Atlas 5 successfully launches U.S. military satellite

Please consider donating to Behind the Black, by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar to the right. Your support will allow me to continue covering science and culture as I have for the past twenty years, independent and free from any outside influence.

The competition heats up: ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket today successfully launched a U.S. Navy military communications satellite into orbit.

ULA’s big selling point for its very high prices is its very high reliability. This was its 99th consecutive launch success for the company, going back to 2006. It was also the 127th in a row for the Atlas 5.

The problem is that a majority of these launches were government payloads, which up until now has been willing to pay top dollar. For ULA to really compete successfully, it needs private customers, and they appear unwilling to pay that top dollar, going instead to SpaceX. It is for this reason the company is pushing hard to develop a more efficient and less costly rocket.


  • Hondo

    Bob – is there anyone anywhere heavily working on a true space plane (sub or low orbit)? That’s takeoff and land.

  • If you are asking about a single-stage-to-orbit plane, no. We don’t have the technology for it yet. Ain’t cost effective.

    It’ll happen eventually, but right now it is smarter to focus on getting multiple stages back to Earth for reuse.

  • hondo

    I figured with massive advances in Material Sciences over the past 50 years, we would have by now developed new lightweight materials for such a plane. And single-stage solid fuel rockets have come a long way – functioning as replaceable cartridges?

    It would, of course, be a bi-engine plane – with orbital launch occurring at high altitude.

    How about a spaceport located in say Northern Australia near Darwin?
    True maximum utilization of the Coriolis effect .

    just dreaming.

  • PeterF

    I recall an experimental non-ablative heat shield made of heat resistant fibers woven into a cloth. I couldn’t remember what material the fibers were made of. Perhaps they were carbon fiber. Asbestos could have been the base material though.
    The research discovered that they could create fibers that would stand up to the heat generated during orbital reentry but that a normal cloth woven from them would break down because the threads rubbed against each other at the molecular level with heat energy. The cloth would literally cut itself into tiny fragments and disintegrate.
    The researchers also claimed to have developed a cloth woven so that no threads actually touched. A heat shield made of such a material would be far superior to the ceramic tiles then being developed for the space shuttle fleet. (NASA wasn’t interested)
    Perhaps this was just a press release from celebrity seekers but I think not. High temperature fabrics are easily obtained today. Materials sciences have advanced to the point that a craft similar to the SR-71 could easily achieve orbit and return with the addition of a rocket booster ignited at altitude.
    Perhaps Virgin Galactic could repurpose a couple of old engines?

  • Edward


    XCOR, at the Mojave Spaceport, is seriously working on a suborbital space plane that will take off and land on a runway. They are building their prototype. Rather than solid fuel cartridges (as Virgin Galactic is trying on its SpaceShipTwo), XCOR will refuel its Lynx with liquid Kerosene and liquid oxygen as oxidizer.

    Getting to orbit is harder, as the space plane must be accelerated to five miles per second, requiring a significant amount of propellant, more structure, and thus a larger wing to lift the greater weight at take off.

    Reaction Engines Ltd., a British company, is working on a single stage to orbit, reusable space plane that will also take off and land on a runway. They call it Skylon, and they are still working out the technology, especially their unique rocket engine, which breathes atmospheric air at lower altitudes (to save on oxidizer weight) and use on-board liquid oxygen at higher altitudes.

    I hope they eventually succeed, as a successful Skylon would likely do even more than SpaceX at reducing the cost of access to space.

  • hondo

    Thanks for the info. Any feedback on how a launch facility located near or on the equator would enter in this equation?

  • Edward

    As it turns out, equatorial launch sites are best only for equatorial orbits, such as geostationary orbits for some communication and some weather satellites. If you are looking for an orbit that goes farther north or south, the best launch site would be located at the farthest north (or south) latitude.

    This sounds counter-intuitive, because you get a better “throw” or initial eastward velocity from the 1,000 mph speed of the Earth’s surface at the equator. However, if your orbit reaches farther north, then you start to expend more fuel to add northward velocity than you saved by that “throw.”

    If you are wondering why a satellite would want to be in a non-equatorial orbit, sometimes a requirement is coverage of the Earth, such as Iridium’s communication satellites, Skybox’s Earth imaging satellites, or the ISS.

    A useful orbit is the Molniya orbit, an elliptical orbit in which a satellite spends a lot of time over the US or Russia, or even over the Pacific — so that you can get a “one bounce” communication between New York and Tokyo. Sirius Radio used a somewhat similar orbit, the Tundra orbit, in order to “hang” over the US for extended periods of time.

    Sun-synchronous orbits are useful to keep your satellite in sunshine all the time, as the plane of this orbit precesses (rotates) 360 degrees in one year.

    If you are into it, here is a (large) tutorial that JPL has on the basics of spaceflight (mostly concepts, little or no math):

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *