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06-Feb-09 | Delta flight 338 – NOAA-N′

The third try was the charm this morning as a two-stage Delta II Med-Lite model 7320-10C lofted NOAA-N′ into orbit for NASA and NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Following two previous attempts that were scrubbed due to issues with ground support equipment, and a weather report that threatened rain and gusty winds, Friday’s countdown was smooth and trouble-free. The wind gradually subsided to within limits and despite numerous COLA blocks the Delta II was able to lift off at the opening of its ten-minute launch window, at 02:22:01 PST.

As a steady breeze blew ragged wisps of fog across SLC-2W, the rocket’s main engine and three booster motors lit up the night before swiftly disappearing into a cloud layer. The low ceiling forced the television feed to switch to a computer-generated flight simulation for the remainder of the flight. Fortunately the telemetry feed was solid throughout—except of course during scheduled data blackouts between tracking stations—and telemetry manager Steve Agid provided a steady patter of precision play-by-play from across the country at Cape Canaveral.

Just under 66 minutes after launch, the Aerojet-built second stage released the spacecraft into an orbit “right on the money,” according to NASA launch manager Omar Baez, before performing an avoidance manoeuvre and propellant depletion burn.

Once it was in its circular, sun-synchronous orbit, NOAA-N′ (“N-Prime”) was renamed NOAA-19. It is billed as “the last in the TIROS (Television and Infra-Red Observing Satellite) series” of Earth-observing weather and environment satellites, and “will provide global images of clouds and surface features and vertical profiles of atmospheric temperature and humidity for use in numerical weather and ocean forecast models, as well as data on ozone distribution in the upper part of the atmosphere, and near-Earth space environments—information important for the marine, aviation, power generation, agriculture, and other communities.”

The TIROS series extends back nearly 50 years and is, with a few recent exceptions, closely tied to the Delta launch vehicle. TIROS-1 was launched in 1960 aboard a Thor-Able, the direct predecessor to the original Delta. Subsequent missions upgraded the original technology of TIROS with a succession of nested acronyms including TIROS Operational System (TOS) and Improved TOS (ITOS). Some 28 flights including the one today were performed by various models of Delta vehicles. (Only two of these, both in the early 1970s, failed to orbit.) NOAA-19 will replace NOAA-18, which launched aboard Delta 312 in May 2005.

This marks the 85th success in a row for Delta II, a testament of extreme reliability for a launch system which will celebrate the 20th anniversary of its first launch one week from tomorrow.

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