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09-Sep-04 | Genesis plummets to earth

The Genesis mission came to a dismal conclusion yesterday upon its return to Earth.

The spacecraft’s drogue chute and parafoil failed to deploy, and Genesis (launched on Delta 287, 08-Aug-01) slammed into the Utah desert at a speed approaching 200 miles per hour. Scientists had hoped for a neat mid-air capture by helicopter in order to preserve from contamination minute samples of the solar wind which had been collected over the past three years; now they may be lucky to salvage a fraction of the expected data.

One can only hope that Stardust, a comet sample return mission expected to land in Utah via parachute in January 2006, does not suffer a similar fate.


02-Sep-04 | Hurricase Frances on approach

Processing operations for the next Delta launches, NAVSTAR IIR-13 and NASA’s Swift, have been put on hold in anticipation of Hurricane Frances, which is expected to make landfall south of Cape Canaveral some time on Saturday, 4 September. Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center were closed to personnel of Thursday, and much of the surrounding area is being evacuated. At Hangar AE, Swift has been bundled in a double protective bag and has been sealed inside its transport canister for good measure.

Here’s wishing friends, the Delta team, the Space Coast, and everyone in the path of Frances — Godspeed and safe passage.


03-Aug-04 | Delta flight 307 – MESSENGER

MESSENGER is on its way to Mercury!

As the Terminal Countdown began at T-minus 150 minutes, it looked as if the strengthening T.S. Alex to the north would cause another delay, as a thunderstorm was lashing Cape Canaveral and drenching Pad 17B. But by the time of liquid oxygen loading, around T-minus 90 minutes, the moon was shining down and all the rules on the weather board had turned from red to green.

As was necessary due to the 12-second launch window, all events of the countdown occurred smoothly, and the third Delta II-Heavy lifted off at the very opening of the window, with an official first-motion time of 06:15:56.537 UTC. The first stage with its 9 booster motors, a pair of second stage burns, and the solid third-stage motor all fired in perfect succession, and 56m50s later the spacecraft was released into its proper trajectory. Contact was established, and MESSENGER reported its solar panels were deployed and it is in an excellent state of health.

MESSENGER will circle the Sun several times, using gravity assists from all of the three innermost planets, before reaching orbit around Mercury in March 2011, nearly seven years from now. If successful, it will become the first spacecraft to orbit the first rock from the Sun and will map the entire planet from an altitude of as little as a couple hundred kilometers. In the meantime, its first planetary encounter will be an Earth fly-by in August 2005.


02-Aug-04 | MESSENGER scrubbed

SCRUB! The first attempt at launching MESSENGER was set back by 24 hours this morning, as nearby thunderstorms generated by Tropical Storm Alex violated the anvil cloud and thick cloud rules at the pad.  These rules are designed to prevent launch-triggered lightning, an event which could easily be catastrophic to the launch vehicle, spacecraft, or both. Conditions are expected to improve for Tuesday’s try.


23-Jul-04 | MESSENGER update

Preparations for launch of NASA’s Mercury orbiter, MESSENGER, are continuing apace. The first stage was hoisted onto the launch mount of Pad 17B on 30 June as scheduled. Nine high-powered GEM-46 booster motors were installed by 6 July, and the second stage was lifted into place two days later. At the Astrotech Space Operations facility, the spacecraft was attached to its third stage motor on 12 July, and then packed inside its protective transportation canister for the trip to the launch site in the early morning of 21 July. All is progressing smoothly toward a first launch attempt on 2 August. MESSENGER has just 13 chances to get into space, as shown in the table below. After 14 August the orbital positions of Earth and Mercury will make the trip nearly impossible; as it is, it will take more than six-and-a-half years to reach the sun’s first planet using multiple gravity assists. Each day’s window is only 12 seconds long, which affords little wiggle room and makes each attempt effectively instantaneous — that is, any unplanned hold in the countdown will likely result in a 24-hour scrub. All times are UTC.

Date Window opens
02 August 06:16:11
03 August 06:15:56
04 August 06:15:22
05 August 06:15:12
06 August 06:14:58
07 August 06:14:47
08 August 06:14:22
09 August 06:14:07
10 August 06:13:54
11 August 06:13:49
12 August 06:13:42
13 August 06:13:29
14 August 06:13:41


23-Jul-04 | Delta flight 306 – Aura

After numerous delays and a countdown marked by a couple of minor vehicle issues, NASA’s Aura spacecraft was launched by Delta flight 306 from SLC-2W at Vandenberg Air Force Base. The official liftoff time in the pre-dawn hours of Thursday, 15 July 2004 was 1001:59.344 GMT. The satellite was delivered into a perfect orbit some 64 minutes later. Aura joins its siblings in the Earth Observing System, Terra (launched by an Atlas IIAS) and Aqua (Delta 291, 04-May-02), and carries a suite of instruments which will provide comprehensive data on atmospheric composition, chemistry and dynamics. This was the 59th consecutive success for Delta II.


10-Jul-04 | Aura delay

Aura has been delayed by a few days due to two unrelated hardware issues. First, an “industry-wide alert” forced a paperwork trace on some transistors installed in the spacecraft. The launch was pushed to Sunday morning, 11 July, when the transistors were given a clean bill of health. Then an connector on the Delta payload fairing, part of the separation ordnance system that divides and jettisons the fairing during flight, was found to be mis-aligned. The launch from Vandenberg AFB on the central California coast is now set for no earlier than 13 July.


25-Jun-04 | Next launches

The next two Delta launches will carry NASA science missions. Aura is set to fly from Vandenberg AFB on the central California coast no earlier than 10 July. Aura will study the Earth’s ozone, air quality and climate.  In Florida, with Pad 17B recently vacated, stacking operations for the Delta II-Heavy of MESSENGER are expected to begin around 30 June. The first Mercury orbiter is hoped to launch on 30 July; its launch period closes on 13 August.


25-Jun-04 | Delta flight 305 – NAVSTAR IIR-12

On the evening of Wednesday, 23 June, the 305th Delta flight placed a NAVSTAR satellite into transfer orbit for the U.S. Air Force’s Global Positioning System.

The launch, previously slated for early June, slipped by nearly three weeks. At first a suspect hydraulic pump on the first stage of the Delta rocket was replaced, causing about a week of delay. This was followed by a wiring harness investigation, and then a faulty yaw actuator on one of the first stage vernier engines. A pad-clearing hazard alarm (which turned out to have been a false alarm) added a day to the pre-launch activities. And then Florida’s typical summer weather struck, and three straight attempts were scrubbed by fast-moving thunderstorms after tanking operations had completed.

Finally, though the launch weather officer was predicting a 70% chance of violating launch conditions at the start of the 150-minute Terminal Countdown, the Delta team tried again, and this time Mother Nature cooperated.

A smooth countdown procedure ended at exactly 18:54:00.693 EDT as the three-stage Delta 7925 lifted from Pad 17B. A quick, 25 minute 35 second flight followed, and NAVSTAR IIR-12 was released into a transfer orbit of 101.4 by 11,106 miles and 38.99 degrees of inclination.

The launch, the 58th consecutive success for Delta II, was dedicated to the memory of President Reagan. The latest addition to the GPS Space Segment, IIR-12 will soon boost itself into its operational orbit (Plane F, Slot 4), where it will replace the aging NAVSTAR IIA-16 spacecraft, which was launched aboard Delta 216 on 22 November 1992. IIA-16, having served long past its design lifetime, has begun to suffer from “degraded clock performance,” and will be retired into a nearby position in the same orbital plane to act as a backup satellite as needed.


06-Jun-04 | Tech troubles

My apologies for this site having been off-line for about 48 hours from 3 to 5 June. A bad week for my home technology saw a blowout of a brand-new television lemon, an unrecoverable in-box in my e-mail client, and a freaked-out power switch that put my web server into continuous-power-cycling mode. If I were superstitious I’d think the full moon had something to do with it. -ed.


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