Well, the Geminids were a bust for me. Totally overcast here, and we drove out to South Dakota to visit the in-laws and guess what? Totally overcast there. In fact, it was pea-soup fog for a lot of the drive back. But hey, there’s always something else exciting in space. 😉 First off, on Friday night the weather finally cooperated in California and the most powerful Atlas to fly from Vandenberg AFB launched with its classified payload. It’s the second-heaviest Atlas V configuration, the 541. The 541 has flown twice from Cape Canaveral, but this is its first flight from the West Coast. The previous flights boosted NASA’s Curiosity rover in 2001, and another NRO payload earlier this year. The only heavier Atlas is the 551, which has only flown once, launching New Horizons directly into a solar escape trajectory from Cape Canaveral in 2006. (New Horizons will reach its primary target, Pluto, next year.) Here’s last Friday’s launch:
And just for fun, compare it to this one: New Horizons peeling out of Florida faster than any other rocket:
Last Fridays’ Atlas is still climbing rather fast for what is likely a fairly hefty payload; satellite spotting enthusiasts suspect it to be a Trumpet electronic signals intelligence spacecraft intended for a highly elliptical Molniya-style orbit. But that’s really just speculation; it’s tough to really know.
Meanwhile, early this morning Russia’s Proton rocket completed its historic 400th launch, placing the Yamal 401 commercial commsat in orbit for Gazprom Space Systems from Baikonur Cosmodrome, bound for geosynchronous orbit. It should be there by now, and will enter the commissioning phase of its mission. After a series of troubles in recent years, this is a very encouraging and positive way to round out the year for the vehicle and International Launch Services, a cooperative venture between rocket manufacturer Khrunichev and Lockheed Martin, which sells both Proton and Atlas on the international market.