The United Launch Alliance (ULA) have launched their Atlas V rocket on the NROL-39 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office. Liftoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California was on schedule at the opening of the launch window at 23:13 local time Thursday (07:13 UTC on Friday).
Atlas V Mission:
The primary payload for Thursday’s launch was a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, NROL-39, whose launch was contracted in 2003 as part of the second block-purchase of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) launches; Buy 2.
The Atlas V rocket was also carrying the Government Experimental Multi-Satellite payload, or GEMSat; a Naval Postgraduate School CubeSat Launcher (NPSCUL) which will deploy twelve nanosatellites.
Like most of the NRO’s satellites, the NROL-39 spacecraft and its mission are classified; however due to the nature of satellite programs it is hard to keep many details secret.
NROL-39 was launched by an Atlas V rocket flying in the 501 configuration – which was previously used for the NROL-41 mission.
Notices to Airmen, or NOTAMS, issued for the L-39 launch showed that the rocket will follow the same trajectory used for the NROL-41 launch – leaving the satellite in an orbit only typically used for the NRO’s radar imaging satellites.
Because of this, it can be inferred that NROL-39 is the third satellite in the NRO’s current-generation radar reconnaissance fleet. It follows the NROL-41 mission, or USA-215, launched in September 2010, and NROL-25 (USA-234) which was launched by a Delta IV in April 2012.
The radar imaging program is believed to be a remnant of the NRO’s Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) program, which was intended to produce new-generation optical and radar-imaging surveillance satellites, replacing the earlier KH-11 and Onyx radar imaging spacecraft.
NRO budget documents leaked to the Washington Post in August referred to a series of five radar-imaging satellites named Topaz, as well as a follow-on “Block II” program. The codename Onyx was used elsewhere in the document, indicating that Topaz must be the name of the FIA satellites.
In June 2002 the US Air Force issued a solicitation for four NRO satellite launches, with a view to awarding all four missions to Boeing’s Delta IV. Launch contracts for the four missions were issued in the second block-purchase of EELV launches, along with that for NROL-30 – a pair of Intruder signals intelligence satellites launched in 2007.
By the time the Buy 2 contract was awarded, only one of the satellites was manifested to launch on a Delta IV with the remainder awarded to Lockheed Martin’s Atlas V after Boeing were penalised for alleged industrial espionage in the early stages of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.
In 2002 the four initial Topaz satellites were scheduled to launch between the 2004 and 2007 US financial years – putting the program significantly behind schedule.
NROL-39 is the third mission to launch out of the four in the 2002 document, following NROL-25 and NROL-41 which were also Topaz satellites.
The last spacecraft of the group, NROL-45, is also slated to use an Atlas V 501 flying from Vandenberg, and as such is almost certain to be a fourth Topaz satellite.
The fifth satellite included in the leaked NRO budget report could be the payload for a Delta IV launch ordered by the NRO in June, which is slated to fly in the same configuration used to launch NROL-25.
Alternatively the NRO might consider the prototype satellite, USA-193, to be the first Topaz spacecraft, followed by only four operational spacecraft with the new Delta contract being for the first block II satellite – a follow-on program first funded in the 2013 financial year. USA-193, also known as NROL-21, was an NRO satellite launched in December 2006, reportedly as a technology demonstrator for the NRO’s next-generation radar reconnaissance program.
The satellite failed immediately after launch and was destroyed using an SM-3 missile in February 2008, purportedly to minimise contamination should its hydrazine propellant survive reentry.
In addition to their FIA satellites, the NRO continues to operate three older Onyx satellites. Also known as Lacrosse, Onyx launches began in 1988 when Space Shuttle Atlantis deployed USA-34 during the STS-27 mission.
USA-34 was the only satellite of its type to be deployed from the Shuttle; subsequent launches used Titan IV rockets, mostly flying from Vandenberg Air Force Base.
The second Onyx satellite, USA-69, was launched by a Titan IV(403)A in March 1991, with USA-133 (NROL-3) following in October 1997. A Titan IV(403)B launch placed USA-152 (NROL-11) into orbit in August 2000, with the final satellite, USA-182 (NROL-16), reaching orbit in April 2005.
It remains unclear whether a Titan IV(403)B or a 405B was used from the final launch, which was moved from Vandenberg to Cape Canaveral to ease manifest congestion. It marked the last Titan launch from Canaveral, and the penultimate launch of the Titan family overall.
Three satellites; USA-133, USA-152 and USA-182, remain operational. USA-34 and 69 were deorbited in March 1997 and 2011 respectively, with the documents leaked in August discussing cost reduction through “deorbiting the baseline Onyx satellite” as a cost-reduction measure.
It is unclear whether the document was referring to the recently-deorbited USA-69, or indicating that USA-133 would be removed from service in the near future.
The five Onyx satellites – of which no more than four were operational at any one time, were split between two planes at different inclinations; the first, third and fifth satellites were placed in an orbit inclined at 57 degrees, while the second and fourth spacecraft operated in orbits with 68 degrees inclination.
Topaz launches have so far used a single inclination – 123 degrees – which corresponds to a retrograde analogue of the 57 degree plane. The two operational Topaz satellites’ orbits are separated by 180 degrees in terms of the longitude of their ascending nodes, with NROL-39’s launch window suggesting that its orbital plane will be halfway between them.
GEMSat, which shared NROL-39’s journey into orbit, marks the second time excess capacity on an NRO launch has been used to carry CubeSats – the first being OUTSat which was carried aboard the NROL-36 mission last year.
Both OUTSat and GEMSat are Naval Postgraduate School CubeSat Launchers (NPSCULs), which consist of eight Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployers (PPODs) each with capacity equivalent to three single-unit CubeSats.
The NROL-36 payload consisted of twelve CubeSats, seven for the US military and five for educational institutions. The educational satellites were flown as part of NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program and are collectively designated ELaNa II.
ELaNa is a NASA program to provide launch opportunities for educational CubeSat missions. Consisting of two PPODs, ELaNa II is the fifth launch of the program, which began with the failed ELaNa I mission in 2011. The most recent mission was ELaNa IV, launched as part of the ORS-3 mission aboard a Minotaur I rocket last month.
M-Cubed-2 is an Earth observation and technology demonstration mission for the University of Michigan, in partnership with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and California Institute of Technology. M-Cubed-2 is a replacement for the original M-Cubed satellite – launched as part of ELaNa III in October 2011 – which failed to return useful data after becoming magnetically attached to another satellite – the Montana State University’s Explorer-1 [Prime] Unit 2.
The satellite will use a small 2-megapixel camera with a 9.6 millimetre (0.38-inch) lens to produce images of the Earth. Its primary technology demonstration payload is the CubeSat Onboard processing Validation Experiment (COVE), a NASA-funded data processing experiment aimed at testing systems for future satellite missions.
The Intelligent Payload Experiment (IPEX), also known as CP8, is a technology demonstration CubeSat to be operated by the California Polytechnic State University. Like M-Cubed’s COVE payload, IPEX will be used to test data processing systems for proposed NASA Earth science missions, with small low-resolution cameras simulating scientific instruments.
The City of New York Satellite, CUNYSAT-1, was developed by the City of New York University. Built to give students experience of working with satellites, CUNYSAT-1 will be used for an ionospheric research mission studying how signals propagate to detect disturbances in the Earth’s ionosphere.
M-Cubed-2, IPEX and CUNYSAT are all single-unit CubeSats sharing one PPOD. The second PPOD contains the last two ELaNa satellites, FIREBIRD-A and B. A pair of 1.5-unit satellites, they will form part of the Focused Investigations of Relativistic Electron Burst, Intensity, Range and Dynamics, or FIREBIRD constellation. Two more FIREBIRD satellites are scheduled for launch at a later date.
FIREBIRD is a program led by the University of Montana and the University of New Hampshire to study processes within the Van Allen belts. Funded by the National Science Foundation, FIREBIRD will study events called microbursts, where electrons can gain large amounts of energy for fractions of a second, disrupting the structure and intensity of the belts.
FIREBIRD observations will be complimented by balloon observations made as part of the Balloon Array for Radiation-belt Relativistic Electron Losses (BARREL) program.
ALICE is a three-unit CubeSat for the US Air Force Institute of Technology. Based on a Pumpkin Incorporated CubeSat kit it forms part of NRO-led Colony 1 program. ALICE carries an experiment to investigate the use of carbon nanotubes as electron sources for ion propulsion systems.
The satellite also carries an Integrated Miniaturized Electrostatic Analyzer (iMESA) to conduct plasma research – a similar instrument was flown aboard the STPSat-3 spacecraft launched last month.
The Aerospace Corporation’s AeroCube 5A and 5B (AC-5) satellites are a pair of 1.5-unit CubeSats which will be used to test systems for determining their position and orientation. Secondary experiments on the satellites include a system for reducing their orbital lifetime, thereby reducing the amount of time the spacecraft remain in space as debris after the end of their mission, and sensors to investigate their environment during launch.
The CubeSat payload is rounded out by four three-unit CubeSats carrying communications payloads. The SMDC-ONE 2.3 and 2.4 satellites are being used to study the use of satellite communications for collecting data from ground-based sensors and enabling communications with soldiers in the field.
Charlie and David, as the satellites are also named, are the fourth and fifth of eight SMDC-ONE satellites to be launched as part of the program, which is led by the United States Army’s Space Missile Defense Command.
The SMDC Nanosatellite Program 1 (SNaP-1) and Tactical Satellite 6 (TacSat-6) spacecraft carry communications demonstration payloads for the Army. TacSat-6 will be operated in conjunction with the Operationally Responsive Space Office, forms part of the TacSat program of technological research satellites.
TacSat-6 will be the fourth TacSat to fly; the program began with TacSat-2 in 2006, with TacSat-3 launching in 2009 and TacSat-4 in 2011. TacSat-5 is a more sophisticated spacecraft still under development, while TacSat-1 was cancelled after launch delays rendered it obsolete.
The NROL-39 mission made use of United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket. Named Belle, and with the tail number AV-042, the Atlas flew in the 501 configuration with a five-metre payload fairing, no solid rocket motors and a single-engine Centaur upper stage.
AV-042 was the forty-second Atlas V to fly, and the fifth to use the 501 configuration. In addition to NROL-41, previous Atlas V 501 launches have deployed the three flights of the X-37B spacecraft, the most recent of which is still in orbit having launched last December.
The first stage of the Atlas rocket is a Common Core Booster (CCB), which is fuelled with RP-1 propellant oxidised by liquid oxygen. Its RD-180 engine was developed by NPO Energomash of Russia, and is derived from the RD-170 series developed for the Zenit and Energia program. The engine has two chambers and produces up to 4.15 meganewtons (930,000 pounds-force) of thrust.
The second stage, a single-engine Centaur (SEC), is mounted atop the first stage and encapsulated within the rocket’s payload fairing along with the payload. AV-042 is using a medium-length five metre fairing, developed by RUAG of Switzerland, with a diameter of 5.4 metres (17.7 feet) and a length of 23.4 metres (77 feet).
The Centaur is powered by one RL10A-4-2 engine burning liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. While the Atlas V is designed to use single or dual-engine Centaur stages, only the single-engine variant has been flown.
The Atlas V launch complex at Vandenberg Air Force Base is Space Launch Complex 3E.
Built as part of the US Navy’s launch site at Point Arguello the first launch from Complex 1-2, as it was then designated, occurred in July 1961 with an Atlas-Agena deploying the MIDAS-3 missile defence satellite.
Point Arguello was merged into Vandenberg Air Force Base in 1964, with the pad becoming known as PALC-1-2 at first, and then SLC-3E from 1966.
Following the end of its use by the Atlas-Agena, SLC-3E was used for three suborbital launches, carrying X-23A PRIME vehicles. The Atlas SLV-3 Burner II was also launched from SLC-3E around this time, making a single flight which failed to achieve orbit.
The complex was later used by Atlas-E/F and Atlas H rockets, before falling out of use in the 1980s. The facility was completely rebuilt in the mid-1990s for the Atlas II, which made its first flight from Vandenberg in December 1999 with the Terra satellite.
Only two more Atlas II launches took place from SLC-3E, both carrying Intruder signals intelligence satellites for the NRO. Following the retirement of the Atlas II SLC-3E was intended to have been abandoned, with Lockheed Martin only planning to offer Atlas V launches from Cape Canaveral.
This decision was reversed when the USAF stripped seven EELV launches from Boeing and awarded them to Lockheed after Boeing were reportedly found to have illegally obtained files from Lockheed relating to the Atlas vehicle.
SLC-3E was converted to accommodate the Atlas V, a process which included increasing the height of the pad’s mobile service tower. The first Atlas V launch from Vandenberg occurred in March 2008, with the USA-200 (NROL-28) satellite, and AV-042 is the seventh Atlas V vehicle to use the pad.
The specifics of Belle’s launch profile are classified, however the mission began, like all Atlas V flights, with ignition of the RD-180 engine 2.7 seconds in advance of the planned T-0.
At approximately T+1.1 seconds Belle lifted off from the pad, beginning her ascent into orbit. The vehicle rolled to the proper launch azimuth, flying southwest out over the Pacific. Pitch and yaw maneuvers were then used to attain the proper attitude for the journey to low Earth orbit.
AV-042 switched to closed-loop control around 50 seconds after launch, shortly afterwards completes its roll sequence.
Approximately 146 seconds into the flight Belle passed through Mach 1, followed shortly by the area of maximum dynamic pressure, or max-Q.
In preparation for payload fairing separation, the RD-180 was throttled down at 175 seconds into the flight. Fairing separation occurred a little over 40 seconds later.
The forward load reactor, a device used to keep the fairing rigid which attaches near the front of the Centaur, was jettisoned five or six seconds after the fairing.
Fairing separation must occur before staging since the Centaur is encapsulated. Depletion of the first stage occurred about four minutes and 20 seconds after liftoff, with the spent stage separating six seconds later.
Ten seconds after first stage separation, the Centaur’s engine was scheduled to ignite for its first burn.
The Centaur will either make a long burn followed by a short burn, or one longer burn, prior to the separation of the primary payload.
Based on its launch azimuth and previous Topaz launches, amateur observers expect to find NROL-39’s payload in a 1,067 by 1,080 kilometre (663 by 671 statute miles, 576 by 583 nautical miles) orbit with 123 degrees inclination and an orbital period of approximately 106.7 minutes.
The Firebird satellites are expected to be placed into a 465 by 972 kilometre orbit (289 by 604 mi, 251 by 525 nmi) at the same inclination; the Centaur is likely to make an additional burn after spacecraft separation to attain this, rather than dropping the satellites off in a parking orbit.
All of the CubeSats will be deployed in the same orbit. Since no NOTAMS have been issued for the Centaur to be deorbited, it will presumably remain in orbit after CubeSat separation, in a similar orbit to the CubeSats.
The use of retrograde orbits for Topaz satellites is believed to improve the performance of the imaging payload, due to the increased velocity of the satellite relative to the surface of the Earth.
AV-042 was the eighth and final Atlas to launch in 2013; the first time eight Atlas V launches have taken place in a single year. It was also the last mission of eleven missions in the year for ULA and the nineteenth US orbital launch of the year.
A Delta IV launch with a GPS satellite had been scheduled to occur no earlier than 12 December; however this has now been delayed until the New Year, until at least February. Despite this setback, 2013 has still seen more EELV launches than in any previous year.
As many as ten Atlas launches could take place in 2014, with the first launch of the year scheduled to occur in late January with the TDRS-L communications satellite for NASA. A launch in March will orbit the next NRO satellite, NROL-67.
The first week of April will see the next Atlas V launch from Vandenberg, with the DMSP-5D3 F-19 weather satellite. Launches later in the year will deploy a MUOS communications satellite, two GPS satellites, the NROL-33 payload and NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft from Cape Canaveral, with the WorldView-3 commercial imaging satellite and the NRO’s L-55 payloads slated for Vandenberg launches.
In addition to the delayed GPS launch, ULA is planning to conduct Delta IV missions to deploy the AFSPC-4 payload, NASA’s Exploration Flight Test 1 mission testing the Orion spacecraft, and up to three more GPS launches – although it is likely some of these will be delayed.
The next year is also expected to see the return of the Delta II which will deploy the OCO-2 satellite in July and potentially SMAP in October.
(Images via ULA, NROL, NASA)