ULA finishes year 12-for-12 with delivery of EchoStar XIX to orbit
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The weather might not have been perfect, but that didn’t prevent United Launch Alliance (ULA) from successfully delivering the EchoStar XIX satellite to orbit atop their Atlas V rocket. The launch marked ULA’s 12th of 2016 and 115th overall since the company’s founding more than 10 years ago.
Amidst broken clouds from an approaching cold front, the Atlas V 431 lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s (CCAFS) Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) at 2:13 p.m. EST (19:13 GMT), after a 42-minute hold at T-minus 4 minutes from the initial opening of the two-hour launch window due to a technical glitch.
“Congratulations to ULA and the entire integrated team who ensured the success of our last launch capping off what has been a very busy year,” Col. Walt Jackim, 45th Space Wing vice commander and mission Launch Decision Authority, said in a news release. “This mission once again clearly demonstrates the successful collaboration we have with our mission partners as we continue to shape the future of America’s space operations and showcase why the 45th Space Wing is the ‘World’s Premiere Gateway to Space.'”
Nearly three seconds before liftoff, the Atlas V’s Russian-built RD-180 main engine roared to life, burning a mixture of liquid oxygen (LOX) and RP-1 – a highly refined version of kerosene – in a build-up to producing its 860,200 pounds (3,827 kilonewtons) of sea-level thrust.
Once the flight computer determined the RD-180 had passed all health checks, it signaled the three supplemental solid rocket motors (SRMs) – the largest single-segment carbon composite motors currently produced – to ignite, with each providing an additional 348,500 pounds (1,550 kilonewtons) of thrust at liftoff.
The vehicle quickly cleared the tower and began its pitch, roll, and yaw maneuver as it accelerated on its ascent to orbit, passing Mach 1 (the speed of sound) after 45 seconds into its flight.
Less than 15 seconds later, the rocket encountered the area of greatest aerodynamic stress on the vehicle, also known as “max Q”. Though the air thins as the vehicle rises, the increasing acceleration – combined with what little atmosphere remains – reaches a point where the loads imparted on the structure are greatest.
The three SRMs continued to burn for another 30 seconds and were jettisoned more than two minutes after liftoff. The RD-180 main engine fired for nearly two-and-a-half minutes more before booster engine cutoff (BECO) occurred nearly four-and-a-half minutes after ignition.
“ULA is honored to have been entrusted with the launch of the EchoStar XIX satellite,” said Gary Wentz, ULA vice president of Human and Commercial Systems. “We truly believe that our success is only made possible by the phenomenal teamwork of our employees, customers and industry partners.”
No man, or in this case, rocket, is an island, a fact highlighted by the contribution of an array of subcontractors including Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital ATK who provided a large composite structure, retro motors for the Atlas V launch vehicle, as well as components for the Echostar XIX satellite itself.
“It is great to see another successful Atlas V launch supported by a range of Orbital ATK products,” said Steve Earl, Vice President and General Manager of Orbital ATK’s Aerospace Structures Division. “Our team’s collective dedication and execution excellence help deliver increased capability to broadband satellite users here in North America.”
Empty, and with its job complete, the first stage separated from the Centaur stage six seconds later and ultimately splashed-down in the Atlantic Ocean.
The Centaur’s RL10C-1 came to life 10 seconds after separation, with its 22,900 pounds (101.86 kilonewtons) of vacuum thrust taking over the job of delivering the EchoStar XIX satellite to orbit.
Shortly after ignition of the RL10C-1, the 4-meter payload fairing was jettisoned, exposing the payload to the near-vacuum of space. Though providing needed protection from the stresses of launch, the payload fairing also burdened the vehicle with considerable mass – 5,483 pounds (2,487 kilograms), in the case of the XEPF variant used for this mission.
The RL10C-1 continued to fire, operating for approximately 9 minutes in this phase of the mission, with its first shut-down coming nearly 14 minutes after liftoff.
The Centaur and EchoStar XIX satellite then entered a 10-minute coast phase, after which the RL10C-1 was restarted for nearly 6 minutes.
After coasting for an additional 3 minutes, the approximately 14,550-pound (6,600-kilogram) EchoStar XIX satellite separated from the Centaur over the southern half of Africa.
Mission successful, ULA celebrates 10 years
Flying freely, it is the job of the satellite’s main propulsion system to circularize the spacecraft’s orbit, approximately 22,300 miles (35,800 kilometers) above the equator. EchoStar XIX will eventually settle into its orbital slot at 97.1 degrees West longitude.
The launch of EchoStar closes out ULA’s manifest for 2016. It marked a pace of launch that few have been able to keep up with.
“As we celebrate 10 years, ULA continues to be the nation’s premier launch provider because of our unmatched reliability and mission success,” Wentz said. “The Atlas V continues to provide the optimum performance to precisely deliver a range of missions. As we move into our second decade, we will maintain our ongoing focus on mission success, one launch at a time even as we transform the space industry, making space more accessible, affordable and commercialized.”
Video Courtesy of United Launch Alliance
Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.