Delta IV pulled off another flawless launch from Cape Canaveral today, placing the Wideband Global SATCOM-9 satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit. WGS-9 is a military commsat operated by the United States Air Force but jointly procured by five other nations: Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and New Zealand. This was not the first WGS satellite paid for by a foreign power; WGS-6 was contributed by Australia. And ground stations have been paid for partially by partner nations, who, again, receive bandwidth in proportion to their investment. USAF is moving towards launch of WGS-10 later this year, but that is expected to be the final element of the constellation, at least int the forseeable future.
This was the 35th flight of Delta IV, and the 108th successful Delta program launch in a row. This flew in the 5,4 configuration — 5 meter fairing, 4 solid rocket motors. Single-core Delta IV is expected to retire by the end of 2018, with only the Delta Heavy continuing on, alongside the Vulcan rocket that will be ULA’s next offering (intended to replace both Delta IV and Atlas V).
Two more successful launches this week! First off, yesterday India placed the Resourcesat 2A spacecraft into orbit aboard a PSLV XL rocket from Satish Dhawan Space Centre on Sriharikota Island. The satellite will fly on a polar orbit (inclination 98.7 degrees) to study resource utilization, soil contamination, water usage, and so forth across the Indian subcontinent.
Then this evening, a rare Delta IV Medium rocket (the “stick” configuration of the Delta IV, seldom used because although it is highly reliable, it is also highly *expensive*) placed the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) 8 satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit. WGS-8 will serve military customers, providing both targeted and full-disk communications beams in variety of frequency bands. It is the most capable military commsat launched by the USAF, capable of serving multiple bands simultaneously and even switching between them on the fly.
And here’s a rather different perspective on the launch — a deceptively peaceful one, shot by a drone over nearby Cocoa Beach. The audio is from the operator’s cellphone, so mostly records the sound of the ocean waves rolling in. You have to listen carefully to hear the distant warbling roar of the rocket.
Early this morning, a Delta IV rocket blasted off, placing the next two Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) satellites into geosynchronous transfer orbit. These payloads, built by Orbital ATK for the USAF, will augment ground radar tracking allowing better prediction of collisions between objects in orbit. As Near Earth Orbit grows increasingly crowded, this will only become more important as time goes on. Here’s the full capture of the United Launch Alliance livestream; skip ahead to 25 minutes for the actual launch:
ULA has a reputation now for putting out awesome launch videos, but they’ve definitely outdone themselves on this one. This is a 360 video, which means that if your browser supports it, you can pan around freely during the video in all directions. It’s also compatible with VR headsets, which would allow you to just look around as if you were really there. But really where? The second half of the video, showing the actual launch, is filmed from right at the pad, where no human is permitted during launch. So here you get to experience a rocket launch, from the pad, as if you were actually there. It’s awesome!
This is the launch of NROL-45, a classified payload which launched last February from Vandenberg AFB in southern California. If it looks all weird and stretchy, your browser doesn’t support 360 videos; try another one. It’s well worth it!
Blasting off a couple of days ago from Vandenberg AFB in California, a cryogenic Delta IV Medium+ launched the NROL-45 spacecraft into orbit. NROL-45 is an undisclosed payload for the National Reconnaissance Office. Delta IV is famous for a slightly disconcerting tendency to set its own first stage insulation on fire, particularly in the Heavy variant, but this Medium + still managed to launch in a huge fireball, with flames still alight on its scorched first stage insulation. The insulation’s function is to reduce boiloff of the cryogenic propellants while it sits on the pad, so the fact that it has caught on fire is not a big a deal as you might think, and the rocket boasts a flawless track record (minus a slightly subpar orbit for the demonstration payload on the first Heavy launch).
The really interesting thing about this launch was that it was retrograde — against the rotation of the Earth. The amateur satellite spotting community believes this payload to be Topaz 4, a radar-imaging spacecraft that continues the legacy of the Lacrosse constellation, although spotters have not yet offered an opinion on why it must orbit retrograde. Retrograde orbits are very unusual because they are costly in terms of propellant and usually don’t offer any particular advantage unless one has a very restricted lane in which to launch — Israel launches exclusively retrograde satellites due to unfriendly neighbors to the north, east, and south who would not tolerate an overflight, but that is a unique situation.
First off, I promised video of yesterday’s picturesque evening Delta IV launch of the WGS-7 military commsat. ULA certainly knows how to “punch up” their launch highlights videos:
But as awesome as a rocket launch is, this blows it away. Pluto, seen from behind, as New Horizons departed the Pluto system:
Yes, that’s Pluto’s atmosphere. It’s a lot bigger than most folks had expected, which certainly explains why there was so much difficulty working out its actual size.
There was a whole mass of incredible Pluto images released today by the New Horizon’s team, but the one above is the one that got me right in the feels. Pluto! Has an atmosphere! A big one! Not just a “technically atmosphere” — a real atmosphere! (Mind you, that’s still probably more like Mars than here.) Makes you wonder what’s feeding it.
I’ll close with this natural-color image of Pluto, with the heart (Tombaugh Regio) prominently visible. You can also make out more craters now, and other interesting textures and features that really make you wonder what’s going on under the skin of Pluto. It’s amazing. This is a composite of images from LORRI and data from Ralph, the spectrometer, to give it color.
Another successful flight for the Delta IV rocket!