CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — An Atlas V rocket lit up the predawn sky over Florida early Tuesday (December 7) to launch a new NASA laser space communications satellite into orbit alongside a host of other payloads for the US Space Force.
The two-step Atlas V Rocket took off from Space Launch Complex 41 here at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 5:19 a.m. EST (10:19 GMT), on a mission called STP-3 (Space Test Program-3). The successful liftoff came more than an hour after the mission’s scheduled launch time due to high winds aloft, and after days of delays due to a fuel leak at launch.
the United Launch Alliance Atlas V is lifted into orbit with the help of five solid rocket boosters. Spectators were treated to dazzling views of the rocket as it streaked through the atmosphere.
Related: The history of rockets
The 196-foot-tall (59.7-meter) Atlas V was launched in its heaviest configuration: 551. This means the rocket was powered by five strap-on solid rocket motors, a single-engine Centaur upper stage, and its payload is nestled inside a 16.4-foot-wide (5 m) fairing.
This version of the Atlas V has now flown a dozen times over the years, carrying a variety of payloads including NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rovers, as well as a host of satellites for the Department of Defense, and more.
Tuesday’s flight marks the 90th flight of an Atlas V rocket since ULA was formed in 2002. (The company is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing.) It also marks the 672nd flight of an Atlas family rocket. since its beginnings in the 1950s.
Inside the payload fairing are two satellites, each containing a host of technological prototypes and experiments that will be tested in orbit. Sponsored by the US Army’s Space Testing Program – a department dedicated to overseeing space activities of the Department of Defense – most of the payloads on board are classified, but they rely on a new platform designed to long flights. Known as LDPE-1 (short for Long Duration Propulsive Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adapter 1), the vehicle is designed to hold payloads in orbit for up to three years.
We know a few details about some of the other payloads on board, including a new laser communications payload for NASA.
Called Demonstration of laser communication relays (LCRD), the experimental satellite will help NASA beam data into space as the agency plans to return to the Moon in the next few years. Currently, the agency relies on communication methods that rely on radio frequencies, but lasers are significantly more effective, agency officials said.
The experiment takes place on the STPSat-6 satellite, which also includes the NASA-US Naval Research Laboratory Ultraviolet Spectro-Coronagraph mission to study the origin of solar particles from the sun.
“It’s a game changer for exploration and science,” said Glenn Jackson, NASA project manager for the LCRD mission. “[Optical communications] to reduce the weight of communication systems, decrease power consumption and we get 10 to 100 times the bandwidth capacity. This is a huge change for people planning missions and preparing for a presence on the Moon and exploring Mars.”
Also on board are a payload for the National Nuclear Security Administration, designed to detect nuclear detonations from space, as well as a new type of space propulsion system that will be tested in orbit.
Tuesday morning’s flight was to put the Atlas V to the test as it was to set an endurance record for the launcher. The two satellites on board will be deposited in a geosynchronous orbit sailing about 22,000 miles above the equator.
To that end, the Atlas V’s Centaur upper stage (which is powered by an Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10 engine) will take six and a half hours to complete three burns to reach the target orbit.
“This is a very complex orbital insertion that requires three Centaur burns and precise navigation, a capability unique to Atlas V,” said Gary Wentz, ULA’s vice president of government and commercial programs in a statement. “This is our longest mission to date at seven hours and 10 minutes to final separation from the spacecraft.”
Typically, satellites heading to a similar orbit are jettisoned into an oval-shaped transfer orbit and proceed to their final orbit. Today’s launch will set a record for Atlas V and its Centaur upper stage, as it pushes the limits of Centaur capabilities.
The rocket’s first stage, featuring a kerosene-fueled RD-180 engine, will provide the majority of the thrust in addition to the five boosters. Together they will rack up 2.6 million pounds of thrust to get the Atlas off the ground.
The flight also includes three new upgrades to the Atlas V rocket – new payload fairings, an in-flight power system and an improved GPS navigation system – which will be tested before flying on the next Vulcan Centaur rocket. (The next-generation launch vehicle is expected to start flying next year and will replace the Atlas V.)
ULA hopes that by testing these new features on Atlas, they’ll see how they perform in flight and have a better understanding of the hardware before it debuts on an all-new rocket.
Tuesday’s launch follows SpaceX’s 27th rocket launch of the year, which blasted off from an adjacent pad on Thursday night (December 2) and put 50 satellites into orbitincluding 48 of the company’s own Starlink internet satellites.
It’s also the first of a dual early morning launch program here on the Space Coast. On Thursday morning (December 9), just under 48 hours after the Atlas V launch, another SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will take to the skies, this time carrying a space observatory for NASA with it.
This mission will launch NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) Thursday at 1:00 a.m. EST (0600 GMT) to help astronomers better understand the polarization of cosmic light and the X-rays produced. by black holes and neutron stars.
In addition to these launches, the Russian space agency Roscosmos will launch two Japanese space tourists (billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and his video producer Yozo Hirano) to the International Space Station with cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin during a 12-day spaceflight. This mission takes off on Wednesday, December 8 from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Blue Origin’s suborbital New Shepard also launches this week. NS-19 Space Tourism Missionwhich will carry six people – including Good Morning America host Michael Strahan and Laura Shepard Churchley, the eldest daughter of the first American in space Alan Shepard – during a short trip into space. This mission will launch Thursday from the Blue Origin launch site near Van Horn, Texas.