What Does it Take to Send MUOS-1 to Orbit?

The U.S. Navy is hoping that all will go according to plan and at 5:46 p.m. EST these MUOS-1 satellite will be sent to orbit to begin its mission. What are some of the things that has to happen before the "big day" arrives"? Photo Credit: Jeffrey J. Soulliere

So you got a spacecraft that you want to send to orbit and it weighs around seven tons. How do you get that much mass off the ground and thundering through the stratosphere at 17, 500 miles-per-hour? What does it take to accomplish all this? In terms of the U.S. Navy’s Mobile User Objective System-1 (MUOS-1) satellite it takes several proven systems – one of which is celebrating a significant milestone of accomplishment. 

MUOS-1 was built by Lockheed Martin is set to launch atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 551 rocket. This next-generation satellite will serve to improve ground communications systems for the U.S. military. What all is required to take this massive satellite and place it in geosynchronous orbit?  

The Atlas' various components are transported to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station via a variety of different means. Image Credit: ULA

First and foremost you need the facilities to process both the rocket and its payload. In terms of satellites, most of the work getting the spacecraft ready to be mated to the top of the powerful boosters is done at the Astrotech facilities, located about seven miles away from Kennedy Space Center proper. 

The Atlas V is transported to Cape Canaveral via the Antonov AN-124, a massive aircraft that ULA uses to transport rocket components. Once the Atlas is taken off the Antonov, it is transported over to the Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center or ASOC. In this facility, the rocket is prepared for launch. It will eventually be moved out to the Vertical Integration Facility or “VIF.” Once at the VIF, the Atlas is moved into what is known as “launch configuration” (aerospace talk for pointy-end-up). If there are any solid rocket boosters (SRBs) on this mission (in this case there are five) they too are transported out to the VIF where they are mounted to the outside of the rocket.  

Key elements of the Vertical Integration Facility and Space Launch Complex are highlighted in this ULA image. Photo Credit: United Launch Alliance

When the spacecraft is deemed ready for flight and if it is to be launched on an Atlas V, it is encapsulated in its fairing and moved to the VIF. Upon arrival the payload is lifted high into the air via a hammerhead crane and then slowly lowered down onto the Atlas launch vehicle. When all the boards are green – the Atlas is rolled out to Space Launch Complex-41, which is adjacent to the VIF. The rocket is moved in the vertical position atop the mobile launch platform or MLP, which moves via two railcars. It takes about 30 minutes for the MLP to traverse the 1,800 feet between the VIF and SLC-41. 

As for the launch vehicle itself, the rocket components hail from across the globe. The primary engine on the Atlas V is the RD-180. Although one engine, the thrust is split through two engine nozzles. The interesting thing about the RD-180 is where it hails from. The RD-180 is a Russian-made rocket engine that ULA purchases from NPO Energomash. The five SRBs that this version of the Atlas V uses come from Aerojet and the payload fairing, the large protective shroud that goes over the payload, is produced in Geneva, Switzerland by RUAG Space. The RL-10 engine used on the Atlas’ upper stage is built by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne. The Centaur is marking a significant milestone on this flight. 

The components that comprise both Atlas and Centaur hail from points across the nation - and from around the globe. Image Credit: United Launch Alliance

With the launch of MUOS-1, the Centaur upper stage will have launched into space 200 times. The Centaur, like its mythological namesake, is comprised of different components that hail from across the U.S. The Centaur’s major components are manufactured in Alabama, California, Texas and Florida. 

This version of the Atlas V packs a powerful punch. This is provided by no less than five Aerojet AJ60 SRBs. These will increase the amount of thrust of the Atlas by nearly 2 million pounds. This iteration of Atlas V has only flown three times before and all of those were NASA planetary missions. New Horizons to Pluto and the Kuiper belt, Juno to the gas-giant Jupiter and the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity on its way to Mars – were all launched atop an Atlas V 551. According to Aerojet, these SRBs have a success rate of 100 percent. Anywhere between one to five of these SRBs can be used depending on the size/weight of the payload. 

Of course this description of what is required to launch a spacecraft to orbit via the Atlas V. It takes a small army of highly-skilled engineers, transportation services, equipment and facilities and on and on. All of these things are needed just to get the rocket ready to launch. After that, the launch teams have to test and retest the rocket and the spacecraft’s systems, weather personnel have to determine if the skies will cooperate and no launch criteria are violated. In short, the answer to this article’s headline is – it takes a lot to launch Muos-1 to orbit. It is rocket sceince, after all.

An incredibly large number of things have to go just right for an Atlas V to deliver its payload to orbit. Image Credit: United Launch Alliance
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  1. Article currently contains : “The Atlas V is transported to Cape Canaveral via the Antonov AN-124, a massive spacecraft that ULA uses to transport rocket components.”

    Russian spacecraft must be bigger than I thought they were.

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