Tag Archives: VAFB

The End of an Era: Delta II Flies Into The Sunrise

ICESat2 was launched by the final Delta II rocket out of Vandenberg AFB this morning:

This is the end of the Thor era.

The Thor rocket first flew in 1957, as an intermediate range ballistic missile.  It made its first orbital launch in 1959, placing Discoverer 2 into orbit.  (Discoverer 1 was lost during an earlier Thor launch attempt.)  Despite its origin as a missile, it soon became a workhorse launch vehicle called Delta.  For the military, it launched reconnaissance payloads (including the first Corona satellites), the Transit satellite navigation constellation (the first satnav, predecessor to GPS),  and as Thor, continued to perform missile tests including the “Operation Fishbowl” series of high altitude nuclear detonations.  For civilian operators including NASA and NOAA, it launched the TIROS weather satellites, Pioneers 5-9, and early commsats such as Echo 1A.  In the mid-60s it launched the Syncom satellites, the first geosynchronous commsats.  It placed Landsats into orbit, and the first GOES satellites, bringing the world its first 24-7 full-disk imagery from geostationary orbit.  In the 80s, it launched the Solar Max satellite that would later be captured and repaired by a Space Shuttle crew.  In the same decade, the design was licensed to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Japan, which built it into the N-1 and then H-1 rockets, launching out of Tanegashima Space Center.  (Today, they have retired these rockets in favor of all-domestic designs.)  But the launch rate went down dramatically, as both the USAF and NASA had invested considerably in the Space Shuttle as a new means of putting payloads into space.  Delta would be retired, surviving only in foreign launches. Delta stopped production, as did Titan 34 and Atlas-Centaur.

But the Space Shuttle wasn’t turning around its launches as fast as intended, and the loss of Challenger and her crew in 1986 was a crushing blow to this concept.  The US government now wanted to minimize the use of human crews for payloads that didn’t really benefit from them.  In response, McDonnell-Douglas revived the Thor for a new rocket type: Delta II.  It became a very reliable workhorse, placing most of the GPS constellation in orbit as well as many NASA earth-observation spacecraft.  (GEOTAIL, one of its earlier payloads, is still in operation today.)  It lauched the majority of NASA’s missions to the red planet: Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Pathfinder, Mars Climate Orbiter, Mars Polar Lander, Mars Odyssey, both Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity), and Mars Phoenix Lander.  It launched many of NASA’s space telescopes (Spitzer, Swift, GLAST, Kepler, Wise), the sample return missions Stardust and Genesis, asteroid explorers (NEAR-Shoemaker, Deep Impact, and the massively successful Dawn that’s still orbiting Ceres today), the MESSENGER probe to Mercury, and a whole host of Earth orbiting spacecraft for NASA, NOAA, and the military.  Delta II has worked hard and reliably, and it will be missed even as other rockets take up its burdens.  Delta III was also Thor-legacy, but it retired when Delta IV came along.  (Delta IV is a Delta in name only, not wearing the classic blue livery due to its liquid hydrogen fuel, while the old Thor-heritage rockets all ran on kerosene.  And it, too, is likely to retire soon.)  The Japanese Thor-based designs have also retired.

In addition to closing out a long and venerable chapter in the history of rocketry, today’s launch gave the Delta II a rare and enviable record: 100 successful flights in a row.  Out of 156 launch attempts, 154 were complete successes, and only one was a complete failure.  Granted, that was a pretty spectacular failure…..

No more Delta IIs are expected to be purchased, but Boeing plans to assemble the remaining spare parts to create a near-complete rocket for static display at the KSC visitor center, hopefully with the shark’s tooth livery that it wore for GPS flights:



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Two launches, 14 spacecraft: Falcon 9 and Ariane 5 fly

There were two launches in the early hours today: a Falcon 9 out of Vandenberg AFB and an Ariane V out of Kourou, French Guiana.

The Falcon 9 delivered 10 Iridium NEXT satellites into orbit.  The first stage landed on the barge Just Read The Instructions.  The ship Mr Steven attempted to catch one of the two payload fairing sections, but again was unsuccessful, with relatively high wind shear believed to be a contributing factor.  All ten spacecraft were deployed properly and appear to be healthy.  Unfortunately for those of us viewing at home, the notorious sea fog of Southern California rolled in before liftoff.  But the rocketcam views were all great at least!


Then Ariane 5 departed from Kourou, carrying the next four elements of the Galileo satellite navigation constellation to orbit.  When complete, Galileo will supplement GPS and GLONASS, and also provide a domestic navigation capability for users in the European Union in the event access to GPS or GLONASS is no longer available.  This was the final flight of the Ariane 5 ES configuration, with a hypergolic upper stage.  The Ariane ECA configuration, which is popular with commercial customers, uses a cryogenic upper stage that can only be relit once in orbit; this makes it suitable for large commsats and duplex launches, but not for more complex multi-payload launches such as this one, which requires multiple restarts.  Ariane 5 will not perform any further Galileo launches; the next launches are expected in 2020 and will use the Ariane 6.  The weather on the coast of French Guiana was unusually clear, so this one has some wonderful ascent ground photography.

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Another spectacular Delta IV fireball — but all is well

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.

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Falcon 9 at sunset is a glorious sight

While on the subject of Falcon rockets, the last Falcon 9 out of Vandenberg (launching the second set of Iridium NEXT satellites) caught a lot of attention for unusually perfect lighting conditions.  It was a night launch, but early enough that the rocket quickly climbed into sunlight, brilliantly illuminating the vehicle’s plume against the dark of night.  And the best part is — not only can you see staging, and not only can you see the point where the plume suddenly expands above the Karman Line (where the atmosphere becomes nearly insubstantial), but you can see the first stage firing its maneuvering thrusters!!!  Seriously!  Little poofs are clearly visible in these amazing home videos:

Certainly the best fireworks you could get at Disneyland:

There’s also this awesome time-lapse that makes the motion of the first stage more apparent:

It was even visible from Arizona.  Here’s the view from a very puzzled news helicopter crew in Phoenix:

Mind you, you really should be careful if you see this while driving.  It can be distracting:

Note: the first stage was actually not recovered after this mission; there was insufficient propellant left.  But they practiced the maneuvers anyway before allowing the vehicle to plunge into the Pacific Ocean.  The stage was making its second (and final) flight on this mission.  To date, SpaceX has not used a stage three times, but I expect it’s only a matter of time before they do.

Of course, I should also include the view from the launch broadcast:

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Falcon 9 places another 10 Iridium NEXT spacecraft into orbit

SpaceX completed one more launch early this morning from Vandenberg AFB, precisely placing the ten spacecraft on board into the vehicle into Plane 4 of the Iridium NEXT constellation, successfully recovering the first stage.  There’s no rest for the weary, however — SpaceX is on target for another launch, this one from the opposite coast, on Wednesday.

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Launch/landing updates

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.

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Falcon 9 lifts the second batch of Iridium Next spacecraft

Yesterday, less than 48 hours after the last Falcon 9 launch (from KSC’s LC-39A), a second Falcon 9 blasted off.  This one launched from Vandenberg AFB’s SLC-4 and delivered the next ten Iridium Next satellites.  Once enough Iridum Next spacecraft are delivered to orbit, they will begin to replace the famous initial constellation, which is nearing the end of its service life.  Alas, the new spacecraft are much smaller than the original Iridiums and will not wow spotters with bright flares with each pass.

The Falcon 9 for this flight is a full thrust Falcon 9 equipped with a new, all-titanium set of grid fins.  They’re heavier than the older ones, but can handle larger loads and provide more control authority.  This will be critical when the Falcon Heavy’s three cores attempt to return later this year.

This spacecraft’s first stage was successfully recovered by the drone ship Just Read The Instructions, and will eventually be reflown.


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