A United Launch Alliance Delta IV (in the 5,2 configuration) placed NROL-47 into orbit, a classified payload. And it was a beautiful launch — with an unusually large hydrogen fireball at ignition, making this a particularly spectacular one to watch. That cloud is actually normal and does no harm to the vehicle.
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.
Today was the scheduled liftoff day for the fifth X-37 mission (OTV-5), and the first aboard a Falcon 9. (X-37 was designed from the start to be compatible with almost any launch vehicle, including the Space Shuttle, but its first four launches were all aboard the Atlas V.) As a bonus, since SpaceX is still unable to use their original Florida launchpad, Cape Canaveral Air Station’s SLC-40, this launch used the pad they’re adapting for Falcon Heavy, Kennedy Space Center’s venerable LC-39A. So LC-39A got to launch another spaceplane after all. 😉 (LC-39A’s last spaceplane launch was STS-135, the final flight of the Space Shuttle program, just over six years ago.)
Coverage of the ascent stops with first stage separation, as normal for classified flights*, but since this was Falcon 9, we got to see coverage of the first stage continue all the way to touchdown back at the Cape. Now, SpaceX gets to scramble to safe it and stash it safely in a hangar in advance of Hurricane Irma.
*X-37 is not a classified spacecraft, but its missions are generally classified. This one does carry one unclassified payload, the Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader, for the Air Force Research Laboratory. It will “test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipe technologies in the long duration space environment”. Satellites already use heat pipe technology to draw waste heat away from sensitive electronic components (since obviously fans don’t work for cooling a spacecraft computer), but this new technology will be lighter and cheaper. All the other payloads, as well as their quantity and the target orbit and any planned maneuvers, remain classified. But they are probably also experimental technologies, since X-37 offers a unique opportunity to test equipment for a long duration in space and recover it for extensive engineering analysis afterwards.
Without any fanfare, the OTV-4 mission came to an end over the weekend, landing at Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility following 718 days in orbit.:
As with the previous three Orbital Test Vehicle missions, the majority of its activities remain undisclosed. However, this time the Air Force did disclose two payloads: an experimental ion thruster built by Aerojet-Rocketdyne and a NASA payload called METIS (Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space) that exposed over a hundred samples of materials, such as polymers, ceramics, and more.
The fifth OTV mission has not yet been announced.
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).
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. 😉
An Atlas V in its base 401 configuration placed the SBIRS GEO 3 military early-warning satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit this evening: