Tag Archives: USAF

Atlas V has successfully lifted off with SBIRS GEO 3!

An Atlas V in its base 401 configuration placed the SBIRS GEO 3 military early-warning satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit this evening:

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Two more launches: PSLV (Resourcesat 2A) and Delta IV (WGS 8)

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.

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Delta IV places new eyes in the sky to track space traffic and debris

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:

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DMSP & Hitomi are having bad days

Spaceflight is tough, and as the push continues to build cheaper spacecraft, we need to remember why spacecraft are usually so expensive.  It’s all about reliability, because there is often an incredibly narrow margin in which these vehicles operate, and sometimes it can take very little to end their missions.

DMSP-19 stopped communicating last February, and yesterday the USAF announced they were discontinuing efforts to contact it.  Less than half way through its primary mission, DMSP-19 is dead.  The problem is believed to be something in its power system, but there are very few clues to go on.  The spacecraft is still intact and tracked by radar, but it is derelict now.  What’s really frustrating is knowing how thin this leaves our margins for adequate weather forecasting.  DMSP and its civilian cousin POES was supposed to be followed by the NPOESS constellation, but that has been cancelled.  Just one element, the gapfiller NPP Suomi, was launched.  Today, NOAA and NASA are pressing forward with their part of NPOESS, now called JPSS, but the military side, DWSS, was cancelled and so they will be partnering with the Europeans instead to get adequate coverage.  The USAF still has one more DMSP spacecraft as a ground spare, but after that they will no new weather satellites of their own in the pipeline, and there is still no plan to change that state of affairs.

Meanwhile, in Japan, controllers are attempting to learn the fate of their latest x-ray space observatory, Hitomi.  It, too, stopped communicating.  It was still in its commissioning phase when communications stopped, and now the USAF has reported tracking at least five objects around it.  Satellite spotters report seeing its brightness vary in a very predictable way, which means it’s tumbling out of control.  This would account for the difficulty in communicating; Japanese controllers have been able to downlink a few snippets of telemetry, but they were very brief as it cannot maintain a lock on the ground with its dish antenna.  JAXA doesn’t give up easily, but this one is almost certainly a goner.  With debris around it, it’s probably suffered an explosion of some kind.  Not quite enough to kill it, but enough to adjust its orbit slightly and set it spinning.  Likely suspects include the propulsion system and the batteries.  The only thing ruled out at present is a collision with a tracked object; the USAF recorded no objects with a trajectory that could have intersected it.  It’s very sad, and I hope they got insurance.

On a more positive note, Progress M-29M, the last of its series, has departed the ISS (and will deorbit in a few weeks, after being used for a number of experiments involving spinning it to create artificial gravity), and its replacement, Progress MS-02, has launched towards the ISS.  It is the second of the latest generation of Progress spacecraft, the 63rd to fly to the ISS, and carries production number 432.  It launched today aboard a Soyuz-2-1a from Baikonur Cosmodrome.

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China, US, and Russia launch navigation satellites, North Korea launches . . . something

It’s been a noteworthy week in rocket launches.  First, last Monday, China placed another element of their Beidou satellite navigation constellation into orbit.  I found some nice amateur footage of it on YouTube — note the duration of time before you begin to hear the roar, and also note the characteristic red clouds at launch.  The entire Long March family uses hypergolic propellants, hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide, and before the mix evens out at ignition, the exhaust contains a lot of nitrogen tetroxide, a highly corrosive chemical still widely used in spacecraft engines, but phased out of American and European launch vehicles some time ago.  Still, this launch went off without a hitch, and it is fun to hear the palpable excitement and joy in the voiced of the onlookers.

Then, on Friday, the USAF placed the twelfth and final GPS 2F spacecraft into orbit.  This is the last of the Block II GPS spacecraft; the next launch will be the first of the Block III.  Launched aboard an Atlas V rocket with Centaur upper stage, the spacecraft was successfully delivered into the correct orbit.  The first stage is infamously powered by the RD-180 built by NPO Energomash in Russia.  It is a closed-cycle kerosene-LOX engine and among the most sophisticated kerolox engines ever designed.  The upper stage is powered by the venerable RL-10 by Rocketdyne, an expander-cycle cryogenic rocket engine powered by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.

And then, somewhat ambiguously, North Korea made a second satellite launch early this morning.  They gave few details on the payload, but an object was indeed placed into orbit and is being tracked, so the launch appears to have been successful.  Unlike the last launch, I have not heard any reports of the payload tumbling, so this time the payload must have separated properly from the upper stage.  (Disclaimer: I don’t speak Korean, so I have no idea what the commentary in this video is, though I think it may be a North Korean release.)

Lastly, and almost as if to show the North Koreans how it’s really done, the Russians <i>also</i> enhanced their navigation satellite constellation, placing a GLONASS satellite into orbit by a Soyuz 2 rocket from Plesetsk Cosmodrome:

The skies got a bit busier this week.

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22 years ago today: the US returns to the Moon

After the cancellation of Apollos 18-20, it looked unlikely that NASA would be allowed to return to the Moon.  The attitude in the legislature was one of “been there, done that”.  Human spaceflight had been re-aimed at low Earth orbit space stations and spaceplanes, while robotic missions were going ever further into the deepest recesses of the solar system.  In 1977, the final death-knell for American lunar exploration seemed to have been struck when the funding to monitor the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Packages (ALSEPs) ran out, and the perfectly good autonomous stations were deactivated.

Perhaps this is why the first return to the Moon since Apollo was not exclusively a NASA project.  In 1994, on January 25, the Clementine spacecraft blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base aboard a Titan II rocket (military surplus; the rocket had previously lived in a missile silo).  All of the refurbished ICBM Titan II launches were for one customer: the United States Air Force.  The USAF realistically had no particular interest in the Moon, but their Ballistic Missile Defense Organization had a number of crucial new technologies that it wanted to develop, and somewhere along the way, someone came up with the bright idea of testing them out in a spacecraft that would also orbit the Moon.  This allowed them to get NASA on board, and also the French agency CNES, significantly reducing the amount each agency would need to spend.  On February 19, the spacecraft arrived in lunar orbit, and on May 3, it became the first spacecraft to do something else remarkable: it departed lunar orbit to leave the Earth-Moon system altogether.  The only spacecraft to have left lunar orbit previously were all sending capsules back to Earth.  After leaving lunar orbit, the spacecraft then left Earth orbit, conducting a burn designed to put it on course to rendezvous with the asteroid 1620 Geographos; unfortnately, a thruster malfunction ruined that plan, and they ended up putting the spacecraft into a heliocentric orbit designed to take it one more time through the Earth’s Van Allen Belts for further study.  Contact was lost in June of 1994.

Clementine was a short-lived probe, and one which, like the girl in the song, is now lost and gone forever.  But it did something important in the meantime: it proved there was still a reason to go to the Moon.

PIA00432_modest

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GPS 2F-11 launches aboard Atlas V

The latest element of the GPS constellation, the largest and most advance navigation constellation in the world, was successfully placed into orbit on Halloween, blasting off from Cape Canaveral Air Station aboard an Altas V rocket in the 401 configuration (the lightest configuration — 4 meter fairing, 0 boosters, single-engine Centaur).  Watch particularly for a lovely condensation cloud as the vehicle reaches Mach 1.

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