Atlas V night launch success with multi-sat STP-1

by Chris Bergin

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 401 launch vehicle successfully launched Thursday night with a host of satellites for the US Air Force – called STP-1 – including Orbital Express’ ASTRO and NEXTSat, which will test automated docking techniques for satellite refuelling.

Despite some minor valve issues and a range safety hold, the Atlas V eventually lifted off, before successfully deploying its full range of satellites. A free 35mb launch video is available on the link below (read more).

**ATLAS V – STP-1  – Live Update and Launch Coverage – the most expansive and interactive live update coverage on the net**

**Free launch video**


‘Orbital Express is a revolutionary system that will offer customers with appropriately configured on-orbit assets new options to enhance the operation of their systems,’ said George Muellner, president of Boeing Advanced Systems.

‘This demonstration mission is the first step toward developing an operational system that can service satellites and support other space operations. Orbital Express continues our success in delivering solutions that shape new markets through the integration of people, innovation and technology.’


The launch of the Atlas V was delayed recently due to a commonality concern between its core stage RD-180 and the Zenit 3SL’s RD-171, which was involved with the January 30th Sea Launch failure.

The vehicle, flying in the 401 configuration (no boosters), is carrying 700 kg – ASTRO, NEXTSat / CSC, STPSat 1, CFESat, MidSTAR 1, FalconSat 3, MEPSI 4A and MEPSI 4B,

Orbital Express’ ASTRO satellite servicing demonstrator – an innovative solution to the long-sought automated rendezvous and docking capabilities – could dramatically enhance government, military and commercial missions in space.

Orbital Express will deploy two test satellites: the Autonomous Space Transport Robotic Operations service vehicle, known as ASTRO, and the next generation serviceable satellite, known as NextSat, built by Ball Aerospace.

‘The goal of Orbital Express is to demonstrate on-orbit refueling, component exchange and satellite repair, all without a human operator,’ said Marshall Space Flight Center’s James Lee, project manager at NASA’s Orbital Express Advanced Video Guidance Sensor, or AVGS, to the MSFC Star. That state-of-the-art system – built by Orbital Sciences – will substitute for a human pilot during portions of the Orbital Express mission.

‘Mounted on the service vehicle, the AVGS shoots infrared laser beams, which bounce off a pattern of reflective targets on NextSat,’ explained Lee. ‘The imager uses the position of these sensors to assess NextSat’s distance, direction and speed. Guided by this real-time data, ASTRO adjusts its speed and angle of approach, safely closing the distance to dock with the client satellite.

‘The AVGS system is most accurate at close range. To seek out NextSat from 3-4 miles away, ASTRO also carries a sensor suite, the Autonomous Rendezvous and Capture Sensor System, or ARCSS, that includes long-, mid- and close-range sensors. ASTRO will use data from the ARCSS guidance sensors, comparing it to AVGS data to help verify accuracy of approach.

‘Seven test series will be conducted during the three-month mission. ASTRO and NextSat will conduct approach and docking maneuvers from starting points up to 4.3 miles away. Once mated, they’ll also swap propellants and trade and install a functional battery and computer – the first unassisted component exchange in space history. Tests also will be conducted at different times of day, to see if the darkness on Earth’s night side confuses the imaging system.

If successful, the technology could come into play with NASA’s exploration plans, guiding robots that could lay the groundwork for future human expeditions. It could also solve issues associated with tricky repairs, and provide cost-effective options for placing and servicing permanent satellites in orbit around the moon or Mars.

‘When it comes to exploring new worlds, robots can’t beat human beings for capturing the experience,’ Lee added. ‘But to make those human missions possible, we need to set the stage as completely as we can. Automation is crucial.’

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