United Launch Alliance

NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover launches to the Red Planet

NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover has launched on its epic mission to the Red Planet. The rover launched into space atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at 7:50 a.m. EDT from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The Rover lifted off right at the start of the mission’s launch window, which had been planned for when Earth and Mars are in perfect alignment. Lifted by 2 million pounds of thrust, it took the rocket about 5 seconds to clear the launch tower at Cape Canaveral. “We’re in touch with the spacecraft, everything is nominal,” Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, told NASA TV shortly after launch. The successful launch, he said, was “like punching a hole in the sky.” The journey to Mars will take seven months. The rover is scheduled to land on Mars’ Jezero Crater on Feb 18, 2021. The mission’s duration on the Red Planet’s surface is at least one Martian year or about 687 days. A Mars helicopter is also being transported with the rover. Dubbed Ingenuity, the helicopter will be the first aircraft to attempt powered flight on another planet. During its time on Mars, the Perseverance Rover will search for evidence of ancient life on the Red Planet. Mars is looming large for a number of other countries. China, for example, recently launched its own Tianwen-1 mission to land a rover on Mars. The United Arab Emirates also recently launched its Amal orbiter to the Red Planet. Amal, which is Arabic for Hope, will not land on Mars, but is the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission. So far, the U.S. has been the only country to successfully put a spacecraft on Mars, doing it eight times. Two NASA landers are operating there, InSight and Curiosity. Six other spacecraft are exploring the planet from orbit: three U.S., two European and one from India. NASA’s longer-term goal is to send a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s. However, former astronaut Buzz Aldrin said he thought a slightly later target date of 2040 was more realistic. In an interview in 2016, the Gemini 12 and Apollo 11 astronaut told Fox News that by 2040, astronauts could visit Mars’ moon Phobos, which could serve as a sort of stepping stone to the Red Planet. Set against this backdrop, the Perseverance Rover will conduct historic science experiments when it reaches Mars. Chris Carberry, the CEO of Explore Mars, a nonprofit organization aiming to advance the goal of sending people to Mars within the next two decades, said that Perseverance is a mission of numerous firsts. “It will collect samples from the Martian surface that will be collected later this decade which will be the first time Martian samples have ever been returned to Earth,” he explained. “Perseverance carries an experiment called MOXIE (Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment) that will attempt for the first time to manufacture oxygen from the carbon dioxide Martian atmosphere – proving whether future explorers will be able to ‘live off the land’ on Mars.”

Awesome!!!   For on Perseverance’s mission to Mars, and to see videos, click on the text above.  Major kudos to the folks at NASA, ULA, and the JPL for making this happen!  Best of luck to all involved!!      🙂

United Launch Alliance preps for the return of manned space missions from Cape Canaveral

Space company United Launch Alliance is busily preparing for the return of manned missions from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. “Human spaceflight can inspire the public and inspire scientists in a way that no other activities can,” ULA CEO Tory Bruno told Fox News. “It means so much to us to have human spaceflight from American soil returning Americans to space, I cannot begin to tell you what that means to myself and my team.” United Launch Alliance is involved in NASA’s Commercial Crew program that will take American astronauts into space on missions launched from U.S. soil. Since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, the U.S. has been relying on Russian Soyuz rockets, launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, to get astronauts to the International Space Station. NASA recently named the nine American astronauts that will crew the test flights and first missions of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. The Starliner will launch atop a ULA Atlas V rocket from ULA’s Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral. “We have added a Crew Access Tower that allows the astronauts to arrive at the height above the ground where they will enter their capsule,” Bruno said. “It also has a Crew Access Arm that can swing out, with its White Room, and allow them to get access to that capsule, and then pull away so that the rocket can take off and leave.” A longstanding feature of human spaceflight, White Rooms are specially-designed areas that prevent contaminants from getting into the spacecraft. Astronauts also use White Rooms to make final phone calls to their families before blasting off into space. ULA has also built an escape system that employs a sophisticated zipline-type technology, enabling astronauts and launch pad personnel to quickly evacuate the tower in the event of an accident. “That would allow them to very quickly exit that area to a safe distance,” Bruno explained. Crew for the Starliner test flight are NASA astronauts Eric Boe and Nicole Aunapu-Mann and Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson. The first Boeing mission to the International Space Station will be crewed by NASA astronauts Josh Cassada and Suni Williams. Boeing plans to do an uncrewed flight test of its CST-100 Starliner later this year or early next year.

ULA is right here in Colorado, in what those of us here call the “DTC area.”    🙂

Musk’s SpaceX Joins the Military

Not long ago, SpaceX founder Elon Musk cracked what he once labeled a monopoly for Defense Department space launches, successfully breaking into a business that was dominated by United Launch Alliance LLC. The DOD’s appetite for space access is voracious, given the myriad reconnaissance, defense, and communications roles there, coupled with a future where conflicts are almost certain to involve space assets. Musk’s 2014 lawsuit against the government was settled out of court, and the Pentagon certified SpaceX, also known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., as a suitable supplier of military space launches. SpaceX’s first gig for the military was in May when it launched a satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office. But in a quite public sense, Musk and the government this summer will test the theory that cheaper space launches are suitable for sensitive military missions. In August, SpaceX will carry one of the Pentagon’s premiere yet highly classified platforms into orbit. The X-37B spy craft, an unmanned miniature version of the Space Shuttle, logs missions that are well over a year in length. The most recent X-37B sojourn ended in May after more than 700 days circling the Earth. Boeing has built two of the craft, with the first launched in 2010. The August blastoff will be the program’s fifth flight. One major reason for SpaceX’s appeal to Pentagon brass: sticker price. With its launches starting around $61 million, Musk’s company has been able to undercut its more established rival. United Launch Alliance, a Centennial, Colo.-based joint venture of Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., boasts an unblemished record of more than 100 launches, but it’s still working to bring its cost below $100 million. It plans to do so by 2019.

Air Force’s Mysterious X-37B Space Plane Wings by 600 Days in Orbit

The U.S. Air Force’s mysterious X-37B space plane has now spent 600 days in Earth orbit on the vessel’s latest mission, and is nearing a program record for longest time spent in space. The robotic X-37B lifted off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on May 20, 2015, kicking off the program’s fourth space mission (which is known as Orbital Test Vehicle-4, or OTV-4). If the uncrewed spacecraft spends 74 more days aloft, it will break the duration record set during OTV-3, which touched down in October 2014. But it’s unclear how long OTV-4 will last, or just what the X-37B is doing as it circles Earth; most details about the space plane’s missions and payloads are classified. The first OTV mission began on April 22, 2010, and concluded on Dec. 3 of that year, following 224 days of orbit. OTV-2 lifted off on March 5, 2011, and landed on June 16, 2012, after 468 days in orbit. The record-setting OTV-3 mission chalked up nearly 675 days in orbit, circling Earth from Dec. 11, 2012, until Oct. 17, 2014. All three previous OTV missions have come down to Earth at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, but that may change for OTV-4’s landing, whenever it occurs. Progress has been made on consolidating X-37B space plane operations, including the use of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida as a landing site for the robotic space plane. A former KSC space-shuttle facility known as Orbiter Processing Facility-1 (OPF-1) was converted into a structure that will enable the Air Force “to efficiently land, recover, refurbish and relaunch the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV),” according to representatives of the aerospace giant Boeing. X-37B vehicle development falls under the control of Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems in El Segundo, California, which is Boeing’s center for all space and experimental systems and government and commercial satellites. The Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office is leading the Department of Defense’s OTV initiative, by direction of the under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics and the secretary of the Air Force. To date, only two reusable X-37B vehicles have been confirmed as constituting the space plane fleet. The current OTV-4 mission is the second flight of the second X-37B vehicle built for the Air Force by Boeing. The military space plane looks like a miniature version of NASA’s retired space shuttle orbiter. The X-37B is just 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 9.6 feet (2.9 m) tall, and has a wingspan of nearly 15 feet (4.6 m). For comparison, the space shuttles were each 122 feet (37 m) long, with wingspans of 78 feet (24 m). The X-37B has a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed that can be outfitted with a robotic arm. It has a launch weight of 11,000 lbs. (4,990 kilograms) and is powered in orbit by gallium arsenide solar cells with lithium-ion batteries.

Very cool!!  To read the rest of this article, and see a couple videos, click on the text above.

SpaceX eyed rival’s building in rocket explosion probe

SpaceX requested access to a nearby building leased by its rival United Launch Alliance (ULA) as part of its probe into last month’s launch pad rocket explosion, the Washington Post reports. The unmanned SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Fla. during a test on Sept. 1, destroying the rocket and an Israeli satellite called Amos-6. The explosion occurred two days before the rocket’s scheduled liftoff. About two weeks later a SpaceX employee asked for access to the roof of a building leased by ULA, according to the Washington Post, which cited three unnamed industry officials with knowledge of the episode. The Post reports that SpaceX had still video images that appeared to show an odd shadow, then a white spot on the roof. The building has a clear line of sight to the launch pad, which is just over a mile away. In what is described as a cordial encounter, the SpaceX representative told ULA officials at the site that the company was “trying to run down all possible leads,” the Post reported, citing the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation. The request for roof access was reportedly denied by a ULA representative. Instead, the ULA employee called Air Force investigators, who inspected the roof and didn’t find anything connecting it to the rocket explosion, the sources told the Post. The attempt to gain access to the roof is a strange twist in the investigation into the blast.

Indeed..  To read the rest of this AP story, click on the text above.  Elon, and his staff at SpaceX are pretty smart, and will get to the bottom of whatever caused that explosion.  GO SpaceX!!    🙂

Watch a huge Delta IV rocket launch a secret spy satellite today

This afternoon, a giant Delta IV rocket will launch a secret spy satellite into space for the National Reconnaissance Office. The rocket, manufactured by the United Launch Alliance, is scheduled to take off from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 2:55PM ET. It was originally planned for 1:59PM ET, but was delayed due to bad weather conditions. The flight is dubbed the NROL-37 mission, the purpose of which remains classified since it “supports national security.” Despite the intense level of secrecy, NROL-37 does have one very cryptic mission patch associated with it. According to the NRO, the patch “depicts a knight, a symbol of courage with a chivalrous code of conduct representing bravery, training, and service to others. The knight stands in front of the U.S. flag in a defensive posture as to protect at all cost.” The eagle on the knight’s chest is supposed to represent freedom, according to the NRO, while the sword is “a message of tenacious, fierce focus with the claws representing extreme reach with global coverage.” Another clue about NROL-37 is the Delta IV rocket it’s launching on. This is the heavy version of the rocket, which is the largest vehicle that ULA makes. The Delta IV Heavy consists of one main rocket core with two additional boosters attached to either side, which makes for an impressive sight during takeoff. Altogether, those boosters create a whole lot of thrust capable of getting upwards of 30,000 pounds into geosynchronous transfer orbit — a very elliptical orbit located high above Earth’s surface. The satellite needed for the NROL-37 mission is likely pretty hefty and will travel to a very high orbit if it needs the heavy version of the Delta IV to carry it into space. The Delta IV Heavy may be ULA’s largest vehicle, but it also doesn’t fly too often. The last time the vehicle flew was in 2014, when it lofted an uncrewed test version of NASA’s Orion crew capsule into space. Since the Delta IV Heavy’s first flight in 2004, this version of the rocket has only flown eight times, and most of those launches have been for the NRO.

At the time of this posting, the launch may have already happened.  But, weather might have delayed the launch.

US Air Force’s X-37B Space Plane Wings Past 200 Days in Orbit

The U.S. Air Force’s secretive X-37B space plane has winged its way past the 200 day mark, carrying out a classified agenda for the American military. The unmanned X-37B space plane rocketed into orbit on May 20 on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launching from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station back. The reusable robotic space plane mission, also dubbed OTV-4 (short for Orbital Test Vehicle-4), is the fourth spacecraft of its kind for the U.S. Air Force. OTV-4 also marks the second flight of the second X-37B vehicle built for the Air Force by Boeing Space & Intelligence Systems. Only two reusable X-37B vehicles have been confirmed as constituting the fleet. The X-37B space plane looks like a miniature version of NASA’s now-retired space shuttle orbiter. The military space plane is 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 9.5 feet (2.9 m) tall, and has a wingspan of nearly 15 feet (4.6 m). The spacecraft sports a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed. The Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (AFRCO) runs the X-37B program. While the overall duties of the space plane remain secretive, it was previously announced that this craft carries a NASA advanced materials experiment and an experimental propulsion system developed by the Air Force.

Very cool!!    🙂


Liftoff: 1st US shipment in months flying to International Space Station

A U.S. shipment of much-needed groceries and other astronaut supplies rocketed toward the International Space Station for the first time in months Sunday, reigniting NASA’s commercial delivery service. If the Orbital ATK capsule arrives at the space station Wednesday as planned, it will represent the first U.S. delivery since spring. To NASA’s relief, the weather cooperated after three days of high wind and cloudy skies that kept the Atlas V rocket firmly on the ground. Everything came together on the fourth launch attempt, allowing the unmanned Atlas to blast off in late afternoon with 7,400 pounds of space station cargo, not to mention some Christmas presents for the awaiting crew. Tony Bruno, president of rocket maker United Launch Alliance urged, “Everyone cross your fingers and think happy weather thoughts.” It apparently worked. The rocket sored safely through clouds, as the space station sped over the Atlantic, north Bermuda. Launch controllers applauded, shook hands and hugged one another once the Cygnus cargo carrier reached the proper orbit 21 minutes after liftoff. “This is about as good as it gets,” said Vernon Thorp, a United Launch Alliance manager. The space station astronauts got to see some of the rocket contrails. “Caught something good on the horizon,” Space Station Commander Scott Kelly reported via Twitter. The six station astronauts — two of them deep into a one-year mission — have gone without American shipments since April. Two private companies contracted for more than $3.5 billion by NASA to replenish the 250-mile-high lab are stuck on Earth with grounded rockets. Orbital ATK bought another company’s rocket, the veteran Atlas V, for this supply mission. Orbital’s previous grocery run, its fourth, ended in a fiery explosion seconds after liftoff in October 2014. SpaceX, the other supplier, suffered a launch failure in June on its eighth trip.

Great news!!  Let’s hope it arrives safely at the ISS.   🙂

Private Cygnus spacecraft launch Thursday may be visible from US East Coast

People in the eastern United States might be able to see a private cargo spacecraft launch toward the International Space Station on Thursday evening. Orbital ATK’s uncrewed Cygnus freighter is scheduled to blast off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Thursday at 5:55 p.m. ET. You can watch the launch live here at Space.com, courtesy of NASA TV. Thursday’s launch will be the first for Cygnus since Oct. 28, 2014, when its Antares rocket exploded just seconds after liftoff. (Orbital ATK is revamping Antares, and is using the Atlas V until the new version is ready to go.). The Cygnus’ path to space will take it nearly parallel to the U.S. East Coast on Thursday, so the glow created by the two-stage Atlas V’s engines should be visible in varying degrees along much of the Eastern Seaboard, weather permitting. The Atlas V’s first stage is powered by a single RD-180 engine, which will burn for 4 minutes and 15 seconds before shutting down. Six seconds later, the rocket’s first and second stages will separate. Ten seconds after that, the second stage — the Centaur, which utilizes one RL 10C engine — will be fired, and will burn for 13 minutes and 45 seconds. The Cygnus spacecraft will separate from the upper stage 2 minutes and 49 seconds later and head into orbit. The Atlas V first stage should create a fairly conspicuous light in the night sky, while the second stage’s glow will likely be considerably dimmer.

Very cool!!  Wish I had seen it…    🙂