Tag Archives: USAF

The 4th X-37 mission has ended

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.

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Delta IV (5,4) launches WGS-9 successfully

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).

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Atlas V successfully delivers NROL-79

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.  😉

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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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