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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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. 😉
DigitalGlobe, provider of the most detailed satellite imagery available on the commercial market, has completed on-orbit checkout and commissioning of their latest bird: WorldView 4. WorldView 4 is a twin to WorldView 3, offering an unprecedented 1-foot resolution with its 3.6 foot aperture main telescope. But since WorldView 3 is completely booked by the US military, WorldView 4 opens up this capability to the public. In fact, it began acquiring images for paying customers on February 1, so this capability is already very real.
To commemorate the occasion, DigitalGlobe released this spectacular image, shot by WorldView 2, of SLC-3 at Vandenberg AFB right as the Atlas V rocket climbed away with WorldView 4 on board: