New Satellites Will Tighten Knowledge of Earth’s Radiation Belts


Surrounding our planet like vast invisible donuts (the ones with the hole, not the jelly-filled kind) are the Van Allen radiation belts, regions where various charged subatomic particles get trapped by Earth’s magnetic fields, forming rings of plasma. We know that the particles that make up this plasma can have nasty effects on spacecraft electronics as well as human physiology, but there’s a lot that isn’t known about the belts. Two new satellites scheduled to launch on August 23 August 24 will help change that.

“Particles from the radiation belts can penetrate into spacecraft and disrupt electronics, short circuits or upset memory on computers. The particles are also dangerous to astronauts traveling through the region. We need models to help predict hazardous events in the belts and right now we are aren’t very good at that. RBSP will help solve that problem.”
– David Sibeck, RBSP project scientist, Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA’s Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP) mission will put a pair of identical satellites into eccentric orbits that take them from as low as 375 miles (603 km) to as far out as 20,000 miles (32,186 km). During their orbits the satellites will pass through both the stable inner and more variable outer Van Allen belts, one trailing the other. Along the way they’ll investigate the many particles that make up the belts and identify what sort of activity occurs in isolated locations and across larger areas.

“Definitely the biggest challenge that we face is the radiation environment that the probes are going to be flying through,” said Mission Systems Engineer Jim Stratton at APL. “Most spacecraft try to avoid the radiation belts — and we’re going to be flying right through the heart of them.”

Read: The Van Allen Belts and the Great Electron Escape

Each 8-sided RBSP satellite is approximately 6 feet (1.8 meters) across and weighs 1,475 pounds (669 kg).

The goal is to find out where the particles in the belts originate from — do they come from the solar wind? Or Earth’s own ionosphere? — as well as to find out what powers the belts’ variations in size and gives the particles their extreme speed and energy. Increased knowledge about Earth’s radiation belts will also help in the understanding of the plasma environment that pervades the entire Universe.

Read: What Are The Radiation Belts?

Ultimately the information gathered by the RBSP mission will help in the design of future science and communications satellites as well as safer spacecraft for human explorers.

The satellites are slated to launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station no earlier than 4:08 a.m. EDT on August 24.

Find out more about the RBSP mission here.

Video/rendering: NASA/GSFC.

Mighty Delta 4 Heavy Rocket and Clandestine Satellite Poised at Pad

Image caption: The Delta 4 Heavy rocket and Super secret payload stand poised for launch at 6:13 a.m. EDT on June 29, 2012 following retraction of the mobile service tower. Credit: Ken Kremer

A mighty triple-barreled Delta 4 Heavy rocket with a clandestine military satellite perhaps the size of Hubble was unveiled this evening (June 28) at a seaside launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The 232 foot tall rocket is poised to blast off at 6:13 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The exact launch window, like everything else about the classified mission and the NROL-15 spy satellite is top secret.

The mobile service tower was retracted from around the absolutely gorgeous white and orange colored rocket starting around 8:30 p.m. and the super secret spy satellite being launched for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) – see my photos.

The launch was delayed a day by the lingering devastation caused by Tropical Storm Debby.

Image caption: Delta 4 Heavy rocket and top secret NRO payload are poised for launch on June 29. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com

The United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy is flying for the first time with upgraded RS-68A first stage engines, each of which delivers 720,000 pounds of thrust.

This will be the 6th launch of the Delta 4 Heavy – now the most powerful rocket in the US fleet following the shutdown of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program.

As of 12:45 a.m. June 29 , the countdown is now underway ! Fueling will commence shortly. Stay tuned for a post – launch report

Ken Kremer

Debby Dousing Delta 4 Heavy Launch Hopes for June 28

Image Caption: National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) spy satellite arrives at Cape Canaveral Launch Pad 37 for mounting on top Delta 4 Heavy Rocket slated for June 28, 2012 blastoff. Credit: United Launch Alliance
See Photo Gallery below

Debby is doing a real number on vast swaths of Florida, dumping up to 15 inches of rain, unleashing deadly tornadoes and dousing hopes of launching a mighty triple barreled Delta IV Heavy rocket on Thursday morning, June 28, with a super secret spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

Tropical Storm Debby has destroyed homes, killed at least 1 person and will wreak havoc as it tracks across central Florida from the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic Coast over the next two days – just north of Cape Canaveral, Florida and the Delta 4 Heavy launch pad at Space Launch Complex 37.

The last Delta 4 Heavy to blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov 21, 2010. Credit: Alan Walters – awaltersphoto.com

The odds of launching the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta 4 Heavy on June 28 have dropped to just 30 percent favorable. The outlook improves slightly to 40 % favorable on Friday, June 29 according to the official Air Force weather forecast.

The launch window for Thursday’s ULA Delta 4 Heavy launch stretches from 6:16 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and comes just 8 days after the last spy satellite blasted off on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral on June 20 – launch story here.


Image Caption: Fog and heavy rain obscure view of triple barreled Delta 4 Heavy rocket protected inside Mobile Gantry from outside high security perimeter gate at Launch Pad 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com

The clandestine NROL-15 payload was bolted atop the Delta 4 Heavy booster several weeks ago.

See the photo gallery below provided to Universe Today showing the shrouded upper stage being hoisted on top of the booster.

This will be only the 6th launch of the 232 foot tall Delta 4 Heavy booster and the first one to feature the upgraded RS-68A first stage engines, delivering 702,000 pounds of thrust each.

A suspect vent relief rocket valve was successfully changed out by technicians over the weekend and will not delay the launch, ULA spokesperson Jessica Rye told Universe Today.

The powerful Delta 4 Heavy rocket and NROL-15 payload are due to be unveiled at pad 37 on Wednesday evening, June 27- depending on Debby !. .

Ken Kremer

Photo Gallery: NROL-15 Spy satellite delivery and mounting atop Delta 4 Heavy Rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station – Space Launch Complex 37. Credit: United Launch Alliance

Yes, As a Matter of Fact It IS Rocket Science

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On the afternoon of February 24, 2012, at 5:15 p.m. EST local time, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifted off from the pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base carrying in its payload the US Navy’s next-generation narrowband communications satellite MUOS-1. After two scrubbed launches the previous week due to weather, the third time was definitely a charm for ULA, and the launch went nominally (that’s science talk for “awesome”.)

But what made that day, that time the right time to launch? Do they just like ending a work week with a rocket launch? (Not that I could blame them!) And what about the weather… why go through the trouble to prepare for a launch at all if the weather doesn’t look promising? Where’s the logic in that?

As it turns out, when it comes to launches, it really is rocket science.

There are a lot of factors involved with launches. Obviously all the incredible engineering it takes to even plan and build a launch vehicle, and of course its payload — whatever it happens to be launching in the first place. But it sure doesn’t end there.

Launch managers need to take into consideration the needs of the mission, where the payload has to ultimately end up in orbit… or possibly even beyond. Timing is critical when you’re aiming at moving targets — in this case the targets being specific points in space (literally.) Then there’s the type of rocket being used, and where it is launching from. Only then can weather come into the equation, and usually only at the last minute to determine if the countdown will proceed before the launch window closes.

How big that launch window may be — from a few hours to a few minutes — depends on many things.

Kennedy Space Center’s Anna Helney recently assembled an article “Aiming for an Open Window” that explains how this process works:

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The most significant deciding factors in when to launch are where the spacecraft is headed, and what its solar needs are. Earth-observing spacecraft, for example, may be sent into low-Earth orbit. Some payloads must arrive at a specific point at a precise time, perhaps to rendezvous with another object or join a constellation of satellites already in place. Missions to the moon or a planet involve aiming for a moving object a long distance away.

For example, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft began its eight-month journey to the Red Planet on Nov. 26, 2011 with a launch aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. After the initial push from the powerful Atlas V booster, the Centaur upper stage then sent the spacecraft away from Earth on a specific track to place the laboratory, with its car-sized Curiosity rover, inside Mars’ Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012. Due to the location of Mars relative to Earth, the prime planetary launch opportunity for the Red Planet occurs only once every 26 months.

Additionally, spacecraft often have solar requirements: they may need sunlight to perform the science necessary to meet the mission’s objectives, or they may need to avoid the sun’s light in order to look deeper into the dark, distant reaches of space.

A Delta II arcs across the sky carrying NASA's Suomi NPP spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Such precision was needed for NASA’s Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) spacecraft, which launched Oct. 28, 2011 aboard a ULA Delta II rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The Earth-observing satellite circles at an altitude of 512 miles, sweeping from pole to pole 14 times each day as the planet turns on its axis. A very limited launch window was required so that the spacecraft would cross the ascending node at exactly 1:30 p.m. local time and scan Earth’s surface twice each day, always at the same local time.

All of these variables influence a flight’s trajectory and launch time. A low-Earth mission with specific timing needs must lift off at the right time to slip into the same orbit as its target; a planetary mission typically has to launch when the trajectory will take it away from Earth and out on the correct course.

According to [Eric Haddox, the lead flight design engineer in NASA’s Launch Services Program], aiming for a specific target — another planet, a rendezvous point, or even a specific location in Earth orbit where the solar conditions will be just right — is a bit like skeet shooting.

“You’ve got this object that’s going to go flying out into the air and you’ve got to shoot it,” said Haddox. “You have to be able to judge how far away your target is and how fast it’s moving, and make sure you reach the same point at the same time.”

But Haddox also emphasized that Earth is rotating on its axis while it orbits the sun, making the launch pad a moving platform. With so many moving players, launch windows and trajectories must be carefully choreographed.

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It’s a fascinating and complex set of issues that mission managers need to get just right in order to ensure the success of a launch — and thus the success of a mission, whether it be putting a communication satellite into orbit or a rover onto Mars… or somewhere much, much farther than that.

Read the rest of the article here.

X-37B – The Gift That Keeps On Giving


Video provided courtesy of United Launch Alliance

The United States Air Force’s second flight of the X-37B – is headed into extra innings. Known as the Orbital Test Vehicle 2 (OTV-2) this robotic mini space shuttle launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Mar. 5, 2011. Although the U.S. Air Force has kept mum regarding details about the space plane’s mission – it has announced that the OTV-2 has exceeded its endurance limit of 270 days on orbit as of the end of November.

The OTV is launched atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 501 rocket. The space plane is protected within a fairing until it reaches orbit. After separation, the diminutive shuttle begins its mission.

OTV mission USA-226, as it is officially known, is by all accounts going smoothly and the spacecraft is reported to be in good health. The U.S. Air Force has not announced when OTV-2 will be directed to land.

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The fact that the space plane will continue to orbit beyond what its stated limits are highlights that the OTV has greater capabilities than what was officially announced. The first OTV flight launched in April of 2011 and landed 224 days later at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The U.S. Air Force is undoubtedly being more judicious with fuel stores on board the robotic spacecraft, allowing for a longer duration flight.

Much like NASA’s retired fleet of space shuttle orbiters, the OTV has a payload bay that allows for payloads and experiments to be conducted on-orbit. What payloads the U.S. Air Force has had on either mission – remains a secret.

Boeing has announced that the X-37B could be modified to conduct crewed missions to and from orbit. Tentatively named the X-37C, this spacecraft would be roughly twice the size of its unmanned cousin. If this variant goes into service it would be used to transport astronauts to and from the orbiting International Space Station (ISS).

OTV USA-226 launched on Mar. 5, 2011 and has helped prove out the mini space plane's design. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

The X-37B has become a bit controversial of late. Members of the Chinese press have stated that the space plane raises concerns of an arms race in space. Xinhua News Agency and China Daily have expressed concern that the OTVs could be used to deliver weapons to orbit. The Pentagon has flatly denied these allegations. The clandestine nature of these flights have led to a wide variety of theories as to what the OTVs have been used to ferry to orbit.

AEHF-1 Rides Atlas V To Orbit

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The U.S. Air Force successfully launched the first Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite (AEHF-1) on top of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket Saturday, Aug. 14 at 7:07 a.m. EDT. The Atlas V lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC 41) riding a pillar of flame across the morning sky. The window for the launch was two hours long, however it wasn’t needed, the launch occurred on the first attempt. 

“As we expected it was a totally successful launch.” said U.S. Air Force Captain Glorimar Rodriguez.

The AEHF constellation of satellites will replace the aging Milstar satellites. The more-modern AEHF is designed to ensure rapid communications for military leaders. This new, jam-proof system will be the link between the president and the armed forces in the event of a nuclear attack. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor to construct both the AEHF fleet of satellites as well as the mission control center where the satellites will be operated.

AEHF launch. Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com) for Universe Today

There are a number of U.S. allies that are involved with the AEHF program and can use these satellites once the system is activated. Some of these allies include the Netherlands, Canada and the United Kingdom.

When the system is complete it will be comprised of three functioning satellites and a spare satellite. These satellites will be inter-connected and are capable of communicating with one another. They will provide the military with vital communications-related data including, but not limited to, maps, video and targeting data. When operational, the AEHF constellation will be operated by the 4th Space Operations Squadron, who are stationed at Schriever Air Force Base, CO.

Pre-launch. Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41. Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com) for Universe Today