DigitalGlobe, provider of the most detailed satellite imagery available on the commercial market, has completed on-orbit checkout and commissioning of their latest bird: WorldView 4. WorldView 4 is a twin to WorldView 3, offering an unprecedented 1-foot resolution with its 3.6 foot aperture main telescope. But since WorldView 3 is completely booked by the US military, WorldView 4 opens up this capability to the public. In fact, it began acquiring images for paying customers on February 1, so this capability is already very real.
To commemorate the occasion, DigitalGlobe released this spectacular image, shot by WorldView 2, of SLC-3 at Vandenberg AFB right as the Atlas V rocket climbed away with WorldView 4 on board:
An Atlas V in its base 401 configuration placed the SBIRS GEO 3 military early-warning satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit this evening:
Atlas V chalked up another successful mission today, blasting off from Cape Canaveral in the 431 configuration (4-meter fairing, 3 solid boosters, single-engine Centaur). The payload was EchoStar 19, a commercial commsat that will be operated by HughesNet to provide high speed satellite Internet service across North America. It’s unusual to see the highly reliable but expensive Atlas V flying a commercial mission; in this case, HughesNet selected the vehicle due to rapid availability. They are currently constrained from growing their service due to all of their existing spot-beams being at full capacity; EchoStar 19 will provide 160 more spot-beams, allowing them to grow beyond their current million customers. The spacecraft is expected to enter service in March, following on-orbit testing, and will join HughesNet’s two other spacecraft, EchoStar 17 and Spaceway 3.
An Atlas 541 (the second-heaviest configuration Atlas V in active use) blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Station today, ferrying the massive GOES-R weather satellite into its geosynchronous transfer orbit. This was the one hundred launch of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Program, created by the USAF in the 1990s and ultimately producing the Atlas V (by General Dynamics, then Lockheed Martin) and the Delta IV (by Boeing). It is not likely to ever reach its 200th flight; both vehicles are due to be replaced by a newer rocket, the Vulcan, in a few years. But the program has enjoyed a remarkable success rate — 98 flawless flights, 2 ending in suboptimal orbits. That is an exceptionally rare success rate in rocketry.
The spacecraft, operated by NASA on behalf of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is the first of a fleet of four next-generation geosynchronous weather satellites; total cost of the program, including development and operation, is $11 billion. But it’s an enormously valuable investment, because these satellites will be equipped like no other weather satellites. They will be able to complete
Once it reaches its perch, GOES-R will become GOES-16. (They do not receive their numbers until they successfully arrive in orbit.) It will then spend a year sitting at 89.5 degrees west, undergoing testing for its commissioning phase. It will eventually be moved to the primary GOES perches, as either GOES-East or GOES-West. Those two positions are currently held by GOES-13 and GOES-15. GOES-14 is also still in orbit, currently biding its time as an on-orbit spare. Given the enormous amounts of money involved, and the absolutely critical nature of the data these spacecraft deliver, NASA and NOAA both want them up well in advance of them going into service, just in case.
GOES-R is much more advanced than its predecessors. It carries advanced space weather sensors, in recognition of the fact that space weather forecasting has become enormously important both to our sensitive power grid and the many spacecraft we depend upon, the first-ever lightning imager designed to operate from geostationary orbit, a camera that can complete a full-disk image in just five minutes (fast enough to create detailed animations useful in local weather forecasting), and much more. It’s so packed with revolutionary new instruments that scientists are excited just to find out what they can do with the gargantuan flood of data these spacecraft will produce. It’s going to be fun to see what they come up with!
Here are some pretty rocket videos to enjoy. 😉 First, from last week, the Atlas V launch of the WorldView 4 commercial imaging satellite, from Vandenberg AFB:
And then, in preparation for launch this week, here’s the Soyuz MS-03 rocket stack rollout at Baikonur Cosmodrome:
The Atlas V launch carrying the WorldView 4 commercial imaging satellite scheduled from Vandenberg has been scrubbed again. It scrubbed Friday due to an apparent liquid hydrogen leak, and today was scrubbed because of a wildfire south of the pad. The wildfire doesn’t present any immediate danger to the launch complex, but firefighters can’t fight it while they’re on standby for a launch. Fighting the fire is more important, of course, so ULA is standing down for today, to allow the firefighting crews to tackle the blaze. The range unfortunately is no longer available after today, so they will have to wait for an opportunity on Monday, September 26.
OSIRIS-REx, the hotly anticipated asteroid sample return mission bound for asteroid 101955 Bennu, has blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Station’s SLC-41!
Rocketcam footage of liftoff:
Full launch through Centaur MECO-1:
The rocket coasted halfway around the Earth after that, then relit Centaur for a second burn, and about forty-five minutes after launch, MECO-2 left it on an Earth escape course. A fifteen minute coast then brought the vehicle within range of the tracking station in Canberra, Australia, and then the spacecraft was released. At this point, OSIRIS-Rex has a solar orbit actually not too much different than the Earth itself. This is by design; Bennu is an Earth-crossing asteroid, belonging to a class of bodies called Apollos. So they don’t want to get too far away from Earth orbit or they will be going far too quickly when they encounter Bennu. In about a year, OSIRIS-REx will briefly return for a gravity assist maneuver, stealing a tiny bit of the Earth’s momentum to propel it to a collision course with Bennu. Then, nearly a year after that, the spacecraft will arrive at Bennu.
OSIRIS-REx is spending a long time at Bennu; the window for Earth return will not open until 2021. So it will make good use of its time until then, mapping and investigating the carbonaceous (rocky) asteroid, selecting a site from which to collect a sample, and then gingerly flying up to the asteroid to collect the sample. Bennu is too light for a spacecraft to meaningfully land on it; its gravity is very slight. The concept is broadly similar to that of the Hayabusa spacecraft, which sampled the asteroid 25143 Itokawa in 2005 and returned the particles to Earth in 2010. However, the collection mechanism is different. Hayabusa had difficulties with its collector, and did not retrieve as much material as had been hoped; let’s cross our fingers for OSIRIS-REx to have better luck!
The mission does seem blessed so far — not only did the spacecraft survive the Falcon 9 pad explosion just a mile away, but the mission itself is $30 million under budget. During the cruise, the team will have the pleasure of deciding what to do with that extra money. Hire more scientists to make better use of the time they’ll have at Bennu? Additional studies during the cruise phases? A mission extension for the spacecraft after the canister is returned, a la Genesis? It will be fun to see what they come up with. 😉