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Frank Slazer to head U.S. Coalition for Deep Space Exploration

May 4th 2021 at 02:00
Frank Slazer to head U.S. Coalition for Deep Space Exploration

The former Aerojet Rocketdyne executive Frank Slazer is the new President and CEO of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, the organization said. The American non-profit organization engages in “reinforcing the value and benefits of human space exploration and space science” in the U.S.

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Spy satellite successfully launched from California military base

April 26th 2021 at 19:59
A Delta 4-Heavy rocket lifts off Monday from Space Launch Complex-6 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Credit: National Reconnaissance Office

A United Launch Alliance Delta 4-Heavy rocket climbed into orbit Monday from a military base northwest of Los Angeles, delivering to space a classified U.S. government spy satellite as large as a school bus and leaving just three Delta rockets left to fly before retirement.

The top secret cargo for the National Reconnaissance Office, owner of the U.S. government’s spy satellites, rocketed off a hillside launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base around 140 miles (225 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles.

The 233-foot-tall (71-meter) Delta 4-Heavy rocket — one of the most powerful launchers in the world — ignited its three hydrogen-fueled Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-68A engines in a staggered sequence seconds before liftoff at 1:47 p.m. PDT (4:47 p.m. EDT; 2047 GMT).

After a hydrogen fireball erupted around the base of the rocket — a tell-tale signature of all Delta 4 launches — the triple-body launcher ascended from Space Launch Complex-6 at Vandenberg, a facility originally constructed to support flights of military astronauts and NASA space shuttles.

Those plans never materialized, and the Delta 4 program moved into the SLC-6 launch pad.

On the ninth Delta 4 launch from SLC-6, the rocket’s three main engines generated 2.1 million pounds of thrust at full power, equivalent to 51 million horsepower, to propel the mission over the Pacific Ocean.

Heading south from Vandenberg, the Delta 4-Heavy surpassed the speed of sound nearly a minute-and-a-half into the mission.

The core engine of the triple-body rocket ran at a partial thrust setting for the first few minutes of the flight to save propellant. The side boosters consumed their fuel and shut down their engines at T+plus 3 minutes, 56 seconds. The expendable boosters jettisoned two seconds later to fall into the Pacific Ocean.

The core RS-68A engine throttled up to full power and burned until T+plus 5 minutes, 37 seconds. Seven seconds later, the center booster separated from the Delta 4’s second stage. The Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10 engine on the second stage ignited at T+plus 5 minutes, 56 seconds.

The Delta 4-Heavy’s payload fairing jettisoned at T+plus 6 minutes, 7 seconds. That signaled the end of ULA’s launch broadcast, which concluded on orders from the NRO to conceal details about the rest of the launch sequence.

Around two hours after launch, ULA, the U.S. Space Force, and the NRO issued statements hailing a successful mission, presumably after the Delta 4’s upper stage deployed the NRO’s top secret spy satellite in orbit.

United Launch Alliance’s Delta 4-Heavy rocket climbs away from the SLC-6 launch pad at Vandenberg. Credit: U.S. Space Force photo by Michael Peterson

“Today’s liftoff demonstrates the often unseen work from men and women in the IC (Intelligence Community) who are dedicated to advancing our nation’s security — including to heights ‘above and beyond’ Earth,” said Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, who witnessed the launch Monday. “I am so honored to serve alongside extraordinary professionals and enjoyed watching their innovation, collaboration, and impact take to the skies.”

The launch Monday, designated NROL-82, was the ninth NRO mission to fly on a Delta 4-Heavy rocket. The NRO has been the leading customer for the Delta 4-Heavy rocket, the largest booster in ULA’s feet.

“NROL-82 will strengthen NRO’s ability to provide a wide-range of timely intelligence information to national decision-makers, warfighters, and intelligence analysts to protect the nation’s vital interests and support humanitarian efforts worldwide,” the NRO said in a statement.

“The payload launched today is one of the most complex payloads our nation launches and it provides vital space capability,”  said Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of the launch division at the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center  “That’s why we have to get it right the first time. The launch team performed flawlessly and I am so proud of the work they do to ensure 100 percent mission success.”

Like nearly all its missions, the NRO did not disclose any details about the satellite launched by the Delta 4-Heavy rocket Monday.

Independent analysts believed the Delta 4-Heavy rocket was likely to deliver the NRO’s next KH-11 optical reconnaissance satellite to orbit. The KH-11 satellites are about the size of a bus, fitted with large telescopes pointing down at Earth to collect unmatched high-resolution images of strategic locations around the world for analysis by U.S. intelligence agencies.

The Delta 4-Heavy rocket arcs downrange from Vandenberg. Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now

Often called “Keyhole” satellites, the KH-11 spacecraft require the heavy-lifting capability of the Delta 4-Heavy, along with the rocket’s voluminous payload shroud. All of the Delta 4-Heavy missions from Vandenberg have carried KH-11 satellites to space. The exact imaging capabilities of the KH-11 satellites are top secret, and the NRO does not publicly identify the types of spacecraft on each of its launches.

Information about the Delta 4-Heavy rocket’s post-launch trajectory released by ULA and published in open navigational warnings indicate the launcher will head slightly west of due south from Vandenberg, according to Marco Langbroek, a Dutch archaeologist and an expert in the orbits of military satellites.

The ground track suggests the Delta 4-Heavy will place its cargo into a sun-synchronous polar orbit with an inclination of about 98 degrees to the equator, Langbroek wrote on his website.

The timing of the launch Monday closely aligns with the orbital plane of a KH-11 satellite launched in January 2011 aboard a previous Delta 4-Heavy mission. The new satellite might be a replacement for that 10-year-old spacecraft.

The NRO has at least three active KH-11 satellites launched in 2005, 2011, and 2013, all flying in the same type of sun-synchronous orbit. The most recent Delta 4-Heavy launch from Vandenberg in 2019 deployed its NRO spy satellite cargo into a different orbit, raising questions whether it carried a KH-11 satellite or another kind of clandestine spacecraft.

Ted Molczan, an experienced satellite tracker in Canada, agreed with Langbroek’s assessment that the NROL-82 mission will haul a KH-11-type satellite into space.

This image, tweeted by former President Donald Trump in 2019, likely came from a high-resolution camera on a U.S. government satellite. It shows damage to an Iranian satellite launch pad.

In 2019, former President Donald Trump tweeted a declassified image widely believed to be from a KH-11 satellite, showing damage on an Iranian launch pad after a rocket explosion. Using sun angles, civilian sleuths estimated the time the picture was taken, then cross-checked the time with the known positions of NRO spy satellites.

ULA, a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, has three Delta 4-Heavy rockets left to launch in the next few years. All are assigned to haul top secret satellites into space for the National Reconnaissance Office, which owns the U.S. government’s fleet of orbiting spy platforms.

The rest of the Delta rocket family, including the single-core Delta 4-Medium, has been retired as ULA transitions to the next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket. The Delta 4-Heavy, created by joining there Delta 4 common booster cores together, is tailored for carrying the U.S. government’s largest intelligence-gathering spacecraft into orbit.

One of the remaining Delta 4-Heavy missions will launch from Vandenberg. Two more are scheduled to lift off from a launch pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

“The unmatched power of the Delta 4-Heavy again demonstrated its role as the nation’s proven heavy lift vehicle precisely delivering this critical NRO asset to its intended orbit,” said Gary Wentz, ULA vice president of government and commercial programs, in a post-launch statement Monday. “We are honored to support national security space and thank our mission partners for their continued trust and teamwork.”

The NROL-82 mission was ULA’s first launch of 2021. If the rest of ULA’s launch schedule remains on track, the company could conduct as many as 10 missions before the end of December, but the majority of the flights aren’t expected to take off until the second half of the year.

The next ULA mission is set for launch May 17 from Cape Canaveral with an Atlas 5 rocket. That flight will deliver a U.S. Space Force missile warning satellite to orbit.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Delta IV Heavy launches classified NRO payload from California

April 26th 2021 at 17:50
A file photo of a previous Delta IV Heavy launch. On April 26, 2021, the 13th such rocket launched the classified NROL-82 payload into orbit. Credit: Ashly Cullumber / SpaceFlight Insider

A file photo of a previous Delta IV Heavy launch. On April 26, 2021, the 13th such rocket launched the classified NROL-82 payload into orbit. Credit: Ashly Cullumber / SpaceFlight Insider

A United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket took the the skies from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to send the secretive NROL-82 payload into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office.

Liftoff took place at 1:47 p.m. PDT (20:47 UTC) April 26, 2021, from Vandenberg’s Space Launch Complex 6, a historic pad originally built and modified to support the West Coast space shuttle missions. The vehicle appeared to fly perfectly, with nominal booster separation, then center core separation, second stage start and payload fairing jettison, according to ULA. A few minutes later, however, the live webcast concluded at the request of the National Reconnaissance Office due to the highly-secretive nature of the payload.

ULA is proud of our long-standing history supporting national security space,” said Gary Wentz, ULA vice president of Government & Commercial Operations spoke on the continuing partnership of ULA and the NRO. “The unmatched performance of the Delta IV Heavy is essential for launching some of our nation’s most critical national security space missions and we look forward to delivering this critical asset to space.”

Comprised of three common core boosters, each powered by an Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-68A engine, the 230-foot-tall (70-meter-tall) Delta IV Heavy is among the titans of todays launch world, second only to the SpaceX Falcon Heavy in overall power. The launch was the 42nd overall for the rocket series, and the 13th of the rocket’s Heavy configuration.

Following this launch, only three Delta IV rockets remain, all in the Heavy configuration supporting NRO payloads. The launches are each currently scheduled to fly in subsequent calendar years, with the next one, NROL-68, again launching from Vandenberg in 2022.

Video courtesy of SciNews

The post Delta IV Heavy launches classified NRO payload from California appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

Photos: Delta 4-Heavy rocket awaits liftoff from historic SLC-6 launch pad

April 26th 2021 at 14:14

A United Launch Alliance Delta 4-Heavy rocket is awaiting liftoff with a classified U.S. government spy satellite at Vandenberg Air Force Base’s historic Space Launch Complex-6, a picturesque rocket facility that was once intended to support launches of military astronauts and space shuttles.

These photos show the triple-body rocket, clad in orange thermal insulation, standing on the SLC-6 launch pad ahead of liftoff with a National Reconnaissance Office payload Monday, April 26. Liftoff is from the launch site on California’s Central Coast set for 1:46 p.m. PDT (4:46 p.m. EDT; 2046 GMT).

The 233-foot-tall (71-meter) Delta 4-Heavy launcher is one of four Delta 4s remaining in ULA’s inventory. All are assigned to carry top secret NRO spy satellites into orbit, with two scheduled from Vandenberg and another two set to take off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

The Delta 4-Heavy is one of the most powerful rockets in the world, and the heaviest booster in ULA’s rocket family.

See our Mission Status Center for live coverage of the countdown and launch.

Credit: Brian Sandoval / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Brian Sandoval / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Brian Sandoval / Spaceflight Now
Credit: United Launch Alliance
Credit: United Launch Alliance
Credit: United Launch Alliance
Credit: United Launch Alliance
Credit: United Launch Alliance
Credit: United Launch Alliance
Credit: United Launch Alliance
Credit: United Launch Alliance
Credit: United Launch Alliance

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Live coverage: ULA’s heavy-lift rocket lifts off from California

April 26th 2021 at 03:25

Live coverage of the countdown and launch of a Delta 4-Heavy rocket with the classified NROL-82 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office. Text updates will appear automatically below. Follow us on Twitter.

ULA broadcast

United Launch Alliance’s live launch broadcast begins at 1:26 p.m. PDT (4:26 p.m. EDT; 2026 GMT) on Monday, April 26.

One of ULA’s four remaining Delta 4 rockets set to launch from California

April 25th 2021 at 18:55
A Delta 4-Heavy rocket stands on Space Launch Complex-6 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Credit: United Launch Alliance

United Launch Alliance ground crews on California’s Central Coast are gearing up to send a classified U.S. government spy satellite into orbit as soon as Monday — weather permitting — aboard one of the company’s four remaining Delta 4-Heavy rockets.

Liftoff of the powerhouse hydrogen-fueled launcher is set for 1:46 p.m. PDT (4:46 p.m. EDT; 2046 GMT) from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. There is a 40% chance of favorable weather for Monday’s launch opportunity, according to the official launch forecast issued by the U.S. Space Force.

The weather concerns Monday include surface winds, cumulus clouds, thick clouds, and precipitation. The exact duration of the launch window Monday has not been disclosed. The NRO said earlier this month the mission’s launch period extended from 12:39-3:57 p.m. PDT (3:39-6:57 p.m. EDT; 1939-2257 GMT).

If the launch is scrubbed Monday, there is also a 40% chance of acceptable conditions for liftoff Tuesday.

ULA, a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, has four Delta 4-Heavy rockets left to launch in the next few years. All are assigned to haul top secret satellites into space for the National Reconnaissance Office, which owns the U.S. government’s fleet of orbiting spy platforms.

The rest of the Delta rocket family, including the single-core Delta 4-Medium, has been retired as ULA transitions to the next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket. The Delta 4-Heavy, created by joining there Delta 4 common booster cores together, is tailored for carrying the U.S. government’s largest intelligence-gathering spacecraft into orbit.

The next Delta 4-Heavy launch, designated NROL-82, will blast off from Space Launch Complex-6 at Vandenberg, a picturesque location overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It will be the 42nd flight of a Delta 4 rocket since 2002, and the 13th launch of the Delta 4-Heavy configuration.

The NROL-82 mission will be ULA’s first launch of 2021. If the rest of ULA’s launch schedule remains on track, the company could conduct as many as 10 missions before the end of December, but the majority of the flights aren’t expected to take off until the second half of the year.

While government officials have not disclosed any information about the payload riding on the NROL-82 mission, independent analysts believe the Delta 4-Heavy rocket will likely deliver the NRO’s next KH-11 optical reconnaissance satellite to orbit. The KH-11 satellites are about the size of a bus, fitted with large telescopes pointing down at Earth to collect unmatched high-resolution images of strategic locations around the world for analysis by U.S. intelligence agencies.

This illustrated map shows the ground track of the Delta 4-Heavy rocket after liftoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, on the NROL-82 mission. The map also has circles indicating when the rocket might be visible to spectators. Credit: United Launch Alliance

Often called “Keyhole” satellites, he KH-11 spacecraft require the heavy-lifting capability of the Delta 4-Heavy, along with the rocket’s voluminous payload shroud. All of the Delta 4-Heavy missions from Vandenberg have carried KH-11 satellites to space. The exact imaging capabilities of the KH-11 satellites are top secret, and the NRO does not publicly identify the types of spacecraft on each of its launches.

Information about the Delta 4-Heavy rocket’s post-launch trajectory released by ULA and published in open navigational warnings indicate the launcher will head slightly west of due south from Vandenberg, according to Marco Langbroek, a Dutch archaeologist and an expert in the orbits of military satellites.

The ground track suggests the Delta 4-Heavy will place its cargo into a sun-synchronous polar orbit with an inclination of about 98 degrees to the equator, Langbroek wrote on his website.

The timing of the launch Monday closely aligns with the orbital plane of a KH-11 satellite launched in January 2011 aboard a previous Delta 4-Heavy mission. The new satellite might be a replacement for that 10-year-old spacecraft.

The NRO has at least three active KH-11 satellites launched in 2005, 2011, and 2013, all flying in the same type of sun-synchronous orbit. The most recent Delta 4-Heavy launch from Vandenberg in 2019 deployed its NRO spy satellite cargo into a different orbit, raising questions whether it carried a KH-11 satellite or another kind of clandestine spacecraft.

Ted Molczan, an experienced satellite tracker in Canada, agreed with Langbroek’s assessment that the NROL-82 mission will haul a KH-11-type satellite into space.

In 2019, former President Donald Trump tweeted a declassified image widely believed to be from a KH-11 satellite, showing damage on an Iranian launch pad after a rocket explosion. Using sun angles, civilian sleuths estimated the time the picture was taken, then cross-checked the time with the known positions of NRO spy satellites.

This image tweeted by former President Donald Trump in 2019 appears to come from a high-resolution camera on a U.S. government drone or satellite. It shows damage to an Iranian satellite launch pad.

ULA raised the Delta 4-Heavy rocket on the SLC-6 launch pad in February. Since then, the launch team completed a “wet dress rehearsal” in which they loaded the Delta 4-Heavy with cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants.

Ground crews installed the NROL-82 mission’s secret payload on top of the Delta 4-Heavy earlier this month, the final element to complete stacking of the 233-foot-tall (71-meter) rocket.

The NROL-82 mission will be the ninth Delta 4 mission to depart from the SLC-6 launch pad, a facility once designed to host space shuttle launches on the West Coast. When NASA abandoned plans to fly space shuttles from California after the Challenger accident, the launch pad languished until Boeing became next long-term tenant to enable Delta 4 launches.

Boeing merged its Delta rocket program with Lockheed Martin’s Atlas 5 program in 2006 to create ULA.

Like all launches for the National Reconnaissance Office, the final phase of the Delta 4-Heavy mission Monday will occur out of public view. The NRO typically orders news blackouts and officials launch broadcasts conclude a few minutes after liftoff.

The Delta 4-Heavy rocket’s three Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-68A main engines will drive the launcher off the planet with 2.1 million pounds of thrust, equivalent to 51 million horsepower.

Heading south over the Pacific, the rocket will surpass the speed of sound at T+plus 1 minute, 23 seconds.

The core engine of the triple-body rocket will run at a partial thrust setting for the first few minutes of the flight to save propellant. The side boosters will consume their fuel and shut down their engines at T+plus 3 minutes, 56 seconds. The boosters will jettison two seconds later to fall into the Pacific Ocean.

The core RS-68A engine will throttle up to full power and burn until T+plus 5 minutes, 37 seconds. Stage separation is scheduled for T+plus 5 minutes, 44 seconds, followed by ignition of the second stage’s Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10 engine at T+plus 5 minutes, 56 seconds.

The Delta 4-Heavy’s payload fairing will jettison at T+plus 6 minutes, 7 seconds, and ULA’s launch broadcast will conclude moments later. ULA and the NRO are expected to confirm the outcome of the rest of the mission on social media and in press releases later Monday afternoon.

Assuming the Delta 4-Heavy is carrying a KH-11 spysat, the rocket’s upper stage is expected to target an elongated orbit ranging as high as 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) in altitude.

After Monday’s launch, ULA will have one more Delta 4-Heavy launch left in its backlog from Vandenberg. The other two Delta 4-Heavy missions left to launch will blast off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Amazon buys Atlas V rockets to orbit its Kuiper constellation

April 21st 2021 at 17:00
A rendering of an Atlas V rocket with Amazon's logo on the payload fairing. Credit: Amazon

A rendering of an Atlas V rocket with Amazon’s logo on the payload fairing. Credit: Amazon

On Monday, April 19, Amazon announced that it purchased nine Atlas V rocket flights from United Launch Alliance for the orbital insertion of its Kuiper satellites.

Project Kuiper is Amazon’s answer to privatized satellite-provided internet, such as the SpaceX Starlink system. Its hope is to provide cheap and reliable high-speed, low-latency broadband internet to unserved and underserved communities around the globe.

“Project Kuiper will help bridge the digital divide across the United States and around the world, and we could not be more pleased to be working with Amazon to support the initiative,” said ULA CEO Tory Bruno. “ULA is focused on serving our customer’s missions and providing reliable, innovative launch solutions. We look forward to launching these important missions.”

Given that the majority of ULA’s customers are NASA and national security missions, this announcement symbolizes a big win in the realm of commercial customers for the company.

While both ULA and Blue Origin, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ private space company, are both building and developing new orbital-class rockets of their own, many were left wondering why Amazon would choose the Atlas V. The FCC set a deadline of 2025 for the company to place all of its Kuiper satellites into orbit. By contracting with ULA, Amazon wanted to ensure the satellites would be placed in orbit by or before that deadline.

While both ULA and Blue Origin have Vulcan and New Glenn, respectively, in development, the Atlas V has a proven track record of incredible reliability.

The exact launch dates are not known, however ULA announced that each flight will liftoff from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. Neither company has said what configuration of Atlas V will be required for launch. However, Amazon has said it intends to launch around 3,236 satellites into low Earth orbit to make up the full constellation.

File photo: An Atlas V rocket launches the NROL-101 payload from Space Launch Complex 41 on Nov. 13, 2020. Credit: Matt Haskell / Spaceflight Insider

File photo: An Atlas V rocket launches the NROL-101 payload from Space Launch Complex 41 on Nov. 13, 2020. Credit: Matt Haskell / Spaceflight Insider

The post Amazon buys Atlas V rockets to orbit its Kuiper constellation appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

Boeing crew capsule test flight now scheduled for late summer

April 21st 2021 at 15:18
Boeing’s second spaceflight-rated CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is weighed before flight in this photo from January. Credit: Boeing/John Proferes

A second unpiloted test flight of Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule — ordered after an initial demonstration mission fell short of reaching the International Space Station — is now scheduled for launch from Cape Canaveral in August or September, leaving little margin to conduct the spaceship’s first flight with astronauts before the end of the year.

Boeing and NASA officials confirmed the new schedule in recent statements, following a delay earlier the year from the test flight’s previous target launch date of April 2. Managers blamed that schedule slip on delays in performing software testing to prepare for the upcoming test flight, including difficulties stemming from a winter storm in February that impacted Boeing’s software lab in Houston.

The CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is one of two commercial crew ships developed by U.S. industry under contract to NASA. SpaceX is NASA’s other commercial crew contractor, and that company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft began flying astronauts to the station last year.

Boeing’s Starliner, meanwhile, is still months away from it initially-unplanned second unpiloted test flight, and a crew test flight is expected at least several months after that.

Officials said the external considerations drove the schedule to launch Boeing’s second Starliner Orbital Flight Test, or OFT-2 mission, in the August/September timeframe.

The Starliner spacecraft uses the same space station docking ports as SpaceX’s Dragon crew and cargo ships. One of those ports is currently taken by a Crew Dragon capsule, and both ports will be occupied for a few days later this month with the handover of one Crew Dragon mission to the next.

SpaceX’s next Dragon cargo mission is scheduled to launch June 3 and will spend about a month-and-a-half docked with the space station to deliver fresh supplies, experiments, and a new pair of solar arrays. That precludes a Starliner docking before the second half of July.

The operational crew and cargo missions get priority over test flights in the space station’s schedule.

NASA and Boeing officials also have to find a window in United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 launch schedule at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Unlike SpaceX, which launches Crew Dragon missions on its own Falcon 9 rockets, Boeing contracted with ULA to boost Starliner crew capsules into orbit.

ULA is a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, but it operates as an independent company and has other customers. The U.S. Space Force currently has payloads scheduled to launch on three Atlas 5 missions in May, June, and August, carrying a new billion-dollar military missile warning satellite, a menagerie of tech demo experiments, and two space surveillance payloads.

Boeing previously had an early September launch slot booked with ULA for the Starliner’s Crew Flight Test — the capsule’s first demonstration mission with astronauts — when the OFT-2 mission was set for launch earlier this year. That launch slot is now available for the OFT-2 mission, and officials aren’t ruling out moving up the OFT-2 launch to August if one of the Space Force delays one of its missions.

The Atlas 5 launch pad will be tied up in late September through much of October with preparations to launch NASA’s robotic Lucy spacecraft on a marathon trip through the solar system to study asteroids. Lucy has a 23-day planetary launch window opening Oct. 16, and NASA will give the asteroid probe priority over the agency’s other missions.

Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, said last week the Starliner spacecraft assigned to the OFT-2 mission is in “good shape” as it undergoes preparations in a facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“It’s almost ready for launch,” Stich said.

In a statement, Boeing said it will be “mission ready” in May in case an opening arises in the Atlas 5 launch schedule.

“The Starliner team has completed all work on the OFT-2 vehicle except for activity to be conducted closer to launch, such as loading cargo and fueling the spacecraft,” Boeing said. “The team also has submitted all verification and validation paperwork to NASA and is completing all Independent Review Team recommended actions including those that were not mandatory ahead of OFT-2.”

Boeing is taking more time to complete software testing on the Starliner spacecraft while officials wait for an opening in the space station schedule and ULA’s launch manifest, according to Stich. Boeing said in a statement it expects to complete software simulations, including end-to-end confidence and integration testing, before the end of April and will provide the results to NASA reviewers.

An Atlas 5 rocket lifts off with Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft on the OFT-1 mission in December 2019. Credit: United Launch Alliance

Investigators blamed a software error for the OFT-1 mission’s failure to dock with the space station in 2019. A mission timer was wrongly programmed, causing the spacecraft to think it was in a different mission phase when it separated from its Atlas 5 rocket after an otherwise-successful liftoff from Cape Canaveral.

The error caused the Starliner capsule to burn more propellant than expected, consuming the fuel it needed to maneuver toward the space station. Mission managers elected to end the mission early, and the spacecraft landed in New Mexico.

Assuming the OFT-2 mission gets off the pad in late summer, Stich said the Starliner’s Crew Flight Test could take off “toward the end of the calendar year.”

The Crew Flight Test will carry NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore, Mike Fincke, and Nicole Mann to the space station. They will fly on the same reusable Starliner spacecraft that launched and landed in December 2019 on Boeing’s first Orbital Flight Test, while the OFT-2 mission will fly on an unused vehicle.

Boeing said its teams are preparing for the “shortest turnaround time possible” between the OFT-2 mission and the Crew Flight Test. Wilmore, Fincke, and Mann recently suited up and climbed aboard the spacecraft set to fly the OFT-2 mission for life support and communications systems checkouts.

Once Boeing accomplishes the two remaining Starliner test flights, NASA will certify the capsule for regular crew rotation missions to the space station, just as the agency did for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon last year.

NASA has nearly $7 billion in contracts with Boeing and SpaceX covering the development of the two commercial crew spaceships, and six operational crew rotation flights by each company.

With Boeing’s delays, SpaceX is likely to have launched four Crew Dragon missions with NASA astronauts — a test flight and three operational launches — before the Starliner flies with people for the first time.

Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s acting administrator, said the agency originally planned to alternate commercial crew missions between Boeing and SpaceX.

“The plan right now is to alternate — SpaceX, Boeing, SpaceX, Boeing — however, the first Boeing crew flight is delayed, and we’re going to most likely … have four crew flights with SpaceX before the crew test flight with Boeing,” Jurczyk said Tuesday. “So we may have to relook at that, but we haven’t gotten around to talking about that yet.”

NASA will also soon start considering how and when to procure more commercial crew missions to meet the space station’s requirements beyond 2024, he said. But those talks are still to come.

“We really haven’t talked in detail about how we’re going to move forward beyond the current contracts and commitments,” Jurczyk said in an interview with Spaceflight Now.

NASA chief: Russian cosmonauts unlikely fly on U.S. crew capsules until next year

April 20th 2021 at 18:27
Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy has his Sokol launch and entry suit pressure checked before boarding a Soyuz spacecraft for liftoff April 9 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Credit: NASA/GCTC/Irina Spector

NASA’s acting administrator said Tuesday he does not expect Russian cosmonauts to start launching to the International Space Station on U.S. commercial crew vehicles until next year.

A proposed agreement with Russia to ensure the space station is always staffed with an international crew is awaiting U.S. government approval. The no-funds-exchanged agreement has been in discussion by NASA and Russian space agency officials for years, but sign-off of a final deal has hit roadblocks in recent months.

Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s acting administrator, said Tuesday that the draft version of an “implementing agreement” between NASA and Roscosmos is still being reviewed by the U.S. State Department.

“We’re waiting for the final signatures from the State Department on the implementing agreement, and then we’ll provide that draft to Roscosmos and begin negotiations,” Jurczyk told Spaceflight Now in an interview.

He said he believes NASA is close to getting final State Department approval of the agreement’s text, but the clock has likely run out for getting the State Department signatures and finalizing the agreement with the Russian government in time to assign a Russian cosmonaut to a SpaceX crew mission later this year.

Once the agreement is in place, a Russian cosmonaut would have to be approved to travel to the United States, have a custom SpaceX-developed pressure suit manufactured, and receive basic training on the Crew Dragon spacecraft.

“I believe it’s now too late to develop a suit and do the training for Crew-3,” Jurczyk said, referring to a SpaceX Crew Dragon mission scheduled for launch Oct. 23. “So most likely the earliest mission to have a cosmonaut on it would be Crew-4.”

The Crew-4 mission is currently scheduled for launch no earlier than the first quarter of 2022.

Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi poses with a SpaceX pressure suit inside the International Space Station. Noguchi was the first international astronaut to fly on a U.S. commercial crew ship. Credit: NASA

Last November, NASA said it had submitted the draft agreement to the State Department for approval. At that time, NASA hoped to have the deal finalized in time to assign a Russian cosmonaut to the Crew-3 mission late this year.

Rookie NASA astronaut Raja Chari — a former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot — veteran physician-astronaut Tom Marshburn, and European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer have been assigned to the Crew-3 mission. NASA left open the Dragon’s fourth seat for a Russian cosmonaut, but that position is now expected to be filled by a crew member from NASA’s astronaut corps or another international partner.

Once NASA and Roscosmos sign the final agreement, managers want every U.S. crew launch to the space station to have a Russian cosmonaut on-board. And every launch of a Russian Soyuz crew capsule would have an astronaut from the United States or another partner qualified to operate NASA’s segment of the space station.

The agreement will help ensure there is always a crew member on the space station to operate the outpost’s Russian section and U.S. Operating Segment, or USOS, which includes U.S., Japanese, European, and Canadian hardware. If Russia’s Soyuz program or the U.S. crew vehicles are grounded, crew members from the other international partners will still be able to fly to the space station.

It would also guard against a medical emergency that could force half of the space station’s crew to leave the outpost early and return to Earth. If one spacecraft had to depart the station early, all of that capsule’s crew would have to come back to Earth to ensure they’re not stranded in orbit without a lifeboat.

That could force all Russian or all U.S. crew members to evacuate the space station, leaving critical parts of the spacecraft’s propulsion, life support, and control systems at risk.

International astronauts are already flying on SpaceX Crew Dragon missions. Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi launched on the Crew-1 mission — the first regular Crew Dragon flight — in November and is due to return to Earth next week.

The Crew-2 mission scheduled for launch Thursday will include Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and French-born mission specialist Thomas Pesquet, the first European Space Agency crew member to fly on Dragon. They will join NASA commander Shane Kimbrough and pilot Megan McArthur for a half-year on the space station.

NASA relied on Soyuz spacecraft for all crew transportation to and from the station from the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011 until the start of astronaut launches by SpaceX last year.

Members of the Soyuz MS-18 prime and backup crews pose for a photo April 9 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA has paid the Russian government roughly $4 billion billion since 2006 to purchase Soyuz seats for astronauts from the United States and the station’s other international partners, according to a report in 2019 by NASA’s inspector general.

Flush with NASA money, Russian space contractors doubled the production of Soyuz crew capsules for launches beginning in 2009 to meet the demand for astronaut transportation to the space station. After NASA’s previous bulk purchase of Soyuz seats in 2017 expired, Russian officials cut back the Soyuz flight rate to two flights last year.

The Soyuz final seat NASA purchased from Russia was filled by astronaut Kate Rubins, who launched on a Soyuz spacecraft last October and landed with two Russian crewmates Saturday in Kazakhstan.

NASA arranged for another Soyuz seat on the most recent Russian crew launch April 9, but did not pay for the ride in cash. NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei launched on the mission after NASA booked the seat with the help of Axiom Space, a Houston-based company that brokers flights for space tourists and is planning its own private space station.

In exchange for paying for Vande Hei’s ride, Axiom will get a seat for one of it’s private customers on a future NASA-sponsored U.S. crew mission.

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Amazon contracts nine Atlas V for Project Kuiper

April 20th 2021 at 02:00
Amazon contracts nine Atlas V for Project Kuiper

Paris, 20 April 2021. – 9 times 5: Amazon contracted nine Atlas V rockets to launch its Project Kuiper broadband constellation, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced. With Project Kuiper, Amazon wants to increase global broadband coverage through a constellation of 3,236 satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO).  

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Amazon buys nine Atlas 5 launches for Kuiper broadband constellation

April 19th 2021 at 14:17
Nine Atlas 5 rockets will launch satellites for Amazon’s Kuiper internet network. Credit: United Launch Alliance

Amazon has selected United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket for nine missions from Cape Canaveral to deploy satellites for the Kuiper internet constellation, a fleet designed to eventually number more than 3,200 spacecraft, the companies announced Monday.

The nine missions will lift off from ULA’s facilities at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, but officials did not reveal when they will launch. Amazon and ULA — a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin — also did not disclose how many satellites will fly on each Atlas 5 mission, or which Atlas 5 rocket configuration will launch the Kuiper spacecraft.

“We’re determined to make affordable broadband a reality for customers and communities around the world,” said Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and CEO. “ULA is a fantastic partner that’s successfully launched dozens of missions for commercial and government customers, and we’re grateful for their support of Kuiper.”

Atlas 5 rockets have flown 86 times since 2002, all successfully, with payloads for the U.S. military, the U.S. government’s intelligence agencies, NASA, and commercial customers.

Amazon and ULA did not disclose financial terms of the launch services agreement. On its website, ULA says the price for an Atlas 5 rocket launch starts at $109 million, suggesting the total value of the contract may exceed $1 billion.

The Kuiper network will beam low-latency Ka-band broadband services to customers between 56 degrees north and 56 degrees south latitude, according to Amazon. Half of the Kuiper network’s 3,236 satellites must be launched by mid-2026 for Amazon to maintain network authorization from the Federal Communications Commission.

The nine Atlas 5 missions are just a start. Amazon says it plans to use multiple types of launch vehicles from multiple companies to deploy the entire fleet of Kuiper satellites.

In its FCC filings, Amazon outlined a strategy to launch the Kuiper satellites in five phases, placing the spacecraft into orbital “shells” at altitudes between 366 miles (590 kilometers) and 391 miles (630 kilometers). The Kuiper satellites will fly in orbital planes, or pathways, inclined at 33 degrees, 42 degrees, and 51.9 degrees to the equator.

The first phase of the Kuiper deployment sequence will launch 578 satellites into 391-mile-high orbits with an inclination of 51.9 degrees, according to Amazon’s FCC filings.

The FCC approved Amazon’s Kuiper network last July. Amazon says it is investing $10 billion into the project, which is headquartered in Redmond, Washington, home to a Kuiper research, development, and manufacturing facility. More than 500 employees are currently working on the Kuiper project, according to Amazon.

Amazon has not revealed the size and mass of the Kuiper satellites.

“We’ve designed our satellites and dispenser system to accommodate multiple launch vehicles — this gives us the flexibility to use many different rockets and providers to launch our satellite system,” said Rajeev Badyal, vice president of technology for Project Kuiper. “Atlas 5 is a capable, reliable rocket, and we’re proud to be working with ULA to support these important first launches.”

“Project Kuiper is an ambitious project with the potential to connect tens of millions of people around the planet,” said Tory Bruno, president and CEO of ULA. “The scope and scale of the initiative will also provide an enormous boost to U.S. leadership in space, helping create jobs and providing steady, reliable demand for the launch services industry. We’re honored to have Amazon turn to ULA and Atlas 5 to support its deployment plans.”

ULA is developing a next-generation rocket named the Vulcan Centaur to replace the company’s current Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rocket families. The first Vulcan test launch is scheduled at the end of this year.

ULA is ending production of Delta 4 rockets, and only four Delta 4 flights remain on ULA’s schedule through late 2023, including a Delta 4-Heavy launch scheduled April 26 from California.

The Atlas 5 will also be phased out, but ULA has said it plans to keep launching Atlas rockets in tandem with the early Vulcan launches for several years.

United Launch Alliance and SpaceX won contracts from the U.S. military last year to launch a series of national security satellites through 2027. ULA’s Vulcan rocket and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launchers will be the military’s primary heavy-lift launch providers during that time.

With the nine Kuiper missions now reserved with ULA, there are nearly 30 Atlas 5 missions in the company’s backlog.

Several companies are in the pool of commercial launch providers vying for Kuiper launches. Blue Origin, a space company also owned by Bezos, has said it will have to compete for Kuiper launch contracts, alongside ULA, Arianespace, and perhaps even SpaceX, which is deploying its own internet network in competition with Amazon’s Kuiper.

“We will continue to explore all options to launch the remainder of our satellite constellation, and we look forward to working with companies across the launch services industry to advance U.S. leadership in space and create jobs across the country,” Amazon said in a statement.

The Kuiper network will compete with SpaceX’s Starlink fleet, the OneWeb broadband system, Telesat’s planned Lightspeed network, and other future low Earth orbit constellations.

SpaceX has more than 1,300 active Starlink satellites in orbit, and their network is already providing intermittent services to users in advanced beta testing. The Starlink satellites launch on SpaceX’s own partially-reusable Falcon 9 rockets.

OneWeb is behind SpaceX, with 146 of its planned 648 internet satellites successfully launched on Russian Soyuz rockets. OneWeb aims to start limited commercial service by the end of this year.

Telesat plans to start launching its nearly 300 Lightspeed satellites next year.

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Delta 2 rocket exhibit opens at Kennedy Space Center

March 28th 2021 at 15:51
United Launch Alliance’s final Delta 2 rocket is now displayed at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. ULA, U.S. Space Force, NASA, and Visitor Complex officials gathered Tuesday for a grand opening ceremony. Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

United Launch Alliance’s final Delta 2 rocket is now on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida, a monument to an industry workhorse that helped build the GPS navigation satellite fleet and enabled a new era of Mars exploration.

The 155th and final flight of a Delta 2 rocket took off Sept. 15, 2018, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California with NASA ICESat 2 satellite to measure changes in Earth’s land and sea ice.

The launch added an exclamation point to a streak of 100 straight successful Delta 2 missions from 1997 through 2018. ULA had hardware for one more Delta 2 rocket, but the company did not sell the launcher. Instead, ULA donated the Delta 2 to become the newest attraction in the Rocket Garden at the KSC Visitor Complex.

“Thank you United Launch Alliance for making this amazing addition,” said Therrin Protze, chief operating officer at the Visitor Complex, in a grand opening ceremony March 23. “This addition is timely as more people are visiting to learn all about space.”

The Delta 2, with its recognizable blue color scheme, joins the Juno 1, Juno 2, Mercury-Redstone, Mercury-Atlas, Atlas-Agena, Thor-Delta and Gemini-Titan 2 vehicles standing in the Rocket Garden. A Saturn 1B rocket is displayed nearby on its side.

The Delta 2 is the second largest rocket displayed in the Rocket Garden, exceeded only by the Saturn 1B.

“This is a monumental occasion as the legacy of Delta 2 will be preserved here for years to come, taking its place among the iconic giants here in the Rocket Garden,” said Ron Fortson, ULA’s director and general manager of launch operations. “This is the final Delta 2. Since it won’t be launching, we couldn’t think of a better place for it to be than right here being preserved in this fitting location with all these other iconic rockets.”

United Launch Alliance’s Delta 2 rocket stands near the Mercury-Redstone, Thor-Delta, Juno 2, Atlas-Mercury, Atlas-Agenia, and Gemini-Titan 2 vehicles in the Rocket Garden at the KSC Visitor Complex. Not visible are the Juno 1 and Saturn 1B rockets. Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now

The Delta 2’s basic design traces its origins to the Thor intermediate range ballistic missile in the late 1950s. Engineers uprated the Thor missile by adding a series of more capable upper stages, extending the size of its propellant tanks, and installing strap-on solid rocket boosters to carry heavier satellites into orbit.

The Thor’s evolution into a reliable satellite launcher culminated in the Delta 2 rocket, which debuted in 1989 and lofted 48 GPS navigation satellites, Mars rovers, interplanetary probes, and numerous military and communications payloads in its nearly 30-year career.

The Delta 2 displayed in the Rocket Garden stands 128 feet (39 meters) tall, topped by a 10-foot-diameter (3-meter) payload fairing. Most of the rocket was built as a flight-worthy launch vehicle, with the exception of three unfueled solid rocket boosters mounted around the base of the first stage.

The payload shroud is painted shark’s teeth, an insignia that harkens back to Delta 2 launches with GPS navigation satellites. Those rockets also carried the shark’s teeth, an Air Force tradition that dates back to the “Flying Tigers” group of volunteer pilots that fought against Japan in China during World War 2.

Delta 2 rockets launched with three, four, or nine strap-on solid rocket boosters to assist the first stage’s Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-27A main engine, which consumed kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants during the first four-and-a-half minutes of flight.

A second stage powered by an AJ10-118K engine fed by a storable fuel blend known as Aerozine 50 finished the job of placing payloads into orbit. On many missions, the Delta 2 flew with a solid-fueled third stage to propel spacecraft into higher orbits or toward interplanetary destinations.

“The Delta 2 has been a workhorse for NASA throughout its career,” said Bob Cabana, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. “We’ve sent probes all over our solar systems with the Delta 2, to the planets, to the sun, and missions right here to planet Earth, making the Earth a better place, all because of that rocket.”

The Delta 2 rocket exhibit is the first major addition to the Visitor Complex since the opening of the shuttle Atlantis display in 2013.

“When Atlantis moved into the Atlantis facility, it was kind of heartbreaking for me to see that,” said Cabana, a former astronaut. “That’s a real rocket behind us, it could have flown in space, but instead — just like Atlantis — it’s on its second career right now. It’s on a mission of inspiration for the future generations.”

Of the 155 Delta 2 missions, 153 were successful. Delta 2 rockets lofted satellites to help forecast the weather, monitor Earth’s changing climate, and explore the moon, Mars, Mercury, comets, and asteroids.

A Delta 2 rocket lifts off June 10, 2003, with NASA’s Spirit rover heading for Mars. Credit: NASA

NASA’s Mars Pathfinder mission, which carried the first rover to the Red Planet, took off from Cape Canaveral on a Delta 2 rocket in 1996. The Spirit and Opportunity rovers launched toward Mars on Delta 2 rockets in 2003, followed by the Phoenix lander in 2007, which became the first spacecraft to touch down on the Martian polar plains.

NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey orbiters also launched on Delta 2 rockets in 1996 and 2001. Mars Odyssey is still operating today, making it the longest-lived Mars mission in history.

A Delta 2 rocket launched NASA’s Stardust spacecraft in 1999 to collect dust particles from comet Wild 2, and another Delta 2 mission in 2005 deployed NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft to release a copper projective that slammed into comet Tempel 1, collecting data on the comet’s internal structure composition.

The final Delta 2 launch from Cape Canaveral took off Sept. 8, 2011, with NASA’s GRAIL mission, a pair of probes to measure the moon’s gravity field. Five more Delta 2s lifted off from Vandenberg, a spaceport suited for launches into polar orbit, which is often used by Earth-observing satellites.

“The missions have been amazing and varied: GPS that has changed our lives, weather satellites, mobile satellite telephones, space telescopes, trips to the moon, Mars and Mercury, comets and asteroids, and countless spacecraft studying our beloved Mother Earth,” said Tim Dunn, a launch director at NASA’s Launch Services Program.

“The unfailing Delta 2 team that earned this rocket’s virtues and its appropriate nickname, the workhorse,” Dunn said. NASA has a terrific history on the Delta 2 rocket. Of the 155 total Delta 2 missions, NASA had 54 of them, and every single one of them successful.”

Apart from the missions of exploration, Delta 2 rockets launched satellites to begin the full-scale deployment of the U.S. military’s Global Positioning System. The first Delta 2 launch on Valentine’s Day of 1989 delivered the first of 48 GPS satellites Delta 2 rockets would carry into orbit.

Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now

The military utility of the GPS network was demonstrated in the Gulf War in 1991, the first conflict that widely employed satellite navigation using spacecraft launched on Delta 2 missions.

“The Gulf War was considered in many ways the first space war,” said Brig. Gen. Stephen Purdy, commander of the 45th Space Wing and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. “It’s where the space elements within the Air Force really started coming into their own. You could say a lot of the groundwork was laid then for the creation of the Space Force.”

Now billions of civilians around the world use GPS navigation signals to guide their journeys by land, sea, and air.

“If you have GPS, you have Delta 2 to thank for the capabilities we have in that arena,” Fortson said.

Delta 2 rockets also launched numerous satellites for Iridium and Globalstar, pioneering companies in the mobile telecommunications industry.

“From national security to space exploration, the Delta 2 has changed what we know about the world we live in today and it’s affected all of our lives,” Fortson said.

Engineers who worked on the Delta 2 program are now working on ULA’s other rockets, like the Atlas 5, Delta 4, and the next-generation Vulcan Centaur. Others have moved on to other space companies.

“All these groups of engineers, analysts and technicians benefited from this rocket’s unprecedented record of success and consistent performance,” Dunn said. “I believe the success of this rocket has left a huge ripple effect on the launch systems we have today.”

Additional photos of the Delta 2 rocket exhibit are posted below.

The Delta 2 rocket is seen earlier this month before attachment of three dummy solid rocket boosters. NASA’s Saturn 1B rocket is seen on the left. Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Brig. Gen. Stephen Purdy, commander of the 45th Space Wing; Ron Fortson, ULA’s director and general manager of launch operations; Bob Cabana, director of the Kennedy Space Center; Tim Dunn, launch manager in NASA’s Launch Services Program; Therrin Protze, chief operating officer of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

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U.S. Space Force’s next missile warning satellite arrives at Florida launch base

March 26th 2021 at 13:23
The SBIRS GEO 5 satellite enters a thermal vacuum chamber last year at Lockheed Martin’s factory in Sunnyvale, California. Credit: Lockheed Martin

A billion-dollar missile warning satellite built by Lockheed Martin for the U.S. Space Force arrived at Cape Canaveral earlier this month to kick off final preparations for launch May 17 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

The military’s fifth Space Based Infrared System, or SBIRS, satellite designed to operate in geosynchronous orbit arrived at the Florida launch base March 18 on a U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo plane, officials announced Wednesday.

The SBIRS GEO 5 spacecraft shipped to Florida from its Lockheed Martin factory in Sunnyvale, California, where teams completed construction of the satellite last October. SBIRS GEO 5 is follows four previous SBIRS satellites launched into geosynchronous orbit since 2011 to replace the military’s aging Defense Support Program missile warning spacecraft, the last of which launched in 2007.

The new satellite differs from the first four SBIRS GEO satellites, introducing an upgraded spacecraft design Lockheed Martin calls the “combat bus.” Lockheed Martin built the fifth and sixth SBIRS GEO satellites using its new LM 2100 platform, which the company says is the result of an “internally-funded, multi-year modernization initiative.”

According to Lockheed Martin, the LM 2100 combat bus is designed to provide improved resiliency and hardening against cyber threats, along with additional spacecraft power, and enhanced propulsion and electronics. The modular design incorporates common components to streamline manufacturing, and can more easily accommodate new types of sensors to respond to innovation and new military requirements.

The LM 2100 combat bus will also be used by the next generation of missile warning satellites Lockheed Martin is building for the Space Force to replace the SBIRS fleet. The next generation of GPS navigation satellite, due to begin launching in 2026, will also use the combat bus platform.

The final SBIRS GEO satellite, GEO 6, is scheduled of launch on an Atlas 5 rocket in 2022. The military’s contracts with Lockheed Martin for the final two SBIRS GEO satellites are valued at about $2.2 billion, according to financial data published by the Pentagon in previous years.

Northrop Grumman builds the infrared sensors on the SBIRS satellites. The instruments can detect and track super-hot exhaust plumes from rocket motors, informing military officials of foreign missile launches. The information gathered by the SBIRS fleet could help defense units intercept an incoming missile before it strikes its target.

The SBIRS constellation includes a minimum of four SBIRS craft stationed in geosynchronous orbit and at least two infrared payloads in elliptical orbits aboard top secret National Reconnaissance Office spy satellites, providing polar coverage. The final two SBIRS satellites set for launch this year and next year will replenish the fleet.

Each infrared instrument package on the geosynchronous satellites includes staring and scanning sensors designed to provide visibility over an entire hemisphere, while allowing ground operators to focus the craft’s gaze on hotspots like North Korea.

The satellites in geosynchronous orbit fly more than 22,000 miles (nearly 36,000 kilometers) over the equator, and remain over the same geographic location on Earth 24 hours a day.

With SBIRS GEO 5 now at Cape Canaveral, technicians will ready the satellite for launch. Major steps over the coming weeks will be a post-shipment functional test to verify the satellite is in good health after the cross-country trip from California, followed by loading of hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide propellants for in-space maneuvers.

Ground crews will then encapsulate the SBIRS GEO 5 spacecraft inside the Atlas 5 rocket’s 13.1-foot-diameter (4-meter) payload fairing and transport the satellite to United Launch Alliance’s Vertical Integration Facility for hoisting on top of the launcher.

ULA will begin stacking the Atlas 5 rocket on its mobile launch platform inside the VIF next month.

The launch company — a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin — is also testing a pathfinder version of its next-generation Vulcan booster at Cape Canaveral amid a series of Atlas 5 launches this year.

An Atlas 5 rocket flying in the “421” configuration with two solid rocket boosters takes off on a mission in July 2016. Credit: Alex Polimeni/Spaceflight Now

The Atlas 5 launcher that will deliver the SBIRS GEO 5 spacecraft to orbit will fly in the “421” configuration with a 4-meter and two strap-on solid rocket boosters supplied by Aerojet Rocketdyne. A single RL10 engine from Aerojet Rocketdyne will power the Atlas 5’s Centaur upper stage.

The launch will mark the eighth flight of the Atlas 5-421 variant, and the 87th launch of an Atlas 5 rocket since its debut in 2002.

It will be the first Atlas 5 flight since last November.

ULA plans up to eight Atlas 5 missions this year, including the launch of SBIRS GEO 5 scheduled for May 17. Another Atlas 5 rocket is scheduled to take off from Cape Canaveral in late June with a pair of spacecraft managed by the military’s Space Test Program, which oversees some of the Pentagon’s experimental space missions.

The late June launch target for the Space Test Program-3 mission was disclosed this week by acting NASA administrator Steve Jurczyk. NASA has a laser communications technology demonstration payload on one of the two Space Force satellites flying on the STP-3 launch.

Atlas 5 missions planned for launch from Cape Canaveral in the second half of this year include unpiloted and piloted test flights of Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule, which is designed to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Two more satellites will launch on an Atlas 5 later this year for the Space Force’s Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program, followed by Atlas 5 launches with NASA’s Lucy asteroid mission and NOAA’s next GOES weather satellite in October and December.

The sole Atlas 5 launch this year from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California is scheduled for September. It will carry the Landsat 9 Earth observation satellite for NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey.

ULA’s other two missions scheduled for 2021 are the launch of a Delta 4-Heavy rocket from Vandenberg no earlier than April 26 with a classified spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office, and the inaugural test flight of the new Vulcan Centaur rocket from Cape Canaveral at the end of the year.

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Aerojet not concerned about any changes to Artemis program

March 17th 2021 at 07:37

WASHINGTON — Aerojet Rocketdyne doesn’t expect any potential changes to the Artemis program to have much of an effect on its business supplying engines for NASA’s Space Launch System.

Speaking at the J.P. Morgan Industrials Conference March 15, Dan Boehle, chief financial officer of Aerojet Rocketdyne, played down any impacts of possible changes to the Artemis program by the new Biden administration, including delaying a human return to the surface of the moon to later in the decade.

“We don’t see any material impact from the new administration,” he said, citing the bipartisan support for Artemis, as well as from the White House itself last month. “We’re on track and on schedule, and though it’s admittedly early in this process, we don’t see anything at this point that we’re concerned about.”

Aerojet supplies the RS-25 engines used in the core stage of the SLS, as well as the RL10 engine in the rocket’s upper stage. While initial flights of the SLS will use RS-25 engines originally built and flown for the space shuttle, the company won a contract last year to produce 18 new engines for later missions.

That work, he said, would not be affected by any delays to the planned 2024 landing on the moon on the Artemis 3 mission, which now seem inevitable given the shortfall in funding provided for the Human Landing System lander program. “Things may slow to some degree. We might not land on the moon in 2024,” he said. “But we don’t expect it to be a material impact on our program, as these engines are ordered ahead of time and we need to keep our manufacturing facilities open.”

The RS-25 accounts for an increasing share of Aerojet’s revenue, going from 14% to 18% of overall revenues in the last few years. Boehle said that program should stay at that level over the next few years, growing at the same pace as overall company revenues. “The RS-25 is a great program for us,” he said.

The growth in the RS-25 comes while Aerojet is seeing other engine programs wind down, including the AJ-60 strap-on solid booster the company had built for United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5. ULA has since switched to the GEM-63 motor from Northrop Grumman. “There’s no further headwind from that program,” he said, as the company’s last sales were early last year.

Aerojet is preparing for the end of the RS-68 engine program with the retirement around the middle of the decade of the Delta 4 Heavy. Boehle said Aerojet will ship the last RS-68 engine later this year.

Aerojet will continue to supply the RL10, which will be used on the upper stage of the Vulcan as well as the Atlas 5 and Delta 4. Those sales will somewhat offset the losses from the other engines, he said, “but they won’t replace the RS-68 and AJ-60 sales that we had in the past at their peak.”

Boehle said he didn’t expect any changes in the company’s relationship with ULA after Lockheed Martin completes its acquisition of Aerojet Rocketdyne, announced in December. Aerojet shareholders approved the deal, as expected, March 9, but the sale is still pending regulatory approvals expected in the second half of this year.

“Lockheed has come out already and stated that we will continue as a merchant supplier, and as a result, I don’t expect our working relationship with ULA changing that much,” he said, despite the fact that Lockheed Martin holds a 50% stake in ULA.

Lockheed’s acquisition of Aerojet is opposed by other companies, such as Raytheon, which said last month it would ask the Federal Trade Commission to block the sale. Raytheon argues that the deal would give Lockheed an unfair advantage in missile programs where Aerojet has provided motors.

Boehle reiterated at the conference that, should the acquisition be approved, Aerojet would continue to be a supplier to other companies. “I know that there are some out there claiming that this merger is bad for competition. That’s simply not true,” he argued. “We remain committed to being a merchant supplier across our industry, and continue to play fair and be an effective partner for all defense primes.”

SpaceNews

ULA, SpaceX split military launch contract awards

March 10th 2021 at 15:48

EDITOR’S NOTE: Updated March 12 with additional details on launch sites and vehicle configurations.

Artist’s illustration of a Vulcan Centaur launch. Credit: United Launch Alliance

The U.S. Space Force announced Tuesday that it awarded $384 million in contracts to United Launch Alliance and SpaceX, giving each company two missions to launch military satellites in 2023.

United Launch Alliance won task orders for the USSF-112 and USSF-87 missions. Both launches will use ULA’s next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket and take off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

The contracts awarded to ULA are valued at nearly $224.3 million, according to a posting on the Defense Department’s contracts website. The USSF-112 mission is scheduled for launch in the second quarter of 2023, while the USSF-87 mission is due for liftoff in the third quarter of 2023, according to the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center.

The Vulcan Centaur rocket will come in variants with zero, two, four, or six strap-on solid rocket boosters. The Vulcan Centaur is scheduled for its first test flight at the end of 2021.

The Space Force did not divulge any details about what satellites the missions will carry.

SpaceX won task orders for launches of the USSF-36 and NROL-69 mission carrying payloads for the Space Force and the National Reconnaissance Office, which owns the U.S. government’s fleet of intelligence-gathering spy satellites. SpaceX’s contracts are valued at more than $159.7 million, the Pentagon said.

The SpaceX missions will launch on Falcon 9 rockets, both from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, according to a Space Force spokesperson. The USSF-36 mission is scheduled for launch in the first quarter of 2023, and the NROL-69 mission has a launch date in the third quarter of 2023, according to the Space and Missile Systems Center.

Tory Bruno, ULA’s CEO, tweeted that both of his company’s missions will target delivery of their military payloads in “high-energy orbits,” likely meaning the Vulcan Centaur will place the satellites into orbits at higher altitudes.

“I can’t talk about mission specifics, other than to say that these are challenging, high energy orbits,” he tweeted.

A Space Force spokesperson said March 11 said that SpaceX’s USSF-36 and NROL-69 missions “will be going to lower energy orbits launching on SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicles. USSF-112 and USSF-87 will be going to higher energy orbits and will use ULA Vulcan Centaur launch vehicles each with four solid rocket motors.”

“Further specifics of the missions are classified to protect national security interests,” the Space Force said in a response to questions from Spaceflight Now.

A Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in November 2020 with the U.S.-European Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich oceanography satellite. Credit: SpaceX

The task orders awarded to ULA both include “basic launch services and mission integration” costs, the Space Force said. SpaceX’s USSF-36 task order includes launch services and integration, but the NROL-69 task order includes only basic launch services. The NRO will fund mission integration costs separately, SMC said.

The four missions announced Tuesday are from the latest batch of task orders awarded to ULA and SpaceX under the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 contracts. The Pentagon announced last August that ULA and SpaceX won a long-running competition for contracts to launch the military’s most critical and expensive space missions, beating out proposals from Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin.

The Space Force will order Phase 2 missions from ULA and SpaceX through late 2024 for launches that could occur though late 2027.

ULA, a 50-50 joint venture formed in 2006 by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, will get 60 percent of the National Security Space Launch contracts for missions that time period. SpaceX will receive 40 percent.

At the same time of the Phase 2 contract announcement last August, Pentagon officials awarded the first three Phase 2 launch task orders — two to ULA and one to SpaceX — for missions in 2022. ULA received $337 million for its first two task orders last year, while SpaceX was awarded $316 million, including money to upgrade launch facilities and payload fairings to accommodate all of the military’s satellites.

The companies will use their Vulcan Centaur, Falcon 9, and Falcon Heavy rockets to launch the National Security Space Launch missions.

“The National Security Space Launch Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement contracts provide our customers affordability, flexibility, and extremely high reliability,” said Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of SMC’s launch enterprise. “This is the second order of the five-year Phase 2 ordering period. We are very pleased with the flexibility offered by our Phase 2 providers to make the best launch choices and adjustments as we proceed.”

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Delta 4-Heavy rocket erected on Vandenberg launch pad

March 8th 2021 at 16:15
A Delta 4-Heavy rocket stands inside the mobile shelter on Space Launch Complex-6 at Vandenberg Air Force Base ahead of liftoff later this spring. Credit: United Launch Alliance

United Launch Alliance recently raised a Delta 4-Heavy rocket, one of four left in the company’s backlog, vertical on its launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in preparation for liftoff with a top secret U.S. government spy satellite at the end of April.

The powerful liquid-fueled launcher rolled out of ULA’s Horizontal Integration Facility at Vandenberg for the trek to nearby Space Launch Complex-6, or SLC-6. Riding a 36-wheel, diesel-powered transporter, the Delta 4-Heavy left the hangar Feb. 15 for the trip to the pad, then ULA ground crews raised the rocket vertical on the launch mount Feb. 16, the company said.

The Delta 4-Heavy rocket is the most powerful launcher in ULA’s fleet, capable of hauling nearly 52,000 pounds (nearly 23.6 metric tons) to a low-altitude orbit inclined to fly over Earth’s poles. The classified payload flying on the Delta 4-Heavy rocket in late April is expected to launch into a high-inclination orbit a few hundred miles above Earth.

But the exact orbital parameters are secret, a request from the mission’s customer, the National Reconnaissance Office. The NRO owns the government’s network of optical, radar, and signals intelligence-gathering satellites.

The mission for the next Delta 4-Heavy rocket from Vandenberg is designated NROL-82. It will be the 42nd flight of a Delta 4 rocket since 2002, and the 13th launch of the Delta 4-Heavy configuration, which uses three Delta 4 rocket cores connected together to haul more massive payloads into orbit.

The NROL-82 mission is scheduled to launch at the “end of April,” said Col. David Rickards, director of staff at the 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg, in a presentation March 4 discussing the base’s plans for 2021. NRO and ULA officials have not announced the target launch date, but the mission is expected to be ULA’s first mission of the year after delays in the launch from Cape Canaveral of Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule on an unpiloted test flight.

The Delta 4-Heavy rocket will likely deliver the NRO’s next KH-11 optical reconnaissance satellite to orbit. The KH-11 satellites are about the size of a bus, fitted with large telescopes pointing down at Earth to collect unmatched high-resolution images of strategic locations around the world for analysis by U.S. intelligence agencies.

The KH-11 satellites require the heavy-lifting capability of the Delta 4-Heavy, along with the rocket’s voluminous payload shroud. All of the Delta 4-Heavy missions from Vandenberg have carried KH-11 satellites to space. The exact imaging capabilities of the KH-11 satellites are top secret, and the NRO does not publicly identify the types of spacecraft on each of its launches.

A triple-body Delta 4-Heavy rocket arrives at Space Launch Complex-6 last month. Credit: United Launch Alliance

ULA delivered components of the Delta 4-Heavy rocket to Vandenberg from the company’s factory in Alabama last year aboard the “RocketShip” transport vessel. Ground teams assembled the three Delta 4-Heavy rocket boosters, each powered by an Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-68A engine, inside the Horizontal Integration Facility near the SLC-6 launch pad.

Teams at Vandenberg also installed the rocket’s cryogenic second stage, with an Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10 engine, to finish the initial build-up of the 170-foot (52-meter) launch vehicle.

ULA technicians then connected a launch mate unit to the base of the Delta 4-Heavy cores, providing a structural connection for the the rocket. The unit also has 12 pyrotechnic hold-down bolts that fire to release the rocket at liftoff, according to ULA

With the rocket raised vertical on the SLC-6 launch pad overlooking the Pacific Ocean, teams at Vandenberg planned to load super-cold liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants into the Delta 4-Heavy for a countdown rehearsal. After draining the propellants, ULA plans to hoist the payload for the NROL-82 mission atop the Delta 4-Heavy to complete assembly of the 233-foot-tall (71-meter) rocket.

The Delta 4-Heavy rocket is being retired in favor of ULA’s next-generation Vulcan Centaur launcher family, which will replace the Atlas and Delta rocket fleets. Including the NROL-82 mission, ULA has four Delta 4-Heavy flights scheduled through 2023 — two from Vandenberg and two from Cape Canaveral.

All four remaining Delta 4-Heavy missions will launch spy satellite payloads for the National Reconnaissance Office. Contracts for future launches of large NRO payloads will be awarded in competitions between ULA and SpaceX.

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Boeing’s next Starliner test flight delayed after SpaceX crew rotation

March 2nd 2021 at 18:34
The completed Boeing Starliner vehicle for the second Orbital Flight Test (OFT-2) is seen in the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Starliner crew module for the unpiloted Orbital Flight Test-2 mission was mated to its service module Jan. 14 inside the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Boeing/John Proferes

An unpiloted test flight of Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule to the International Space Station will be delayed from its previous target launch date of April 2 until at least May, after the arrivals of Russian Soyuz and SpaceX Crew Dragon ships bringing fresh crew members to the orbiting complex, NASA officials said Monday.

Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, said Monday that the launch of Boeing’s Starliner capsule on its second Orbital Flight Test will be postponed from its previous target launch date of no earlier than April 2.

“We are going to have to move off that April 2 date, and we’re continuing to evaluate options,” Stich said. “The vehicle was really coming together. We had a little bit of a power-up anomaly with some avionics components. The Boeing and NAsA team worked really well to get those components reinstalled and checked out, and that was completed over the weekend. But we did lose some time with the weather in Houston.”

Stich said the winter storm in Texas, which knocked out power and water for millions of Texans, impacted a Boeing facility in Houston used for software testing.

“We lost about a week in time, and it affected their facility that does software testing,” Stich said. “So we’re in the process of working hand-in-hand with Boeing to figure out when the OFT-2 flight will be.”

NASA has multibillion-dollar contracts with SpaceX and Boeing for commercial crew missions to the space station.

The first Starliner Orbital Flight Test in December 2019 failed to dock with the space station due to a software problem shortly after launch. Boeing engineers finished software qualification for the OFT-2 mission earlier this year, pending final end-to-end testing that was supposed to occur in February. The winter storm in Texas prevented that from happening.

Two factors are working against Boeing and NASA teams looking to reschedule the OFT-2 launch.

A Russian Soyuz capsule is set for launch April 9 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with two Russian cosmonauts and a U.S. astronaut. The Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft will dock with the space station about three hours after launch, and an outgoing three-person crew will depart and return to Earth on April 17.

SpaceX’s next Crew Dragon flight to the space station is set for launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida around April 20 with astronauts Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur, Akihiko Hoshide, and Thomas Pesquet. Their mission, known as Crew-2, will last about six months.

The four astronauts who flew to the station last November on the Crew-1 mission — aboard the Crew Dragon “Resilience” spacecraft — will return to Earth in late April or early May. Both docking ports capable of receiving the Boeing Starliner capsule will be occupied during the crew handover in late April.

The Soyuz and Crew Dragon missions in April are expected to take priority over the Starliner test flight. But NASA is eager to get the Starliner flying to the space station, which will give the agency two independent U.S. providers capable of ferrying crews to the orbiting research lab, and ease NASA’s reliance on Russian Soyuz missions for crew transportation services.

Until the Starliner is operational, the Soyuz will remain NASA’s backup for crew access to the space station. NASA is finalizing a deal to secure a seat on the Soyuz spacecraft launching in April and returning to Earth this fall.

In the long run, NASA wants to continue flying astronauts on Soyuz missions in a no-funds-exchanged agreement with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. Under such an arrangement, NASA will provide Russian cosmonauts seats on U.S. spacecraft flying to the space station. The seat-sharing agreement will ensure a U.S. astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut are always on the space station to operate critical systems, even if the Crew Dragon, Starliner, or Soyuz are grounded or face delays.

The Starliner will lift off aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral. ULA’s launch schedule after April booked with three missions for the U.S. Space Force, beginning a launch scheduled in May with the military’s fifth Space Based Infrared System Geosynchronous, or SBIRS GEO, early warning satellite.

A mission for the military’s Space Test Program and the launch of two military space surveillance satellites are scheduled for mid-year and in August. Boeing has booked a slot in September for the next Starliner test flight — the first to carry astronauts — and NASA has an asteroid probe assigned to launch on an Atlas 5 mission in October.

Something will have to move if the Starliner’s second Orbital Flight Test is to launch later this spring, and it was not immediately clear when Boeing, ULA, and NASA might find a launch slot for the OFT-2 mission.

“It’s a very busy timeframe on the space station with the Soyuz mission and then Crew-2, and then it’s a busy time on the range, so we’re working hand-in-hand with Boeing to figure out when that launch will be. We’ll just have to stand by for further developments on exactly when that flight will be,” Stich said.

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SpaceX planning launch of two Falcon Heavy missions in summer and fall

February 15th 2021 at 18:32
File photo of the third Falcon Heavy launch in June 2019. Credit: SpaceX/U.S. Air Force

SpaceX plans two Falcon Heavy launches this year for the U.S. Space Force in July and October, and United Launch Alliance has four national security space missions on its 2021 schedule, according to a military spokesperson.

The Falcon Heavy missions are expected to be the fourth and fifth flights of SpaceX’s triple-core heavy-lifter. Both launches will take off from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The first Space Force mission on a Falcon Heavy rocket this year is designated USSF-44. The mission is scheduled for launch in July, according to a Space Force spokesperson. The USSF-44 mission will be the fourth flight of a Falcon Heavy since its debut in February 2018.

The Falcon Heavy will deliver multiple military payloads to a high-altitude geosynchronous orbit on the USSF-44 mission. The rocket’s upper stage will fire several times to place the satellites into position more than 22,000 miles above the equator.

The upper stage flight profile will include a coast lasting more than five hours between burns, making the USSF-44 mission one of SpaceX’s most demanding launches yet.

On the most recent Falcon Heavy mission, which lifted off in June 2019, the rocket’s upper stage completed four burns over three-and-a-half hours on a demonstration flight sponsored by the Air Force.

The complex orbital maneuvers during last June’s mission were required to place 24 satellite payloads into three distinct orbits. They also exercised the capabilities of the Falcon Heavy and its Merlin upper stage engine before the Air Force entrusts the launcher with more critical, and more expensive, operational national security payloads on future flights, such as the USSF-44 mission.

SpaceX won a contract for the USSF-44 launch in February 2019. In the request for proposals for the USSF-44 launch, the military told prospective launch providers to assume the combined mass of two payloads assigned to the mission is less than 8,200 pounds, or about 3.7 metric tons.

The Space Force hasn’t said whether there are still two satellites booked on the USSF-44 mission, or if officials added more secondary payloads since the 2019 contract award. One of the spacecraft on the USSF-44 launch is a microsatellite named TETRA 1 built by Millennium Space Systems, a subsidiary of Boeing headquartered in El Segundo, California.

Military officials said in a statement the TETRA 1 satellite was created to “prototype missions and tactics, techniques and procedures in and around geosynchronous Earth orbit.”

Another military launch on the Falcon Heavy, designated USSF-52, is scheduled no earlier than October, according to the Space Force. Military officials have not disclosed any payloads on the USSF-52 launch, but the Air Force wrote in a draft contract solicitation that the mission would deliver a heavy payload to a geostationary transfer orbit, an elongated path around Earth used as a drop-off point for many satellites heading to a circular geosynchronous orbit.

SpaceX has launched three Falcon Heavy rocket missions to date, all successfully. SpaceX has seven confirmed Falcon Heavy missions in its backlog, including the two Space Force missions this year, and launches of a Viasat broadband communications satellite and NASA’s Psyche asteroid explorer, both in 2022. A single Falcon Heavy will also launch the first two elements of NASA’s Gateway lunar space station in 2024, and two Falcon Heavy flights will boost Dragon XL cargo missions to the Gateway later in the 2020s.

The Space Force’s USSF-67 mission, awarded to SpaceX last year, may also launch on a Falcon Heavy. But military officials have not confirmed a rocket assignment for that mission.

The Falcon Heavy is made up of three modified Falcon 9 first stage boosters connected together in a triple-core configuration. The rocket’s 27 Merlin main engines produce some 5.1 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, more than any other currently operational rocket.

All of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy missions currently under contract will take off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the company plans to construct a vertical integration building and shelter to accommodate future Falcon Heavy payloads.

SpaceX will use three newly-manufactured boosters for the USSF-44 mission, and the challenging launch profile will leave no leftover propellant to recover the center core of the Falcon Heavy, according to the Space Force. The core stage will be expended on the launch, while the rocket’s two side boosters will be recovered on two SpaceX drone ships positioned downrange east of Cape Canaveral.

SpaceX has one more publicly-announced Space Force mission in its backlog this year. A Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in July with the military’s fifth GPS 3-series navigation satellite. The launch of the sixth GPS 3 satellite, also on a Falcon 9, has been delayed into 2022, the Space Force said.

United Launch Alliance has four military space missions scheduled this year.

NASA’s Perseverance rover lifts off July 30, 2020, from Cape Canaveral aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now

A Delta 4-Heavy rocket, ULA’s most powerful launcher, is being prepared for liftoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California as soon as this spring with a classified spy satellite cargo for the National Reconnaissance Office. The NROL-82 mission is one of four Delta 4-Heavy flights left before the rocket’s retirement in 2023.

Three Space Force missions will launch on ULA Atlas 5 rockets from Cape Canaveral this year.

The first of the Space Force launches, named STP-3, was supposed to launch this month. An Atlas 5 rocket will launch two experimental military satellites into geosynchronous orbit on the STP-3 mission, but one of the spacecraft encountered delays that caused it to miss its late February launch date.

Officials are assessing new potential launch dates in the middle of the year, according to Jim Reuter, head of NASA’s space technology mission directorate, which is flying a laser communications experiment on the STP-3 mission.

The STP-3 mission will use the most powerful variant of the Atlas 5 rocket, known as the “551” configuration, with five strap-on solid rocket boosters and a 5-meter-diameter payload shroud.

In the May timeframe, an Atlas 5 rocket is scheduled to launch with the Space Force’s fifth Space-Based Infrared System, or SBIRS, satellite to detect missile launches that could threaten the United States. The Lockheed Martin-built SBIRS GEO 5 satellite will ride into orbit on an Atlas 5 “421” with a 4-meter-diameter payload fairing and two solid rocket boosters.

Another Atlas 5 is scheduled to launch in August with the USSF-8 mission, which will deliver the Space Force’s fifth and sixth Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program, or GSSAP, satellites into orbit.

The USSF-8 mission will use the Atlas 5-511 configuration with a 5-meter fairing and a single solid rocket booster. It will be the first time the “511” variant of the Atlas 5 has flown.

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ULA delivers Vulcan test article to Cape Canaveral for ‘pathfinder’ operations

February 13th 2021 at 16:15

EDITOR’S NOTE: See additional photos of the Vulcan booster at the bottom of this page.

The Vulcan booster for the Pathfinder Tanking Test arrives at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Saturday. Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now

United Launch Alliance’s first full-scale Vulcan booster with two Blue Origin BE-4 engines arrived at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Saturday, the first time in more than a decade that a core stage from a new family of orbital-class rockets has rolled into the Florida launch facility.

The 110-foot-long (33.5-meter) rocket stage rolled off of ULA’s “RocketShip” transport vessel Saturday at Port Canaveral, towed by a truck into nearby Cape Canaveral Space Force Station for a test campaign expected to last several months. ULA shipped the Pathfinder Tanking Test, or PTT, booster to Florida for fit checks and rehearsals with the Vulcan’s ground systems.

Built by ULA in Decatur, Alabama, the rocket is the company’s first flightworthy Vulcan booster. Two methane-fueled BE-4 development engines are attached to the rear end of the rocket, but they won’t be fired as part of the checkout campaign at Cape Canaveral.

The Vulcan Centaur rocket is ULA’s next-generation launch vehicle, and is destined to replace the company’s existing fleet of Atlas and Delta rockets. The new rocket can fly with zero, two, four, or six solid rocket boosters, ULA has developed an upgraded version of the venerable hydrogen-fueled Centaur upper stage to fly atop the Vulcan rocket.

“This is our future,” said Ron Fortson, ULA’s director and general manager of launch operation.

The Vulcan core stage measures 17.7 feet (5.4 meters) in diameter, and contains aluminum propellant tanks for methane and liquid oxygen for the dual BE-4 engines. ULA teams in Alabama are finishing work on the Vulcan booster and Centaur upper stage for the first launch later this year. The pathfinder operations beginning this weekend in Florida won’t include the Vulcan’s strap-on solid rocket motors or Centaur upper stage.

A fully-stacked Vulcan Centaur won’t appear on the Cape Canaveral horizon until the next Vulcan booster arrives at the launch site for the inaugural flight.

The rocket stage that arrived at Cape Canaveral this week will return to Alabama at the end of the pathfinder tests to be fitted with pair of flight-ready BE-4 engines, then return to Florida for a future launch, according to ULA.

The first stop for the Vulcan booster will be ULA’s Vertical Integration Facility, located about quarter-mile south of pad 41 at Cape Canaveral. A new mobile launch table, called the Vulcan Launch Platform, is inside the vertical hangar.

The Vulcan booster for the Pathfinder Tanking Test arrives at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Saturday. Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

The 1.3-million-pound (589-metric ton) Vulcan Launch Platform rolled out to pad 41 for the first time last month for initial testing. Fortson said ULA plans to lift the Vulcan booster onto the mobile platform’s launch mount as soon as Sunday.

The VIF itself was modified with new work platforms over the last couple of years to fit the Vulcan booster, which is more than 5 feet (1.5 meters) wider than the Atlas 5 first stage. The changes allow the building — built more than 20 years ago — to accommodate both Atlas 5 and Vulcan Centaur rockets until ULA retires the Atlas family.

If everything goes according to plan, the Vulcan booster and its launch platform could roll out of the VIF to pad 41 later this month or in March, according to Fortson.

After connecting the launch platform and the rocket to gas and electrical systems at the pad, ULA engineers will run the Vulcan booster and the ground infrastructure through a series of exercises, culminating in loading of thousands of gallons of cryogenic liquid methane and liquid oxygen into the rocket.

In preparation for the arrival of the first Vulcan Centaur rocket, teams at pad 41 have installed a new methane fuel farm for the BE-4 engines. The Atlas 5’s first stage, powered by a Russian-built RD-180 engine, burns kerosene fuel in combination with liquid oxygen.

ULA also expanded the capacity of the liquid oxygen system at pad 41 to feed the larger oxidizer tanks in the Vulcan booster and the Centaur upper stage. Both the first and second stages contain larger propellant tanks than those on the Atlas 5 rocket, giving the Vulcan Centaur more payload lift capability.

Engineers upgraded the sound suppression water system at pad 41 for the more powerful Vulcan Centaur rocket, and also developed special electronics trailers for Vulcan to accompany the Vulcan Launch Platform to the seaside launch complex.

All those systems will be put to the test in the next few months, while ULA continues launching Atlas 5 rockets on operational missions.

A facility called the Spaceflight Processing Operations Center, a modified Titan rocket booster assembly building, will help ULA manage the dual Vulcan and Atlas operations.

“Trying to build a new rocket at the same time you’re launching rockets on the same pad, that’s not easy,” Fortson said.

In an example that ULA has one foot in the present and one foot in the future, the RocketShip vessel that delivered the Vulcan booster to Cape Canaveral also carried a first and second stage for an Atlas 5 launch later this year on the STP-3 mission the U.S. military, and a second stage for a Delta 4-Heavy flight next year.

Artist’s illustration of a Vulcan Centaur launch. Credit: United Launch Alliance

While the Vulcan Launch Platform is currently in the VIF, the Atlas 5’s platform is in storage inside the SPOC. ULA will start stacking the Atlas 5 rocket for its next mission — set for liftoff from pad 41 on March 25 with Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule — before the end of the month. When the Atlas 5 platform is needed back in the VIF, the Vulcan Launch Platform and the test booster will likely roll over to the SPOC, where ground teams can perform additional checkouts.

The SPOC isn’t equipped with equipment to stack Atlas 5 or Vulcan Centaur rockets, but Fortson said ULA might add the capability if the launch rate requires two assembly buildings.

The launch of Starliner spacecraft in March will be the second unpiloted test flight of the Boeing-built crew capsule. Assuming a successful flight to the International Space Station, NASA could clear the spacecraft to carry astronauts on a demonstration mission in September, also set to launch on an Atlas 5. That would give NASA two U.S.-made crew vehicles to ferry astronauts to and from the space station, alongside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, which flew to the outpost with crews twice last year.

The Atlas 5 rocket typically rolls out to pad 41 a day or two before launch. That makes the launch pad available for Vulcan testing most of the time, and ULA could be ready for the first Vulcan fueling dress rehearsal before the Starliner mission late next month, Fortson said.

“It’ll be a shell game,” Fortson said.

“Vulcan can be out there doing the testing they want,” he said. “They’ve just got to move out of the way for a couple of days so we can move out there and launch, and we move back in and they can go right back out.”

The Vulcan Centaur’s first launch will carry a commercial lander from Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic, which is under contract with NASA to deliver experiments to the moon as a precursor to future human expeditions to the lunar surface. The Vulcan Centaur with Astrobotic’s Peregrine moon lander is scheduled to launch before the end of the year, ULA says.

“With all these capabilities, we are ready and excited to get this launch happening at the end of the fourth quarter here,” Fortson said.

The purpose-built Vulcan Launch Platform, or VLP, rolls out to pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station last month. ULA’s Vertical Integration Facility and Spaceflight Processing Operations Center are seen in the background. Credit: United Launch Alliance

The development of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engines has been driving the schedule for the first Vulcan launch. During a press conference in December, Tory Bruno, ULA’s CEO, said the BE-4 engines on the Vulcan pathfinder booster are “near flight configuration, but not the final, final design.”

Each BE-4 engine can generate about 550,000 pounds of thrust.

“In the summer, we will receive flight-configured BE-4 engines,” Bruno said in December. “Those are being built now.”

Blue Origin, founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, is building the first batch of BE-4 engines at the company’s headquarters in Kent, Washington. BE-4 engines for future Vulcan missions, and launches of Blue Origin’s own New Glenn rocket, will be manufactured at a new factory in Huntsville, Alabama, not far from ULA’s rocket plant in Decatur.

“We are very very confident with that engine,” Bruno said. “The BE-4 is performing with better performance than we actually asked for. The flight configuration has many, many seconds, and minutes, of testing on it now, and it has just run wonderfully. So we are looking forward, hopefully, knock on wood, to a very quiet qualification test run, and we’ll be off to space.”

The pathfinder testing is designed to ensure there are no surprises or major delays when ULA kicks off the first Vulcan launch campaign.

“We don’t really like to ad lib anything in our rocket factory, so every move that is made is in a process that itself has been proofed, and tried, and certified, and then locked down in configuration,” Bruno said in December. “So what we’re doing in this initial pass through, that I call pathfinding, is making sure that all of that is exactly perfect, that if there’s something we don’t like about the tooling, we modify the tooling and try again.

“If there’s anything we want to change in the process, we’ll do that,” Bruno said. “And that goes all the way from one end of the factory to the other. And then the same thing happens to get the rocket onto the RocketShip, to monitor it and safeguard it as it travels out to the cape, get it off the ship, onto the (Vulcan Launch Platform).

The platform “has dozens of active systems that supply gases and water for the acoustic suppression system, and instrumentation and monitoring,” Bruno said. “It’s not just to a big structure with wheels on it. It’s a big complicated machine in its own right, as is the VIF, and so on.”

“All of that is being worked off with these pathfinder engines, right up to (just) short of the flight readiness firing, and then at the last minute, we’re able to bring in the flight engines and take him through that whole evolution that has already been trailblazed for them,” Bruno said.

ULA unveiled the Vulcan rocket in 2015. It’s designed for a new era in the U.S. launch industry marked by increased competition, particularly from SpaceX, and a changing market.

“Atlas and Delta have kind of been the backbone of launch and have a lot of heritage over the last decade for the nation, and now it’s kind of fitting that we have a new rocket here, the Vulcan, that’s going to be continuing to build upon that legacy and bringing new capabilities to the nation,” Fortson said Saturday.

The U.S. military is an anchor customer for ULA, a 50-50 joint venture formed in 2006 by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Pentagon officials announced last August that ULA will get 60 percent of the military’s most critical satellite launch contracts awarded through late 2024 for missions that will take off between 2022 and late 2027.

SpaceX will receive 40 percent of the national security launch contracts over the same period, giving the Pentagon two independent companies capable of serving all the military’s medium- and heavy-lift launch needs.

The agreements with ULA and SpaceX cover contracts to launch satellites for the U.S. Space Force, the National Reconnaissance Office, the Missile Defense Agency, and other military services and agencies.

The Vulcan pathfinder booster emerges from ULA’s RocketShip vessel. Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, once certified by the Space Force, will take up the lion’s share of the military’s large space missions. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets will also get lucrative military launch contracts.

“Atlas and Delta satisfy all the requirements needed to meet all of our customers’ needs today,” Fortson said. “But it takes us two rockets to do that. With Vulcan Centaur, we’ll be able to meet all those demanding requirements just with that vehicle by itself, including the Delta 4-Heavy requirement. They’ll all be satisfied by Vulcan Centaur.”

ULA plans to launch four more Delta 4-Heavy missions through 2023 with classified NRO spy satellite payloads. The Atlas 5 rocket, which is less expensive than the Delta 4, will also be retired in a few years.

The Vulcan Centaur will be less costly to build and fly than either of ULA’s current rocket types.

According to ULA, the new rocket’s heaviest configuration can loft about 60,000 pounds, or 22.7 metric tons, into low Earth orbit at an altitude of about 120 miles (200 kilometers). With the restartable, long-duration Centaur upper stage, the most powerful Vulcan variant can deliver roughly 15,900 pounds (7.2 metric tons) of payload directly into a circular geostationary orbit more than 22,000 miles (nearly 36,000 miles) over the equator.

ULA plans to retrieve the BE-4 rocket engines on future Vulcan Centaur missions, using a helicopter to capture the severed engine section in mid-air. That would allow ULA to reuse the engines on multiple missions, without reserving propellants for landing maneuvers to recover and reuse the entire booster, a technique now proven by SpaceX.

But early Vulcan missions won’t include engine recovery, while engineers collect data on the environments the BE-4s will see in flight.

“Our booster is a much more powerful booster that flies farther downrange, to higher altitudes, and higher velocities (than SpaceX’s booster),” Bruno said. “I don’t know exactly how many flights we’re going to need to collect that data.”

Engine recovery and reuse “is certainly on our technology roadmap,” Bruno said. “We’re actively working it now, and I expect tha we’ll be able to do it at the appropriate time.”

Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

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