Atlas V completes ULA’s 2016 with EchoStar XIX launch

by William Graham

United Launch Alliance launched its last Atlas V rocket of 2016 Sunday, deploying the EchoStar XIX commercial communications satellite for Hughes Network Systems. The launch, from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, occurred during a two-hour window at 14:13 Eastern Time (19:13 UTC).

Atlas V Launch:

EchoStar XIX, also known as Jupiter 2, is a high-capacity communications satellite which will be used by Hughes Network Systems to provide broadband internet across North America.

Hughes Network Systems (HNS), which became a subsidiary of EchoStar Corporation following a 2011 takeover, placed an order for the EchoStar XIX spacecraft in 2013 to provide additional capacity allowing it to take on additional subscribers. The company already operates the Spaceway-3 and EchoStar XVII satellites, while EchoStar itself has a large fleet of broadcasting satellites.

The EchoStar XIX satellite was built by Space Systems/Loral and is based on the SSL-1300S bus. It carries multi-spot Ka-band transponders and is capable of producing over a hundred spot beams, providing bandwidth in excess of 150 gigabits per second. EchoStar have described the satellite as the world’s highest capacity broadband satellite.

The 6,637-kilogram (14,632 lb) EchoStar XIX satellite is powered by a pair of solar arrays, and is designed for a service life of at least fifteen years. The spacecraft will operate in geostationary orbit, at a longitude of 97.1 degrees west.

HNS’ previous satellites, Spaceway-3 and EchoStar XVII – the latter also known as Jupiter 1 – were launched by Ariane 5 rockets in August 2007 and July 2012 respectively. EchoStar XIX was also intended for launch on Ariane, however in 2015 EchoStar announced a contract with Lockheed Martin to launch the satellite atop an Atlas V, citing a lack of available slots in Arianespace’s manifest and the need to ensure the satellite got into orbit as soon as it was ready to be launched.

EchoStar XIX was the fifth EchoStar spacecraft to launch on an Atlas, following EchoStars III, V and VI which launched on Atlas IIAS vehicles in 1997, 1999 and 2000, and EchoStar VII which launched on an Atlas IIIB in 2002. The EchoStar XII satellite, which EchoStar acquired from CableVision on-orbit in 2005, was launched as Rainbow 1 on the Atlas V’s third flight in July 2003.

Through a 2012 merger with DBSD North America, part of the former ICO Global Communications, EchoStar acquired the EchoStar G1 satellite – formerly ICO-G1 – which launched on Atlas V in April 2008.

The Atlas V rocket which launched EchoStar XIX is operated by United Launch Alliance (ULA), under contract through Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services.

The Atlas V was originally developed by Lockheed Martin for the US Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, in competition to Boeing’s Delta IV. In December 2006, the manufacture and operation of both vehicles – along with Boeing’s older Delta II – was transferred to the newly-formed United Launch Alliance, a jointly-owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

ULA is contracted directly by US government customers for launch services, however Boeing and Lockheed Martin retained the right to market their former vehicles for commercial launches.

Only a small number of ULA’s launches have been commercial. These include launches of Atlas V rockets with the ICO-G1 (now EchoStar G1), Intelsat 14, Morelos 3 communications satellites and the WorldView-3 and 4 Earth-imaging satellites, and Delta II missions to deploy the WorldView-1 and 2 satellites, GeoEye-1 and COSMO-2, 3 and 4; all imaging spacecraft.

The Atlas V launches of the PAN and CLIO military satellites and Delta IV missions with NOAA’s GOES 14 and 15 weather satellites were technically flown under commercial contracts, despite their government payloads. Two Atlas V rockets launched Cygnus spacecraft for Orbital ATK, under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services program.

Recently ULA has sought to make the Atlas V more attractive to commercial customers in order to fill available slots in its launch manifest. To this end in September, ULA announced its RapidLaunch program which aims to make launches available as soon as three months after a contract is signed.

At the end of November, a new publicly-accessible “RocketBuilder” website was unveiled to provide more transparency into launch costs, allowing potential customers to tailor a rocket to their mission requirements and see an estimated price tag – along with potential savings to the customer through the Atlas’ reputation for reliability and launching on-time.

In its sixty-seven flights before Sunday’s launch, the Atlas V has achieved sixty-six successes, including a stretch of fifty-seven missions going back to October 2007. The only mission which was not a complete success, June 2007’s launch of the NROL-30 mission, a pair of naval intelligence satellites for the National Reconnaissance Office – reached a lower-than-planned orbit but the satellites were able to correct for this using their own propulsion. ULA describes the launch as successful from its customer’s perspective, while independent analysts consider it a partial failure.

The Atlas V is a two-stage rocket consisting of a Common Core Booster (CCB) first stage and a Centaur second stage. For the EchoStar XIX launch, it will fly in the 431 configuration, with a four-meter payload fairing, three Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ-60A solid rocket boosters augmenting the first stage, and the single-engine version of the Centaur. The tail number of the rocket which conducted Sunday’s launch is AV-071.

AV-071 launched from Space Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Following assembly in the nearby Vertical Integration Facility, the Atlas was transported to the launch pad on Saturday.

Sunday’s launch lasted a little over thirty-two minutes from liftoff to spacecraft separation, with the Centaur making two burns. The first stage engine, an NPO Energomash RD-180, ignited at the T-2.7 second mark in the countdown, with ignition of the solid rocket motors and liftoff of the vehicle following at T+1.1 seconds.

Atlas performed a series of pitch and yaw maneuvers to attain its planned launch trajectory, beginning five and a half seconds into the mission. Flying downrange in an east-south-easterly direction, the rocket passed through Mach 1 – the speed of sound – 45.4 seconds after liftoff and experience maximum dynamic pressure – Max-Q – 12.3 seconds later.

The three AJ-60A motors provided additional thrust during the first ninety seconds of the flight before burning out. The boosters remained attached until 125.1 seconds after liftoff, at which point two of the boosters separated from opposite sides of the vehicle, followed by the third.

First stage flight continued until Booster Engine Cutoff (BECO), the end of the RD-180’s burn, at four minutes and 26.7 seconds mission elapsed time. The spent Common Core Booster was jettisoned six seconds later, with Centaur igniting its RL10C-1 engine ten seconds after separation.

Eight seconds into the Centaur’s first burn, the payload fairing separated from around EchoStar XIX at the nose of the rocket. The fairing protects the satellite from Earth’s atmosphere during the early stages of the rocket’s ascent, however by the time the vehicle reaches space it is no longer needed and separates to save weight.

The Atlas V can fly with a fairing which is either four or five meters in diameter – with the four-meter fairing mounted atop the Centaur and the five-meter fairing mounted above the first stage, encapsulating Centaur. AV-071 used a four-meter Extra-Extended Payload Fairing (XEPF), the longest of the three available four-meter fairings.

Centaur’s first burn lasted eight minutes and 55.9 seconds. Following shutdown, or Main Engine Cutoff 1 (MECO-1), the mission entered a nine-minute, 30.6-second coast phase. The coast ended with Main Engine Start 2 (MES-2), the beginning of the Centaur’s second and final burn, which lasted for five minutes and 48.4 seconds.

With the second burn complete, Centaur reoriented itself for spacecraft separation. At thirty-two minutes and 3.7 seconds after launch, EchoStar XIX separated into geosynchronous transfer orbit. The target orbit for Sunday’s mission is 204 by 65,000 kilometers (127 x 40,389 miles, 110 x 35,097 nautical miles), with inclination of 25.44 degrees to the equator and an argument of perigee of 180 degrees.

Sunday’s launch was the last of the year for United Launch Alliance, and for the United States. It was the twelfth mission of 2016 for ULA and the eighth to use an Atlas V – with the company’s Delta IV rocket making the other four. The next Atlas launch is currently scheduled for 20 January, with the SBIRS-GEO 3 missile detection satellite for the US Air Force.

EchoStar XIX was the fifteenth satellite to be deployed across the eight Atlas missions this year, while a further twenty CubeSats were transported to the International Space Station for deployment aboard the OA-6 Cygnus mission which Atlas launched in March. That was the second Atlas V mission of the year, following the final GPS Block IIF navigation satellite which was deployed in February.

Launches in June and July carried the fifth MUOS communications satellite for the US Navy and the NROL-61 payload, a Quasar communications satellite, for the National Reconnaissance Office.

In September an Atlas V 411 launched NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex mission to return a sample of asteroid (101955) Bennu to Earth. Two launches in November saw the commercial WorldView-4 satellite placed into orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base along with a collection of CubeSats, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s GOES 16 weather satellite launched from Cape Canaveral.

The Atlas launch brings the total for the United States to twenty-two for the year; in addition to ULA’s twelve launches, SpaceX flew eight missions with its Falcon 9 rocket while Orbital ATK returned their Antares rocket to flight in October and launched NASA’s CYGNSS spacecraft via a Pegasus-XL rocket on Thursday.

All of America’s launches in 2016 have been successful – although a Falcon 9 exploded on its launch pad in September, during fuelling for a static fire test two days before the planned launch of the Amos-6 communications satellite, which was destroyed in the accident.

With Russia having made nineteen launches – including two Arianespace Soyuz missions from French Guiana – and with only one more scheduled by the end of the year, 2016 will be the first year since 1999 in which the United States has performed more launches than the former Soviet Union.

This has in part been down to poor reliability of Russian vehicles, with near-misses for Soyuz and Proton missions in May and June respectively followed by a Soyuz launch failure at the start of December. Atlas also had a near miss earlier in the year – during the OA-6 mission – but quickly returned to flight.

Sunday’s launch was the first of three launches for EchoStar that are planned over the next few weeks. EchoStar XXI is currently scheduled to launch atop a Proton rocket from Baikonur on 28 December, while EchoStar XXIII is expected to be the payload for the first Falcon 9 launch from the Kennedy Space Center, currently scheduled for mid-January.

(Images via ULA).

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