NASA Launches Revolutionary Earth Science Satellite Measuring Soil Moisture Cycle

NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) observatory, on a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket, is seen after the mobile service tower was rolled back Friday, Jan. 30 at Space Launch Complex 2, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
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At dawn this morning (Jan. 31) NASA launched an advanced Earth science satellite aimed at making measurements of our planet’s surface soil moisture and freeze/thaw states from space that will revolutionize our understanding of the water, energy, and carbon cycles driving all life on Earth, aid weather forecasting and improve climate change models.

NASA’s new Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) observatory thundered off the pad at 6:22 a.m. PST (9:22 a.m. EST) Saturday atop a two stage United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket from Space Launch Complex 2 on Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

The $916 million satellite successfully separated from the rocket’s second stage some 57 minutes after the flawless liftoff and was injected into an initial 411- by 425-mile (661- by 685-kilometer) orbit. The spacecraft then deployed its solar arrays and telemetry indicated it was in excellent health.

“We’re in contact with SMAP and everything looks good right now,” NASA Launch Manager Tim Dunn said.

“Deployment of the solar arrays is underway. We just couldn’t be happier.”

SMAP separated from the second stage while pointed toward the sun as seen in the video below from a rocket mounted camera:

Video Caption: A camera on the second stage of the Delta II rocket captured this footage as the SMAP spacecraft pushed itself away from the rocket to complete the delivery of the Earth-observing spacecraft to its proper orbit following Jan. 31, 2015 liftoff. Credit: NASA TV/ULA

SMAP is NASA’s 1st Earth observing satellite designed to make high resolution global observations of Earth’s vital surface soil moisture content and freeze/thaw cycle just below your feet. It will aid global forecasting and have broad applications for science and society.

SMAP’s combined radar and radiometer instruments will peer into the top 2 inches (5 centimeters) of soil, through clouds and moderate vegetation cover, day and night, to produce the highest-resolution, most accurate soil moisture maps ever obtained from space, says NASA.

The blastoff of SMAP successfully concluded NASA’s ambitious plans to launch a record breaking total of five Earth science satellites in less than a year’s time.

“The launch of SMAP completes an ambitious 11-month period for NASA that has seen the launch of five new Earth-observing space missions to help us better understand our changing planet,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

“Scientists and policymakers will use SMAP data to track water movement around our planet and make more informed decisions in critical areas like agriculture and water resources.”

Artist's rendering of the Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite. The width of the region scanned on Earth’s surface during each orbit is about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers).  Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s rendering of the Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite. The width of the region scanned on Earth’s surface during each orbit is about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

SMAP is projected to last for at least a three year primary mission.

The prior NASA Earth science instrument launched was the Cloud Aerosol Transport System (CATS) payload hauled to space by the SpaceX CRS-4 Dragon on Jan. 10, 2015 and recently installed on the exterior of the ISS. Read my CATS installation story – here.

The three earlier NASA Earth science missions launched over the past year included ISS-RapidScat in September 2014, the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory, a joint mission with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, in February 2014, and the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) carbon observatory in July 2014.

“Congratulations to the NASA Launch Services Program team, JPL and all of our mission partners on today’s successful launch of the SMAP satellite,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs.

“It is our honor to launch this important Earth science mission to help scientists observe and predict natural hazards, and improve our understanding of Earth’s water, energy and carbon cycles.”

SMAP will provide high-resolution, space-based measurements of soil moisture and its state — frozen or thawed — a new capability that will allow scientists to better predict natural hazards of extreme weather, climate change, floods and droughts, and help reduce uncertainties in our understanding of Earth’s water, energy and carbon cycles, according to a NASA description.

The mission will map the entire globe every two to three days for at least three years and provide the most accurate and highest-resolution maps of soil moisture ever obtained. The spacecraft’s final circular polar orbit will be 426 miles (685 kilometers), at an inclination of 98.1 degrees. The spacecraft will orbit Earth once every 98.5 minutes and repeat the same ground track every eight days.

“All subsystems are being powered on and checked out as planned,” Kent Kellogg, the SMAP project manager, during a post-launch press conference.

“Communications, guidance and control, computers and power are all operating nominally.”

The observatory is in excellent health. Its instruments will be turned on in 11 days.

Today’s blastoff of SMAP marks ULA’s second successful launch this month as well as the second of 13 planned for 2015. ULA’s first launch of 2015 was MUOS-3 from Cape Canaveral on Jan. 20.

ULA’s next 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

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
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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

Busy Year of 13 Launches by ULA in 2015 Begins with Blastoffs for the Navy and NASA

A busy year of 13 space launches by rocket provider United Launch Alliance (ULA) in 2015 begins with a pair of blastoffs for the US Navy and NASA tonight and next week, emanating from both the US East and West Coasts.

The hefty manifest of 13 liftoffs in 2015 comes hot on the heels of ULA’s banner year in 2014 whereby they completed every one of the firm’s 14 planned launches in 2014 with a 100% success rate.

“What ULA has accomplished in 2014, in support of our customers’ missions, is nothing short of remarkable,” said ULA CEO Tory Bruno.

“When you think about every detail – all of the science, all of the planning, all of the resources – that goes into a single launch, it is hard to believe that we successfully did it at a rate of about once a month, sometimes twice.”

ULA’s stable of launchers includes the Delta II, Delta IV and the Atlas V. They are in direct competition with the Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX founded by billionaire Elon Musk.

And ULA’s 2015 launch calendar begins tonight with a milestone launch for the US Navy that also marks the 200th launch overall of the venerable Atlas-Centaur rocket that has a renowned history dating back some 52 years to 1962 with multiple variations.

And tonight’s blastoff of the Multi-User Objective System (MUOS-3) satellite for the US Navy involves using the most powerful variant of the rocket, known as the Atlas V 551.

Liftoff of MUOS-3 is set for 7:43 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The launch window extends for 44 minutes and the weather outlook is very favorable. It will be carried live on a ULA webcast.

MUOS-3 Navy communications satellite and Atlas V rocket at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL for launch on Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: ULA
MUOS-3 Navy communications satellite and Atlas V rocket at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL for launch on Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: ULA

The second ULA launch of 2015 comes just over 1 week later on January 29, lofting NASA’s SMAP Earth observation satellite on a Delta II rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

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

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.

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

NASA's Soil Moisture Active Passive mission (SMAP) will lift off from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 9:20 a.m. EST (6:20 a.m. PST) on a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket.   Credit:  NASA
NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive mission (SMAP) will lift off from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 9:20 a.m. EST (6:20 a.m. PST) on a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket. Credit: NASA

“It goes without saying: ULA had a banner year,” Bruno said. “As we look ahead to 2015, we could not be more honored to continue supporting our nation in one of the most technologically complex, critical American needs: affordable, reliable access to space.”

ULA began operations in December 2006 with the merger of the expendable launch vehicle operations of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

ULA’s Delta IV Heavy is currently the world’s most powerful rocket and flawlessly launched NASA’s Orion capsule on Dec. 5, 2014 on its highly successful uncrewed maiden test flight on the EFT-1 mission.

Overall, the 14-mission launch manifest in 2014 included 9 national security space missions, 3 space exploration missions, including NASA’s Orion EFT-1 and 2 commercial missions.

NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014.   Launch pad remote camera view.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Launch pad remote camera view. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Beyond MUOS-3 and SMAP, the launch manifest on tap for 2015 also includes additional NASA science satellites, an ISS commercial cargo resupply mission as well as more GPS satellites for military and civilian uses and top secret national security launches using the Delta II, Delta IV and the Atlas V boosters.

NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission (MMS) to study Earth’s magnetic reconnection 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.

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

In March, June and September the GPS 2F-9, 2F-10 and 2F-11 navigation satellites will launch on Delta IV and Atlas V rockets from Cape Canaveral.

Two top secret NRO satellites are set to launch on a Delta IV and Atlas in April and August from Vandenberg.

An Air Force Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) space plane may launch as soon as May atop an Atlas V from Cape Canaveral.

The MUOS-4 liftoff is set for August on another Atlas from the Cape.

The Morelos 3 communications satellite for the Mexican Ministry of Communications and Transportation is due to launch in October from the Cape.

In November, the Atlas V will be pressed into service for the first time to launch the Orbital Sciences Cygnus Orb-4 cargo vehicle to the International Space Station (ISS) as a replacement rocket for the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket which is grounded following its catastrophic Oct. 28 explosion on the Orb-3 mission from NASA Wallops.

This Cygnus launched atop Antares on Jan. 9 and docked on Jan. 12   Cygnus pressurized cargo module – side view – during exclusive visit by  Ken Kremer/Universe Today to observe prelaunch processing by Orbital Sciences at NASA Wallops, VA. ISS astronauts will open this hatch to unload 2780 pounds of cargo.  Docking mechanism hooks and latches to ISS at left. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
This Cygnus launched atop Antares on Jan. 9, 2014. The next Cygnus Orb-4 will launch for the first time atop an Atlas V in Nov. 2015. Cygnus pressurized cargo module – side view – during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today to observe prelaunch processing by Orbital Sciences at NASA Wallops, VA. ISS astronauts will open this hatch to unload 2780 pounds of cargo. Docking mechanism hooks and latches to ISS at left. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The Orb-4 launch also marks ULA’s first launch to the ISS. It may be followed by another Cygnus launch atop an Atlas V in 2016 as Orbital works to bring the Antares back into service.

Antares doomed descent to incendiary destruction after first stage propulsion system of Orbital Sciences’ rocket exploded moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Antares doomed descent to incendiary destruction after first stage propulsion system of Orbital Sciences’ rocket exploded moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

In another major milestone down the road, the Atlas V is 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.

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

Ken Kremer

Dusty, Windy And Damp: Five NASA Probes To Hunt Down Climate Change in 2014

How badly will climate change affect our planet? Different models tell us different things, and that’s partly because we need more precise information about the factors that warm the world. How much is sea level rising? What are the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? All of these things must be known.

NASA expects to launch five Earth science missions this year, which is the biggest roster in more than a decade. They’ll track rainfall, seek water hiding in soil, and examine carbon dioxide and ocean winds around the world. Here’s a quick rundown of the busy launch schedule:

Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory (Feb. 27): This will be the first of a series of satellites to look at snow and rain from space. “This new information will help answer questions about our planet’s life-sustaining water cycle, and improve water resource management and weather forecasting,” NASA stated. This joint spacecraft with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will launch from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center on a H-IIA rocket. GPM was built at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

ISS-RapidScat (June 6): This sensor will sit on the International Space Station and monitor ocean winds (including storms and hurricanes). What’s interesting about this mission is its use of old parts, NASA points out, as well as the decision to mount it on a station rather than take the more expensive route of making it a separate satellite. The probe will launch on a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft (aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket) from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station as part of a regular commercial resupply flight.

Artist's conception of how ISS-RapidScat will work. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Johnson Space Center
Artist’s conception of how ISS-RapidScat will work. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Johnson Space Center

Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)-2 (July): NASA plans to take a second crack at this type of satellite after the OCO launch failure in 2009. The satellite will seek out carbon dioxide to better understand where it is emitted (in both natural and artificial processes) and how it moves through the water, air and land. This will launch from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base on a Delta II rocket. OCO-2 will be managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS) (Sept. 12): This technology demonstration project will use lasers, in three wavelengths, to examine tiny particles borne into the atmosphere from phenomena such as pollution, smoke, dust and volcanoes. “These aerosol particles pose human health risks at ground level and influence global climate through their impact on cloud cover and solar radiation in Earth’s atmosphere,” NASA stated. This will also leave Earth aboard a SpaceX resupply flight from Cape Canaveral.

Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission (November): Will check out the moisture level of soil, with the aim of refining “predictions of agricultural productivity, weather and climate,” NASA stated. Also managed by JPL, this satellite will spend its time in an almost-polar “sun-synchronous” orbit that keeps the sun’s illumination below constant during SMAP’s turns around the Earth. SMAP will launch from Vandenberg on a Delta II rocket.

Source: NASA