ULA Atlas V lofts GOES-S satellite for NASA and NOAA
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Powered aloft by its lone RD-180 rocket engine and four Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ-60A solid rocket boosters, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 541 launched the GOES-S weather satellite into orbit on behalf of NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The mission saw the second in this series of next-generation weather satellites roar spaceward from Space Launch Complex 41.
The launch took place at the very opening of a roughly two-hour-long window that opened at 5:02 p.m. EST (22:02 GMT) Thursday, March 1, 2018.
The 541 configuration of the Atlas V—sporting a five-meter-wide fairing, four solid rocket motors and a single engine centaur upper stage—is the second most powerful fielded version of the launch vehicle (there is a 551 version). This version of the rocket sent NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover on its journey to the Red Planet on Nov. 26, 2011, during the configuration’s first use.
Unlike the 10-month long, 354-million-mile voyage Curiosity undertook, GOES-S traveled a far shorter journey. Today’s launch marked the sixth time the 541 has been utilized. This version of the Atlas V is capable of lofting 18,270 pounds (8,290 kilograms) to a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) or 38,400 pounds (17,410 kilograms) to low-Earth orbit.
In terms of the launcher’s mission today, it was tasked with sending GOES-S to an “optimized geosynchronous transfer orbit.”
The GOES-S spacecraft is the second in the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R series. These next-generation spacecraft are being used by NASA and NOAA.
“GOES-S increases the coverage of our nation and will contribute to the quality and timeliness of weather data – but it is also more than that.” said Tim Gasparrini, GOES-R vice president and program manager at Lockheed Martin Space via a company-issued release. “As is evident with the performance of GOES-16 on orbit, we are gaining insight into our weather like never before. The extended application of this data is expected to have a large impact on industries like shipping and logistics, aviation, transportation and more.”
Some two hours before liftoff, United Launch Alliance’s CEO and President, Tory Bruno announced via Twitter that, “…the board is green.” In short, everything was ready to support flight.
Just three seconds shy of the countdown clock reaching zero, the Russian-made RD-180 engine ignited and within five seconds after thundering off of the pad at SLC-41, the rocket conducted a pitch/yaw maneuver to place it on the appropriate trajectory for GTO.
The vehicle reached Mach 1 a mere 35 seconds after liftoff and had passed through the region of the atmosphere known as maximum dynamic pressure, max-Q, approximately 47 seconds into the flight.
The 67-foot (20-meter) long AJ-60A solid rocket boosters, their part of the mission complete, were jettisoned one minute and 50 seconds into the flight. These are not recoverable and were left to fall into the Atlantic Ocean.
In fact, this particular mission saw the 100th flight of an AJ-60A. The booster’s manufacturer said in a company release that these are the largest monolith boosters ever flown. The four used for this launch were the 97th through 100th, according to Aerojet Rocketdyne.
Once the Atlas’ core stage had pushed its precious cargo out of a majority of Earth’s atmosphere, the payload fairing, or nosecone, of the rocket separated and was jettisoned to reveal the GOES-S satellite. This took place some 3.5 minutes after liftoff.
Less than a minute later (approximately four minutes and 22 seconds into the flight), the Atlas core underwent Booster Engine Cutoff (BECO) with the RD-180 engine shutting down. Six seconds later and the rocket’s first stage and the Centaur upper stage separated. Three seconds later, the Centaur upper stage’s lone RL10C-1 engine activated to continue powering GOES-S on its way (this is referred to as Centaur Main Engine Start or MES-1).
This burn lasted for some 7.5 minutes before the RL10C-1 shut down to allow GOES-S and Centaur to coast in a parking orbit for about 11 minutes, 27 seconds. Then, 22 minutes, 38 seconds after leaving Florida, the engine was reactivated for its second burn (MES-2). At a mission-elapsed-time of 28 minutes, 9 seconds, the RL10C-1 completed its second burn (MECO-2).
At about three hours and 28 minutes into the flight, the engine reactivated yet again, this time for a final burn. This lasted for 1 minutes, 35 seconds before the RL10C-1 had completed its part of the mission and shut down (MECO-3). Three minutes later, the GOES-S satellite detached from the Centaur upper stage.
When all was said and done, about four hours and 32 minutes after it had all begun with the smoke and fire of launch, the flight phase of the GOES-S mission was completed.
“Thank you to our partners at NASA and NOAA for the outstanding teamwork, as we delivered this next-generation satellite to orbit,” said Gary Wentz, ULA vice president of Government and Commercial Programs via a company issued release. “We are proud to serve as the ultimate launch provider, continuing our dedication to 100 percent mission success.”
Just before the Atlas V leaving the pad at the Cape, SpaceFlight Insider spoke with the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, who also attended the inaugural launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018. He spoke about the need for multiple launch service providers.
“I think that it’s good to have multiple launch capabilities, each one designed to do a little different thing,” Ross told SpaceFlight Insider. “I’m thrilled that it’s a NOAA satellite because of all the good things that it can do … it’s an interesting contrast between immediate and practical use, which is what this launch will be versus an experimental launch trying to prove out that we had in SpaceX (the first flight of the Falcon Heavy). So, the purposes of the launches are a little bit different, but it shows the diversity of kinds of efforts that the American space program can put forward.”
Ross was at Cape Canaveral for the launch of GOES-S and said the excitement surrounding these missions is now in his blood.
“I’m starting to think that space launches are a highly communicable disease for which there is no known cure,” Ross told SpaceFlight Insider.
Ross went on to note the need to adjust the regulations, some of which, in terms of remote sensing, are more than 25 years old, in order to keep up with modern technological advancements. Given that GOES-S is the modern “descendant” of a line of spacecraft that can trace its lineage back to GOES-1, which was launched Oct. 16, 1975, the Ross’s words carried extra significance for today’s mission.
“What we’re trying to do is make it easier for legitimate space activities to be conducted. Right now…it takes longer to get all of the regulatory approvals than it does to go from design to launch. That seems like a ridiculous pair of facts,” Ross said. “We don’t think that the regulatory process should be the gating element of a launch, it should be the technology and the production of the equipment.”
Video courtesy of NASA
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, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.