As it enters its ninth year of operations since its formation as a merger between Boeing and Lockheed Martin in December 2006, United Launch Alliance (ULA)—the Centennial, Colo.-based operator of the Atlas V, Delta IV, and Delta II boosters out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.—will attempt to stage as many as 13 missions in 2015. This impressive salvo of launches is expected to kick off tonight (Tuesday, 20 January), with the liftoff of the most powerful variant of the Atlas V, carrying the third Multi-User Objective System (MUOS-3) satellite for the U.S. Navy. Looking ahead to the rest of the year, ULA hopes to deliver payloads into low, medium, and geostationary transfer orbits for a range of customers, including NASA, the National Reconnaissance Office, the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, Orbital Sciences Corp., and Mexico’s Secretary of Communications and Transportation (SCT).
Thirteen launches is an admirable feat, though not an empirical record for ULA, which successfully staged a mammoth 16 missions back in 2009. Next up after MUOS-3 will be the workhorse Delta II, which triumphantly returned to active operational status in July 2014, after a near-three-year hiatus, and will fly from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-3W at Vandenberg, no sooner than 29 January. It will deliver NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) environmental satellite into a near-polar, Sun-synchronous orbit, where it will employ passive radiometry and synthetic-aperture radar to produce high-resolution global maps of water deposits in the soil, and thereby offer scientists a better understanding of agricultural productivity, climate change, and weather.
Five weeks after SMAP, another NASA voyage of exploration—the Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission (MMS)—will rise into geostationary transfer orbit, with an apogee of about 22,240 miles (35,790 km), atop an Atlas V 421 booster, from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. This comprises four identical spacecraft, flying in a tetrahedral formation, to study Earth’s magnetosphere and to gather data about the microphysics of magnetic reconnection, energetic particle acceleration, and turbulence. These satellites will use a next-generation Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver, known as “Navigator,” to provide orbit knowledge and frequent formation-maintenance maneuvers. The MMS orbit is optimized to spend long periods within the “magnetopause,” where pressure from the solar wind and the Home Planet’s magnetic field are equal, and the “magnetotail,” which is formed by pressure from the solar wind on Earth’s magnetosphere. This research will enable MMS research teams to more clearly identify the processes ongoing within astrophysical plasmas.
As part of its commitment to launch the final members of the 12-strong GPS Block IIF “interim” network by 2016, ULA will deliver three more satellites into orbit this year. In keeping with previous practice—which saw four Block IIF satellites launched in 2014—the delivery of the network will employ a mixture of Delta IV and Atlas V launches. Present plans call for GPS IIF-9 to fly atop a Delta IV Medium+ 4,2 from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-37B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on 25 March, followed by GPS IIF-10 and GPS IIF-11, both atop Atlas V 401 boosters and both originating from SLC-41 at the Cape, on 16 June and 16 September. These satellites will be delivered into medium-Earth orbits and will circle the globe every 12 hours, providing critical Navstar positioning, velocity, and timing assets fully functional until the next-generation GPS Block IIIA comes online in 2016. In addition to their civilian usage, the Block IIF satellites boast enhanced accuracy, reprogrammable processors, interference-free signals for commercial aviation, search and rescue capability, and a new Military code (or “M-code”), which is better resistant to electronic jamming.
2015 is also expected to see the fourth voyage of the Air Force’s highly classified X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-4). Described as “the United States’ newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft,” this vehicle closely resembles a miniature version of NASA’s now-retired shuttle orbiter, with several significant exceptions. In space, it deploys an array of gallium arsenide solar cells, which—when combined with power from a set of lithium-ion batteries—have thus far enabled it to remain aloft for far longer than any shuttle flight, as long as 674 days. Its payload bay measures 7 feet (2.1 meters) long and 4 feet (1.2 meters) in diameter and can accommodate a cargo weighing between 500-660 pounds (225-300 kg). An advanced avionics suite and airframe, together with electromechanical actuators and autonomous guidance controls, has focused the X-37B’s mandate onto “risk reduction, experimentation and operational concept development for reusable vehicle technologies in support of long-term developmental space objectives.”
The Air Force currently possesses two X-37Bs. The first was launched on the OTV-1 mission from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in April 2010 and spent 224 days in orbit, touching down at Vandenberg Air Force Base the following December, and was reused for the OTV-3 flight, which launched in December 2012 and returned to Earth in October 2014, after 674 days aloft. Meanwhile, the second X-37B flew the 468-day OTV-2 mission from March 2011 until June 2012 and is expected to support OTV-4. Like its predecessors, this mission will be launched atop an Atlas V 501, perhaps as soon as May 2015.
Four further ULA flights this year are also expected to be military in nature, with two classified payloads for the National Reconnaissance Office—NROL-45 and NROL-55—scheduled to be launched from Vandenberg in mid-April and late August, respectively utilizing the Delta IV Medium+ 5,2 and the Atlas V 401. Also in August, the MUOS-4 satellite will rise from the Cape, making 2015 the first year to witness as many as two launches of the Atlas V 551 heavylifter. Meanwhile, in July, a Delta IV Medium+ 5,4 booster will deliver the Air Force’s seventh Wideband Global Satcom (WGS-7) from the Cape to provide high-capacity communications links in the 500 MHz range of the X-band and 1 GHz range of the Ka-band, as well as carrying the capacity to filter and route up to 4.875 GHz of instantaneous bandwidth. This satellite also includes a high-bandwidth radio frequency bypass capability and can support data-transmission rates between 2.4-3.6 Gbps, some three times faster than previous Department of Defense systems. WGS-7 follows on the heels of its six Block I and II predecessors, the first of which was launched in October 2007 and the most recent in August 2013.
The year is expected to close out with a pair of Atlas V missions to launch the MexSat-2 geostationary communications satellite in late October, on behalf of Mexico’s Secretary of Communications and Transportation (SCT), and ULA’s first Orbital Sciences Cygnus cargo mission (ORB-4) to the International Space Station (ISS) on 19 November. The latter—which has become necessary following last October’s catastrophic loss of the Antares booster, seconds after liftoff—will mark the first ULA Atlas V mission to deliver hardware to the space station, with another scheduled to occur in the spring of 2016. The Boeing-built MexSat-2, meanwhile, is designed for a 15-year operational lifetime and will be located at 116.8 degrees West longitude, joining the MexSat-1 satellite in the provision of 3G communications services, as well as disaster relief, emergency assistance, telemedicine, rural education, and government operations.
If all 13 missions are accomplished this year, 2015 will see both the 60th flight of the Atlas V and the 30th flight of the Delta IV, both of which embarked on their maiden voyages within months of each other, back in August and November 2002, respectively. As the hours tick away before tonight’s opening launch of 2015, ULA has presently flown 91 missions, of which all but two have been wholly successful. An Atlas V in June 2007 suffered an upper stage anomaly, which left its primary payload in a lower than intended orbit, whilst the maiden voyage of the Delta IV Heavy in December 2004 experienced a premature shutdown of its strap-on Common Booster Cores (CBCs). More recently, an otherwise successful Delta IV launch in October 2012 fell foul to an upper stage anomaly, which caused the fleet to be temporarily grounded until May of the following year and grounded again from October 2013 until early 2014 by ongoing engine woes. However, assuming a successful run of flights this year, ULA should break through a cumulative 100 missions—52 Atlas Vs, 24 Delta IVs, and 28 Delta IIs—since its formation in December 2006.
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