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ULA to set rocket endurance record on next launch

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An Atlas 5 rocket stands on launch pad 41 ahead of the STP-3 mission. Credit: United Launch Alliance

United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket will set an endurance record after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Tuesday, targeting the delivery of two U.S. military tech demo satellites directly into a geosynchronous orbit more than 22,000 miles over the equator.

The Atlas 5’s Centaur upper stage, propelled by an Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10 engine, will maneuver the two Space Force satellites into a geosynchronous orbit with a sequence of three rocket burns over the course of six-and-a-half hours.

The two satellites host an array of technological prototypes and experiments. Military engineers will test their readiness for use on future operational space missions.

The launch is sponsored by the military’s Space Test Program, which oversees many of the Defense Department’s experimental space missions. The larger of the two satellites on the Atlas 5 rocket, named STPSat 6 and built by Northrop Grumman, hosts a NASA laser communications experiment and a payload for the National Nuclear Security Administration designed to detect nuclear detonations to verify international treaty compliance.

The military hasn’t disclosed specifics for other experiments on the mission, but officials said they generally will test technologies related to space domain awareness, space weather monitoring, and communications.

A rideshare satellite named the Long Duration Propulsive ESPA, or LDPE 1, also is riding to orbit on the Atlas 5 rocket. It is mounted to the rocket below STPSat 6 inside the 17.7-foot (5.4-meter) diameter payload fairing.

LDPE 1 hosts its own technological experiments, and will have its own propulsion system to maneuver in space. The spacecraft is capable of releasing small satellites into orbit. When asked, military officials would not confirm whether the LDPE 1 spacecraft’s experiments include any deployable smallsats.

The mission is set to begin with a blastoff from launch pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 4:04 a.m. EST (0904 GMT) Tuesday, the opening of a two-hour launch window.

The destination? A nearly circular geosynchronous orbit hugging the equator.

Most satellites heading to such an orbit get dropped off in an egg-shaped transfer orbit. That requires the spacecraft to use its own propulsion resources to circularize at an operational altitude over the equator.

Some launches deploy their satellites directly into geosynchronous orbit. ULA’s Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets have accomplished this feat before, but the launch Tuesday will set a new record with the Centaur upper stage.

“This is a highly complex orbital insertion that requires three Centaur burns and precise navigation, a capability unique to the Atlas t. This is our longest mission to date at seven hours and 10 minutes until final spacecraft separation,” said Gary Wentz, ULA’s vice president of government and commercial programs.

The launch timeline for the STP-3 mission. Credit: United Launch Alliance

ULA’s 196-foot-tall (59.7-meter) Atlas 5 rocket will fly in its most powerful configuration with five strap-on solid rocket boosters clustered around the bottom of the first stage.

The solid-fueled boosters will provide the majority of the 2.6 million pounds of thrust to drive the Atlas 5 launcher off the pad on a trajectory east from Cape Canaveral. A kerosene-burning RD-180 engine will power the first stage core.

The mission will mark the 90th flight of an Atlas 5 rocket since 2002, and the 12th in the “551” configuration with five solid rocket boosters and a 5.4-meter (17.7-foot-diameter) payload fairing.

The five boosters will consume their pre-packed solid fuel in less than two minutes, then release to fall into the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlas 5’s payload shroud will jettison three-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, then the RD-180 main engine will shut down four-and-a-half minutes into the flight.

The Centaur upper stage’s RL10 engine will ignite for a six-minute burn to reach a parking orbit, then reignite for another six-minute burn at T+plus 1 hour, 7 minutes, to begin the process of boosting the STP-3 payloads to a higher altitude.

A third and final Centaur maneuver is planned to begin at about T+plus 6 hours, 25 minutes, to steer the STP-3 payloads into their targeted circular orbit over the equator at an altitude of about 22,400 miles (36,100 kilometers).

That distance is just above geostationary altitude, where satellites circle Earth at the same rate of the planet’s rotation. STPSat 6 will settle into a parking spot within visibility of the Americas and the Pacific Ocean, while LDPE 1’s destination and final orbital position have not been disclosed by the Space Force.



ULA says the Atlas 5 mission comes with several firsts.

One of those is the first flight of a composite 5-meter payload fairing produced using a new manufacturing process called “out of autoclave,” a simpler method of curing carbon fiber that saves money, time, and weight. The payload shroud looks the same as previous Atlas 5 nose cones, and was produced by the Swiss-based company RUAG Space, the same company that built fairings for previous Atlas 5 missions.

But the out of autoclave fairing was manufactured by RUAG at a new fabrication facility located at ULA’s rocket factory in Decatur, Alabama. Previous Atlas 5 fairings from RUAG were built at the company’s production site in Switzerland, alongside similar composite shrouds for Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket.

ULA’s next-generation Vulcan rocket will use the same payload fairing design. The company, a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, wants to get flight experience with the fairing before the first Vulcan test launch next year.

The STP-3 mission also debuts an in-flight power system ULA says will supply electricity to the batteries on the STPSat 6 and LDPE 1 satellites during the long coast to their deployment altitude. The system will ensure the spacecraft have fully charged batteries when they separate from the Centaur upper stage, according to ULA.

There’s also a GPS enhanced navigation capability making its first flight on the STP-3 mission, allowing the Centaur to more precisely inject its satellite passengers into their targeted orbits.

ULA is also flying a new booster rate gyro unit, a lower-cost, lower-weight alternative to a previous system that uses commercial inertial measurement units in the rocket’s guidance system.

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First Chinese space mission of 2022 rockets into orbit

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A Chinese Long March 2D rocket lifts off with the Shiyan 13 satellite. Credit: CASC

China launched a Long March 2D rocket Monday with another classified satellite, deploying the spacecraft into a polar orbit on the first of more than 40 Chinese Long March rocket missions planned in 2022.

The Long March 2D rocket took off from the Taiyuan launch base in Shanxi province of northern China at 0435 GMT Sunday (11:35 p.m. EST Sunday), according to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. or CASC.

Liftoff occurred at 10:35 a.m. Beijing time Monday.

CASC, China’s largest state-owned space industry contractor, said the Long March 2D rocket delivered the Shiyan 13 satellite into orbit. Chinese officials did not disclose details about the purpose of the mission, other than claiming Shiyan 13 will be used for space environment data collection and technology tests.

China’s series of Shiyan satellites, which began launching in 2004, have been used for technology demonstrations and experiments. Many of the Shiyan missions to date have likely had a military purpose.

The 134-foot-tall (41-meter) Long March 2D rocket that carried Shiyan 13 into orbit lifted off with more than 650,000 pounds of thrust from its hydrazine-fueled first stage engines. Heading south from Taiyuan over Chinese territory, the two-stage launcher climbed through the atmosphere accelerated to a speed of nearly 5 miles (8 kilometers) per second.

The U.S. military, which publishes orbital data online, said it tracked the Shiyan 13 satellite in an orbit between 287 miles and 309 miles (463 by 498 kilometers) at an inclination of 97.4 degrees to the equator.

Chinese officials declared the launch a success, and the U.S. military tracking data confirmed the mission reached orbit.

CASC said in a statement that the launch was the first of more than 40 missions the organization plans to perform this year. CASC builds and oversees the Long March rocket family, China’s most-flown launch vehicle.

More than 15 of the launches will use the Long March 2D rocket configuration, according to CASC. The Long March 2D is designed to carry payloads weighing up to 2,900 pounds (about 1.3 metric tons) into a polar sun-synchronous orbit.

Accomplishing 15 or more Long March 2D launches this year would set an annual record for this type of rocket.

Other major Chinese space missions scheduled for launch in 2022 include six Long March rocket flights to build and outfit China’s space station.

The station’s Tianhe core module launched last April on a heavy-lift Long March 5B rocket. China launched a Long March 7 rocket with a Tianzhou cargo ship in May to dock with the Tianhe module, delivering supplies for first three astronauts who launched to the station in June.

That crew returned to Earth in September, the same month China launched another Tianzhou cargo mission.

Three more astronauts on China’s Shenzhou 13 spacecraft launched and docked with the station’s Tianhe core module in October to begin a six-month stay, the longest China human spaceflight mission to date.

This year, China aims to launch two more large space station modules — each weighing more than 20 tons at launch — on Long March 5B rockets from the Wenchang space center on Hainan Island. The Wentian and Mengtian pressurized modules will adding living space and scientific laboratory capabilities to the Chinese space station.

Two Tianzhou cargo freighters on Long March 7 rockets and two Shenzhou crew ferry ships on Long March 2F rockets are also scheduled to launch to the Chinese space station this year.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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Live coverage: SpaceX plans prime time launch of Falcon 9 rocket Monday night

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Live coverage of the countdown and launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The mission will launch SpaceX’s next batch of 49 Starlink broadband satellites. Text updates will appear automatically below. Follow us on Twitter.

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Keeping up a rapid-fire launch cadence to begin 2022, SpaceX is gearing up to launch another Falcon 9 rocket Monday night from Kennedy Space Center in Florida with 49 Starlink internet satellites.

Liftoff from pad 39A is set for 7:26 p.m. EST Monday (0026 GMT Tuesday) to kick off a 15-minute launch sequence before deploying the 49 flat-panel Starlink satellites into orbit.

You can watch our live launch coverage on this page.

The 229-foot-tall Falcon 9 rocket will head southeast from Kennedy Space Center to deploy the Starlink payloads into an orbit inclined 53.2 degrees to the equator. The mission will aim to release the Starlink satellites at T+plus 15 minutes, 32 seconds, into an orbit ranging in altitude between 130 miles and 210 miles (210 by 339 kilometers).

This mission, designated Starlink 4-6, is SpaceX’s third Falcon 9 launch of the year. The first stage booster, tail number B1060, will be making its 10th trip to space and back.

SpaceX’s drone ship “A Shortfall of Gravitas” is on station in the Atlantic Ocean north of the Bahamas for landing of the first stage booster.

Read our mission preview story for details.

ROCKET: Falcon 9 (B1060.10)

PAYLOAD: 49 Starlink satelllites (Starlink 4-6)

LAUNCH SITE: LC-39A, Kennedy Space Center, Florida

LAUNCH DATE: Jan. 17, 2022

LAUNCH TIME: 7:26 p.m. EST (0026 GMT on Jan. 18)

WEATHER FORECAST: 80% probability of acceptable weather

BOOSTER RECOVERY: “A Shortfall of Gravitas” drone ship north of the Bahamas

LAUNCH AZIMUTH: Southeast

TARGET ORBIT: 210 miles by 130 miles (339 kilometers by 210 kilometers), 53.2 degrees inclination

LAUNCH TIMELINE:

  • T+00:00: Liftoff
  • T+01:12: Maximum aerodynamic pressure (Max-Q)
  • T+02:32: First stage main engine cutoff (MECO)
  • T+02:35: Stage separation
  • T+02:42: Second stage engine ignition
  • T+02:52: Fairing jettison
  • T+06:47: First stage entry burn ignition (three engines)
  • T+07:07: First stage entry burn cutoff
  • T+08:25: First stage landing burn ignition (one engine)
  • T+08:47: First stage landing
  • T+08:50: Second stage engine cutoff (SECO 1)
  • T+15:32: Starlink satellite separation

MISSION STATS:

  • 137th launch of a Falcon 9 rocket since 2010
  • 145th launch of Falcon rocket family since 2006
  • 10th launch of Falcon 9 booster B1060
  • 121st Falcon 9 launch from Florida’s Space Coast
  • 137th launch overall from pad 39A
  • 43rd SpaceX launch overall from pad 39A
  • 81st flight of a reused Falcon 9 booster
  • 35th dedicated Falcon 9 launch with Starlink satellites
  • 3rd Falcon 9 launch of 2022
  • 3rd launch by SpaceX in 2022
  • 3rd orbital launch based out of Cape Canaveral in 2022

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Cape Canaveral’s busy January to continue with another Starlink launch

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File photo of a Faclcon 9 rocket on pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now

Forecasters expect brisk winds and chilly temperatures for a prime time, full moon launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with another batch of Starlink internet satellites Monday night from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

There’s a 70 percent chance of good conditions for launch at 7:26 p.m. EST Monday (0026 GMT), according to a forecast issued Saturday morning by the U.S. Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron. There’s a backup instantaneous launch opportunity at 9:24 p.m. EST (0224 GMT).

The mission, designated Starlink 4-6, will carry around 49 Starlink internet satellites into orbit for SpaceX’s global internet network. The Falcon 9 is expected to fly southeast from pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, heading over the Atlantic Ocean just north of the Bahamas before making a slight right-hand turn to line up with the target orbital plane for deployment of the Starlink payloads.

The flight profile is expected to match that of the most recent Starlink launch Jan. 6, which was the first Starlink mission from Florida to head southeast, rather than northeast. That mission carried 49 flat-panel Starlink satellites into space. SpaceX hasn’t announced yet how many Starlink satellites are on Monday’s launch, but it’s expected to be a similar number.

Launch trajectories from Cape Canaveral have historically tracked east or northeast over the Atlantic Ocean.

But SpaceX, with approval from the Space Force’s Eastern Range, has opened new launch trajectories in recent years. Falcon 9 missions have also flown south along the Florida coastline to reach polar orbit, a destination that was inaccessible from Cape Canaveral for 50 years.

U.S. launches into polar orbit have typically departed from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, which has an open range of ocean to the south of the spaceport.

The south and southeast launch paths from Cape Canaveral require rockets to perform turns, or “dog-leg” maneuvers, using some of their performance to fly around land masses and populated areas. That reduces the number of Starlink satellites SpaceX can launch on a single mission, but the company has said it intends to use the southeast launch trajectories in winter months to improve the chances of good offshore conditions for landing of the Falcon 9’s first stage booster.

For this mission, like the last Starlink launch, SpaceX’s drone ship will be parked north of the Abacos Islands in the Bahamas. For launches to the northeast, the landing platform is positioned east of Charleston, South Carolina, a region that sees rougher seas and higher winds in the winter.

A stack of Starlink satellites awaiting encapsulation inside the payload fairing before a previous Falcon 9 launch. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX will surpass the 2,000-satellite mark in its Starlink program with Monday night’s launch. Roughly 200 of those satellites have failed or been decommissioned by SpaceX’s ground control team, according to a tabulation maintained by Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist and respected tracker of global spaceflight activity.

The Starlink 4-6 mission will be SpaceX’s 35th dedicated launch since May 2019 for the Starlink program.

SpaceX has a long-term plan to launch as many as 42,000 Starlink satellites, according to a company filing with the International Telecommunication Union. The company’s initial focus is on deploying thousands of satellites into five orbital “shells.”

The 53.2-degree inclination shell, the target for Monday night’s launch is one of the five orbital shells at different inclination angles that SpaceX plans to fill with around 4,400 satellites to provide high-speed, low-latency broadband connectivity around the world. The first shell, at 53.0 degrees, was filled with its full complement of satellites last May.

As of last week, SpaceX said the Starlink network is now live in 25 countries and regions, serving more than 145,000 users worldwide. SpaceX builds its Starlink satellites on an assembly line in Redmond, Washington, and the company is developing and iterating its own user terminals.

SpaceX hopes to use revenue from the Starlink business unit to help fund the company’s ambitions to complete development of the heavy-lift Starship rocket, a massive fully reusable launcher designed to eventually replace the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.

On Monday night’s mission, the Falcon 9 rocket is expected to target an orbit a couple hundred miles above Earth. After flying free of the launch vehicle, the 49 Starlink satellites — each about a quarter-ton in mass — will unfurl solar panels and use ion thrusters to climb to an operational altitude of 335 miles (540 kilometers).

The forecast for Monday night calls for a mostly clear sky and gusty west winds of 20 to 25 mph. The temperature at launch times is forecast to be around 52 degrees Fahrenheit.

Rainy weather is expected along the Space Coast Sunday, but the weather system will push through the region in time for Monday evening’s launch opportunity, according to the Space Force weather team.

“Clouds will diminish through the day Monday at the spaceport, leaving gusty winds as the primary launch weather threat,” the forecaster team wrote. “On Tuesday, high pressure will settle overhead making for a chilly morning, but excellent launch weather conditions.”

The launch will continue a busy January at the Florida spaceport, with seven rocket launches scheduled on the Eastern Range. Two of the missions, both by SpaceX, are already in the books, with five more on tap before the end of the month, including Monday’s Falcon 9 flight.

A small satellite launcher developed by Astra is slated to take off as soon as next week from the Complex 46 launch pad at Cape Canaveral, carrying several CubeSats into orbit on a demonstration flight for NASA.

United Launch Alliance’s first mission of 2022 is scheduled for Friday, Jan. 21, with a pair of Space Force surveillance satellites heading to geostationary orbit.

Two more SpaceX launches are scheduled for the last week of January from each of the company’s Florida launch pads.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Source: Space

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