Spaceflight Insider

Strong at 100 – ULA launches Morelos-3 on firm’s 100th mission

An Atlas V 421 with the Morelos-3 communications satellite lifts off from Cape Canaveral's SLC-41 at 6:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 2. Photo Credit: Jared Haworth / SpaceFlight Insider

An Atlas V 421 with the Morelos-3 communications satellite lifts off from Cape Canaveral’s SLC-41 at 6:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 2. Photo Credit: Jared Haworth / SpaceFlight Insider

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — It was, by most estimations, just an “everyday” launch (if there even is such a thing). Just another Atlas V booster lifting off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) in Florida. The 421 version of the launch vehicle that took to the skies at 6:28 a.m. EDT (10:28 GMT) marked the 100th time a United Launch Alliance (ULA) rocket has sent a payload aloft.

United Launch Alliance Atlas V 421 rocket Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41 Morelos-3 photo credit Jared Haworth SpaceFlight Insider

The Atlas V 421 rocket was rolled out to SLC-41 a little after 5 p.m. EDT on Thursday, Oct. 1. Photo Credit: Jared Haworth / SpaceFlight Insider

The firm, formed in 2006 from elements of Boeing’s and Lockheed Martin’s launch services, has now completed its 100th mission. This important milestone was met with the flight of the Morelos-3 Mexican communications satellite.

“Today was an especially proud day for our team as we launched our 100th successful one-at-a-time mission since ULA was formed in 2006. Congratulations to the entire team including our many mission partners on this unprecedented achievement,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs.

Morelos-3 was sent to orbit on behalf of Mexico’s Secretaria de Comunicaciones y Transportes (Ministry of Communications and Transportation). The spacecraft has a 22-meter L-band reflector it will use to provide 3G+ communications as well as other services.

There will be two satellites in the constellation, along with two ground stations, control centers, and infrastructure that the satellites require.

The Mexsat constellation will provide a wide range of services which include education and health programs, as well as voice, data, video, and internet services. Mexsat will serve to complement other services to rural regions of the country.

“The quality and reliability of the Atlas V is unparalleled, and today it delivered on a critical step toward bringing next-generation mobile telecommunications services to Mexico,” said Steve Skladanek, president of Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services. “The placement of Morelos-3 into orbit is vital to an effective Mexsat constellation, and partnering with ULA, we were able to help the customer achieve that mission.”

Morelos-3 is based on Boeing’s 702HP geomobile satellite. The satellite is capable of generating some 14 kilowatts of power. The spacecraft’s power is produced through its 5-panel solar arrays, which are made up of ultra triple-junction gallium arsenide solar cells.

This morning’s flight was only the fifth of the 421 configuration of the Atlas V booster. The rocket was not stacked in the normal manner within the Cape’s Vertical Integration Facility (VIF).

United Launch Alliance Atlas V 421 Cape Canaveral Air Force Space Launch Complex 41 Morelos-3 Photo Credit Mike Deep SpaceFlight Insider

The Atlas V 421 arcs a fiery trail across the Florida’s skies in the early morning hours of Oct. 2, 2015. Photo Credit: Mike Deep / SpaceFlight Insider

“Normally, the rocket’s various components are ‘stacked’ within the VIF, for Morelos-3, we integrated the booster a little differently, with certain portions being stacked off-site,” Andrea Casias, an engineer with United Launch Alliance told SpaceFlight Insider. “These parts come in from all over the U.S., Harlingen, Texas, Decatur (Alabama) and elsewhere and then they’re stacked here at the Cape. Morelos-3 was different, we assembled Atlas’ second stage off site, whereas we’d normally do that here (at the VIF).”

Casias noted that by proceeding with the assembly in this way, about a week’s worth of cycle time was saved as ULA does not have to contend with the elements and other factors.

The Atlas V 421 booster rolled out of the VIF shortly after 5 p.m. EDT (21:00 GMT) on Thursday, Oct. 1. The rocket rolled slowly over to the launch pad at SLC-41, which sits adjacent to the VIF courtesy of two railcars. The journey of about 0.3 miles took approximately 30 minutes to complete.

Liftoff occurred at 6:28 a.m. EDT (10:28 GMT) at the close of the launch window. The reason the launch was delayed 20 minutes was, as has been the case with other launches, a wayward boater had entered into the restricted region – forcing the launch to slip to the end of the window.

Just shy of 6 seconds into the flight, the Atlas V conducted a pitch/yaw maneuver to place on the correct trajectory for orbit.

At a mere 46.7 seconds into the flight, the rocket and its precious cargo reached Mach 1 (767 miles per hour) with the launch vehicle entering the realm of maximum dynamic pressure or “max-Q” – a little more than 12 seconds later. This region of the atmosphere is where the pressure outside the booster conspires with the rocket’s velocity to place the booster under the greatest amount of stress.

About two minutes and seven seconds into the mission, the twin AJ-60A solid rocket motors, their fuel depleted, were jettisoned, and could be seen tumbling back to Earth.

The Atlas booster engine cutoff occurred right on time at four minutes and nine seconds after liftoff.

Just six seconds later, Atlas’ core booster stage and the Centaur upper stage separated followed 10 seconds later by the activation of the lone RL-10C engine in the booster’s upper stage.

At four minutes and 33 seconds into the flight, the four-meter fairing, which had shielded the Morelos-3 spacecraft through the turbulent atmosphere above the State of Florida, was jettisoned – revealing the spacecraft to the space environment.

After two more burns from the Centaur – about two hours and 51 minutes after it had lifted off from the Cape’s SLC-41 – Morelos-3 separated and was poised to begin its mission.

Morelos-3 is a “one-for-one” replacement of the Mexsat-1 satellite that was lost this past May on a Russian Proton rocket (managed by International Launch Services).

“The successful placement Morelos-3 into orbit is tremendous news for Mexico,” said Omar Charfén, Mexsat program director general. “Now, we can begin to use Morelos-3 to expand the already robust capabilities of our Mexsat communications network.”

An Atlas V 421 with the Morelos-3 communications satellite lifts off from Cape Canaveral's SLC-41 at 6:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 2. Photo Credit: Jared Haworth / SpaceFlight Insider

This morning’s launch was only the fifth time the 421 version of the Atlas V was used. Photo Credit: Jared Haworth / SpaceFlight Insider



Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

Congrats to ULA and Morelos-3. On to the next 100!

Congratulations to ULA, Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services and Mexico’s Ministry of Communications and Transportation on a successful launch!

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