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History of the Delta Launch Vehicle

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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.

17-Apr-07 | Einstein was right (or, at least half-right, so far)

Stanford researchers have announced that NASA’s Gravity Probe B has confirmed the geodetic effect (how mass warps spacetime) to within a 1% margin of error. This effect is one of two that were first predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity in 1920. Final results of the frame-dragging prediction (how a spinning mass drags spacetime around with it) are expected to be complete by the end of 2007.

GP-B was launched aboard Delta 304 on 20 April 2004, and spent a two-year tour making precise measurements of the effect Earth’s rotating mass has on the orbit of the spacecraft. (Stanford Press Release, 14-Apr-07)

13-Apr-07 | MGS Review Board releases its prelimiary report

The review board studying the loss of Mars Global Surveyor in November 2006 has released its preliminary report. As expected, the orbiter “appears to have succumbed to battery failure caused by a complex sequence of events involving the onboard computer memory and ground commands.” Recommendations for improved mission procedures and management are forthcoming. (NASA Press Release, 13-Apr-07)

12-Apr-07 | NPP gets a climate sensor back

NASA and NOAA have decided to put an important sensor back on NPP, the NPOESS Preparatory Project. NPOESS is the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, an operational follow-on intended to replace the successful experimental satellites Aqua (Delta 291), Aura (Delta 306), and Terra (launched on an Atlas IIAS). NPP, a risk reduction demonstrator, gets back its Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite (OMPS) Limb sensor, which will measure the vertical distribution of ozone in the atmosphere. The expected launch date is no sooner than 2009 on a two-stage Delta II, while the main NPOESS fleet will begin to fly around 2013. (NASA Press Release, 11-Apr-07)

10-Apr-07 | Dawn arrives in Florida

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft arrived today at the Astrotech Space Operations facility in Titusville, Florida, where it will undergo final preparations for launch. The launch period opens on 30 June. Its launch vehicle, a three-stage Delta II Heavy, will begin stacking at SLC-17B in late May. (NASA KSC Press Release, 10-Apr-07)

Dawn will investigate two of the largest denizens of the Asteroid Belt, Ceres and Vesta, during a mission lasting eight years. The project is back on track after having been cancelled—and then, in an unprecedented move, reinstated—in March 2006. Among Dawn’s JPL handlers is Dr. Marc Rayman, who previously led the project team for the highly successful Deep Space 1 (launched on Delta 261 on 24-Oct-98).

17-Feb-07 | Delta flight 323 – THEMIS

NASA’s THEMIS mission was successfully launched on a three-stage Delta II rocket on Saturday, 17 February 2007.

Thunderstorms delayed fuelling operations earlier in the week, and extreme wind shear between altitudes of 10,000 and 20,000 feet caused a scrub on Friday evening. For Saturday’s attempt, those upper-level winds continued to be a concern, but never exceeded parameters and the board remained green for weather all evening. An unspecified issue with the third stage was quickly resolved without affecting the countdown.

The Delta 7925 with a 10-foot composite fairing left SLC-17B at an official range liftoff time of 18:01:00.384 EST, the very opening of the window. First and second stage burns completed in 9 minutes 59 seconds, placing the spacecraft in a temporary, elliptical parking orbit of 100.0 nm perigee by 303.78 nm apogee, with an inclination of 28.5 degrees.

After a 53-minute coast phase, the Aerojet AJ10-118K second stage reignited for just under a minute, boosting the apogee to 825 nautical miles. It spun up the third stage and payload, then released the pair, having completed its task. With telemetry being received by a Big Crow tracking aircraft flying off the northeast coast of Australia, the third stage’s Thiokol Star 48B solid motor fired for 86.5 seconds to kick the apogee up to almost 50,000 nautical miles. About five minutes later, the custom carrier system deployed all five THEMIS spacecraft, successfully completing the launch about 73 minutes, 42 seconds after liftoff.

Over the next seven months, THEMIS will remain in an injection or “coast” phase while controllers check out the five satellites’ systems and assign them to their operational orbits. Transfer to those orbits will begin some time in September. All five probes have already been found to be in nominal orbits and in excellent health.

THEMIS, an acronym for Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms, will examine the Earth’s magnetosphere and its interaction with the solar wind from various points along the magnetotail. In particular, the mission hopes to shed light on “how Earth’s magnetosphere stores and releases energy from the sun.” It may help to explain why aurorae (the northern and southern lights) have such a wide variety of colours and appearances. The use of five smaller subsatellites will provide a broader understanding of the phenomena than would a single probe. (Spaceflight Now Mission Status Center, 17-Feb-07, NASA Press Release, 17-Feb-07)

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