Tag Archives: Vandenberg AFB

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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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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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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WorldView 4, as seen by WorldView 2

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:


Beautiful.  😉

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Falcon 9 has returned to flight!

After the shocking loss of the last Falcon 9, the rocket roared well and truly back into business today.  They had been slightly delayed by the much needed rains that have come to California, but today the weather was suitable and launch occurred on time and on target, with a successful barge recovery at sea of the first stage – the first from Vandenberg.  The Jason-3 launch a year ago was the first attempt to recover a Falcon 9 in the Pacific; it successfully soft-landed, but one of the landing legs failed to lock allowing it to fall over and explode.  This one was flawless, and the barge will return to shore in the next couple of days — I believe to San Diego, since that’s where SpaceX recovers their Dragons.

The payload is the first flight of the Iridium NEXT constellation, which uses a brand-new multi-satellite deployment system that appears to have worked flawlessly, deploying all ten spacecraft correctly into their high inclination orbit.

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Falcon 9 RTF has a launch date!

After the shocking pre-launch explosion of a Falcon 9 last September, destroying the payload and severely damaging the pad, SpaceX has announced a launch date for their return-to-flight.  The SLC-40 pad at Cape Canaveral is still not in usable condition, but SLC-4E at Vandenberg is of course perfectly fine; that’s where the next flight, with 10 Iridum NEXT satellites on board, will launch.

Pending FAA approval after submission of their failure investigation findings, the Iridium launch is expected to occur this Sunday, January 8.  SpaceX has a very full backlog that it will need to start working on right after that, but as SLC-40 will take time to repair, the next Florida launch (Echostar  23) will be from the venerable LC-39A at Kennedy Space Center, on Merritt Island.  LC-39A was originally built for the Saturn V, then modified for the Space Shuttle, and now is nearly ready to support Falcon 9.  Both SLC-4E and LC-39A will be capable of hosting the enormous Falcon Heavy, which SpaceX hopes to fly twice this year if all goes well — one test flight, and then the first operational flight on behalf of the USAF.  Meanwhile, cargo Dragon flights are scheduled to resume in February, and SpaceX tentatively plans to make their first uncrewed test flight of the crewed Dragon later this year.  However, their manifest is so full that even slight delays could push that into 2018.  Their ultimate dream has always been to fly humans, but they are committed to meeting their commercial obligations as well.

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