ULA Atlas V launches Landsat DCM spacecraft

by William Graham and Chris Bergin

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Altas V has launched its second mission in just a few short weeks, lofting the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) satellite into orbit. Launch from Space Launch Complex -3 (SLC-3) at Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) in Californian was on time at 6:02pm UTC.

Atlas V Launch:

LDCM is a joint NASA and US Geological Survey mission, and is the eighth satellite in the Landsat series, which began in 1972.

The satellite – built by Orbital Sciences – will add to the longest continuous data record of Earth’s surface as viewed from space and will extend the history of global land observations that are critical in many areas, such as energy and water management, forest monitoring, human and environmental health, urban planning, disaster recovery and agriculture.

LDCM“LDCM builds on and strengthens a key American resource: a decades-long, unbroken Landsat-gathered record of our planet’s natural resources, particularly its food, water and forests,” noted Jim Irons, Landsat project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

LDCM carries two instruments, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colorado, and the Thermal Infrared Sensor (TIRS) built by NASA Goddard.

OLI will continue observations in the visible, near infrared, and shortwave infrared portions of the electromagnetic spectrum and includes two new spectral bands, one of which is designed to support monitoring of coastal waters and the other to detect previously hard to see cirrus clouds that can otherwise unknowingly impact the signal from the Earth’s surface in the other spectral bands.

TIRS will collect data in two thermal bands and will thus be able to measure the temperature of the Earth’s surface, a measurement that’s vital to monitoring water consumption, especially in the arid western United States.

NASA and the U.S. Department of the Interior through the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) jointly manage the Landsat program. After launch and the initial checkout phase, USGS will take operational control of the satellite; will collect, archive and distribute the data from OLI and TIRS; and will rename the satellite as Landsat 8. The LDCM data will be freely and openly available through the USGS data system.

“Both of these instruments have evolutionary advances that make them the most advanced Landsat instruments to date and are designed to improve performance and reliability to improve observations of the global land surface,” added Ken Schwer, LDCM project manager at NASA Goddard.

Atlas V 401The rocket was making the thirty-sixth flight of an Atlas V; the sixteenth in the 401 configuration.

The Atlas V is a two-stage vehicle, with a Common Core Booster first stage and a Centaur upper stage. The 401 configuration means a four-metre diameter payload fairing, no solid rocket boosters, and a single-engine Centaur.

The Common Core Booster, which powered the rocket for the first few minutes of its flight, is powered by a Russian-built RD-180 engine fuelled by RP-1 propellant and liquid oxygen. The Centaur has an RL10A-4-2 engine, fuelled by cryogenic propellant; liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.

The spacecraft was sent on its way to a polar orbit of 438 miles at an inclination of 98.2 degrees.

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The ULA rocket was launched from Space Launch Complex 3E (SLC-3E) at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The pad was originally part of Naval Missile Facility, Point Arguello (NMFPA), and designated Launch Complex 1-2, supporting its first launch in July 1961 when an Atlas-Agena launched MIDAS-3.

In 1964, Point Arguello became part of Vandenberg, with its launch pads continuing to be designated as “Point Arguello Launch Complex” until they were given their current names in 1966.

SLC-3SLC-3E was initially used for Atlas-Agena launches, after which three Atlas SLV-3s made suborbital launches with X-23A PRIME spacecraft, and an Atlas SLV-3 failed to orbit twelve payloads in a single launch. Following a period of inactivity in the early and mid 1970s, the complex was used for Atlas E/F and Atlas H launches in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Between 1992 and 1996 the complex was redeveloped to accommodate the Atlas II, with the first of three launches occurring in 1999 with the Terra satellite, following two years of delays. The other two launches were NROL-13 and NROL-18, both deploying pairs of NOSS satellites.

The Atlas V made its first launch from SLC-3E in March 2008, carrying an Improved Trumpet satellite, NROL-28. This was followed by the launch of a DMSP weather satellite in October 2009, and an FIA Radar satellite, NROL-41, in September 2010.

The most recent launch occurred in March 2011, with the deployment of NROL-34, a pair of NOSS satellites like those expected to be deployed by AV-033.

Monday’s launch follows hot on the heels of the Atlas V launch with TDRS-K, carried out on January 30 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) in Florida.

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