Atlas 5 rocket strikes nearer to retirement with closing launch from California – Spaceflight Now


ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket lifts off from House Launch Complicated 3-East at Vandenberg House Power Base with NOAA’s JPSS 2 climate satellite tv for pc and NASA’s LOFTID re-entry tech demo experiment. Credit score: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now

The 301st and closing Atlas rocket to launch from California blasted off Thursday with a NOAA climate satellite tv for pc and a first-of-its-kind re-entry tech demo experiment, clearing the way in which for modifications to prepared the Atlas launch pad for United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket.

There are 19 Atlas 5s remaining in ULA’s stock. All are slated to launch from Cape Canaveral. The predawn launch from California additionally marked the ultimate Atlas 5 to fly with a basic 4-meter (13-foot) diameter payload fairing, and the final to make use of the most-flown variant of the Atlas 5 — the “401” configuration with a 4-meter fairing and no stable rocket boosters.

ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket lifted off from House Launch Complicated 3-East at Vandenberg House Power Base in California at 1:49 a.m. PST (4:49 a.m. EST; 0949 GMT) Thursday carrying NOAA’s JPSS 2 polar-orbiting climate satellite tv for pc. A rideshare payload referred to as LOFTID rode into orbit under the JPSS 2 satellite tv for pc contained in the Atlas 5’s nostril cone.

The launch group delayed liftoff 24 minutes after loading of liquid oxygen into the Atlas 5’s first stage took longer than anticipated on account of a technical subject. Engineers declared the 191-foot-tall (58.2-meter) rocket prepared for flight and resumed the countdown, culminating in ignition of the Atlas 5’s Russian-made RD-180 fundamental engine.

The engine throttled as much as full energy, producing some 860,000 kilos of thrust to energy the Atlas 5 off the pad at Vandenberg, a navy base about 140 miles (225 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles. The Atlas 5 headed south from Vandenberg, arcing over the Pacific Ocean because the RD-180 engine accelerated the rocket by the environment for the primary 4 minutes of the flight.

The Centaur higher stage separated from the Atlas first stage to start the primary of three burns utilizing its Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10 engine. The Atlas 5 shed its payload fairing four-and-a-half minutes into the mission, and the RL10 higher stage engine accomplished its first firing about 17 minutes after liftoff.

That set the stage for deployment of the 5,567-pound (2,525-kilogram) JPSS 2 climate satellite tv for pc 28 minutes into the flight.

Constructed by Northrop Grumman, the JPSS 2 spacecraft is the third satellite tv for pc in NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite tv for pc System sequence of climate observatories. It follows the launch of the Suomi NPP and JPSS 1 climate satellites in 2011 and 2017, each on ULA’s now-retired Delta 2 rocket. JPSS 2 will collect information on Earth’s environment and oceans, mapping and monitoring wildfires and volcanoes, and measuring mud and smoke within the air. JPSS 2 will even observe the well being of the ozone layer.

JPSS 2 will fly at an altitude of 512 miles (824 kilometers), permitting its 4 devices to gather information over the identical location on Earth twice per day, as soon as in daylight and as soon as at nighttime, because the planet rotates beneath the satellite tv for pc’s orbit.

The brand new satellite tv for pc will probably be renamed NOAA 21, persevering with a line of U.S. authorities climate satellites relationship again to 1960. Forecasters use information from polar-orbiting satellites to assist predict climate three to seven days upfront, whereas NOAA’s GOES climate satellites in geostationary orbit present real-time monitoring of extreme climate and tropical cyclones.

A Russian-made RD-180 engine powers the Atlas 5 rocket off its launch pad in California on Thursday. Credit score: United Launch Alliance

With JPSS 2 flying freed from the rocket, the Atlas 5’s Centaur higher stage reignited two instances to steer onto a trajectory again into Earth’s environment. Then the Centaur ejected an adapter cowl to disclose LOFTID, the Low-Earth Orbit Flight Check of an Inflatable Decelerator, a rideshare experiment added to the mission to make the most of the Atlas 5’s extra payload capability.

LOFTID is a joint effort between NASA and ULA to check an inflatable warmth protect design that might be used sooner or later to assist land large cargo on Mars. ULA might use an analogous warmth protect system to assist it recuperate rocket engines from the next-generation Vulcan rocket for refurbishment and reuse.

Excessive-pressure tanks of nitrogen gasoline carried contained in the LOFTID re-entry car opened to inflate the warmth protect, which was folded and packed to suit inside a quantity about 4.3 ft (1.3 meters) huge and 50 centimeters (1.6 ft) tall. As soon as totally pressurized to 19 psi, the warmth protect expanded to a diameter of almost 20 ft (6 meters).

The inflatable warmth protect is way lighter than a inflexible warmth protect, comparable to thermal safety programs used on crew capsules, and take up much less quantity inside a rocket’s payload fairing. The expertise will permit future NASA missions to ship extra large rovers, landers, and ultimately human-rated habitats to the Martian floor — payloads weighing tens of tons.

The heaviest spacecraft ever landed on Mars utilizing present expertise was the Perseverance rover, which weighed a few ton when it arrived on the Crimson Planet in 2021.

The LOFTID tech demo is a part of NASA’s Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator, or HIAD, program. NASA has flown suborbital exams of smaller inflatable warmth shields, however the LOFTID mission was the biggest such decelerator ever examined, and the primary to re-enter the environment from orbital velocity.

NOAA’s JPSS 2 climate satellite tv for pc in a payload processing facility at Vandenberg House Power Base earlier than encapsulation contained in the Atlas 5 rocket’s payload fairing. Credit score: USSF thirtieth House Wing/Carlos Velasco

As soon as the LOFTID warmth protect was inflated, the Atlas 5’s Centaur higher stage fired thrusters to spin up and launch the roughly 2,700-pound (1,224-kilogram) spin-stabilized re-entry car. The rocket’s higher stage fell again into the environment, with most of it burning up over the Pacific Ocean.

LOFTID re-entered the environment, withstanding 9 Gs and temperatures close to 2,600 levels Fahrenheit (1,400 levels Celsius) earlier than deploying a parachute to gradual its descent for splashdown. A restoration ship chartered by ULA retrieved the spacecraft from the Pacific Ocean east of Hawaii.

The launch from California Thursday marked the top of an period for ULA, with modifications to the SLC-3E launch pad set to start within the coming weeks to prepared the West Coast facility for the Vulcan rocket.

ULA has accomplished modifications to launch amenities at Cape Canaveral for the Vulcan Centaur rocket. Vulcan flights will take off from House Launch Complicated 41 on the Cape, the identical website utilized by Atlas 5 rockets. Atlas 5 and Vulcan rockets will share the identical pad, with completely different cell launch platforms, over the following a number of years.

The cutover to the Vulcan program received’t be backward suitable at Vandenberg, which means ULA received’t protect the potential to launch Atlas 5s from the West Coat.

“After launch, the group goes to begin de-integrating and safing all of the hazardous programs in order that we are able to are available in and make vital modifications to the platforms, to the power,” stated Gary Wentz, ULA’s vp of presidency and industrial packages.

Artist’s illustration of a Vulcan Centaur launch. Credit score: United Launch Alliance

The Atlas 5’s first stage burns kerosene gas combined with liquid oxygen, whereas the brand new Blue Origin-built BE-4 engines powering the Vulcan’s first stage will burn methane and liquid oxygen. That requires the set up of recent methane storage tanks and propellant strains to load the gas into the Vulcan rocket at SLC-3E.

“The Vulcan Centaur is utilizing completely different commodities so we have now to run these feed strains in and mate these as much as the launch platform. So we’re going to begin a big de-integration after which manufacture a functionality to have the ability to launch Vulcan Centaur with an preliminary functionality early within the spring of ’24.”

The Atlas 5 launch pad at Vandenberg has a cell gantry that enables floor crews to stack rocket segments on the launch pad. The service tower wheels away within the closing hours earlier than liftoff, revealing the rocket earlier than cryogenic propellants are pumped aboard. At Cape Canaveral, ULA stacks the Atlas 5 rocket inside a set Vertical Integration Facility. The rocket then rides a cell transporter to the launch pad.

The cell gantry at SLC-3E will probably be modified to accommodate the broader diameter of the Vulcan rocket. However ULA received’t want to boost the construction’s top, which was elevated within the 2000s to replace the pad for Atlas 5 missions.

ULA’s first Vulcan take a look at flight is slated for launch from Cape Canaveral in 2023 on a mission to loft a pair of take a look at satellites for Amazon’s Kuiper broadband community, together with a industrial moon lander for Astrobotic. That will probably be adopted later subsequent yr by the second Vulcan take a look at flight, with Sierra House’s first Dream Chaser spaceplane on a resupply mission to the Worldwide House Station.

Future Vulcan launches will haul payloads to area for the U.S. navy, which in 2020 chosen ULA’s Vulcan and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets to hold nationwide safety satellites into orbit on missions by 2027. Up to now, ULA has not received any Vulcan launch contracts for flights out of Vandenberg, however has reservations for greater than 50 Vulcan flights from Cape Canaveral.

However the Pentagon requires ULA and SpaceX fundamental the power to launch missions from the East Coast and the West Coast. Launches out of Vandenberg usually goal polar orbits, a vacation spot for the federal government’s spy satellites, climate monitoring spacecraft, and future early warning and missile detection platforms.

The primary Atlas launch from Vandenberg occurred in 1959 with a suborbital take a look at of an Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile. Atlas rockets started launching in 1960 from SLC-3, which included a West pad and an East pad. The primary Atlas launch from SLC-3E occurred July 12, 1961.

The SLC-3E launch pad was decommissioned after an Atlas launch in 1987, then introduced again on-line for 3 flights of the Atlas 2AS rocket from 1999 by 2003. Floor crews then transformed the pad for the Atlas 5 rocket, which stands taller than older Atlas rocket configurations, and makes use of the Russian RD-180 fundamental engine.

ULA launched 17 Atlas 5 rockets from SLC-3E, together with a mission in 2018 with NASA’s InSight Mars lander, the primary probe to the Crimson Planet to raise off from Vandenberg.

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Observe Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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