Covert NRO Satellite Fades into Capes Cloudy Night Skies Shrouded in Liftoff Secrecy: Gallery – As ULA Atlas Wins Landsat Launch

Covert NROL-52 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office fades into cloudy nighttime skies shrouded in secrecy after liftoff on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket at 3:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL — As one Atlas rocket carrying a covert spy satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) to monitor Earth for national security purposes faded into cloudy nighttime skies over the Cape in the dead of night shrouded in liftoff secrecy, rocket builder United Launch Alliance (ULA) won another significant Atlas launch contract for NASA’s Landsat 9 satellite to monitor the health of Earth’s environment.

Capping two launches from two different rocket companies in four days by ULA and SpaceX followed by the arrival back in port of SpaceX’s ocean landed recovered booster, last week provided all the proof that’s needed to demonstrate that the revitalization of Florida’s Spaceport is well underway and America’s rocket makers are capturing lucrative launch contracts ensuring an upswing nationwide in rocket and spacecraft manufacturing – for critical military surveillance, government, civilian and science needs.

Check out the exciting gallery of Atlas launch imagery and videos including the thrilling droneship return of SpaceX’s 156 foot tall first stage booster back into Port Canaveral less than 4 hours after ULA delivered the classified NROL-52 surveillance satellite to a secret orbit – from this author and several space media colleagues. And check back here as the gallery grows!

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

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

It was a case of ‘Going, Going, Gone’ as seemingly endless stormy weather plagued the space coast and the Atlas soon disappeared behind clouds from many but not all vantage points, as the two stage rocket was finally cleared to launch on its fifth try. Postponed three times by poor weather and once due to a technical glitch to fix a faulty second stage transmitter.

Reflecting in a pond a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket blasts off with the covert NROL-52 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office at 3:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The launches were postponed by the downstream impact of Hurricane Irma which forced the base closings of the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and significantly impacted the Florida Space Coast region by causing over $100 million in damage to buildings, homes, businesses, hotels, restaurants, infrastructure and more due to flooding and hurricane force winds.

“We’ve had an incredible month,” said Brig. Gen. Wayne R. Monteith, Commander, 45th Space Wing.

“Not only did we restore our base to full mission capable status just a few hours after Hurricane Irma impacted our coast, but we’ve successfully launched two rockets in less than four days just weeks later.”

Covert NROL-52 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office fades into cloudy nighttime skies shrouded in secrecy after liftoff on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket at 3:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“The 45th Space Wing supported ULA’s Atlas V launch of the NROL-52 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office early morning on Oct. 15!”

“The men and women of the 45th Space Wing continue to make the impossible possible.”

Reflecting in a pond a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket blasts off with the covert NROL-52 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office at 3:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

More than a quarter of all the world’s rocket launches take place from Florida’s burgeoning spaceports.

Covert NROL-52 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office fades into cloudy nighttime skies shrouded in secrecy after liftoff on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket at 3:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“Our team’s resiliency and tireless efforts in launching over 25% of all world-wide launches this year proves why we are the ‘World’s Premier Gateway to Space,’” Montieth gushed in pride.

Meanwhile, NASA selected ULA to provide launch services for the Landsat 9 mission with another Atlas V rocket as soon as late 2020.

“The mission is currently targeted for a contract launch date of June 2021, while protecting for the ability to launch as early as December 2020, on an Atlas V 401 rocket from Space Launch Complex 3E at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California,” said NASA.

The Landsat 9 launch contract is worth $153.8 million.

Landsat 9 is a joint mission between NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

“Landsat 9 will continue the Landsat program’s critical role in monitoring, understanding, and managing the land resources needed to sustain human life.”

“We are honored that NASA has entrusted ULA with launching this critical land imaging satellite,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and chief executive, in a statement.

“ULA’s world-leading performance and reliability, paired with the tremendous heritage of 74 consecutive successful Atlas V launches, provides the optimal value for our customer. We look forward to working together again with our mission partners at NASA’s Launch Services Program, Goddard Space Flight Center and the U.S. Geological Survey in the integration and launch of this significant mission, contributing to the international strategy for examining the health and state of the Earth.”

ULA Atlas V rocket streaks to orbit in this long duration exposure carrying covert NROL-52 payload for the NRO after lift off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Oct. 15, 2017 at 3:28 a.m. EDT at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Jeff Seibert

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

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

Check out this exciting video compilation from remote cameras circling the Atlas pad 41.

Video Caption: Launch of the NROL-52 satellite on an Atlas 5 booster from Pad 41. A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 421 rocket launches the NROL-52 payload on Oct. 15, 2017 at 328 a.m. EDT on the 5th launch attempt. Previous launch attempts were halted by weather issues 3 times, and a faulty telemetry radio that needed to be replaced after the rocket was rolled back to the Pad 41 Vertical Integration Facility. Credit Jeff Seibert

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

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

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

The dual chamber, dual-nozzle RD-180 is fueled by a mixture of RP-1 kerosene and LOX (liquid oxygen).

The ULA Atlas V first stage powers NROL-52 spy satellite to orbit for the NRO firing the dual chamber, dual-nozzle RD-180 engines after blastoff at 3:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

Reflecting in a pond a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket blasts off with the covert NROL-52 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office at 3:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

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

Ken Kremer

Liftoff of ULA Atlas V rocket carrying classified NROL-52 payload for the NRO on Oct. 15, 2017 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Julian Leek
United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket streaks to orbit in this long duration exposure carrying covert NROL-52 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office after lift off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Oct. 15, 2017 at 3:28 a.m. EDT at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Reflecting in a pond a ULA Atlas V rocket stands poised for launch with the NROL-52 surveillance satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office prior to blastoff on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Reflown SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage booster arrives at sunrise atop OCISLY droneship being towed into the mouth of Port Canaveral, FL on Oct. 15, 2017 after successfully launch SES-11 UHDTV comsat to orbit on Oct. 11, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com
ULA Atlas V rocket blasts off carrying covert NROL-52 payload for the NRO from Space Launch Complex-41 on Oct. 15, 2017 at 3:28 a.m. EDT at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Jeff Seibert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Kremer

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

NASA’s Tracking Data Relay Satellite-M Vital for Science Relay Poised for Liftoff Aug. 18 – Watch Live

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-M (TDRS-M) stands on the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station poised for liftoff on Aug. 18, 2017. The rocket rolled out to the pad two days earlier on Aug. 16. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – The last of NASA’s next generation Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TRDS) that looks like a giant alien fish or cocooned creature but actually plays an absolutely vital role in relaying critical science measurements, research data and tracking observations gathered by the International Space Station (ISS), Hubble and a plethora of Earth science missions is poised for blastoff Friday, Aug. 18, morning from the Florida Space Coast.

Liftoff atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket of NASA’s $408 million eerily insectoid-looking TDRS-M science relay comsat atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket is scheduled to take place from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 8:03 a.m. EDT (2:03 GMT) Aug. 18.

Up close clean room visit with NASA’s newest science data relay comsat – Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-M (TDRS-M) inside the Astrotech payload processing facility high bay in Titusville, FL. Two gigantic fold out antennae’s, plus space to ground antenna dish visible inside the ‘cicada like cocoon’ with solar arrays below. Launch on ULA Atlas V slated for August 2017 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Atlas V/TDRS-M launch stack was rolled out from the ULA Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) to pad 41 Wednesday morning, Aug 16 starting at about 9:10 a.m. EDT. The quarter mile move took about 50 minutes and went off without a hitch.

“The spacecraft, Atlas V rocket and all range equipment are ready,” said NASA launch director Tim Dunn at today’s pre-launch news conference at the Kennedy Space Center. “And the combined government and contractor launch team is prepared to launch TDRS-M — a critical national space asset for space communications.”

The rocket and spacecraft sailed through the Flight Readiness Review (FRR) and Launch Ready Review (LRR) over the past few days conducted by NASA, ULA and Boeing and the contractor teams.

The two stage Atlas V rocket stands 191 feet tall.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-M (TDRS-M) stands on the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station poised for liftoff on Aug. 18, 2017. The rocket rolled out from the VIF the pad two days earlier on Aug. 16. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

You can witness the launch with you own eyes from many puiblic beaches, parks and spots ringing the Kennedy Space Center.

If you can’t personally be here to witness the launch in Florida, you can always watch NASA’s live coverage on NASA Television and the agency’s website.

The NASA/ULA/TDRS-M launch coverage will be broadcast on NASA TV beginning at 7:30 a.m. as the countdown milestones occur on Aug. 18 with additional commentary on the NASA launch blog:

https://blogs.nasa.gov/tdrs/

You can watch the launch live at NASA TV at – http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

The launch window opens at 8:03 a.m. EDT extends for 40 minutes from 8:03 a.m. to 8:43 a.m.

In the event of delay for any reason, the next launch opportunity is Saturday, Aug. 19 with NASA TV coverage starting about 7:30 a.m. EDT. The launch window opens at 7:59 a.m. EDT.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-M (TDRS-M) stands on the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station poised for liftoff on Aug. 18, 2017 The rocket rolled out to the pad two days earlier on Aug. 16. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The weather looks quite good at this time with an 80% chance of favorable conditions at launch time according to U.S. Air Force meteorologists with the 45th Space Wing Weather Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base. The primary concerns on Aug. 18 are for thick clouds and cumulus clouds.

The odds remain at 80% favorable for the 24 hour scrub turnaround day on Aug. 19.

The launch was originally scheduled for Aug. 3 but was delayed a few weeks when the satellite’s Omni S-band antenna was damaged during final spacecraft closeout activities.

The Omni S-band antenna was bumped during final processing activities prior to the planned encapsulation inside the nosecone, said a Boeing official at the prelaunch media briefing and had to be replaced and then retested. It is critical to the opening phases of the mission for attitude control.

Inside the Astrotech payload processing facility in Titusville, FL,NASA’s massive, insect like Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, or TDRS-M, spacecraft is undergoing preflight processing during media visit on 13 July 2017. TDRS-M will transmit critical science data gathered by the ISS, Hubble and numerous NASA Earth science missions. It is being prepared for encapsulation inside its payload fairing prior to being transported to Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket on 3 August 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The importance of the TDRS constellation of satellites can’t be overstated.

Virtually all the communications relay capability involving human spaceflight, such as the ISS, resupply vehicles like the SpaceX cargo Dragon and Orbital ATK Cygnus and the soon to launch human space taxis like crew Dragon, Boeing Starliner and NASA’s Orion deep space crew capsule route their science results voice, data, command, telemetry and communications via the TDRS network of satellites.

The TDRS constellation enables both space to space and space to ground communcations for virtually the entire orbital period.

Plus it’s a super busy time at the Kennedy Space Center. Because, if all goes well Friday’s launch will be the second this week!

The excitement of space travel got a big boost at the beginning of the week with the lunchtime blastoff of a SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft on a cargo mission carrying 3 tons of science and supplies to the space station. Read my onsite articles here.

Blastoff of SpaceX Dragon CRS12 on its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017 as seen from the VAB roof. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The success of Monday’s SpaceX cargo Dragon rendezvous and berthing to the ISS is virtually entirely dependent on the TDRS network of satellites. That network will be enhanced with Fridays planned liftoff of NASA’s TDRS-M science relay comsat.

TDRS-M looks like a giant insect – or a fish depending on your point of view. It was folded into flight configuration for encapsulation in the clean room and the huge pair of single access antennas resembled a cocoon or a cicada. The 15 foot diameter single access antennas are large parabolic-style antennas and are mechanically steerable.

What does TDRS do? Why is it important? How does it operate?

“The existing Space Network of satellites like TDRS provide constant communications from other NASA satellites like the ISS or Earth observing satellites like Aura, Aqua, Landsat that have high bandwidth data that needs to be transmitted to the ground,” TDRS Deputy Project Manager Robert Buchanan explained to Universe Today during an interview in the Astrotech clean room.

“TRDS tracks those satellites using antennas that articulate. Those user satellites send the data to TDRS, like TDRS-M we see here and nine other TDRS satellites on orbit now tracking those satellites.”

“That data acquired is then transmitted to a ground station complex at White Sands, New Mexico. Then the data is sent to wherever those user satellites want the data to be sent is needed, such as a science data ops center or analysis center.”

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-M (TDRS-M) stands on the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station poised for liftoff on Aug. 18, 2017. The rocket rolled out to the pad two days earlier on Aug. 16. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

TDRS-M, spacecraft, which stands for Tracking and Data Relay Satellite – M is NASA’s new and advanced science data relay communications satellite that will transmit research measurements and analysis gathered by the astronaut crews and instruments flying abroad the International Space Station (ISS), Hubble Space Telescope and over 35 NASA Earth science missions including MMS, GPM, Aura, Aqua, Landsat, Jason 2 and 3 and more.

The TDRS constellation orbits 22,300 miles above Earth and provide near-constant communication links between the ground and the orbiting satellites.

Tracking and Data Relay Satellite artwork explains how the TDRS constellation enables continuous, global communications coverage for near-Earth spacecraft. Credit: NASA

TRDS-M will have S-, Ku- and Ka-band capabilities. Ka has the capability to transmit as much as six-gigabytes of data per minute. That’s the equivalent of downloading almost 14,000 songs per minute says NASA.

The TDRS program is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

TDRS-M is the third satellite in the third series of NASA’s American’s most powerful and most advanced Tracking and Data Relay Satellites. It is designed to last for a 15 year orbital lifetime.

The first TDRS satellite was deployed from the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983 as TDRS-A.

TDRS-M was built by prime contractor Boeing in El Segundo, California and is the third of a three satellite series – comprising TDRS -K, L, and M. They are based on the Boeing 601 series satellite bus and will be keep the TDRS satellite system operational through the 2020s.

TDRS-K and TDRS-L were launched in 2013 and 2014.

The Tracking and Data Relay Satellite project is managed at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

TDRS-M was built as a follow on and replacement satellite necessary to maintain and expand NASA’s Space Network, according to a NASA description.

The gigantic satellite is about as long as two school buses and measures 21 meters in length by 13.1 meters wide.

It has a dry mass of 1800 kg (4000 lbs) and a fueled mass of 3,454 kilogram (7,615 lb) at launch.

TDRS-M will blastoff on a ULA Atlas V in the baseline 401 configuration, with no augmentation of solid rocket boosters on the first stage. The payload fairing is 4 meters (13.1 feet) in diameter and the upper stage is powered by a single-engine Centaur.

TDRS-M will be launched to a Geostationary orbit some 22,300 miles (35,800 km) above Earth.

“The final orbital location for TDRS-M has not yet been determined,” Buchanen told me.

The Atlas V booster was assembled inside the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at SLC-41 and was rolled out to the launch pad 2 days before liftoff with the TDRS-M science relay comsat comfortably encapsulated inside the nose cone.

Carefully secured inside its shipping container, the TDRS-M satellite was transported on June 23 by a US Air Force cargo aircraft from Boeing’s El Segundo, California facility to Space Coast Regional Airport in Titusville, Florida, for preflight processing at Astrotech.

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite TDRS-M, CRS-12, ORS 5 and NASA and space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

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

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about the upcoming ULA Atlas TDRS-M NASA comsat on Aug. 18, 2017 , SpaceX Dragon CRS-12 resupply launch to ISS on Aug. 14, Solar Eclipse, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:

Aug 17-18: “TDRS-M NASA comsat, SpaceX CRS-12 resupply launches to the ISS, Intelsat35e, BulgariaSat 1 and NRO Spysat, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, ULA Atlas/John Glenn Cygnus launch to ISS, SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity and Opportunity explore Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Science Laden SpaceX Dragon Set for Aug. 14 ISS Launch, Testfire Inaugurates Triad of August Florida Liftoffs: Watch Live

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket rests horizontally at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 13 Aug. 2017 while being processed for liftoff of the Dragon CRS-12 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) slated for 14 Aug. 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – A triad of August liftoffs from the Florida Space Coast inaugurates Monday, Aug. 14 with a science laden commercial SpaceX Dragon bound for the International Space Station (ISS) – loaded with over 3 tons of NASA science, hardware and supplies including a cosmic ray detector, medical research experiments dealing with Parkinson’s disease and lung tissue, vegetable seeds, mice and much more, following a successful engine test firing of the Falcon 9 booster on Thursday.

“Static fire test of Falcon 9 complete,” SpaceX confirmed via Twitter soon after completion of the test at 9:10 a.m. EDT, Aug 10. (1310 GMT) “—targeting August 14 launch from Pad 39A for Dragon’s next resupply mission to the @Space_Station.”

Check out our photos & videos herein of the Aug. 10 static first test of the Falcon 9 first stage that paves the path to blastoff – as witnessed live by Ken Kremer and Jeff Seibert.

The triple headed sunshine state space spectacular kicks off with Monday’s lunchtime launch of the next unmanned SpaceX Dragon cargo freighter to the ISS from seaside pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, now targeted for Aug. 14 at 12:31 p.m. EDT (1631 GMT).

The closely spaced trio of space launches marches forward barely 4 days later with liftoff of NASA’s amazingly insectoid-looking TDRS-M science relay comsat slated for Friday morning Aug. 18 atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket.

Lastly, a week after TDRS-M and just 11 days after the SpaceX Dragon an Orbital ATK Minotaur 4 rocket is due to blastoff just before midnight Aug. 25 and carry the ORS 5 mission to orbit for the U.S. military’s Operationally Responsive Space program. The Minotaur IV utilizes three stages from decommissioned Peacekeeper ICBMs formerly aimed at the Russians.

Of course getting 3 rockets off the ground from 3 different companies is all highly dependent on Florida’s hugely fickle hurricane season weather and the ever present reality of potential technical glitches, errant boaters and more – possibly resulting in a domino effect of cascading launch scrubs.

And sandwiched in between the Florida Space Coast blastoffs is the Total Solar ‘Eclipse Across America’ on Monday, Aug. 21 – for the first time in 99 years!

Although KSC and central Florida are not within the path of totality, the sun will still be about 85% obscured by the Moon.

So if you’re looking for bang for the space buck, the next two weeks have a lot to offer space and astronomy enthusiasts.

1st Reused SpaceX Dragon cargo craft lifts off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 5:07 p.m. June 3, 2017 on CRS-11 mission carrying 3 tons of research equipment, cargo and supplies to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Dragon resupply ship dubbed Dragon CRS-12 counts as SpaceX’s twelfth contracted commercial resupply services (CRS) mission to the International Space Station for NASA since 2012.

SpaceX conducts successful static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket on Aug. 10, 2017 at Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fl as seen from Playalinda causeway. Liftoff of the uncrewed Dragon CRS-12 resupply mission for NASA to the International Space Station (ISS) is scheduled for Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch this video of the Aug. 10 static hotfire test:

Video Caption: Hot fire test of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in preparation for it launching the NASA CRS-12 Dragon resupply mission to the International Space Station from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

The 20-foot high, 12-foot-diameter Dragon CRS-12 vessel is carrying more than 6,400 pounds ( 2,900 kg) of science experiments and research instruments, crew supplies, food water, clothing, hardware, gear and spare parts to the million pound orbiting laboratory complex. 20 mice are also onboard. This will support dozens of the 250 research investigations and experiments being conducted by Expedition 52 and 53 crew members.

SpaceX conducts successful static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket on Aug. 10, 2017 at Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fl as seen from Playalinda causeway. Liftoff of the uncrewed Dragon CRS-12 resupply mission for NASA to the International Space Station (ISS) is scheduled for Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

If you can’t personally be here to witness the launch in Florida, you can always watch NASA’s live coverage on NASA Television and the agency’s website.

The SpaceX/Dragon CRS-12 launch coverage will be broadcast on NASA TV beginning noon on Aug. 14 with additional commentary on the NASA launch blog.

SpaceX will also offer their own live webcast beginning approximately 15 minutes before launch at about 12:16 p.m. EDT.

You can watch the launch live at NASA TV at – http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

You can also watch the launch live at SpaceX hosted Webcast at – spacex.com/webcast

In the event of delay for any reason, the next launch opportunity is Tuesday, Aug. 15 with NASA TV coverage starting about 11:30 a.m. EDT.

The weather looks decent at this time with a 70% chance of favorable conditions at launch time according to U.S. Air Force meteorologists with the 45th Space Wing Weather Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base. The primary concerns on Aug. 14 are cumulus clouds and the potential for precipitation in the flight path.

The odds remain at 70% favorable for the 24 hour scrub turnaround day on Aug. 15.

Everything is currently on track for Monday’s noontime launch of the 230 foot tall SpaceX Falcon 9 on the NASA contracted SpaceX CRS-12 resupply mission to the million pound orbiting lab complex.

However since the launch window is instantaneous there is no margin for error. In case any delays arise during the countdown due to technical or weather issues a 24 hour scrub to Tuesday will result.

The lunchtime launch coincidently offers a convenient and spectacular opportunity for fun for the whole family as space enthusiasts flock in from around the globe.

Plus SpaceX will attempt a land landing of the 156 foot tall first stage back at the Cape at Landing Zone 1 some 8 minutes after liftoff – thus a double whammy of space action !!– punctuated by multiple loud sonic booms at booster landing time that will figuratively knock your socks off.

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster deploys quartet of landing legs moments before precision propulsive ground touchdown at Landing Zone 1 on Canaveral Air Force Station barely nine minutes after liftoff from Launch Complex 39A on 3 June 2017 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the Dragon CRS-11 resupply mission to the International Space Station for NASA. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

To date SpaceX has successfully recovered 13 boosters; 5 by land and 8 by sea, over the past 18 months. It’s a feat straight out of science fiction but aimed at drastically slashing the high cost of access to space.

The recent BulgariaSat-1 and Iridium-2 missions counted as the eighth and ninth SpaceX launches of 2017.

CRS-12 marks the eleventh SpaceX launch of 2017 and will establish a new single year record.

In contrast to the prior CRS-11 mission which flew a recycled Dragon, the CRS-12 Dragon is newly built.

The CRS-12 Dragon will be the last newly built one, says NASA. The remaining SpaceX CRS mission will utilize reused spaceships.

The Falcon 9 is also new and will attempt a land landing back at the Cape at Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1).

If the Aug. 14 launch occurs as scheduled, the Dragon will reach its preliminary orbit about 10 minutes later and deploy its life giving solar arrays. Dragon then begins a 2 day orbital chase of the station via a carefully choreographed series of thruster firings that bring the commercial spacecraft to rendezvous with the space station on Aug. 16.

Dragon will be grappled with the station’s Canadian built robotic arm at approximately 7 a.m. EDT on Aug. 16 by astronauts Jack Fischer of NASA and Paolo Nespoli of ESA (European Space Agency). It then will be installed on the Harmony module.

The Dragon spacecraft will spend approximately one month attached to the space station, returning to Earth in mid-September with results of earlier experiments.

Dragon CRS-12 is SpaceX’s third contracted resupply mission to launch this year for NASA.

The prior SpaceX cargo ships launched on Feb 19 and June 3, 2017 on the CRS-10 and CRS-11 missions to the space station. CRS-10 is further noteworthy as being the first SpaceX launch of a Falcon 9 from NASA’s historic pad 39A.

SpaceX leased pad 39A from NASA in 2014 and after refurbishments placed the pad back in service this year for the first time since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011.

Previous launches include 11 Apollo flights, the launch of the unmanned Skylab in 1973, 82 shuttle flights and five SpaceX launches.

Cargo Manifest for CRS-12:

TOTAL CARGO: 6415.4 lbs. / 2910 kg

TOTAL PRESSURIZED CARGO WITH PACKAGING: 3642 lbs. / 1652 kg
• Science Investigations 2019.4 lbs. / 916 kg
• Crew Supplies 485 lbs. / 220 kg
• Vehicle Hardware 747.4 lbs. / 339 kg
• Spacewalk Equipment 66.1 lbs. / 30 kg
• Computer Resources 116.8 lbs. / 53 kg

UNPRESSURIZED 2773.4 lbs. / 1258 kg
• Cosmic-Ray Energetics and Mass (CREAM) 2773.4 lbs. / 1258 kg

The CREAM instrument from the University of Maryland will be stowed for launch inside the Dragon’s unpressurized trunk. Astronauts will use the stations robotic arm to pluck it from the trunk and attach it to the exposed porch of the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM).

The Cosmic-Ray Energetics and Mass investigation (CREAM) instrument from the University of Maryland, College Park involves placing a balloon-borne instrument aboard the International Space Station to measure the charges of cosmic rays over a period of three years. CREAM will be attached to the Japanese Experiment Module Exposed Facility. Existing CREAM hardware used for balloon flights. Credit: NASA

Here is a NASA description of CREAM:

The Cosmic Ray Energetics and Mass (CREAM) instrument, attached to the Japanese Experiment Module Exposed Facility, measures the charges of cosmic rays ranging from hydrogen to iron nuclei. The data collected from the CREAM instrument will be used to address fundamental science questions on the origins and history of cosmic rays. CREAM’s three-year mission will help the scientific community build a stronger understanding of the fundamental structure of the universe.

The LRRK2 experiment seeks to grow larger crystals of the protein to investigate Parkinson’s disease and help develop new therapies:

Here is a NASA description of LRRK2:

Crystallization of Leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 (LRRK2) under Microgravity Conditions (CASIS PCG 7) will use the orbiting laboratory’s microgravity environment to grow larger versions of this important protein, implicated in Parkinson’s disease. Developed by the Michael J. Fox Foundation, Anatrace and Com-Pac International, researchers will look to take advantage of the station’s microgravity environment which allows protein crystals to grow larger and in more perfect shapes than earth-grown crystals, allowing them to be better analyzed on Earth. Defining the exact shape and morphology of LRRK2 would help scientists to better understand the pathology of Parkinson’s and aid in the development of therapies against this target.

Watch this Michael J. Fox video describing the LRRK2 crystallization experiment:

Video Caption: ISS National Lab SpaceX CRS-12 Payload Overview: Michael J. Fox Foundation. The Michael J. Fox Foundation is sending an experiment to the ISS National Lab to investigate the LRRK2 protein, a key target in identifying the makeup of Parkinson’s disease.

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite CRS-12, TRDS-M, and ORS 5 and NASA mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

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

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about the upcoming SpaceX Dragon CRS-12 resupply launch to ISS on Aug. 14, ULA Atlas TDRS-M NASA comsat on Aug. 18, 2017 Solar Eclipse, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:

Aug 12-14: “SpaceX CRS-12 resupply launches to the ISS, Intelsat35e, BulgariaSat 1 and NRO Spysat, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, ULA Atlas/John Glenn Cygnus launch to ISS, SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity and Opportunity explore Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Up close view of SpaceX Dragon CRS-11 resupply vessel atop Falcon 9 rocket and delivering 3 tons of science and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA. Liftoff occurred 3 June 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com
Inside the Astrotech payload processing facility in Titusville, FL,NASA’s massive, insect like Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, or TDRS-M, spacecraft is undergoing preflight processing during media visit on 13 July 2017. TDRS-M will transmit critical science data gathered by the ISS, Hubble and numerous NASA Earth science missions. It is being prepared for encapsulation inside its payload fairing prior to being transported to Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket on 3 August 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Musk Says Maiden Falcon Heavy to Launch in November, Acknowledges High Risk and Releases New Animation

SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket poised for launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in this artists concept. Credit: SpaceX

Before the year is out, the long awaited debut launch of the triple barreled Falcon Heavy rocket may at last be in sight says SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk, as he forthrightly acknowledges it comes with high risk and released a stunning launch and landing animation earlier today, Aug. 4.

After years of painstaking development and delays, the inaugural blastoff of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy is currently slated for November 2017 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, according to Musk.

“Falcon Heavy maiden launch this November,” SpaceX CEO and billionaire founder Elon Musk tweeted last week.

“Lot that can go wrong in the November launch …,” Musk said today on Instagram, downplaying the chances of complete success.

And to whet the appetites of space enthusiasts worldwide, just today Musk also published a one minute long draft animation illustrating the Falcon Heavy triple booster launch and how the individual landings of the trio of first stage booster cores will take place – nearly simultaneously.

Video Caption: SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch from KSC pad 39A pad and first stage booster landings. Credit: SpaceX

“Side booster rockets return to Cape Canaveral,” explains Musk on twitter. “Center lands on droneship.”

The two side boosters will be recycled from prior Falcon 9 launches and make precision guided propulsive, upright ground soft landings back at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Each booster is outfitted with a quartet of grid fins and landing legs. The center core is newly built and heavily modified.

“Sides run high thrust, center is lower thrust until sides separate & fly back. Center then throttles up, keeps burning & lands on droneship. If we’re lucky!” Musk elaborated.

The center booster will touch down on an ocean going droneship prepositioned in the Atlantic Ocean some 400 miles (600 km) off of Florida’s east coast.

To date SpaceX first stages from KSC launches have touched down either on land at Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) at the Cape or at sea on the “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship barge (OCISLY).

The launch of the extremely complicated Falcon Heavy booster with 27 first stage Merlin 1D engines also comes associated with a huge risk – and he hopes that it at least rises far enough off the ground to minimize the chances of damage to the historic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center.

“There’s a lot of risk associated with Falcon Heavy, a real good chance that that vehicle does not make it to orbit,” Musk said recently while speaking at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference in Washington, D.C. on July 19.

“I want to make sure to set expectations accordingly. I hope it makes it far enough beyond the pad so that it does not cause pad damage. I would consider even that a win, to be honest.”

Musk originally proposed the Falcon Heavy in 2011 and targeted a maiden mission in 2013.

Whenever it does launch, the Falcon Heavy will become the world’s most powerful rocket.

“I think Falcon Heavy is going to be a great vehicle,” Musk stated. “There’s just so much that’s really impossible to test on the ground, and we’ll do our best.

“Falcon Heavy requires the simultaneous ignition of 27 orbit-class engines. There’s a lot that can go wrong there.”

Designing and building Falcon Heavy has proven to be far more difficult than Musk ever imagined, and the center booster had to be significantly redesigned.

“It actually ended up being way harder to do Falcon Heavy than we thought,” Musk explained.

“At first it sounds real easy! You just stick two first stages on as strap-on boosters. How hard can that be?” But then everything changes. All the loads change, aerodynamics totally change. You’ve tripled the vibration and acoustics. You sort of break the qualification levels on so much of the hardware.”

“The amount of load you’re putting through that center core is crazy because you’ve got two super-powerful boosters also shoving that center core. So we had to redesign the whole center core airframe,” Musk added. “It’s not like the Falcon 9 – because it’s got to take so much load. Then you’ve got separation systems.”

Due to the high risk, there will be no payload from a paying customer housed inside the nose cone atop the center core. Only a dummy payload will be installed on the maiden mission.

However future Falcon Heavy missions have been manifested with commercial and science payloads.

Musk also hopes to launch a pair of paying private astronauts on a trip around the Moon and back as soon as 2018 while journeying inside a Crew Dragon spacecraft with the Falcon Heavy – similar to what his company is developing for NASA for commercial ferry missions to low Earth orbit (LEO) and the International Space Station (ISS).

Falcon Heavy will blast off with about twice the thrust of the Delta IV Heavy, currently the worlds most powerful rocket. The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy (D4H) has been the world’s mightiest rocket since the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttles in 2011.

The Falcon Heavy sports about 2/3 the liftoff thrust of NASA’s Saturn V manned moon landing rockets – last launched in the 1970s.

SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with Intelsat 35e – 4th next gen ‘Epic’ TV and mobile broadband comsat for Intelsat – on July 5, 2017 at 7:38 p.m. EDT from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Falcon Heavy is comprised of three Falcon 9 cores. The Delta IV Heavy is comprised of three Delta Common Core Boosters.

The combined trio of Falcon 9 cores will generate about 5.1 million pounds of liftoff thrust upon ignition from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“With the ability to lift into orbit over 54 metric tons (119,000 lb)–a mass equivalent to a 737 jetliner loaded with passengers, crew, luggage and fuel–Falcon Heavy can lift more than twice the payload of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy, at one-third the cost,” according to the SpaceX website.

“The nice thing is when you fully optimize it, it’s about two-and-a-half times the payload capability of a Falcon 9,” Musk notes. “It’s well over 100,000 pounds to LEO of payload capability, 50 tons. It can even get up a little higher than that if optimized.”

ULA Delta 4 Heavy rocket delivers NROL-37 spy satellite to orbit on June 11, 2016 from Space Launch Complex-37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The two stage Falcon Heavy stands more than 229.6 feet (70 meters) tall and is 39.9 feet wide (12.2 meters).

It weighs more than 3.1 million pounds (1.4 million kilograms).

Like the Falcon 9 it will be fueled with liquid oxygen and RP-1 kerosene propellants.

The thunder, power and roar of over 5 million pounds of liftoff thrust from the Falcon Heavy’s 27 engines is absolutely certain to be a thrilling, earth-shaking space spectacular !! Thus placing it in a class of its own unlike any US launch since NASA’s Saturn V and Space Shuttles rocketed to the high frontier from the same pad.

“I encourage people to come down to the Cape to see the first Falcon Heavy mission,” Musk said. “It’s guaranteed to be exciting.”

But before the Falcon Heavy can actually be rolled up to launch position at pad 39A, SpaceX must first complete repairs and refurbishment to nearby pad 40.

That Cape pad was heavily damaged nearly a year ago during a catastrophic launch pad explosion that took place in Sept. 2016 during a routine prelaunch fueling and static fire engine test of a Falcon 9 rocket with the Amos-6 commercial comsat payload bolted on top.

Pad 40 must achieve operational launch status again before SpaceX can commit to the Falcon Heavy launches at Pad 39A. Workers will also need to finish construction work at pad 39A to support the Heavy launches.

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster deploys quartet of landing legs moments before precision propulsive ground touchdown at Landing Zone 1 on Canaveral Air Force Station barely nine minutes after liftoff from Launch Complex 39A on 3 June 2017 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the Dragon CRS-11 resupply mission to the International Space Station for NASA. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

To date SpaceX has successfully demonstrated the recovery of thirteen boosters by land and sea.

Furthermore SpaceX engineers have advanced to the next step and successfully recycled, reflown and relaunched two ‘flight-proven first stages this year in March and June of 2017 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida involving the SES-10 and BulgariaSat-1 launches respectively.

SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk and SES CTO Martin Halliwell exuberantly shake hands of congratulation following the successful delivery of SES-10 TV comsat to orbit using the first reflown and flight proven booster in world history at the March 30, 2017 post launch media briefing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The next SpaceX Falcon 9 launch is slated for Aug. 13 on the NASA contracted CRS-12 resupply mission to the ISS.

Watch for Ken’s onsite space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

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

SpaceX Falcon 9 Booster leaning atop OCISLY droneship upon which it landed after 23 June launch from KSC floats into Port Canaveral, FL, on 29 June 2017, hauled by tugboat as seen from Jetty Park Pier. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Blastoff of 2nd flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 with 1st geostationary communications for Bulgaria at 3:10 p.m. EDT on June 23, 2017, carrying BulgariaSat-1 to orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida- as seen from the crawlerway. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Dream Chaser Mini-Shuttle to Fly ISS Resupply Missions on ULA Atlas V

Artist’s concept of the Sierra Nevada Corporation Dream Chaser spacecraft launching atop the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in the 552 configuration on cargo missions to the International Space Station. Credit: ULA

The first two missions of the unmanned Dream Chaser mini-shuttle carrying critical cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA will fly on the most powerful version of the Atlas V rocket and start as soon as 2020, announced Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) and United Launch Alliance (ULA).

“We have selected United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket to launch our first two Dream Chaser® spacecraft cargo missions,” said SNC of Sparks, Nevada.

Dream Chaser will launch atop the commercial Atlas V in its most powerful configuration, dubbed Atlas V 552, with five strap on solid rocket motors and a dual engine Centaur upper stage while protectively tucked inside a five meter diameter payload fairing – with wings folded.

Blast off of Dream Chaser loaded with over 5500 kilograms of cargo mass for the space station crews will take place from ULA’s seaside Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spacecraft docks at the International Space Station.
Credits: Sierra Nevada Corporation

The unique lifting body design enables runway landings for Dream Chaser, similar to the NASA’s Space Shuttle at the Shuttle Landing Facility runway at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The ULA Atlas V enjoys a 100% success rate. It has also been chosen by Boeing to ferry crews on piloted missions of their CST-100 Starliner astronaut space taxi to the ISS and back. The Centaur upper stage will be equipped with two RL-10 engines for both Dream Chaser and Starliner flights.

“SNC recognizes the proven reliability of the Atlas V rocket and its availability and schedule performance makes it the right choice for the first two flights of the Dream Chaser,” said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of SNC’s Space Systems business area, in a statement.

“Humbled and honored by your trust in us,” tweeted ULA CEO Tory Bruno following the announcement.

Liftoff of the maiden pair of Dream Chaser cargo missions to the ISS are expected in 2020 and 2021 under the Commercial Resupply Services 2 (CRS2) contract with NASA.

Rendering of Launch of SNC’s Dream Chaser Cargo System Aboard an Atlas V Rocket. Credit: SNC

“ULA is pleased to partner with Sierra Nevada Corporation to launch its Dream Chaser cargo system to the International Space Station in less than three years,” said Gary Wentz, ULA vice president of Human and Commercial Systems.

“We recognize the importance of on time and reliable transportation of crew and cargo to Station and are honored the Atlas V was selected to continue to launch cargo resupply missions for NASA.”

By utilizing the most powerful variant of ULA’s Atlas V, Dream Chaser will be capable of transporting over 5,500 kilograms (12,000 pounds) of pressurized and unpressurized cargo mass – including science experiments, research gear, spare part, crew supplies, food, water, clothing and more per ISS mission.

“In addition, a significant amount of cargo, almost 2,000 kilograms is directly returned from the ISS to a gentle runway landing at a pinpoint location,” according to SNC.

“Dream Chaser’s all non-toxic systems design allows personnel to simply walk up to the vehicle after landing, providing immediate access to time-critical science as soon as the wheels stop.”

“ULA is an important player in the market and we appreciate their history and continued contributions to space flights and are pleased to support the aerospace community in Colorado and Alabama,” added Sirangelo.

Under the NASA CRS-2 contract awarded in 2016, Dream Chaser becomes the third ISS resupply provider, joining the current ISS commercial cargo vehicle providers, namely the Cygnus from Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia and the cargo Dragon from SpaceX of Hawthorne, California.

NASA decided to plus up the number of ISS commercial cargo providers from two to three for the critical task of ensuring the regular delivery of critical science, crew supplies, provisions, spare parts and assorted gear to the multinational crews living and working aboard the massive orbiting outpost.

NASA’s CRS-2 contracts run from 2019 through 2024 and specify six cargo missions for each of the three commercial providers.

By adding a new third provider, NASA simultaneously gains the benefit of additional capability and flexibility and also spreads out the risk.

Both SpaceX and Orbital ATK suffered catastrophic launch failures during ISS resupply missions, in June 2015 and October 2014 respectively, from which both firms have recovered.

Orbital ATK and SpaceX both successfully launched ISS cargo missions this year. Indeed a trio of Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft have already launched on the Atlas V, including the OA-7 resupply mission in April 2017.

Orbital ATK’s seventh cargo delivery flight to the International Space Station -in tribute to John Glenn- launched at 11:11 a.m. EDT April 18, 2017, on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX has already launched a pair of resupply missions this year on the CRS-10 and CRS-11 flights in February and June 2017.

Unlike the Cygnus which burns up on reentry and Dragon which lands via parachutes, the reusable Dream Chaser is capable of low-g reentry and runway landings. This is very beneficial for sensitive scientific experiments and allows much quicker access by researchers to time critical cargo.

1st Reused SpaceX Dragon cargo craft lifts off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 5:07 p.m. June 3, 2017 on CRS-11 mission carrying 3 tons of research equipment, cargo and supplies to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Dream Chaser has been under development for more than 10 years. It was originally developed as a manned vehicle and a contender for NASA’s commercial crew vehicles. When SNC lost the bid to Boeing and SpaceX in 2014, the company opted to develop this unmanned variant instead.

A full scale test version of the original Dream Chaser is currently undergoing ground tests at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California. Approach and landing tests are planned for this fall.

Other current cargo providers to the ISS include the Russian Progress and Japanese HTV vessels.

Watch for Ken’s onsite space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

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

Scale models of NASA’s Commercial Crew program vehicles and launchers; Boeing CST-100, Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, SpaceX Dragon. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser engineering test article in flight during prior captive-carry tests. Credit: NASA

Clean Room Tour with NASA’s Next Gen Tracking Data Relay Satellite TDRS-M, Closeout Incident Under Review – Photos

Inside the Astrotech payload processing facility in Titusville, FL,NASA’s massive, insect like Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, or TDRS-M, spacecraft is undergoing preflight processing during media visit on 13 July 2017. TDRS-M will transmit critical science data gathered by the ISS, Hubble and numerous NASA Earth science missions. It is being prepared for encapsulation inside its payload fairing prior to being transported to Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket on 3 August 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

ASTROTECH SPACE OPERATIONS/KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – The last of NASA’s next generation Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TRDS) designed to relay critical science data and research observations gathered by the International Space Station (ISS), Hubble and dozens of Earth-orbiting Earth science missions is undergoing final prelaunch clean room preparations on the Florida Space Coast while targeting an early August launch – even as the agency reviews the scheduling impact of a weekend “closeout incident” that “damaged” a key component.

Liftoff of NASA’s $408 million eerily insectoid-looking TDRS-M science relay comsat atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket currently scheduled for August 3 may be in doubt following a July 14 work related incident causing damage to the satellite’s Omni S-band antenna while inside the Astrotech Space Operations facility in Titusville, Florida.

“The satellite’s Omni S-band antenna was damaged during final spacecraft closeout activities,” NASA said in an updated status statement provided to Universe Today earlier today, July 16. NASA did not provide any further details when asked.

Everything had been perfectly on track as of Thursday, July 13 as Universe Today participated in an up close media tour and briefing about the massive probe inside the clean room processing facility at Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Fl.

On July 13, technicians were busily working to complete final spacecraft processing activities before its encapsulation inside the nose cone of the ULA Atlas V rocket she will ride to space, planned for the next day on July 14. The satellite and pair of payload fairings were stacked in separate high bays at Astrotech on July 13.

Alas the unspecified “damage” to the TDRS-M Omni S-band antenna unfortunately took place on July 14.

Up close clean room visit with NASA’s newest science data relay comsat – Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-M (TDRS-M) inside the Astrotech payload processing facility high bay in Titusville, FL. Two gigantic fold out antennae’s, plus space to ground antenna dish visible inside the ‘cicada like cocoon’ with solar arrays below. Omni S-band antenna at top. Launch on ULA Atlas V slated for August 2017 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

TDRS-M was built by Boeing and engineers are now analyzing the damage in a team effort with NASA. However it’s not known exactly during which closeout activity or by whom the damage occurred.

ULA CEO Tory Bruno tweeted that his company is not responsible and referred all questions to NASA. This may indicate that the antennae was not damaged during the encapsulation procedures inside the ULA payload fairing halves.

“NASA and Boeing are reviewing an incident that occurred with the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS-M) on July 14 at Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Florida. The satellite’s Omni S-band antenna was damaged during final spacecraft closeout activities” stated NASA.

Up close look at the NASA TDRS-M satellite Omni S-band antenna damaged during clean room processing on July 14, 2017. Launch on ULA Atlas V is slated for Aug. 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

TDRS-M looks like a giant insect – or a fish depending on your point of view. It was folded into flight configuration for encapsulation in the clean room and the huge pair of single access antennas resembled a cocoon or a cicada. The 15 foot diameter single access antennas are large parabolic-style antennas and are mechanically steerable.

What does TDRS do? Why is it important? How does it operate?

“The existing Space Network of satellites like TDRS provide constant communications from other NASA satellites like the ISS or Earth observing satellites like Aura, Aqua, Landsat that have high bandwidth data that needs to be transmitted to the ground,” TDRS Deputy Project Manager Robert Buchanan explained to Universe Today during an interview in the Astrotech clean room.

“TRDS tracks those satellites using antennas that articulate. Those user satellites send the data to TDRS, like TDRS-M we see here and nine other TDRS satellites on orbit now tracking those satellites.”

“That data acquired is then transmitted to a ground station complex at White Sands, New Mexico. Then the data is sent to wherever those user satellites want the data to be sent is needed, such as a science data ops center or analysis center.”

Once launched and deployed in space they will “take about 30 to 40 days to fully unfurl,” Buchanan told me in the Astrotech clean room.

Astrotech is located just a few miles down the road from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and the KSC Visitor Complex housing the finest exhibits of numerous spaceships, hardware items and space artifacts.

Preflight clean room processing inside the Astrotech payload processing facility preparing NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, or TDRS-M, spacecraft for launch on ULA Atlas V in Aug. 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

At this time, the TDRS-M website countdown clock is still ticking down towards a ULA Atlas V blastoff on August 3 at 9:02 a.m. EDT (1302 GMT) from Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, for a late breakfast delight.

The Aug. 3 launch window spans 40 minutes from 9:02 to 9:42 a.m. EDT.

Whether or not the launch date will change depends on the results of the review of the spacecraft’s health by NASA and Boeing. Several other satellites are also competing for launch slots in August.

“The mission team is currently assessing flight acceptance and schedule. TDRS-M is planned to launch Aug. 3, 2017, on an United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida,” NASA explained.

NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, or TDRS-M, spacecraft will be encapsulated inside these two protective payload fairing halves inside the Astrotech payload processing facility high bay in Titusville, FL. Launch on ULA Atlas V slated for August 2017 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

TDRS-M, spacecraft, which stands for Tracking and Data Relay Satellite – M is NASA’s new and advanced science data relay communications satellite that will transmit research measurements and analysis gathered by the astronaut crews and instruments flying abroad the International Space Station (ISS), Hubble Space Telescope and over 35 NASA Earth science missions including MMS, GPM, Aura, Aqua, Landsat, Jason 2 and 3 and more.

The TDRS constellation orbits 22,300 miles above Earth and provide near-constant communication links between the ground and the orbiting satellites.

Preflight clean room processing inside the Astrotech payload processing facility preparing NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, or TDRS-M, spacecraft for launch on ULA Atlas V in Aug. 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

TRDS-M will have S-, Ku- and Ka-band capabilities. Ka has the capability to transmit as much as six-gigabytes of data per minute. That’s the equivalent of downloading almost 14,000 songs per minute says NASA.

The TDRS program is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

TDRS-M is the third satellite in the third series of NASA’s American’s most powerful and most advanced Tracking and Data Relay Satellites. It is designed to last for a 15 year orbital lifetime.

The first TDRS satellite was deployed from the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983 as TDRS-A.

TDRS-M was built by prime contractor Boeing in El Segundo, California and is the third of a three satellite series – comprising TDRS -K, L, and M. They are based on the Boeing 601 series satellite bus and will be keep the TDRS satellite system operational through the 2020s.

TDSR-K and TDRS-L were launched in 2013 and 2014.

The Tracking and Data Relay Satellite project is managed at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

TDRS-M was built as a follow on and replacement satellite necessary to maintain and expand NASA’s Space Network, according to a NASA description.

The gigantic satellite is about as long as two school buses and measures 21 meters in length by 13.1 meters wide.

It has a dry mass of 1800 kg (4000 lbs) and a fueled mass of 3,454 kilogram (7,615 lb) at launch.

Tracking and Data Relay Satellite artwork explains how the TDRS constellation enables continuous, global communications coverage for near-Earth spacecraft. Credit: NASA

TDRS-M will blastoff on a ULA Atlas V in the baseline 401 configuration, with no augmentation of solid rocket boosters on the first stage. The payload fairing is 4 meters (13.1 feet) in diameter and the upper stage is powered by a single-engine Centaur.

TDRS-M will be launched to a Geostationary orbit some 22,300 miles (35,800 km) above Earth.

“The final orbital location for TDRS-M has not yet been determined,” Buchanen told me.

The Atlas V booster is being assembled inside the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at SLC-41 and will be rolled out to the launch pad the day before liftoff with the TDRS-M science relay comsat comfortably encapsulated inside the nose cone.

NASA/contractor team poses with the Boeing built and to be ULA launched Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-M inside the inside the Astrotech payload processing facility clean room high bay in Titusville, FL, on July 13, 2017. Launch on ULA Atlas V slated for August 2017 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Carefully secured inside its shipping container, the TDRS-M satellite was transported on June 23 by a US Air Force cargo aircraft from Boeing’s El Segundo, California facility to Space Coast Regional Airport in Titusville, Florida, for preflight processing at Astrotech.

Watch for Ken’s onsite TDRS-M and space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

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

Cygnus Soars to Space on Atlas Carrying SS John Glenn on Course to Space Station

Orbital ATK’s seventh cargo delivery flight to the International Space Station -in tribute to John Glenn- launched at 11:11 a.m. EDT April 18, 2017, on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Orbital ATK’s Cygnus supply ship soared to space from the Florida Space Coast at lunchtime today, Tuesday, April 18, drenched in sunshine and carrying the ‘SS John Glenn’ loaded with over three and a half tons of precious cargo – bound for the multinational crew residing aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Just like clockwork, Orbital ATK’s seventh cargo delivery flight to the station launched right on time at 11:11 a.m. EDT Tuesday at the opening of the launch window atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The ‘SS John Glenn’ Cygnus resupply spacecraft was manufactured by NASA commercial cargo provider Orbital ATK. The vehicle is also known alternatively as the Cygnus OA-7 or CRS-7 mission.

“This was a great launch,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA’s deputy manager of the International Space Station program, at the post launch media briefing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

‘We have a vehicle on its way to the ISS.”

Orbital ATK’s 7th cargo delivery flight to the International Space Station launched at 11:11 a.m. EDT April 18, 2017 carrying the SS John Glenn atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, as seen from the VAB roof at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Huge crowds gathered at public viewing areas ringing Cape Canaveral and offering spectacular views from Playalinda Beach to the north, the inland waterway and more beautiful space coast beaches to the south.

Near perfect weather conditions and extended views of the rocket roaring to orbit greeted all those lucky enough to be on hand for what amounts to a sentimental third journey to space for American icon John Glenn.

The launch was carried live on NASA TV with extended expert commentary. Indeed this launch coverage was the final one hosted by NASA commentator George Diller- the longtime and familiar ‘Voice of NASA’ – who is retiring from NASA on May 31.

The serene sky blue skies with calm winds and moderate temperatures were punctuated with wispy clouds making for a thrilling spectacle as the rocket accelerated northeast up the US East Coast on a carefully choreographed trajectory to the massive orbiting outpost.

“The status of the spacecraft is great!” said Frank Culbertson, a former shuttle and station astronaut and now Orbital ATK’s Space Systems Group president.

Liftoff of Orbital ATK SS John Glenn OA-7 mission atop ULA Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on April 18, 2017, as seen from VAB roof at KSC. Credit: Julian Leek

The mission is named the ‘S.S. John Glenn’ in tribute to legendary NASA astronaut John Glenn – the first American to orbit Earth back in February 1962.

Glenn was one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts selected by NASA. At age 77 he later flew a second mission to space aboard Space Shuttle Discovery- further cementing his status as a true American hero.

Glenn passed away in December 2016 at age 95. He also served four terms as a U.S. Senator from Ohio.

A picture of John Glenn in his shuttle flight suit and a few mementos are aboard.

After a four day orbital chase Cygnus will arrive in the vicinity of the station on Saturday, April 22.

“It will be captured at about 6 a.m. EDT Saturday,” Montalbano elaborated.

Expedition 51 astronauts Thomas Pesquet of ESA (European Space Agency) and Peggy Whitson of NASA will use the space station’s Canadian-built robotic arm to grapple Cygnus, about 6:05 a.m. Saturday.

They will use the arm to maneuver and berth the unmanned vehicle to the Node-1 Earth-facing nadir port on the Unity module.

Cygnus will remain at the space station for about 85 days until July before its destructive reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, disposing of several thousand pounds of trash.

The countdown for today’s launch of the 194-foot-tall two stage United Launch Alliance (ULA) rocket began when the rocket was activated around 3 a.m. The rocket was tested during a seven-hour long countdown.

This is the third Cygnus to launch on an Atlas V rocket from the Cape. The last one launched a year ago on March 24, 2016 during the OA-6 mission. The first one launched in December 2015 during the OA-4 mission. Each Cygnus is named after a deceased NASA astronaut.

“We’re building the bridge to history with these missions,” said Vernon Thorp, ULA’s program manager for Commercial Missions. “Every mission is fantastic and every mission is unique. At the end of the day every one of these missions is critical.”

“The Atlas V performed beautifully,” said Thorpe at the post launch briefing.

The other Cygnus spacecraft have launched on the Orbital ATK commercial Antares rocket from NASA Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s eastern shore.

Cygnus OA-7 is loaded with 3459 kg (7626 pounds) of science experiments and hardware, crew supplies, spare parts, gear and station hardware to the orbital laboratory in support over 250 research experiments being conducted on board by the Expedition 51 and 52 crews. The total volumetric capacity of Cygnus exceeds 27 cubic meters.

The official OA-7 payload manifest includes the following:

TOTAL PRESSURIZED CARGO WITH PACKAGING: 7,442.8 lbs. / 3,376 kg

• Science Investigations 2,072.3 lbs. / 940 kg
• Crew Supplies 2,103.2 lbs. / 954 kg
• Vehicle Hardware 2,678.6 lbs. / 1,215 kg
• Spacewalk Equipment 160.9 lbs. / 73 kg
• Computer Resources 4.4 lbs. / 2 kg
• Russian Hardware 39.7 lbs. / 18 kg

UNPRESSURIZED CARGO (CubeSats) 183 lbs. / 83 kg

The Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-7 (OA-7) mission launched aboard an Atlas V Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) in the 401 configuration vehicle. This includes a 4-meter-diameter payload fairing in its longest, extra extended configuration (XEPF) to accommodate the enhanced, longer Cygnus variant being used.

“ULA is excited to be a part of the team that delivered such an important payload to astronauts aboard the ISS,” said Gary Wentz, ULA vice president of Human and Commercial Systems, in a statement.

“Not only are we delivering needed supplies as the first launch under our new RapidLaunch™ offering, but we are truly honored to launch a payload dedicated to John Glenn on an Atlas V, helping to signify the gap we plan to fill as we start launching astronauts from American soil again in 2018.”

The first stage of the Atlas V booster is powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine. There are no side mounted solids on the first stage. The Centaur upper stage is powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine.

Overall this is the 71st launch of an Atlas V and the 36th utilizing the 401 configuration.

The 401 is thus the workhorse version of the Atlas V and accounts for half of all launches.

The Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft named for Sen. John Glenn, one of NASA’s original seven astronauts, stands inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida behind a sign commemorating Glenn on March 9, 2017. Launch slated for April 18 on a ULA Atlas V. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s onsite launch reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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

Ken Kremer

Orbital ATK SS John Glenn CRS-7 launch vehicle with the Cygnus cargo spacecraft bolted to the top of the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket is poised for launch at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on April 18, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX Just Re-Used a Rocket. Why This Changes Everything

SpaceX Just Re-Used a Rocket. Why This Changes Everything

On March 30, 2017, SpaceX performed a pretty routine rocket launch. The payload was a communications satellite called SES-10, owned by a company in Luxembourg. And if all goes well, the satellite will eventually make its way to a high orbit of 35,000 km (22,000 miles) and deliver broadcasting and television services to Latin America.

For all intents and purposes, this is an absolutely normal, routine, and maybe even boring event in the space industry. Another chemical rocket blasted off another communications satellite to join the thousands of satellites that have come before.

Of course, as you probably know, this wasn’t a routine launch. It was the first step in one of the most important achievements in space flight – launch reusability. This was the second time the 14-story Falcon 9 rocket had lifted off and pushed a payload into orbit. Not Falcon 9s in general, but this specific rocket was reused.

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster successfully lands on droneship after blastoff on Dragon CRS-8 mission to ISS for NASA on April 8, 2016. Credit: SpaceX

In a previous life, this booster blasted off on April 8, 2016 carrying CRS-8, SpaceX’s 8th resupply mission to the International Space Station. The rocket launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral, released its payload, re-entered the atmosphere and returned to a floating robotic barge in the Atlantic Ocean called Of Course I Still Love You. That’s a reference to an amazing series of books by Iain M. Banks.

Why is this such an amazing accomplishment? What does the future hold for reusability? And who else is working on this?

Developing a rocket that could be reused has been one of the holy grails of the space industry, and yet, many considered it an engineering accomplishment that could never be achieved. Trust me, people have tried in the past.

Portions of the space shuttle were reused – the orbiter and the solid rocket boosters. And a few decades ago, NASA tried to develop the X-33 as a single stage reusable rocket, but ultimately canceled the program.

The proposed X-33 spacecraft. Credit: NASA

To reuse a rocket makes total sense. It’s not like you throw out your car when you return from a road trip. You don’t destroy your transatlantic airliner when you arrive in Europe. You check it out, do a little maintenance, refuel it, fill it with passengers and then fly it again.

According to SpaceX founder Elon Musk, a brand new Falcon 9 first stage costs about $30 million. If you could perform maintenance, and then refill it with fuel, you’d bring down subsequent launches to a few hundred thousand dollars.

SpaceX is still working out what a “flight-tested” launch will cost on a reused Falcon 9 will cost, but it should turn into a significant discount on SpaceX’s already aggressive prices. If other launch providers think they’re getting undercut today, just wait until SpaceX really gets cranking with these reused rockets.

For most kinds of equipment, you want them to have been re-used many times. Cars need to be taken to the test track, airplanes are flown on many flights before passengers ever climb inside. SpaceX will have an opportunity to test out each rocket many times, figuring out where they fail, and then re-engineering those components.  This makes for more durable and safer launch hardware, which I suspect is the actual goal here – safety, not cost.

In addition to the first stage, SpaceX also re-used the satellite fairing. This is the covering that makes the payload more aerodynamic while the rocket moves through the lower atmosphere. The fairing is usually ejected and burns up on re-entry, but SpaceX has figured out how to recover that too, saving a few more million.

SpaceX’s goals are even more ambitious. In addition to the first stage booster and launch fairing, SpaceX is looking to reuse the second stage booster. This is a much more complicated challenge, because the second stage is going much faster and needs to lose a lot more velocity. In late 2014, they put their plans on hold for a second stage reuse.

SpaceX’s next big milestone will be to decrease the reuse time. From almost a year to under 24 hours.

The Falcon Heavy, once operational, will be the most powerful rocket in the world. Credit: SpaceX

Sometime this year, SpaceX is expected to do the first launch of the Falcon Heavy. A launch system that looks like it’s made up of 3 Falcon-9 rockets bolted together. Since that’s basically what it is.

The center booster is a reinforced Falcon-9, with two additional Falcon-9s as strap-on boosters. Once the Falcon Heavy lifts off, the three boosters will detach and will individually land back on Earth, ready for reassembly and reuse. This system will be capable of carrying 54,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit. In addition, SpaceX is hoping to take the technology one more step and have the upper stage return to Earth.

Imagine it. Three boosters and upper stage and payload fairing all returning to Earth and getting reused.

And waiting in the wings, of course, is SpaceX’s huge Interplanetary Transport System, announced by Elon Musk in September of 2016. The super-heavy lift vehicle will be capable of carrying 300,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit.

The Interplanetary Transport System blasting off. Credit: SpaceX

For comparison, the Apollo era Saturn V could carry 140,000 kg into low Earth orbit, so this thing will be much much bigger. But unlike the Saturn V, it’ll be capable of returning to Earth, and landing on its launch pad, ready for reuse.

SpaceX just crossed a milestone, but they’re not the only player in this field.

Perhaps the biggest competitor to SpaceX comes from another internet entrepreneur: Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, the 2nd richest man in the world after Bill Gates. Bezos founded his own rocket company, Blue Origin in Seattle, which had been working in relative obscurity for the last decade. But in the last few years, they demonstrated their technology for reusable rocket flight, and laid out their plans for competing with SpaceX.

The New Shepard launching from its facility in West Texas. Image: Blue Origin
The New Shepard rocket launching from its facility in West Texas. Image: Blue Origin

In April 2015, Blue Origin launched their New Shepard rocket on a suborbital trajectory. It went up to an altitude of about 100 km, and then came back down and landed on its launch pad again. It made a second flight in November 2015, a third flight in April 2016, and a fourth flight in June 2016.

That does sound exciting, but keep in mind that reaching 100 km in altitude requires vastly less energy than what the Spacex Falcon 9 requires. Suborbital and orbital are two totally milestones. The New Shepard will be used to carry paying tourists to the edge of space, where they can float around weightlessly in the vomit of the other passengers.

But Blue Origin isn’t done. In September 2016, they announced their plans for the follow-on New Glenn rocket. And this will compete head to head with SpaceX. Scheduled to launch by 2020, like, within 3 years or so, the New Glenn will be an absolute monster, capable of carrying 45,000 kilograms of cargo into low Earth orbit. This will be comparable to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy or NASA’s Space Launch System.

The New Glenn spacecraft. Credit: Blue Origin

Like the Falcon 9, the New Glenn will return to its launch pad, ready for a planned reuse of 100 flights.

A decade ago, the established United Launch Alliance – a consortium of Boeing and Lockheed-Martin – was firmly in the camp of disposable launch systems, but even they’re coming around to the competition from SpaceX. In 2014, they began an alliance with Blue Origin to develop the Vulcan rocket.

Rendering of the ULA Vulcan rocket blasting off. United Launch Alliance (ULA) next generation rocket is set to make its debut flight in 2019. Credit: ULA

The Vulcan will be more of a traditional rocket, but some of its engines will detach in mid-flight, re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, deploy parachutes and be recaptured by helicopters as they’re returning to the Earth. Since the engines are the most expensive part of the rocket, this will provide some cost savings.

There’s another level of reusability that’s still in the realm of science fiction: single stage to orbit. That’s where a rocket blasts off, flies to space, returns to Earth, refuels and does it all over again. There are some companies working on this, but it’ll be the topic for another episode.

Now that SpaceX has successfully launched a first stage booster for the second time, this is going to become the new normal. The rocket companies are going to be fine tuning their designs, focusing on efficiency, reliability, and turnaround time.

These changes will bring down the costs of launching payloads to orbit. That’ll mean it’s possible to launch satellites that were too expensive in the past. New scientific platforms, communications systems, and even human flights become more reasonable and commonplace.

Of course, we still need to take everything with a grain of salt. Most of what I talked about is still under development. That said, SpaceX just reused a rocket. They took a rocket that already launched a satellite, and used it to launch another satellite.

It’s a pretty exciting time, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Now you know how I feel about this accomplishment, I’d like to hear your thoughts. Do you think we’re at the edge of a whole new era in space exploration, or is this more of the same? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Nighttime Delta IV Blastoff Powers Military Comsat to Orbit for U.S. Allies: Photo/Video Gallery

Blastoff of ULA Delta IV rocket carrying the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS-9) comsat to orbit for the U.S. Air Force from Space Launch Complex-37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on Mar. 18, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – The second round of March Launch Madness continued with the thunderous nighttime blastoff of a ULA Delta IV rocket powering a super swift military communications satellite to orbit in a collaborative effort of U.S. Allies from North America, Europe and Asia and the U.S. Air Force.

The next generation Wideband Global SATCOM-9 (WGS-9) military comsat mission for the U.S. Force lifted off atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV from Space Launch Complex-37 (SLC-37) on Saturday, March 18 at 8:18 p.m. EDT at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Check out this expanding gallery of spectacular launch photos and videos gathered from my space journalist colleagues, myself and spectators ringing the space coast under crystal clear early evening skies.

A key feature in this advanced Block II series WGS satellite is inclusion of the upgraded digital channelizer that nearly doubles the available bandwidth of earlier satellites in the series.

WGS-9 can filter and downlink up to 8.088 GHz of bandwidth compared to 4.410 GHz for earlier WGS satellites. It supports communications links in the X-band and Ka-band spectra.

ULA Delta IV rocket streaks to orbit carrying WGS-9 tactical communications satellite for the U.S. Air Force and international partners from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, at 8:18 p.m. EDT on Mar. 18, 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

Note that Round 3 of March Launch Madness is tentatively slated for March 29 with the SpaceX liftoff of the first ever reused Falcon 9 first stage from historic pad 39 on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

The WGS-9 satellite was paid for by a six nation consortium that includes Canada, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the United States. It joins 8 earlier WGS satellites already in orbit.

The partnership was created back in 2012 when the ‘WGS-9 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)’ was signed by Defense organizations of the six countries.

The WGS-9 MOU agreement to fund the satellite enabled the expansion of the WGS system with this additional satellite added to the existing WGS constellation.

“The agreement provides all signatories with assured access to global wideband satellite communications for military use,” according to the US Air Force.

Watch this launch video compilation from Jeff Seibert:

Video Caption: Launch of WGS-9 satellite continues USAF Breaking Barriers heritage. This ULA Delta 4 launch of the WGS-9 satellite on Mar 18, 2017 marks the start of the 70th anniversary of the United States Air Force. That was also the year that U.S. Air Force Captain Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. Credit: Jeff Seibert

Watch this launch video from Ken Kremer:

Video Caption: ULA/USAF Delta IV launch of Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS-9) from pad 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on 18 Mar. 2017 – as seen in this remote video taken at the pad. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

WGS-9 was built by Boeing.

The 217 foot tall Delta IV Medium+ rocket launched in the 5,4 configuration with a 5 meter diameter payload fairing that stands 47 feet tall, and 4 solid rocket boosters to augment the first stage thrust of the single common core booster.

The payload fairing was emblazoned with decals commemorating the 70th anniversary of the USAF, as well as Air Force, mission and ULA logos.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS-9) mission for the U.S. Air Force launches at 8:18 p.m. EDT on Mar. 18, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl – reflecting beautifully in the pad pond. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Blastoff of ULA Delta IV rocket carrying the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS-9) comsat to orbit for the U.S. Air Force from Space Launch Complex-37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on Mar. 18, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Orbital ATK manufactures the four solid rocket motors. The Delta IV common booster core was powered by an RS-68A liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine producing 705,250 pounds of thrust at sea level.
A single RL10B-2 liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine powered the second stage, known as the Delta Cryogenic Second Stage (DCSS).

The booster and upper stage engines are both built by Aerojet Rocketdyne. ULA constructed the Delta IV Medium+ (5,4) launch vehicle in Decatur, Alabama.

Launch of USAF WGS-8 milsatcom on ULA Delta IV rocket from pad 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on Mar. 18, 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

The DCSS will also serve as the upper stage for the maiden launch of NASA heavy lift SLS booster on the SLS-1 launch slated for late 2018. That DCSS/SLS-1 upper stage just arrived at the Cape last week – as I witnessed and reported here.

Saturday’s launch marks ULA’s 3rd launch in 2017 and the 118th successful launch since the company was formed in December 2006 as a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Blastoff of ULA Delta IV rocket carrying the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS-9) comsat to orbit for the U.S. Air Force from Space Launch Complex-37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on Mar. 18, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

Ken Kremer

Launch of USAF WGS-8 milsatcom on ULA Delta IV rocket from pad 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on Mar. 18, 2017. Dawn Leek Taylor
Two AF Generals and a Delta! Major General David D. Thompson, Vice Commander Air Force Space Command, Peterson Air Force Base, CO, and Brig. Gen. Wayne R. Monteith, Commander of the 45th Space Wing Commander and Eastern Range Director at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla, celebrate successful Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS-9) launch for the U.S. Air Force on ULA Delta IV from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on Mar. 18, 2017, with the media gaggle on base post launch with Delta pad 37 in background right. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Liftoff of ULA Delta IV with WGS-9 milsatcom on Mar 18, 2017 as seen soaring above the pool at the Quality Inn Kennedy Space Center in Titusville, FL. Credit: Wesley Baskin
Eerie view of ULA Delta IV blastoff of WGS-9 milsatcom on Mar 18, 2017 as seen soaring over residential area in Titusville, FL. Credit: Melissa Bayles
ULA Delta IV rocket prior to blastoff with the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS-9) mission for the U.S. Air Force from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on Mar. 18, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
ULA Delta IV blastoff of WGS-9 satcom on Mar 18, 2017 from Cape Canaveral AFS with long vapor exhaust trail as seen roaring over residential area in Titusville, FL. Credit: Ashley Carrillo
ULA Delta IV blastoff of WGS-9 satcom on Mar 18, 2017 from Cape Canaveral AFS with long vapor exhaust trail as seen roaring over residential area in Titusville, FL. Credit: Ashley Carrillo
ULA Delta IV blastoff of WGS-9 satcom on Mar 18, 2017 from Cape Canaveral AFS with long vapor exhaust trail as seen roaring over residential area in Titusville, FL. Credit: Ashley Carrillo
ULA Delta IV blastoff of WGS-9 satcom on Mar 18, 2017 from Cape Canaveral AFS with long vapor exhaust trail as seen roaring over residential area in Titusville, FL. Credit: Ashley Carrillo