Second-to-Last Delta II Launch with JPSS-1 Satellite Rescheduled for Saturday

The soon to be extinct Delta-II rocket awaiting launch with the JPSS-1 satellite for NASA and NOAA. Credit: ULA

UPDATED Nov 17:  Statement from ULA, “confirmed on the Western Range for Saturday, Nov. 18. The launch time is 1:47 a.m. PT.”

UPDATED Nov 15:  Statement from ULA, “scrubbed due to a range safety hold and high upper level winds. The team is working to establish a new launch opportunity.”

UPDATED Nov 14:  Statement from ULA, “scrubbed today due to a red range and a late launch vehicle alarm. Due to the short window there was insufficient time to fully coordinate a resolution.”

Almost three years since its last mission, the thunderous roar of a Delta II booster will rattle Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on Tuesday, 14 November, carrying the first Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS-1) into orbit for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The two-stage rocket—which is flying under the auspices of Centennial, Colo.-based United Launch Alliance (ULA)—will rise from Vandenberg’s Space Launch Complex (SLC)-2W during a short “window”, which opens at 1:47 a.m. PST (4:47 a.m. EST). After insertion into polar orbit, at an altitude of 512 miles (824 km), JPSS-1 will form the initial thrust of the United States’ next-generation environmental monitoring network, increasing the timeliness and accuracy of climatic and weather-related forecasts and minimizing risks to human life and property. Upon entering service, JPSS-1 will be renamed NOAA-20, joining a long line of environmental monitoring satellites, with a heritage stretching back to 1970.

Launch of the Suomi NPP mission in October 2011. Tomorrow’s JPSS-1 launch will utilize an identical variant of the Delta II.

Video Credit: NASA

The 5,000-pound (2,300 kg) spacecraft has been fabricated by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., on the foundation of its heritage BCP-2000 “bus”. This design was previously used for the Suomi National Polar-Orbiting Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) Preparatory Project (Suomi NPP), launched in late 2011, which provided the first in-flight demonstration of the JPSS ground system and several key sensor technologies. JPSS-1 includes five instruments, one of which—the Ozone Mapper Profiler Suite-Nadir (OMPS-N)—has also been built by Ball. It consists of three hyperspectral scanners to continue a quarter-century-plus record of worldwide ozone profiling.


Additionally, the spacecraft carries Raytheon’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer (VIIRS), charged with global visible and infrared observations of land, oceanic and atmospheric parameters at high temporal resolutions. Exelis, Inc. has provided the Cross-Track Infrared Sounder (CrIS), designed to built high-resolution, three-dimensional temperature, pressure and moisture “maps” in support of short-term and long-term weather forecasting models. Finally, the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder (ATMS) will take sounding measurements of atmospheric temperature and moisture levels, whilst the Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES) seeks to understand the role of clouds and the energy cycle in global climate change. Both ATMS and CERES were built by Northrop Grumman.

JPSS-1 undergoes thermal vacuum chamber testing, ahead of transportation from Ball Aerospace to Vandenberg for launch. Photo Credit: Ball Aerospace

Four JPSS spacecraft are slated to be launched, with JPSS-2 scheduled to fly atop a ULA Atlas V 401 booster out of Vandenberg’s SLC-3E in November 2021. This will be followed by JPSS-3 in 2026 and JPSS-4 in 2031. All three follow-on missions will include upgraded versions of the VIIRS, CrIS, ATMS and OMPS-N instruments, but in place of CERES will be the Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI), which provides a scanning radiometer to measure reflected sunlight and emitted thermal radiation.

Following the delta Critical Design Review (CDR) in December 2012, JPSS-1 fabrication commenced in earnest the following year. At the time, it was tracking a launch in the first quarter of 2017. The baseline design of the spacecraft was closely modeled on Suomi NPP and by December 2013 the primary bus was structurally complete. “Power-up” of the Electrical Power & Distribution System (EPDS) and Command & Data Handling (C&DH) hardware occurred the following March, kicking off a nine-month process of avionics integration and testing, before the anticipated arrival of JPSS-1’s instruments for installation at year’s end. A week before Christmas 2014, CERES was first to be installed. It was closely followed by OMPS-N in January 2015, with VIIRS in place by March and CrIS installed into the spacecraft in April. The last instrument, ATMS, was fitted in February 2016.

JPSS-1’s solar array undergoes a fit-check, ahead of installation. Photo Credit: Ball Aerospace

This allowed JPSS-1 to enter environmental evaluations at Ball’s Fisher Complex in Boulder, Colo., in April, which included acoustic, vibration and electromagnetic interference and compatibility testing and runs in the thermal vacuum chamber from July until the early fall of 2016. “Heading into the final series of environmental tests,” noted Jim Oschmann, vice president and general manager for Ball’s Civil Space business unit, “marks completion of the development and integration phase, on time and on schedule.”

By this stage, the launch date had slipped until the fall of 2017 and JPSS-1 was delivered to Vandenberg Air Force Base on 31 August, with an expectation that it would fly no sooner than 10 November. Contributing to the delays was the spacecraft itself, which suffered an intermittent cable short within its ATMS instrument, necessitating its removal as part of a months-long troubleshooting campaign. JPSS-1 was removed from its shipping container and underwent extensive testing at the launch site, including fueling with hydrazine, pressurization of its on-board propulsion system and closeout of its thermal blankets. It was then trucked to SLC-2W for encapsulation in its payload fairing and installation atop the Delta II booster. On 6 November, ULA announced a four-day delay to 14 November, triggered by the need to replace a faulty battery aboard the booster.

The launch of NASA’s SMAP mission atop a ULA Delta-II rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA on Jan. 31, 2015. Photo Credit: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace

Tomorrow’s flight marks the 154th and second-to-last launch of a Delta II, with only the ICESat-2 payload in September 2018 still on its books. First flown in February 1989, the earliest incarnation of the rocket was built by McDonnell Douglas and, most recently, by ULA since the latter was formed in December 2006. In the immediate aftermath of the loss of Challenger, plans to gradually phase out U.S. expendable vehicles in favor of the shuttle were avandoned and the reliable Delta was brought back into production as the Delta II.

Its inaugural mission boosted a Global Positioning System (GPS) Navstar into orbit and over the next two decades it sent seven orbiters and landers to Mars, including the two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, in the summer of 2003. The Delta II also lofted the Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) in February 1996, the Genesis solar-wind sample-return spacecraft in August 2001, the ill-fated Comet Nucleus Tour (CONTOUR) in July 2002, the Spitzer Space Telescope in August 2003, the Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER) mission to Mercury in August 2004, Deep Impact in January 2005, Dawn in September 2007 and Kepler in March 2009.

Earth at night, as seen by the NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP spacecraft. This mission trialed several of the technologies for JPSS-1. Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC

In spite of a partial failure to deploy KoreaSat-1 into orbit in August 1995, due to the failure of one of its Solid Rocket Motors (SRMs) to separate properly, and a catastrophic explosion, just 13 seconds after liftoff, in January 1997, which destroyed the first GPS Block IIR satellite, the Delta II can boast a virtually unblemished service record. Its success rate hovers at 99.3 percent. Original plans called for it to phased out of service in 2011, following Air Force calls to discontinue its use as a satellite lifter. However, that September, NASA added the Delta II to its NASA Launch Services (NLS)-II contract, which provided for four more bookings, of which JPSS-1 is the third.

In traditional style, the vehicle for tomorrow’s launch has received a four-digit designation of “7920”, describing its membership of the 7000-series of the Delta (“7”), a total of nine strap-on SRMs (“9”), the presence of a second stage (“2”) and the absence (“0”) of a third stage. The “batch” of nine strap-on boosters have been on-site at Vandenberg since April 2015 and were initially placed into storage, pending the arrival of the Delta II first stage core in April 2016. The core, boosters and second stage were erected in July 2016.

Also riding “piggyback” aboard tomorrow’s mission are a group of cubesats, flying as part of NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program. They include EagleSat, provided by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University of Prescott, Ariz., which carries a range of technology experiments, including a solid-state radiation detector and a GPS unit; MakerSat, built by Northwest Nazarene University of Nampa, Idaho, to investigate the behavior of plastics in space; MIT’s MiRaTA to demonstrate a multi-band miniaturized microwave radiometer for imaging of tropical storms, hurricanes and cyclones; and RadFXSat from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., for technology and communications experiments.


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