Eight weeks later than planned—due to a series of wildland fires which plagued Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., in the second half of September—United Launch Alliance (ULA) is finally ready to fly its venerable Atlas V booster on Friday, carrying DigitalGlobe’s long-awaited WorldView-4 commercial imaging satellite to orbit. Current plans are for the Atlas V to roar away from Vandenberg’s Space Launch Complex (SLC)-3E during a 16-minute “window,” which extends from 10:30 a.m. through 10:46 a.m. PST Friday, 11 November. Weather conditions are expected to be sunny, with no probability of rain and winds from the northwest at 8 mph (12 km/h). This will be ULA’s ninth launch of 2016, with three more missions slated to depart Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., before year’s end.
WorldView-4 will ride atop ULA’s workhorse Atlas V 401, the “barebones” variant of the booster, equipped with a 13-foot-diameter (4-meter) payload fairing, no strap-on rockets, and a single-engine Centaur upper stage. The 401 can haul up to 21,600 pounds (9,800 kg) into low-Earth orbit and has staged 32 of the total 65 Atlas V flights since the vehicle was introduced in August 2002, delivering a pair of commercial communications satellites—notably the Atlas V’s very first passenger, Hot Bird-6—as well as 24 military research, communications, reconnaissance, early-warning, weather-monitoring, and navigation payloads and a range of planetary and deep-space exploration missions. Additionally, a pair of 401s delivered two Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo ships to the International Space Station (ISS) in December 2015 and March 2016. With Friday’s flight, the 401 will officially have flown a full 50 percent of all Atlas V missions.
Originally scheduled to fly on 16 September, WorldView-4’s opening launch attempt was scrubbed at T-4 minutes and postponed by 24 hours, due to a minor ground-side leak during liquid hydrogen tanking of the Atlas V’s Centaur upper stage. The leak created an ice-ball on the liquid hydrogen umbilical, which ULA CEO Tory Bruno described as “outside our history” and the attempt was stood-down. Liftoff was correspondingly rescheduled for the 17th, and eventually the 18th, as engineers required additional time to resolve the leak.
However, on the 17th, Vandenberg and Santa Barbara County firefighters were summoned to a wildland fire on the South Base. Dubbed the “Canyon Incident,” the fire affected a remote area near Arguello and Santa Ynez Ridge roads and initially required the efforts of about 250 firefighters, including hand-crews, bulldozers, and air assets. According to Col. Paul Nosek, commander of the Emergency Operations Center, none of Vandenberg’s launch complexes or critical range assets were in immediate danger.
Due to the ongoing severity of the fire, the Atlas V launch was indefinitely delayed. “Our procedures require standby firefighting crews for every launch to ensure safety of our personnel and facility protection,” explained Col. Nosek. “We’ve delayed the launch in order to concentrate our resources on the situation at hand.” That situation rapidly escalated and by 19 September close to 800 Vandenberg, U.S. Forestry Service, CalFire and Santa Barbara County firefighters were battling a blaze whose extent had reached nearly 0.8 square miles (2.1 square km). Although no facilities were damaged, some power lines were affected as the “slow-to-moderate-speed” fires continued to burn.
Aggressive air-tanker drops and the cutting of new firebreaks were employed, as the affected area increased to 7.1 square miles (18.4 square km) and access to Vandenberg South Base was restricted to emergency personnel only. Reaching 16.5 square miles (42.7 square km) by 20 September—due to increased winds and terrain characteristics—the concerted efforts of 1,056 firefighters from more than 50 agencies steadily gained ground and about 45 percent of the blaze was contained. A heavy marine layer and calm winds came to the firefighters’ aid, dampening temperatures and significantly slowing the progress of the fires. Elsewhere, a downed power line on North Base caused another, unrelated fire, which quickly engulfed an area of around 0.4 square miles (1 square km).
Steadily, the wildland fires came under control. By 23 September, the North Base fires had been contained, as had the original Canyon Incident blaze, which consumed around 19.5 square miles (50.5 square km). Crews restored electricity to more than 150 Vandenberg facilities which had lost power and clean-up operations got underway in earnest, hampered by damaged vegetation, unstable ground, and smoldering debris. A small brush fire to the northeast of Vandenberg’s Utah Gate was contained on 26 September. All told, five discrete wildland fires affected Vandenberg during the second half of the month. Meanwhile, WorldView-4 steadily slipped to the right, eventually settling on a target date no sooner than the 26th, due to Western Range availability to support the launch. This date quickly became untenable, with initial expectations that a new date would be identified “in early October.” The Atlas V and its payload, together with ULA facilities at SLC-3E, were secured and undamaged by the effect of the wildland fires.
“The fires on Vandenberg were extensive, burning over 12,000 acres,” said Lt. Col. Alex Mignery, 30th Civil Engineer Squadron Operations Flight Commander at Vandenberg, in a statement provided to AmericaSpace. “The Western Range did experienceddamage to some of its range infrastructure, primarily in its electrical and communications infrastructure. However, thanks to the efforts of 1,100+ firefighters from over 50 different agencies, no damage was sustained to any of the launch sites or key range facilities. Fire teams worked aggressively to protect the Atlas V and WorldView-4 spacecraft during the fire. Specifically, they cut new fire breaks and conducted airdrops of fire retardant barriers to protect the Atlas booster, the WorldView-4 spacecraft, and the launch pad. In addition, backup generators were installed at the launch pad to ensure the spacecraft and booster had power at all times to maintain critical support systems. Western Range recovery operations are going very well. There are still a number of significant repairs actions in progress, but to date, the Range has restored commercial power to nearly all facilities; communications circuits have been restored to operational status; and the Range has successfully completed end-to-end checks of all systems necessary to support the launch of WorldView-4.”
Evaluations of the condition of the Vandenberg infrastructure revised this date to the late October or early November timeframe, before ULA announced on 25 October that it was aiming for a 16-minute “window” from 10:30 a.m. through 10:46 a.m. PST on Sunday, 6 November. However, noting that the team was “actively working to resolve minor Atlas V booster issues discovered during final preparations for launch,” ULA announced on Wednesday, 2 November, that it would instead aim for a new launch attempt on Friday, 11 November. The targeted window would remain the same, extending from 10:30 a.m. through 10:46 a.m. PST.
The flight comes more than a year since the most recent launch from SLC-3E—October 2015’s classified NROL-55 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office—although the Vandenberg site is expected to more activity in the coming months, with NROL-79 slated to fly on behalf of the National Reconnaissance Office in early 2017. Sunday’s mission comes after more than a half-century of operational service at the SLC-3E site, which hosted dozens of Atlas-Agena and Atlas IIAS launches between July 1961 and December 2003. It then underwent a $200 million facelift to ready it for Atlas V operations. Between March 2008 and October 2015, SLC-3E saw 11 Atlas Vs deliver seven classified NROL payloads, two Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) weather sentinels, DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-3, and NASA’s Landsat-8 to orbit.
At the time of writing, the 35-minute rollout of the 196-foot-tall (60-meter) Atlas V 401 from the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) to the SLC-3E pad surface will take place on Saturday, 5 November. Pad connections, pneumatic checks, and tests of the vehicle’s flight control systems will then be undertaken, ahead of purging of the fuel lines with inert gaseous nitrogen. This will allow the loading of liquid oxygen and a highly refined form of rocket-grade kerosene (known as “RP-1”) aboard the first stage, which is known as the Common Core Booster (CCB). On launch day, cryogenic tanking will get underway, with liquid oxygen and hydrogen loaded aboard the Centaur upper stage to feed its restartable engine. These will be continuously topped-off until close to T-0, in order to ensure that boiled-off cryogens are replenished and tanks kept at Flight Ready levels.
Weather conditions for the Vandenberg area on Sunday are expected to be mostly sunny, with a 10-percent likelihood of rain and winds from the northwest at 13 mph (21 km/h). The dual-nozzle RD-180 engine of the Atlas V’s first stage will ignite at T-2.7 seconds, quickly ramping up to 860,000 pounds (390,000 kg) of thrust. Following liftoff, the vehicle will climb for four minutes, before the CCB separates and the Centaur’s RL-10-4-2 engine—capable of 22,300 pounds (10,100 kg) of thrust—will pick up the baton to deliver WorldView-4 into orbit. All told, the Centaur burn is expected to run for 11 minutes and 17 seconds, positioning the satellite in an orbit with a perigee of 329.6 nautical miles (610.4 km) and an apogee of 339.25 nautical miles (628.3 km), inclined 97.96 degrees to the equator. Finally, 19 minutes after departing Vandenberg, WorldView-4 will be deployed into orbit. This will kick off an anticipated mission of up to 12 years.
The Lockheed Martin-built WorldView-4 was originally fabricated under the name of “GeoEye-2,” before its parent company, GeoEye, Inc., came under the ownership of Longmont, Colo.-based DigitalGlobe in early 2013. For a time, it seemed unclear if the satellite would ever fly. Then, in the summer of 2014, following a U.S. Department of Commerce decision to allow DigitalGlobe to commercially sell Earth imagery at far higher resolutions than previously allowable under U.S. law, the need for the newly-renamed “WorldView-4” became more acute. In tandem with WorldView-3, launched in August 2014, the new satellite will provide a panchromatic resolution of 12.2 inches (31 cm) and a multispectral resolution of 4 feet (1.2 meters). And since the spring of 2015, this has been increased to just 10 inches (25 cm) for panchromatic and 3.3 feet (1 meter) for multispectral, offering resolutions previously unobtainable outside the military.
DigitalGlobe was founded in 1992 as WorldView Imaging Corp. by Dr. Walter Scott and received the first high-resolution commercial remote sensing satellite license in 1993, under the provisions of the 1992 Land Remote Sensing Policy Act. Two years later, it was renamed EarthWatch, Inc., merging WorldView with the commercial remote sensing operation of the defense and space contractor Ball Aerospace, also based in Colorado. The license from the U.S. Department of Commerce enabled Ball to build the Early Bird-1 satellite, which was delivered into orbit atop a Start-1 booster from Svobodny in Russia’s Far East in December 1997. Its imaging payload was intended to deliver a panchromatic resolution of just 9.8 feet (3 meters) and a multispectral resolution of 49 feet (15 meters), but a power failure caused Early Bird-1 to lose communications capability after just four days in orbit.
Three years later, in November 2000, EarthWatch’s first QuickBird satellite—again built by Ball Aerospace and expected to deliver a panchromatic resolution as fine as 24 inches (60 cm) and a multispectral resolution of 8 feet (2.4 meters)—was lost in a launch failure out of northern Russia’s Plesetsk Cosmodrome. Success finally came in October 2001, when a Delta II roared aloft from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., boosting the QuickBird-2 satellite into an orbit of 280 miles (450 km). Still aloft today, QuickBird-2’s resolution produced a level of detail which enabled it to image buildings and other infrastructure at ground level. By the time of QuickBird-2’s launch, EarthWatch, Inc., had been renamed DigitalGlobe.
QuickBird-2 formed the initial element of a three-satellite system. Its second member was WorldView-1, part-financed by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), and was launched into a 300-mile (490-km) orbit by a Delta II from Vandenberg in September 2007. Its panchromatic camera achieved a resolution of 20 inches (50 cm), making it the most powerful commercial imaging satellite of its time. In October 2009, WorldView-2 was launched into an orbit of 480 miles (770 km), again via a Delta II from Vandenberg, with the capability to achieve a panchromatic resolution of 18 inches (46 cm) and an eight-band multispectral resolution of 72 inches (184 cm). Both WorldView satellites can revisit the same spot on Earth’s surface every 1.1 days.
More recently, in August 2014, WorldView-3 was launched atop an Atlas V 401 booster from Vandenberg. Equipped with a mixture of panchromatic and Visible-Near-Infrared (VNIR) and Short-Wave Infrared (SWIR) sensors—together with the 12-band Cloud, Aerosol, Water Vapor, Ice and Snow (CAVIS) atmospheric sounder—the satellite operated in an orbit of 383 miles (617 km). It provides panchromatic and multispectral resolutions of 12.2 inches (31 cm) and 4 feet (1.2 meters), which was expandable to 10 inches (25 cm) and 3.3 feet (1 meter) from early 2015 onward.
In early 2013, DigitalGlobe finalized a $900 million purchase of one of its key competitors, GeoEye, Inc. (formerly Space Imaging), which had launched the Ikonos satellite in September 1999 and the GeoEye-1 satellite in September 2008. Prior to its acquisition by DigitalGlobe, the company planned a follow-on GeoEye-2 satellite, with an imaging capability as fine as 12.2 inches (31 cm). Contracts to build GeoEye-2 were awarded to Lockheed Martin in March 2010, with an expectation that the satellite would be launched in late 2012. Construction and testing of GeoEye-2 progressed smoothly, passing its Preliminary Design Review (PDR) in November 2010 and its Critical Design Review (CDR)—ahead of schedule—in June 2011. In tandem, the satellite’s camera system was under development and was integrated into the GeoEye-2 bus in May 2012.
With DigitalGlobe’s purchase of GeoEye, Inc., a few months later, there existed two Earth-imaging satellites from the two companies: WorldView-3 and GeoEye-2. Since the former carried multiple infrared channels and CAVIS, in addition to its panchromatic channels, it was decided to launch WorldView-3 and preserve GeoEye-2 in storage as a ground-based spare. It was noted that GeoEye-2 could be brought to launch readiness, if needed. In July 2014 DigitalGlobe announced that it had been renamed WorldView-4—in order to “mitigate any future market confusion and ensure that the satellite is clearly identified as part of the larger DigitalGlobe constellation”—and was being targeted for flight in mid-2016 aboard an Atlas V booster.
A significant driver in bringing the satellite out of storage was a U.S. Department of Commerce decision to allow DigitalGlobe to sell imagery at far higher resolutions than previously allowable under U.S. law. Earlier that summer, DigitalGlobe received the go-ahead to sell images as fine as 16 inches (40 cm) panchromatic and, from early 2015, as high as 10 inches (25 cm). Such resolutions had never previously been obtainable outside the military. “As a result of the U.S. Government’s recent decision to allow us to sell our highest quality imagery, we’ve seen sufficient demand that justifies the accelerated launch of WorldView-4,” said DigitalGlobe President and CEO Jeffrey R. Tarr. “This will extend our industry leadership, capture more of our customers’ mapping and monitoring missions, provide an even stronger foundation on which to grow our Geospatial Big Data and analytic capabilities and uniquely address pressing global challenges.”
The satellite at the center of this decision can trace its origins back to October 2007, when GeoEye, Inc., contracted with ITT Corp. to build the GeoEye Imaging System-2 telescope. With an aperture of 3.4 feet (1.1 meters), this telescope can discern objects on Earth’s surface as small as 12.2 inches (31 cm) at panchromatic resolution and 4 feet (1.2 meters) multispectral, equivalent to WorldView-3.
In April 2010, Lockheed Martin began fabricating the 18-foot-tall (5.5-meter) satellite on the framework of its LM-900 “bus,” previously used for Ikonos. The LM-900 is a three-axis-stabilized bus for precisely pointing remote sensing payloads in low-Earth orbit and is equipped with five deployable solar array “wings.” Under its new name of WorldView-4, the 4,600-pound (2,100-kg) satellite will enter a Sun-synchronous orbit, at an altitude of 383-423 miles (617-681 km). It will be able to image as much as 262,550 square miles (680,000 square km) of Earth’s surface—equivalent to the land area of the state of Texas—on a daily basis. In readiness for its impending launch, WorldView-4 arrived at Vandenberg from Lockheed Martin’s facility on 28 July for integration aboard the Atlas V. After final tests and fueling, the satellite was encapsulated within its payload shroud on 8 September. With the extensive delays, WorldView-4 has been maintained in a secure configuration aboard the Atlas V vehicle.
“Only the DigitalGlobe constellation, with the addition of WorldView-4, offers the highest quality and most comprehensive global coverage of our changing planet through 2030, so customers can be confident they will have the information to make critical decisions,” said Dr. Scott. “WorldView-4 will help us continue to transform the way we see the world and advance our mission of keeping our planet and its people safe and secure.”
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