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Archive for 2007

04-Aug-07 | Delta flight 325 – Phoenix

NASA’s latest Mars lander, Phoenix, is on its way to the Red Planet.

Favorable weather conditions and a smooth countdown with no technical issues allowed the three-stage Delta 7925 to lift off on the first opportunity. The pre-dawn launch from Cape Canaveral’s SLC-17A took place near the middle of a one-second-long launch window, at 05:26:34.596 EDT.

After the first stage and initial second stage burns, the vehicle entered a circular parking orbit of about 90 nautical miles altitude, and began the longest coast phase in Delta history—nearly 64.5 minutes long. Another burn by the AJ10 second stage raised the apogee to over 3,000 n.m., and the Star 48B third stage sent the spacecraft into a hyperbolic escape orbit.

Problems with the tracking network prevented several events from being seen in real time. The Air Force’s “Big Crow” aircraft, circling over the Pacific Ocean, provided no live telemetry during the second stage relight; Hawaii saw SECO-2 and third stage spin-up, ignition, and burnout, but lost the signal (as expected) prior to spacecraft separation. Finally, the tracking station at Vandenberg also was unable to provide real-time confirmation of separation, and a lengthy and nervous pause occurred until antennas at Goldstone, California, could acquire Phoenix’s signal.

Ultimately, the Phoenix mission team announced that the resulting trajectory is “well within expected limits for a successful journey” to Mars. This launch marks the 74th consecutive success for the Delta II launch vehicle, a record that now has gone for more than ten years without failure.

Following a ten-month, 420-million-mile cruise, Phoenix will gently set down near the Martian north pole, where it will use a robotic digging tool and a complex suite of instruments to analyze the subsurface soil for water ice and organic compounds. Scientists hope to prove that Mars was once capable of supporting life, and will use the analysis to determine the availability of water for future human missions.

01-Aug-07 | Phoenix delayed by 24 hours

The launch of Phoenix, the next Mars lander, has been delayed by 24 hours until Saturday, 4 August. As happened with Dawn in early July, a forecast of severe weather yesterday afternoon caused fuelling of the Delta second stage to be postponed until this morning, Wednesday, 1 August. Two instantaneous liftoff opportunities are available on Saturday morning: 5:26:34 a.m. and 6:02:59 a.m. EDT.

07-Jul-07 | Another delay — until September

Dawn is now scheduled to launch no sooner than September. Troubles with downrange tracking assets have been cited as the cause for delaying from 8 July, and NASA management has decided not to force a launch attempt prior to the current window’s closure on 19 July. Another factor was a desire not to impact the launch of Phoenix, NASA’s next Mars lander, whose 21-day launch window opens on 3 August (and after which another opportunity will not occur until 2009). The exact date of Dawn’s next launch window opening is unclear, but it will extend through late October. (Spaceflight Now, 07-Jul-07)

05-Jul-07 | Dawn delayed by 24 hours

The launch of Dawn has been postponed until Sunday, 8 July, because a lightning advisory in the Cape Canaveral area, along with an overly-high temperature reading within the fairing of the Delta II-Heavy launch vehicle, precluded the start of second stage fuelling today. Propellant loading has been pushed back to this afternoon at the earliest, and the countdown dress rehearsal will take place on Friday. With a launch window on Sunday of 4:04 to 4:33 p.m. EDT, Florida’s tendency for mid-afternoon thunderstorms comes into play, and the forecast for Sunday predicts only a 40% chance of meeting the criteria for launch. (NASA Media Advisory, 05-Jul-07)

21-Jun-07 | The beginning of the end?

The Wall Street Journal has published an article with troubling (but not wholly unexpected) speculation about the future of Delta II. Five GPS satellites and two Air Force experiments are slated to be launched before the end of 2008—but this will complete the USAF’s use of Delta II. Future military launches are expected to occur on larger vehicles, such as Delta IV and Atlas V, and NASA does not appear to have the budget to maintain three launch pads (two at Cape Canaveral and one at Vandenberg) and sustain Delta II launches on its own. In addition, the smaller capacity of Delta II hinders its ability to compete in the commercial market, where large telecommunications satellites and dual-payload launches are becoming the norm.

While even the smallest Delta IV has substantially more capacity than a Delta II-Heavy, the current cost of a launch is more than double. If Delta II is retired, the result would be a severe reduction in the number of small- and medium-sized unmanned missions that NASA will be able to fly. (NASA is at work on an internal study to determine its future use of Delta II; the results are expected by the end of 2007.) As happened in the early 1980s with the Space Shuttle, it appears the U.S. launch industry is working to put all its eggs into one basket again—to the detriment of science as well as access to space. (“Delta II’s Fate Worries Nonmilitary Users”, Wall Street Journal, 29-May-07)

14-Jun-07 | Venus fly-by images released

The first shots from MESSENGER‘s second fly-by of Venus last week have been released. The craft snapped hundreds of high-resolution pictures during the approximately 25-hour encounter. One only hopes a “motion” sequence is in work.

08-Jun-07 | Next launch

The next launch will be NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, due to launch from Cape Canaveral on 7 July. The launch was postponed from 30 June due to an issue with the crane at SLC-17B that delayed assembly of the vehicle as the first three of nine booster motors were being hoisted into place. Dawn is an eight-year mission to fly by and investigate two of the largest known asteroids, Ceres and Vesta. (NASA ELV Status Report, 06-Jun-07)

08-Jun-07 | Delta flight 324 – COSMO-SkyMed 1

On Thursday evening, 7 June 2007, Delta flight 324 successfully placed the first spacecraft of Italy’s COSMO-SkyMed system into its operational orbit. An unspecified technical issue at Vandenberg’s SLC-2W pushed the launch back to the last moment of the 13-minute launch window, so the resulting official time of liftoff was 02:34:00.561 UTC.

Fifty-eight minutes later, the two-stage Delta II 7420 vehicle released COSMO 1 into a nearly circular polar orbit, about 340 nautical miles in altitude. This marked the 73rd consecutive success by Delta II, which is now 126 out of 128 launches in its 18-year career.

COSMO-SkyMed is an Earth-imaging system consisting of four satellites; each spacecraft carries a Synthetic Aperture Radar “for environmental monitoring, resource management and territorial surveillance. ” It is a joint project of the Italian Space Agency and the Italian Ministry of Defence, so its imagery will be used in both civilian and military applications.

COSMO 2, also slated to launch aboard a Delta II from Vandenberg, is expected to fly some time later this year or early 2008.

06-Jun-07 | MESSENGER Venus-2 success

MESSENGER made its second flyby of Venus on Tuesday evening, 05 June 2007, passing just 200 nautical miles above its cloud tops at 23:08 UTC. The manoeuvre altered the spacecraft’s velocity by some 15,000 miles per hour, the most substantial change of its mission. All systems performed flawlessly, and MESSENGER is now on course to make its first pass of Mercury—and the first flyby of that planet by a man-made object in 33 years—on 14 January 2008.

08-May-07 | Phoenix arrives in Florida

Phoenix, NASA’s next mission to Mars, arrived in Florida on Monday, 7 May, aboard an Air Force C-17 Globemaster III. It was then trucked to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility for pre-launch processing. Phoenix is slated to launch aboard a three-stage Delta II in August, with arrival at Mars in May 2008. From a site near the Martian north pole, Phoenix will dig in the soil in search of water ice and organic compounds. It is a highly simplified mission with a single goal: to seek evidence that Mars is, or was in the past, capable of sustaining life.

Built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems and managed by JPL, the mission’s Principal Investigator is Dr. Peter H. Smith of the University of Arizona. The name comes not from the capital city of Arizona, but rather from the fact that the spacecraft “arose from the ashes” of the Mars Surveyor 2001 lander, a mission that was cancelled following the loss of Mars Polar Lander (which launched on Delta 265). Unlike the airbag landing system pioneered by Mars Pathfinder in 1997 and proven by the Mars Exploration Rovers in 2004, due to its larger size Phoenix uses landing gear and a descent engine, like Surveyor in the 1960s and Viking in the 1970s. It should be noted that this system, along with a lack of end-to-end integration testing, led to MPL’s loss in 1999: landing gear deployment jolted accelerometers and caused the spacecraft to believe it had landed, shutting down its descent engine. The investigation board recommended sweeping management changes; Phoenix will be the acid test of their effectiveness.

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