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Archive for 2007

20-Dec-07 | Delta flight 331 – NAVSTAR IIR-18 (M5)

A Delta II 7925 today lofted another Global Positioning System replenishment satellite for the U.S. Air Force.

Liftoff was delayed by five minutes after the opening of the fourteen-minute launch window due to a collision avoidance period, or COLA, which is a common occurrence in launches since there are so many objects already in orbit. Despite the COLA, the countdown was without major issues, and the three-stage Delta II left the pad at Cape Canaveral’s SLC-17A with an official range liftoff time of 20:04:00.353 GMT.

Fifty-eight minutes later, the GPS satellite was released into its nominal transfer orbit, which is an elongated path of about 11,000 nautical miles in apogee. The satellite will fire its own onboard AKM within the next several days to circularise its orbit. It will enter Plane C, Slot 1, replacing IIA-24, which will move to Plane C, Slot 5 to replace IIA-20. (IIA-24 was launched aboard Delta 226 in 1994. IIA-20 was launched on Delta 220 in 1993, and has more than doubled its seven-year design lifetime. It is showing signs of its age and will be decommissioned.)

This was the 46th launch of a GPS satellite by Delta II, all but one of which have been successful. (A further 11 experimental GPS satellites were launched on Atlas vehicles between 1978 and 1985.) It was also the 79th consecutive successful launch for Delta II, a continuing world record.

10-Dec-07 | Delta flight 330 – COSMO-SkyMed 2

On the evening of Saturday, 08 December 2007, a two-stage Delta II Med-Lite launched the second in a constellation of Italian radar satellites known as COSMO-SkyMed. The launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base’s SLC-2W occurred at an official range liftoff time of 18:31:42.118 PST (02:31:42.118 GMT on 09 December).

At 58 minutes 4 seconds after launch, the satellite was deployed into a near-circular polar orbit. When it becomes operational, COSMO-SkyMed 2 will join its siblings in providing environmental monitoring, resource management and territorial surveillance for the Italian Space Agency and the Italian Ministry of Defence. COSMO is an acronym meaning “COnstellation of small Satellites for the Mediterranean basin Observation”, intriguingly not an Italian phrase. (No word on the meaning of SkyMed, which this author suspects is the IMoD name for the constellation.)

Delta II continued its longest-ever success record with this flight, the 78th in a row. As usual, Spaceflight Now’s Justin Ray provided an excellent play-by-play here.

Amidst the excitement of a successful deployment, it was announced that COSMO 3 will launch aboard another Delta II in the second half of 2008. The launcher for the fourth satellite in the constellation has not yet been chosen—several competitors are vying for the contract.

07-Dec-07 | Another scrub for COSMO 2

Strong winds at Vandenberg prevented pullback of the mobile service tower today. A 24-hour turnaround is in work; Saturday’s liftoff is set, as on previous days, for 6:31 p.m. PST (02:31 on 09 December GMT).

06-Dec-07 | COSMO-Skymed 2 scrubbed, delayed

Yesterday’s attempted launch of the Italian COSMO-SkyMed 2 satellite was scrubbed with less than three minutes left in the countdown, when a high-altitude weather balloon reported unacceptable upper-level winds. The Delta II vehicle was safed at SLC-2W and the launch team immediately began preparations for a 24-hour turnaround.

However, during post-scrub inspections it was found that some cork insulation had debonded and will need to be reattached. The insulation is used to protect portions of the first stage from hot gases that can impinge on the vehicle’s skin during liftoff and flight. This cork—and it is in fact real cork wood, a low-tech but suitable solution that has been used on Delta for years—has come loose on vehicles in the past, and repair is usually trivial and quick to complete.

Launch is now tentatively scheduled for Friday evening, 7 December.

17-Oct-07 | Delta flight 328 – NAVSTAR IIR-17 (M4)

A three-stage Delta II rocket successfully sent a new Global Positioning System satellite into orbit today for the U.S. Air Force. The launch continued Delta II’s unprecedented string of successes, now numbering 77 in a row.

Terminal Countdown, which starts at T-minus 150 minutes, got underway today at 05:23 EDT—two hours before sunrise at Cape Canaveral—and proceeded like a finely-tuned watch. Weather conditions were thought to have a 40% chance of violating launch criteria, with the possibility of scattered rain in the area. As the countdown progressed, a 10-knot wind from the east caused the boil-off exhaust of the liquid oxygen tank to form a lengthy, horizontal plume. However by launch time upper level winds were seen to be within limits, the temperature was around 78°F, and the blue morning sky with a few scattered clouds offered smooth sailing.

The Delta II 7925 lifted off from SLC-17A at an official range liftoff time of 08:23:00.258 EDT, right at the opening of today’s 15-minute launch window. First stage flight occurred nominally, followed by a pair of second stage burns separated by a 52-minute coast phase.

Telemetry from the launch vehicle cut out after third stage spin-up and separation from the second stage, leaving flight controllers in the dark during the third stage burn and spacecraft separation, which were expected to be completed just over 68 minutes into the flight. It took another fourteen minutes or so for the Air Force to announce that it had established contact with the spacecraft and that all events had transpired normally. Delta II placed the satellite into an elliptical transfer orbit, the standard for GPS launches. Within the next few days the spacecraft is expected to fire its onboard AKM to place itself into operational orbit.

NAVSTAR IIR-17 is the 45th GPS satellite to be launched by Delta II, and is the fourth of eight “modernized” IIR satellites that provide an added signal for civilian use and two new encrypted signals for military use. It will enter the Plane F, Slot 2 position to replace IIA-14, which was launched aboard Delta 211 on 7 July 1992 (and which has far exceeded its seven-year design life). Another NAVSTAR launch is expected before the end of the year.

United Launch Alliance provided a good quality live video stream of the launch, but about ten minutes before liftoff the feed turned into loud static for about fifteen seconds. When it returned, the picture was fine, but all the audio sounded like it was being fed through a kazoo. -ed.

27-Sep-07 | Delta flight 327 – Dawn

Two Dawns over Florida

Twenty-one minutes after local sunrise today, a three-stage Delta II-Heavy lifted off from Cape Canaveral’s SLC-17B into a gorgeous deep blue sky. Aboard was the Dawn spacecraft, which has successfully begun its eight-year asteroid tour.

No major technical issues arose during the three-hour terminal countdown, which began at 04:20 EDT. The weather forecast improved throughout the count, as isolated rain showers remained over Patrick Air Force Base to the south of the Cape and did not violate launch rules. Meanwhile, the countdown’s final hold at T-minus 4 minutes was extended for nearly fifteen minutes due to a civilian ship that had intruded into the offshore hazard area. The Coast Guard quickly shooed away the interloper and the countdown was able to resume for a T-zero near the middle of the twenty-nine-minute launch window. The official range liftoff time was 07:34:00.372 EDT.

The Delta 7925-Heavy, with its upsized GEM-46 booster motors, sprinted from the launch pad and performed typical first and second stage firings, placing itself just over nine minutes later in a nominal parking orbit of 99.99 by 100.6 nautical miles altitude with an inclination of 28.6 degrees. After a 42.5-minute coast phase, the second stage re-lit to achieve an elliptical orbit with a 95.29-mile perigee and 3681-mile apogee. The third stage and spacecraft spun up, separated, and fired to place the spacecraft in a heliocentric departure orbit. Dawn was released at T+plus 61 minutes, 58 seconds, and within a couple of hours was judged by mission controllers to be “stable, power positive, and safe.”

NASA Launch Director Omar Baez summed up the Delta II performance by saying, “we’re right on the money.” The launch extended Delta II’s record-setting benchmark for reliability, which now stands at 76 consecutive successes.

Dawn is the ninth mission* in NASA’s highly successful Discovery Program. Dawn’s mission plan includes a gravitational swing-by of Mars in February 2009 prior to intercepting asteroid Vesta in August 2011. It will remain there for about nine months before departing for asteroid Ceres, a six-month visit that is expected to occur in 2015. Dawn will navigate toward these rendezvous using a xenon ion engine similar to that used on the highly successful Deep Space 1 mission, which launched aboard Delta 261 in 1998.

24-Sep-07 | Dawn delayed by a day

Stormy weather at Cape Canaveral prevented hypergolic propellant loading of the Delta II second stage on Sunday. This has been a common issue lately: Phoenix slipped by a day in August, and before that Dawn also saw a one-day slip prior to its two-and-a-half-month postponement. The launch of Dawn is now scheduled for Thursday, 27 September, with a 29-minute window opening at 11:20 UTC.

20-Sep-07 | A question about the west coast’s final “Super Six”

A reader e-mailed with an interesting hypothesis about a possible error buried deep within the Flight Log:

I have a question on one of the last flights from pad 2E at Vandenberg AFB—or perhaps one of the first Delta flights from pad 2W.

Something seems a little odd with the sequence as it’s commonly listed:

The Jan. 23, 1970 flight of Tiros-M (ITOS-1) on a Delta N-6 (Delta 76) was the first flight off Pad 2W after, as you note, its modification to accept the six solid configuration.

The Dec. 11, 1970 flight of ITOS-A (NOAA 1) on a Delta N-6 (Delta 81) also is listed off Pad 2W. So far, so good.

The next Delta N-6 flight from Vandenberg comes on Oct. 21, 1971 (Delta 86) with the launch of ITOS-B. It’s listed as coming off Pad 2E however, not 2W. This seems rather odd to me as it would require 2E to have been modified for the N-6 when there’s already a perfectly capable pad available, and 2E would soon be torn down. The two remaining launches off 2E do not involve the six solid configuration.

This makes a lot of sense. On-line sites all concur about the flight having been from 2-East, but they are likely cribbing from each other. This site’s original source was the 1991 edition of Steven J. Isakowitz’s International Reference Guide to Space Launch Systems, which may well have had a typo—after all, W and E are adjacent on the keyboard. A check of the updated 2004 edition is pending. Meanwhile, readers with further information on this conundrum are asked to comment on this post.


19-Sep-07 | Next launch

The next Delta II launch will be NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, expected to launch from Cape Canaveral on 26 September. This flight was delayed from July in order to accommodate the tight launch window of Phoenix, which is now on its way to Mars. Dawn is an asteroid tour that will last eight years.

19-Sep-07 | Delta flight 326 – WorldView 1

On Tuesday, 18 September 2007, a two-stage Delta II launched WorldView 1 for the DigitalGlobe system.

The United Launch Alliance flight team produced yet another flawless countdown, with no apparent issues to address. Upper level winds, initially a concern, improved throughout the morning and were not a factor.

The Delta 7920 model, flying with a 10-foot-diameter composite fairing, leapt off the pad at SLC-2W at the opening of its fourteen-minute window, at an official range liftoff time of 11:35:00.526 PDT. As is typical for Delta II launches from Vandenberg, the vehicle retained its ground-lit solid boosters for more than 20 seconds after burn-out in order to avoid dropping them near off-shore oil platforms; a dog-leg manoeuvre was also included in the flight profile to correct for a path that initially aimed toward the southwest, for similar safety reasons.

Following first and second stage burns and an approximately 43.5-minute coast phase, the second stage relit for a brief orbit adjustment, then imparted a gentle spin to the spacecraft for stabilization prior to release into a nearly-circular polar orbit, about 270 nautical miles in altitude. (For a complete play-by-play, check out Justin Ray’s always informative Mission Status Report at

WorldView 1 is a new commercial imaging satellite with impressive capabilities, not least of which is half-meter resolution. From its polar orbit it will be able to image any point on Earth with an average revisit time of 1.7 days, and its high-capacity on-board memory can store up to 290,000 square miles of half-meter imagery per day. Given its potential for intelligence gathering, it comes as no surprise that the U.S. government is already signed on as a customer. WorldView’s predecessor, Quickbird 2, also launched on a Delta II in 2001.

The flight, the 130th for Delta II since its debut in 1989, set a new all-time record for consecutive launch successes at 75. Previously, the Delta II had been tied with the Ariane 4, which saw its final launch in 2003.

Many people involved with Tuesday’s launch had strongly positive words for Delta II reliability, including Kris Walsh, United Launch Alliance’s director of NASA and commercial programs for Delta, who said, “It’s a great little rocket. I’ll continue to fly it as long as I can.” Nevertheless, with the U.S. Air Force moving to the larger Delta IV and NASA uncertain about maintaining the Delta II infrastructure by itself, the production line is shutting down, and only 25 vehicles remain to be flown.

Close observers of the Delta II may have noticed that the Delta insignia on the vehicle no longer includes the stars signifying consecutive successes (as detailed in the FAQ), something that has been eliminated since ULA began managing launches. Perhaps someone realised how cluttered 75 stars can be! (Kudos and congratulations to everyone at ULA for this “stellar” record… pardon the pun.) -ed.

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