Atlas 5 rocket launches two US military satellites on $1.1 billion mission – Spaceflight Now

United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket lifts off from Space Station Cape Canaveral, Florida, to begin the USSF-12 mission for the US Space Force. Credit: United Launch Alliance A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket

United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket lifts off from Space Station Cape Canaveral, Florida, to begin the USSF-12 mission for the US Space Force. Credit: United Launch Alliance

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket fired from its launch pad at Cape Canaveral on Friday during a six-hour climb into geosynchronous orbit, deploying a classified payload and a US Space Force satellite to test an improved design of heat-sensitive infrared sensor that could help detect and track enemy hypersonic missiles.

The mission, designated USSF-12, launched the two Space Force satellites into a targeted orbit more than 22,400 miles (about 36,100 kilometers) above the equator, according to ULA. Spacecraft are expected to maneuver into their final operating positions a few hundred miles down in the geostationary belt, where they will orbit at the rate of Earth’s rotation.

One of the payloads, called the Wide Field of View Testbed, will demonstrate a new instrument design that could help give the military better warning of a missile attack. The USSF-12 Ring spacecraft, which sits under the WFOV testbed payload during the launch sequence, hosts classified experiments and technology demonstration payloads.

Launched a day late after stormy weather erased a countdown on Thursday, the Atlas 5 ignited its Russian-made RD-180 main engine and four strap-on solid rocket boosters at 7:15 p.m. EDT (11:15 p.m. GMT) on Friday to launch the fourth mission of the year for United Launch Alliance, a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Friday’s countdown was also delayed by bad weather. The Atlas 5 launch team waited over an hour for the electrically charged anvil clouds and upper-level winds to become more favorable for liftoff.

The weather problems cleared and ULA engineers gave their approval to begin the final four minutes of the countdown, culminating in the spirited departure of the Atlas 5 from Florida’s space coast.

The rocket headed east, riding 2.3 million pounds of thrust, and exceeded the speed of sound in less than a minute as it disappeared into a cloud overcast. Onboard cameras showed the rocket jettisoning its four boosters and payload fairing as the kerosene-fueled RD-180 engine powered the Atlas 5 for the first four minutes of the flight.

The RD-180 engine hit its marks on Friday, giving strong performance to begin the Space Force mission. Friday’s launch marked the 100th flight of an RD-180 engine – all successful – since its debut on a Lockheed Martin Atlas 3 rocket in May 2000. The Atlas 3 was a bridging program between older versions of the family of Atlas rockets and the Atlas 5.

ULA retires the Atlas 5 and ends the use of Russian engines. After Friday night’s flight, the company still has 22 Atlas 5 missions outstanding. ULA’s new rocket, the Vulcan Centaur, will be powered by all American engines.

After the first stage finished burning and separated to fall into the Atlantic Ocean, the Atlas 5’s Centaur upper stage ignited an Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10 engine for the first of three shots to place the USSF-12 payloads into their target orbit.

The first two burns placed the satellites into a parking orbit and then into an elliptical or oval transfer orbit. The Centaur upper stage reached target altitude more than 22,000 miles above Earth, then reignited the RL10 engine to circularize its orbit.

The WFOV Testbed spacecraft separated from the Centaur stage at 1:04 a.m. EDT (0504 GMT). A special adaptive structure was released about 10 minutes later, allowing the USSF-12 Ring spacecraft to deploy from the rocket at 1:20 a.m. EDT (0520 GMT) Saturday.

ULA said the launch was a success in a press release Saturday morning.

“This mission has once again demonstrated ULA’s unrivaled ability to accurately deliver the nation’s most critical assets into a highly complex orbit,” said Gary Wentz, vice president of government and commercial programs at ULA. ULA. “Our strong partnership with the USSF team is critical to maintaining our nation’s security advantages and achieving strong mission assurance.”

Four strap-on solid rocket boosters and a liquid-fueled RD-180 engine combined to produce approximately 2.3 million pounds of liftoff thrust. Credit: United Launch Alliance

The Space Force Wide Field-of-View Surveillance Satellite, or WFOV, Testbed was one of the payloads on the USSF-12 mission. The WFOV Testbed satellite is a demonstrator of a next-generation space sensor designed to detect rocket launches and provide early warning of missile attack.

Built in El Segundo, Calif., by Millennium Space Systems, a Boeing subsidiary, the WFOV Testbed satellite carries an optical instrument for detecting exhaust plumes from missile launches, demonstrating the large-area sensor for future use in the operational early warning of the army. systems.

The WFOV mission will demonstrate optical sensor technology for use in future missile warning missions as part of Space Force’s Overhead Persistent Infrared, or OPIR, program. Next-generation OPIR missions will replace the Space Infrared System, or SBIRS, missile warning satellites that currently provide missile detection and early warning coverage.

Space Force is partnering with the Space Development Agency and the Missile Defense Agency on a next-generation fleet of missile warning satellites in low Earth orbit and geosynchronous orbit.

Col. Brian Denaro, Space Force Space Sensing Program Director, said the WFOV Testbed mission “will advance our target identification and characterization capabilities. It is an important prototype for the resilient integrated missile warning and tracking and missile defense architecture.

The WFOV Testbed satellite infrared sensor was developed by L3Harris. Space Force said the infrared instrument had “first-in-class sensor sensitivity” over its wide field of view, capable of tracking dark targets over wide areas. New sensor technology is needed as threats shift primarily from large ballistic missiles to smaller projectiles, such as hypersonic cruise missiles.

“The threat is certainly evolving at an unprecedented rate that we’ve never seen before,” Denaro said. “We’re looking at a range of targets and missiles in the hypersonic realm that are much more maneuverable, they’re weaker, they’re harder to see. And that requires a new approach to how we detect and then track all of these missiles as they fly.

“We are seeing these developments in both China and Russia at a very rapid pace, at which time we need to develop these scalable air systems to keep pace with these changes in direction,” Denaro said.

SBIRS satellites carry scanning and attaching sensors, while the WFOV Testbed mission instrument can collect data with a single sensor. The last SBIRS satellite is expected to launch in August on the upcoming Atlas 5 rocket, and the first next-generation OPIR missile warning satellite is expected to launch in 2025 or 2026.

The WFOV testbed “can simultaneously perform strategic missions, such as missile warning and battlespace awareness, as well as tactical missions directly supporting the warfighter, continuously monitoring up to a third of the Earth’s surface with a single sensor,” Col. Heather Bogstie, senior materiel manager for resilient missile warning, tracking and defense at Space Systems Command.

The L3Harris instrument also has a “tactical cryocooler” to cool its infrared detectors. The lower-cost cryocooler was originally designed to fly on airplanes, but was repurposed to operate in space.

The Wide Field of View Testbed spacecraft will demonstrate a next-generation infrared sensor for missile warning applications. Credit: Millennium Space Systems

The Missile Warning Demonstration Satellite – about a quarter the size of the Space Force’s current generation SBIRS satellites – is designed for a three-year mission, with an all-up weight of up to 6,600 pounds (3 000 kilograms), according to Millennium.

The L3Harris payload is over 6 feet (2 meters) tall and weighs over 365 miles (165 kilograms). The instrument was developed at an L3Harris facility in Wilmington, Massachusetts.

“The L3Harris instrument can continuously watch a theater of interest to provide continuous battlespace information, which is an improvement over legacy systems,” said Ed Zoiss, president of space and airborne systems at L3Harris. “It also offers better resolution, sensitivity and target discrimination at a lower cost.”

The second satellite aboard the USSF-12 mission carries a suite of classified payloads.

The Space Force says the USSF-12 Ring spacecraft is based on a “ring-based structure” capable of housing multiple experiments and prototype technologies. The military did not say what experiments could be mounted on the USSF 12 Ring spacecraft, or whether it carries free-flying deployable satellites that will separate from the parent spacecraft to perform their own missions.

The USSF-12 Ring spacecraft is built on a Northrop Grumman satellite bus called ESPA Star, itself based on a ring structure originally designed to accommodate secondary payloads during launch. Northrop Grumman modified the ring structure with solar power and propulsion capabilities to operate as an autonomous satellite.

The Centaur upper stage of the Atlas 5 rocket performed a third burn to insert the WFOV test bed and USSF-12 ring satellites into near-geostationary orbit. This illustration shows the Centaur firing its RL10 engine, with the WFOV Testbed spacecraft in the upper position on the dual payload stack and the USSF-12 Ring vehicle in the lower position. Credit: United Launch Alliance

ULA’s next mission is scheduled for August with the SBIRS GEO 6 missile warning satellite.

The launch company has up to six more missions on its schedule for the rest of the year, including the launch of SBIRS and the final flights of the Delta 4-Heavy rocket and the Atlas 5 rocket from the spaceport of the west coast at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California. The remaining Delta 4 and Atlas 5 flights will all depart from Cape Canaveral.

ULA hopes to launch the first next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket from Florida by the end of the year. And the first crewed flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft could launch on an Atlas 5 rocket in late 2022.

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