ULA successfully launches AEHF-4 satellite

Early this morning at 12:15 am EDT United Launch Alliance successfully delivered the AEHF-4 satellite for the United States Air Force.

Using the most powerful version of their Atlas V rocket with a single RD-180 engine and five strap-on solid boosters the rocket soared into the air for an on-time launch.

The Advanced Extremely High Frequency 4 (AEHF-4) satellite was deployed to a geostationary transfer orbit, the satellite is designed to withstand an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) and provides jam-resistant, encrypted communications to air force terminals around the world.

This was the 8th launch for 2018 and 131st consecutive successful launch for ULA

ULA launches NASA’s ICESat2

Early this morning United Launch Alliance successfully launched NASA’s Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satelite 2 (ICESat2).

The launch was slightly delayed due to an issue with the bottle temperatures during the countdown. This issue was quickly resolved and the mission completed successfully.

This was the final launch of the venerable Delta II which has been launching since 1989 and completed 154 missions, 1 failure, and 1 partial failure.  With this launch, Delta II also achieved an important milestone of 100 consecutive launch successes.

More information on ICESat2 can be found here.

ULA launches GOES-S satellite

United Launch Alliance successfully launched the NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-S (GOES-S) satellite this evening from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 41.

Following a smooth countdown, the rocket lifted off at 5:02 pm EST and successfully deployed the satellite into a Geostationary Transfer Orbit 3h 32m later.

ULA launches NROL-79 mission

Following a smooth countdown this morning United Launch Alliance launched an Atlas V 401 carrying a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office.

Due to the nature of this launch the live broadcast was terminated after the payload separation occurred.

Orbital ATK’s CRS Cargo Missions resume

More than a year after the catastrophic failure of the Antares Launch vehicle which resulted in the lose of the Cygnus Cargo vehicle and its payload Orbital’s enhanced Cygnus vehicle lifted off from Cape Canaveral today with the help of an United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.  The launch which was delayed three times due to inclement weather finally lifted off this afternoon when the Atlas V RD-180 came to life.

Orbital elected to purchase two Atlas V launches to allow it to resume its Commercial Resupply contract with NASA for the International Space Station while the enhancements to its Antares rocket continue.  Orbital were also able to introduce there enhanced Cygnus vehicle which can carry an additional 1,200-1,500 kg of cargo depending on launch vehicle.

 

ULA launches WGS 7 satellite

This evening United Launch Alliance launched the seventh Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) military communications satellite aboard its Delta IV rocket. The launch, which was delayed yesterday due to stormy weather, proceeded with a smooth countdown this afternoon resulting in the Delta IV lifting off at 8:07 pm EDT.

Once in orbit the 2nd stage will burn twice to deploy the satellite to its desired orbit.  Once deployed the satellite deployed its solar arrays to begin on-orbit operations.

Below are images of the launch

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The Re-usable Rocket Era approaches

While SpaceX have yet to successfully land a Falcon 9 first stage it appears their vision has spurred the industry to react with both United Launch Alliance (ULA) and now Airbus Aerospace announcing plans to include re-usable components in future rocket designs.

The three companies have quite different plans to achieve the re-use.

Falcon 9 landing on ASDS
Falcon 9 attempting landing on ASDS

SpaceX – Plan to land the complete first stage initially on their Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) which is placed about 400 miles off the Florida coast during liftoff. Eventually they would like to return the stage to landing pads located near the original launch pad.

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Vulcan Re-usable Plan

ULA – Their new Vulcan rocket will allow the Engines to be re-used. Once the first stage has completed its work the engines will be detached, an inflatable heat shield will protect them during re-entry and then an Parafoil will be used to slow the descending engines so that a helicopter can capture them while still in the air.

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Airbus Re-use module

Airbus – They plan to have a detachable module too which contains the engines and main avionics, unlike the ULA module this will be a winged module that will return to Earth and land like a plane.

Only time will tell how successful these plans are however SpaceX has two big advantages at present.

First they are already testing their design and have already demonstrated that they can return the full first stage to the ASDS, they just haven’t been successful at landing it yet. The next attempt will be later this month during the CRS-7 launch.  ULA will not be flying the Vulcan rocket until at least 2019 and the Ariane 6 rocket will not include the re-usable module initially.

Second once they have successfully landed a first stage they will be able to determine just how quickly it could be re-used.  The other two plans will require that the rest of the first stage be constructed each time before the engines can be attached.

 

NASA awards first Commercial Crew Flight Contract

This week NASA announced that it had awarded Boeing the first Commercial Crew flight contract under the CCtCap program. However it is important to realize that while the contract has been awarded, as NASA started in the press release.

Determination of which company will fly its mission to the station first will be made at a later time.

So why were Boeing selected first?  This is a matter of scheduling, the Boeing CST-100 module will be launched atop a ULA Atlas V rocket to ensure that they are able to launch by late 2017 they need to book the flight now to enter the processing flow.  SpaceX has a shorter lead time for their rockets as they manufacture the whole system internally.

There is no denying that this is a significant step both for NASA and Boeing but as they stated there is not guarantee that just because they were awarded the first contract means they will actual fly the first contracted flight.  This will be determined once future milestones in the CCtCap program have been completed and NASA can be confident that they can complete the flight when needed.

Is ULA’s new rocket doomed?

With great fanfare United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced their new Vulcan Rocket last month. However since then the news has not been quite so rosy for the company.

Almost immediately after the announcement Paul Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace informed ULA that the name was trademarked, at present we have not heard anything further on this but it could result in a name change.

Last week ULA themselves stated that if the RD-180 engine ban wasn’t altered to allow them to purchase additional engines then the Next-Gen rocket may be impacted.  While this seems a little extreme the logic makes sense, if they cannot generate revenue from additional launches then funding a new rocket is going to impact the bottom line more severely.  At present ULA board has not fully committed to investing in the new rocket, and while they have approved the milestones for this year they are only committing funds on a quarterly basis.

Add to that the recent SpaceX certification to fly national security space missions thereby removing the monopoly ULA had on the segment.  Not only do ULA risk losing launches to SpaceX but even if they win it seems likely that they will have to lower their costs to compete thereby generating lower profits.

While ULA does have the Delta rocket family they could fall back on, they have made it very clear that it costs too much to produce and they are only keeping the Delta Heavy option for as long as customers are willing to pay for it.

So in summary it is very unlikely that the Vulcan rocket will be cancelled however the fact that it may take until 2022 before it can fly national security space missions and given the potential shortage of RD-180 engines ULA could be facing some hard times over the coming years as they attempt to fund the new rocket and also deal with the changing market that they once dominated.

It should also be noted that because the Air Force requires at least two launch options for it’s hardware it is very likely that something will be done to ensure ULA or another vendor other than SpaceX is available for future launches.

The information regarding the potential impact of the RD-180 engines was taken from the linked SpaceNews article.