It’s been a while since I’ve posted; work’s been crazy busy! So I’ll quick catch you up with some of what’s gone up and down since I last posted:
On September 17, the latest Dragon capsule (CRS-12) returned from the ISS with a two tons of research material and hardware on board, including a population of laboratory mice sent into space to study effect on eyesight and movement.
On September 21, a Soyuz rocket from Plesetsk Cosmodrome placed the latest element of the GLONASS M navigation constellation into orbit.
On September 23, an Atlas V out of Vandenburg Air Force Base carried the classified NROL-42 into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office.
Obviously, they won’t tell us much about the payload, but the mission patch and the launch site both suggest a polar orbiting spacecraft. The size of the fairing and quantity of boosters both suggest a very big spacecraft, which is fairly typical for spy satellites. It is believed to be a signals intelligence spacecraft, which means its job will likely be to intercept communications. Maybe. 😉
Lastly, the Tianzhou 1 spacecraft returned to Earth in pieces last Friday. It was supposed to; it was an experimental robotic resupply and refueling spacecraft similar in function to Progress, which also undergoes a destructive reentry at the end of its mission. Tianzhou 1 completed a successful mission docking with the uninhabited Tiangong 2 space station, transferring propellant, and then later undocking and safely disposing of itself. Tiangong 2 is not expected to host any more human occupants, but remains in orbit as a procedures testbed for ground controllers. It is not clear when the next space station will fly; China intends to greatly increase the size and functionality of their stations, but they have had a major setback with the failure of the last Long March 5 rocket. This is the heaviest rocket they’ve built to date, and is intended to place the major elements of their new modular space station in orbit, but with a 50/50 operational record after two flights, some more work is needed before it can carry such valuable cargo.
SpaceX successfully completed their first flight for the National Reconnaissance Office, carrying an undisclosed classified payload to orbit, designated NROL-76. As is typical for NRO launches, coverage of the climb to orbit went only as far as first stage burnout. However, SpaceX still had plenty of first stage footage still to produce, as the stage returned to land back at the Cape. As a result of that and the favorable lighting conditions to view the rocket climbing away from the historic LC-39A complex, using the exceptional long-range tracking cameras available at KSC, this may be the most spectacular first stage flyback footage yet:
Atlas V has put another notch in their impressive belt of successful missions. It’s not a cheap rocket, but it is certainly reliable. It’s an interesting launch to watch; the rocket seems to practically crawl out of Vandenberg. This is the lightest variant of Atlas V, and from the performance I’d guess the payload/orbit is right at the limits of its capacity without boosters. Makes it kind of fun to watch. 😉
First off, many apologies for the lack of posts recently; I went to an airshow over the weekend, came home to piles of work, and then got sick. But I’m back in top form now! And to kick the blog back off, here’s the launch of NROL-61 aboard Atlas V earlier today, marking the 135th consecutive successful Atlas flight. NROL-61 is a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office. Nevertheless, ULA was able to stream excellent footage including rocketcam imagery up to the point of payload fairing jettison and upper stage ignition, the traditional point for ending broadcast of classified launches. (Amateur satellite hunters will find the payload in orbit soon enough, but the NRO doesn’t like to make it too easy.)
The NRO did release the mission patch, which for today’s flight features a cheerful lizard mascot named Spike clinging to the Atlas V, whose vapor trail originates in Florida.
A Delta IV Heavy carrying the classified NROL-37 payload climbed to orbit from Florida this afternoon. Weather cooperated this time, and the rocket rose out of its customary hydrogen fireball in a completely successful mission, placing a reconnaissance satellite of some kind into orbit. The final orbit is undisclosed, as are the spacecraft’s type and mission. Presumably, however, it is a very large satellite, possibly in a high orbit, perhaps even geosynchronous, since there are few payloads large enough to call for this massive rocket.
The Delta IV Heavy is the most powerful rocket operating today, and the third or fourth most powerful in history (depending on how you count the Space Shuttle — Space Shuttle had considerably more thrust but had a smaller payload capacity as most of its upmass was consumed by the Orbiter itself; note that I am not counting N-1 as despite its incredible liftoff power, it never achieved a successful flight). This is not a title it will hold for long; SpaceX is moving towards the first flight of Falcon Heavy, which will combine three Falcon 9 rockets in the same manner as the three Common Booster Cores of Delta IV Heavy. As Falcon 9 outperforms Delta IV Medium (which is essentially just a naked CBC with no boosters), the total performance of the Heavy variant is expected to be greater as well.
This Thursday (weather permitting, and it’s not looking good), an Atlas V is scheduled to blast off from Vandenberg AFB with an undisclosed payload for the National Reconnaissance Office on board (which of course means it’s gotta be a spy sat of some kind). They’re always tight-lipped on the details, but mission patches are released, and this one’s pretty wicked:
That’s one lady I don’t wanna cheese off. But this is far from the only intimidating patch they’ve produced. Here are a few other memorable ones:
(NROL-34, featuring Odin with his eyepatch and one of his ravens, presumably Huginn, who represented wisdom)
(NROL-65, the Gaelic says “Deliver Your Stuff”; I have no explanation for the “Buttercup” tattoo on the eagle serviceman’s arm/wing and would love to know what it means)
(NROL-49; the Latin says “First Heavy Out of the West” as this was the first Delta IV Heavy to launch from Vandenberg, but the rest of the patch is frankly insane — though I do at least know that “Betty” was the name of the rocket. Seriously.)
(NROL-39; this one’s my favorite for its almost excessively ominous slogan)
(NROL-38; I guess Rodan’s on our side now)
And lastly, what might be the goofiest of recent NRO mission patches, this one for NROL-66:
Today, a Delta IV Heavy will launch from SLC-6 at Vandenburg AFB in California. You can watch it live, with broadcast starting at 10AM Pacific Daylight Time, at SpaceflightNow’s Mission Status Center for the flight. It will be carrying NROL-65, widely believed to be the final KH-11 “Keyhole”, or “Kennan”, or “Crystal”, electro-optical photo reconnaissance satellite. These spacecraft resemble the Hubble Space Telescope, and the resemblance is probably not coincidental, as the optical assemblies come from the same manufacturer. The capabilities are classified, of course, but they’re probably similar to the Hubble, only with the ability to aim more accurately and track the Earth successfully. (That’s something Hubble can’t do — when it photographs the Earth for calibration purposes, all it gets is a huge smear.)
The rocket it will ride is the Delta IV Heavy, the most powerful rocket in the world at present. This flight features a modification which will make the launch a bit less dramatic; past launches featured a spectacular hydrogen fireball, which occasionally lit the core stage insulation on fire. This was determined not to be harmful to the rocket, but even so, nobody really likes the idea of having a huge hydrogen fire on the pad. So for this flight, the ignition of the three Common Booster Cores will be staggered so that the cloud can burn off more safely.
SpaceflightNow also has some lovely images of the vehicle:
Service Gantry Rolled Back
Delta-4 Heavy On the Pad