULA.

“After the three core stages went through their initial inspections and processing, the struts were attached, connecting the booster stages with the center core,” Stowe said. “All of this takes place horizontally.”

The Delta IV cryogenic second stage testing and attachment was completed in August and September. It measures 45 feet in length and 17 feet in diameter. It is equipped with a single RL10-B-2 engine, that also burns liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellant and generates 25,000 pounds of thrust.

“The hardware for Exploration Flight Test-1 is coming together well,” Stowe noted in a NASA statement.

“We haven’t had to deal with any serious problems. All of the advance planning appears to be paying off.”

This same Delta IV upper stage will be used in the Block 1 version of NASA’s new heavy lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS).

Be sure to read my recent article detailing the ribbon cutting ceremony opening the manufacture of the SLS core stage at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, LA. The SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built by humans, exceeding that of the iconic Saturn V rocket that sent humans to walk on the surface of the Moon.

Wide view of the new welding tool at the Vertical Assembly Center at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Sept. 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Wide view of the new welding tool at the Vertical Assembly Center at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Sept. 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The Delta IV rocket will be rolled out to the SLC-37 Cape Canaveral launch pad this week.
Assembly of the Orion EFT-1 capsule and stacking atop the service module was also completed in September at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

I was also on hand at KSC when the Orion crew module/service module (CM/SM) stack was rolled out on Sept. 11, 2014, on a 36-wheel transporter from its high bay assembly facility in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building.

NASA’s completed Orion EFT 1 crew module loaded on wheeled transporter during move to Launch Abort System Facility (LASF) on Sept. 11, 2014 at the Kennedy Space Center, FL.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s completed Orion EFT 1 crew module loaded on wheeled transporter during move to Launch Abort System Facility (LASF) on Sept. 11, 2014, at the Kennedy Space Center, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

It was moved about 1 mile to its next stop on the way to SLC-37 – the KSC fueling facility named the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHFS). Read my Orion move story here.

The two-orbit, four and a half hour EFT-1 flight will lift the Orion spacecraft and its attached second stage to an orbital altitude of 3,600 miles, about 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS) – and farther than any human spacecraft has journeyed in 40 years.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Orion, SLS, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, Curiosity, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NASA’s Orion EFT 1 crew module departs Neil Armstrong Operation and Checkout Building on Sept. 11, 2014 at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, beginning the long journey to the launch pad and planned liftoff on Dec. 4, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s Orion EFT 1 crew module departs Neil Armstrong Operation and Checkout Building on Sept. 11, 2014 at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, beginning the long journey to the launch pad and planned liftoff on Dec. 4, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Space journalists including Ken Kremer/Universe Today pose with the Delta IV Heavy rocket resting horizontally in ULA’s HIF processing facility at Cape Canaveral that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014 from Launch Complex 37.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Space journalists including Ken Kremer/Universe Today pose with the Delta IV Heavy rocket resting horizontally in ULA’s HIF processing facility at Cape Canaveral that will launch NASA’s maiden Orion on the EFT-1 mission in December 2014 from Launch Complex 37. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Completely Clandestine CLIO Climbs through Clouds to Orbit on Mystery Mission

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – On a gloomy night and delayed by rain showers and thick threatening clouds to the very last moment of a two and a half launch window, the completely clandestine satellite known only as CLIO climbed slowly from a Cape Canaveral launch pad atop the thunderous flames of an Atlas V rocket on Tuesday evening on a mysterious mission to orbit.

Under a veil of secrecy for an unknown US government customer, the clouds cleared just enough to finally launch CLIO on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V booster at 8:10 p.m. EDT September 16, 2014 from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

A series of ugly thunderstorms with a deluge of rain shows repeatedly passed by the launch pad forcing a weather related delay from the initial daylight launch time of 5:44 p.m.

The 19 story rocket is protected by a quartet of lighting masts ringing the launch pad. And they did their job last night.

Mysterious CLIO payload shrouded beneath 4-meter-diameter payload fairing in this up close view of the top of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket prior to launch from Space Launch Complex-41 on  Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Mysterious CLIO payload shrouded beneath 4-meter-diameter payload fairing in this up close view of the top of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket prior to launch from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

It was touch and go with the weather at the Cape all evening. None of us knew what would happen with the satellite we know nothing about. So the weather induced hazy view of the pad fit perfectly with the mystery missions hazy motif.

Normally, even the highly secretive US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) claims ownership of their satellites named with what seems to be a random numbering scheme.

But not for CLIO. The only publicly released information is that CLIO was built by Lockheed Martin and derived from their commercial A2100 series satellite bus used for commercial telecommunications satellites among others.

“It is an honor to work with Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company and all of our mission partners to launch this very important satellite,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs, in a statement.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the CLIO mission for Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company launched at 8:10 p.m. EDT September 16, 2014 from Space Launch Complex-41 on  Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the CLIO mission for Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company launched at 8:10 p.m. EDT September 16, 2014 from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“Today’s launch marks ULA’s 11th successful mission this year and the 88th successful mission since ULA was formed in December 2006, a true testament to the team’s focus on mission success, one launch at a time.”

Myself and other media were allowed to visit the launch pad and photograph the rocket up close with the CLIO insignia emblazoned on the payload fairing, shrouding the mysterious satellite beneath.

But even the CLIO insignia is completely nondescript, unlike the rather artistic NRO logos with cool imaginary creatures and a number like NR0-66 for example.

We do know the type of rocket utilized is an Atlas V 401 configuration vehicle, which includes a 4-meter-diameter payload fairing and no solid rocket motors.

Mysterious CLIO and Atlas V rocket prior to launch from Space Launch Complex-41 on  Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Mysterious CLIO and Atlas V rocket prior to launch from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

We do know that the Atlas booster for this mission was powered by a Russian made RD AMROSS RD-180 engine as is customary. The Centaur upper stage was powered by a single Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10A engine, according to ULA.

We do know the launch was successful and certainly a spectacular sight for myself and all the spectators.

Nightfall over CLIO and Atlas V rocket at Space Launch Complex-41 prior to weather delayed Sept. 16, 2014 launch from  Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Nightfall over CLIO and Atlas V rocket at Space Launch Complex-41 prior to weather delayed Sept. 16, 2014 launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

CLIO is presumably somewhere in Earth orbit, circling overhead secretly at unknown altitude(s) and inclination(s).

CLIO marks ULA’s 60th successful mission from Cape Canaveral, the 11th successful mission this year and the 88th successful mission since the company’s formation in 2006.

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

Ken Kremer

Extended time exposure partial streak shot of CLIO launch on  September 16, 2014 from Space Launch Complex-41 on  Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Extended time exposure partial streak shot of CLIO launch on September 16, 2014 from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Photographers including Ken Kremer/Universe Today set up cameras to capture up close imagery of Sept. 16, 2014 launch of mysterious CLIO satellite and Atlas V rocket at Space Launch Complex-41 on  Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Photographers including Ken Kremer/Universe Today set up cameras to capture up close imagery of Sept. 16, 2014 launch of mysterious CLIO satellite and Atlas V rocket at Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Atlas V Blasts Off with Clandestine US Spy Satellite Amidst Russian Engine Controversy

An Atlas V rocket thundered to space on Thursday, May 22, carrying a clandestine surveillance satellite for the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) amidst a swirling controversy regarding the boosters long term viability due to its dependence on the continued assured supply of Russian made engines.

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket soared to space with a super secret payload designated NROL-33 in support of US national defense from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 9:09 a.m. EDT.

The launch was carried live on a ULA webcast but was deliberately cutoff after five minutes as part of a preannounced news blackout on the top secret mission.

Nothing is known about the nature of NROL-33 or its covert intelligence gathering mission.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying NROL-33 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral, Florida, on May 22 at 9:09 a.m. EDT.  Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace
United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying NROL-33 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral, Florida, on May 22 at 9:09 a.m. EDT. Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace

The liftoff caps an impressively successful series of four high priority and high value launches by ULA that were accomplished at a rapid pace of barely seven weeks time – speaking volumes about their reliability and diligence.

And the Atlas V also marked the second successful ULA rocket launch in less than one week. It follows on the heels of last weeks blastoff of a ULA Delta IV rocket with an advanced GPS satellite for the US Air Force that benefits hundreds of millions of ordinary users worldwide.

In April, another clandestine surveillance satellite dubbed NROL-67 was also launched on an Atlas V for the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

One can conclude that NROL-67 was certainly a larger and heavier payload compared to NROL-33 since the most powerful version of the Atlas V launcher was used with five strap on solid rocket motors vs. no solids for Thursday’s liftoff. NROL-67 also was housed inside the larger five-meter diameter payload fairing.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying NROL-33 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral, Florida, on May 22 at 9:09 a.m. EDT.  Credit: John Studwell/AmericaSpace
United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying NROL-33 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral, Florida, on May 22 at 9:09 a.m. EDT. Credit: John Studwell/AmericaSpace

But the future of the venerable Atlas V – and therefore even US National Security launches like those of NROL-33 and NROL-67 – is cloudy because each first stage core is powered by a pair of Russian made RD-180 rocket engines whose future supply was cast in doubt by recent statements from Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, lawsuits by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and pointed questions from Congress.

“Moscow is banning Washington from using Russian-made rocket engines, which the US has used to deliver its military satellites into orbit,” Rogozin said at a media briefing held on May 13.

An almost cold war like crisis in US-Russian relations began with Russia’s actions in Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea region earlier this year.

The ongoing Ukraine crisis has resulted in continuing deadly confrontations and the institution of economic sanctions against Russia and several Russian officials, including specifically Rogozin, by the US and Western European nations.

“We proceed from the fact that without guarantees that our engines are used for non-military spacecraft launches only, we won’t be able to supply them to the US,” Rogozin said.

The dual chamber, dual nozzle RD-180 engines are manufactured in Russia by NPO Energomash and has performed flawlessly to date.

Rogozin’s statements could effectively block their export to the US, thus calling into question the reliability of their continued supply for the Atlas V first stage and the ability of the US to launch critical national security payloads.

NASA is also a hefty user of the Atlas V for many of the agency’s science and communication satellites like the Curiosity Mars rover, MAVEN Mars orbiter, MMS, Juno Jupiter orbiter and TDRS.

The Atlas V is also planned as the launcher for two of the three companies – Boeing and Sierra Nevada – vying for the next round of commercial crew space taxi contracts aimed at launching US astronauts to the ISS. The commercial crew contracts will be awarded by NASA later this year.

Despite Rogozin’s threatening statements, the RD-180 export situation is not completely clear and ULA has some engines on hand to last a few years.

“ULA has a two year supply of RD-180 engines already stockpiled in the U.S.,” ULA spokesperson Jessica Rye told me.

“We currently have 16 engines in the U.S.” said Rye.

Five more RD-180 engines are due for delivery later this year.

ULA also issued this recent statement in response to Rogozins’ comments.

“ULA and our NPO Energomash supplier in Russia are not aware of any restrictions.”

Certain national security payloads can also be shifted from the Atlas V to the Delta IV.

“ULA and our Department of Defense customers have always prepared contingency plans in the event of a supply disruption. ULA has two launch vehicles that can support all of customers’ needs. We also maintain a two-year inventory of engines to enable a smooth transition to our other rocket, Delta, which has all U.S.-produced rocket engines.”

Besides Rogozin’s listing on the US economic sanctions target list, he was also named by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in his firms recent attempts to legally block the importation of the RD-180 engines by ULA for the Atlas V as a violation of the US economic sanctions.

Federal Judge Susan Braden initially imposed a temporary injunction blocking the RD-180 imports on April 30. She rescinded that order on May 8, after receiving written communications clarifications from the US Justice and Commerce departments that the engine import did not violate the US government imposed sanctions.

Here’s my earlier articles about Rogozin’s statements, Musk’s suit and more about the effects of economic sanctions imposed by the US and Western nations in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea; here, here, here and here.

ULA remains upbeat.

“Congratulations to all of our mission partners on today’s successful launch of the NROL-33 mission! The ULA team is honored to deliver another critical national security asset to orbit together with the NRO Office of Space Launch and the Air Force,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs.

“Today’s launch occurred six days after last week’s GPS IIF-6 launch – the second time this year that this team has launched back-to-back missions within a week. Successfully launching at this tempo is a testament to the team’s focus on mission success, one-launch-at-a-time, and continuous improvement of our launch processes.”

Watch for Ken’s articles about the ongoing Ukraine crisis with uncertain and potentially dire consequences for US National Security and NASA.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing ULA, Boeing, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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

NASA’s Curiosity Set to Search for Signs of Martian Life

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Nov 19 Update: MSL launch delayed 24 h to Nov. 26 – details later

In just 7 days, Earth’s most advanced robotic roving emissary will liftoff from Florida on a fantastic journey to the Red Planet and the search for extraterrestrial life will take a quantum leap forward. Scientists are thrilled that the noble endeavor of the rover Curiosity is finally at hand after seven years of painstaking work.

NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover is vastly more capable than any other roving vehicle ever sent to the surface of another celestial body. Mars is the most Earth-like planet in our Solar System and a prime target to investigate for the genesis of life beyond our home planet.

Curiosity is all buttoned up inside an aeroshell at a seaside launch pad atop an Atlas V rocket and final preparations are underway at the Florida Space Coast leading to a morning liftoff at 10:25 a.m. EST on Nov. 25, the day after the Thanksgiving holiday.

MSL is ready to go,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, at a media briefing. “It’s a momentous occasion. We’re just thrilled that we’re at this point.”

“Curiosity is ‘Seeking the Signs of Life’, but is not a life detection mission. It is equipped with state-of-the-art science instruments.”

This oblique view of Gale Crater shows the landing site and the mound of layered rocks that NASA's Mars Science Laboratory will investigate. The landing site is in the smooth area in front of the mound. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/UA

“It’s not your father’s rover. It’s a 2000 pound machine that’s over 6 feet tall – truly a wonder of engineering,” McCuistion stated.

“Curiosity is the best of US imagination and US innovation. And we have partners from France, Canada, Germany, Russia and Spain.”

“Curiosity sits squarely in the middle of our two decade long strategic plan of Mars exploration and will bridge the gap scientifically and technically from the past decade to the next decade.”

Mars Science Laboratory builds upon the improved understanding about Mars gained from current and recent missions,” said McCuistion. “This mission advances technologies and science that will move us toward missions to return samples from and eventually send humans to Mars.”

Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory Rover - inside the Cleanroom at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer

The car sized rover is due to arrive at Mars in August 2012 and land inside Gale Crater near the base of a towering and layered Martian mountain, some 5 kilometers (3 miles) high. Gale Crater is 154 km (96 mi) in diameter.

The landing site was chosen because it offers multiple locations with different types of geologic environments that are potentially habitable and may have preserved evidence about the development of microbial life, if it ever formed.

Gale Crater is believed to contain clays and hydrated minerals that formed in liquid water eons ago and over billions of years in time. Water is an essential prerequisite for the genesis of life as we know it.

NASA's most advanced mobile robotic laboratory, the Mars Science Laboratory carrying the Curiosity rover, is set to launch atop an Atlas V rocket at 10:25 a.m. EST on Nov. 25 on a mission to examine one of the most intriguing areas on Mars at Gale crater. Credit: NASA

The one ton robot is a behemoth, measuring 3 meters (10 ft) in length and is nearly twice the size and five times as heavy as NASA’s prior set of twin rovers – Spirit and Opportunity.

Curiosity is equipped with a powerful array of 10 science instruments weighing 15 times as much as its predecessor’s science payloads. The rover can search for the ingredients of life including water and the organic molecules that we are all made of.

Curiosity will embark on a minimum two year expedition across the craters highly varied terrain, collecting and analyzing rock and soil samples in a way that’s never been done before beyond Earth.

Eventually our emissary will approach the foothills and climb the Martian mountain in search of hitherto untouched minerals and habitable environments that could potentially have supported life’s genesis.

With each science mission, NASA seeks to take a leap forward in capability and technology to vastly enhance the science return – not just to repeat past missions. MSL is no exception.

Watch a dramatic action packed animation of the landing and exploration here:

Curiosity was designed at the start to be vastly more capable than any prior surface robotic explorer, said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s Deputy Project Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif

“This is a Mars scientist’s dream machine.”

Therefore this mission uses new technologies to enable the landing of a heavier science payload and is inherently risky. The one ton weight is far too heavy to employ the air-bag cushioned touchdown system used for Spirit and Opportunity and will use a new landing method instead.

Curiosity will pioneer an unprecedented new precision landing technique as it dives through the Martian atmosphere named the “sky-crane”. In the final stages of touchdown, a rocket-powered descent stage will fire thusters to slow the descent and then lower the rover on a tether like a kind of sky-crane and then safely set Curiosity down onto the ground.

NASA has about three weeks to get Curiosity off the ground from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida before the planetary alignments change and the launch window to Mars closes for another 26 months.

“Preparations are on track for launching at our first opportunity,” said Pete Theisinger, MSL project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “If weather or other factors prevent launching then, we have more opportunities through Dec. 18.”

Mars Science Laboratory Briefing. Doug McCuistion, Mars program director, left, Ashwin Vasavada, MSL deputy project scientist, and Pete Theisinger, MSL project manager, share a laugh during a news briefing, Nov. 10, 2011, at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Curiosity, NASA's most advanced mobile robotic laboratory, will examine one of the most intriguing areas on Mars. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission is set for launch from Florida's Space Coast on Nov. 25 and is scheduled to land on the Red Planet in August 2012 where it will examine the Gale Crater during a nearly two-year prime mission. Credit: NASA/Paul E. Alers

Complete Coverage of Curiosity – NASA’s Next Mars Rover launching 25 Nov. 2011

Read continuing features about Curiosity by Ken Kremer starting here:

Curiosity Rover Bolted to Atlas Rocket – In Search of Martian Microbial Habitats
Closing the Clamshell on a Martian Curiosity
Curiosity Buttoned Up for Martian Voyage in Search of Life’s Ingredients
Assembling Curiosity’s Rocket to Mars
Encapsulating Curiosity for Martian Flight Test
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action