Tag Archives: Atlas 5

ULA successfully launches surveillance satellite

Capitalism in space: It appears that ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket has successfully launched a National Reconnaissance Office surveillance satellite into orbit.

The reason I am qualifying the success of the launch at this moment is that, because of the national security nature of the payload, they will only release details about the success of the final orbital maneuvers long after they have been completed. Right now these details are blacked out. Update: the launch was successful.

ULA has another launch of an NRO satellite scheduled for October, a date not yet determined. Right now, the U.S. has had 20 launches in 2017, far more than any other nation, with SpaceX’s 13 launches comprising the bulk.

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ULA delays California launch because of Florida hurricane

Because some of its employees needed for a California launch in next week live in Florida, ULA has decided to delay that launch so that those employees can focus on preparing for and recovering from Hurricane Irma in Florida.

What I find interesting about this story is that it reveals that ULA, unlike SpaceX, apparently does not have more than one launch team, even though their staffing has historically been much higher. This limits their ability to do frequent launches, as well as launches from both coasts.

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ULA’s Atlas 5 successfully launches NASA communications satellite

Capitalism in space: ULA this morning successfully launched NASA TDRS-M communications satellite, following a several week delay caused by an accident during satellite preparation that forced the replacement of the satellite’s antenna.

This was ULA’s fifth launch for 2017, which is behind the once-a-month pace they have maintained for the previous five years.

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Commercial lunar mission gives launch contract to ULA

Capitalism in space: Astrobotic, a private company planning to put a lander on the Moon by 2019, has awarded its launch contract to ULA.

This initial Peregrine lunar lander will fly 77 pounds (35 kilograms) of customer payloads from six nations either above or below the spacecraft’s deck, depending on specific needs. The autonomous landing will use cameras, guidance computing and five Aerojet Rocketdyne-made hypergolic engines to set the lander down on four shock-absorbing legs.

It will stand 6 feet tall (1.8 meters) and have a diameter of 8 feet (2.5 meters).Subsequent missions envision scaling up to payload masses of 585 pounds (265 kilograms). Markets range from scientific instruments to placing mementos on the Moon.

This company had been competing for the Google Lunar X-Prize, but pulled out of the competition when it realized it couldn’t launch by the end of 2018. It continued development, however, and apparently has gathered enough customers to pay for its launch in 2019.

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The damage and repair of TDRS-M creates complicated scheduling problems

Because of the launch delay caused by the accident that damaged the antenna of NASA’s TDRS-M communication satellite, requiring its replacement, the agency is now faced with a cascading series of scheduling problems.

They are now aiming for an August 10 launch of TDRS-M on a ULA Atlas 5. This will then force a delay in the August 12 launch of a Dragon capsule to ISS to August 14, which can’t be delayed past August 16 because of a scheduled Russian spacewalk on ISS that must happen on August 17 because it involves the release of two satellites. Making things even more complicated is Dragon’s cargo, which includes mice for a rodent experiment. If it doesn’t occur before August 16, the mice will then have to be replaced with fresh mice, causing further delays.

There is then even the chance that these scheduling problems might impact SpaceX’s scheduled August 28’s launch of the X-37B, as well as ULA’s scheduled August 31 launch of surveillance satellite.

One additional tidbit: This Dragon will be the last unused cargo capsule. All future SpaceX cargo missions will use previously flown capsules.

I should add that these scheduling issues illustrate starkly the growing need for more launch sites. There is money to be made here, fulfilling this need.

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NASA and Boeing to replace damaged antenna on NASA satellite

Due to an accident during satellite launch preparations, NASA and Boeing are planning to replace a damaged antenna on NASA’s TDRS-M satellite, used by NASA mainly for communications between the ground and ISS.

The update at the link however says nothing whether the satellite will still launch on August 3, as presently scheduled. Nor have they released any information about the accident itself.

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Sierra Nevada picks ULA’s Atlas 5 for first two Dream Chaser cargo flights

Capitalism in space: Sierra Nevada has awarded ULA the contract for the first two cargo flights of Dream Chaser to ISS.

The announcement sets Dream Chaser’s first cargo flight to the International Space Station for launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, in 2020. A second ISS cargo flight is contracted to lift off the next year. “ULA is an important player in the market and we appreciate their history and continued contributions to space flights and are pleased to support the aerospace community in Colorado and Alabama,” said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of SNC’s Space Systems.

Financial terms of the contract were not disclosed.

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NASA communications satellite damaged during launch prep

A NASA TDRS communications satellite, scheduled for a August 3 launch on a ULA Atlas 5 rocket, was damaged on July 14 while it was undergoing final preparations for launch.

Though the issue apparently involves one of the satellite’s main antennas, it is unclear what happened exactly or how extensive the damage was. Furthermore, this article about the incident notes that an earlier incident had also occurred during shipping.

It is understood this latest incident is not related to a ‘close call’ that NASA was investigating earlier in the flow. That incident involved the spacecraft’s shipping container – containing environmental instrumentation – which slid a couple of feet on the trailer it was being winched on to.

If I was a customer who might want to buy the launch services of ULA, I would demand detailed information about why these incidents happened, including what measures are being taken to prevent them from occurring again.

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First Starliner manned flight delayed to late 2018

Boeing has revealed that the first manned flight of its commercial Starliner capsule will likely be delayed a few more months to late 2018.

The latest confirmed schedules from NASA show the uncrewed mission, dubbed the Orbital Flight Test (OFT), slated for No Earlier Than June 2018, followed quickly in August 2018 by the crewed flight test.

However, comments made by Chris Ferguson last month at the Paris Air Show seem to indicate that the crewed flight test is moving from its August timeframe. According to Mr. Ferguson, Director of Crew and Mission Operations for Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program, the first Starliner crewed test flight is aiming for “last quarter of 2018” – which would be a shift of two to five months into the October to December 2018 timeframe.

The unmanned test flight, however, remains set for a June 18, 2018 launch.

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Five satellite Air Force contract up for bid

Capitalism in space: The Air Force has announced that it will be soliciting bids from SpaceX and ULA for a 5-satellite launch contract.

Claire Leon, director of the Launch Enterprise Directorate at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, told reporters that grouping launches together was an effort to streamline and speed the acquisition process at a time when the national security sector is demanding ever-increasing access to space. “By doing five at once, it makes our acquisition more efficient and it allows the contractors to put in one proposal,” she said.

This grouping however might make it impossible for SpaceX to win the contract, as the company’s Falcon 9 rocket might not be capable of launching all five satellites, and its Falcon Heavy has not yet flown the three times necessary before the Air Force will consider using it.

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ULA wins Air Force launch contract

Capitalism in space: The Air Force has awarded ULA a $191 million launch contract in only the third competitively bid Air Force contract in decades.

The Air Force put the STP-3 launch up for bid in September 2016, giving SpaceX and ULA until December to submit proposals. It’s just the third competitively-bid national security space launch contract after an era where ULA — a joint venture between defense industry giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin — was the government’s sole source for launches.

The effort is part of the Air Force’s “Phase 1A,” an effort to “reintroduce a competitive procurement environment” into the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, the service said. This particular phase is set to cover 15 competitively-bid launches through 2019, at which point the military hopes to have several launch providers as options.

SpaceX won the first two launch contracts, including a GPS 3 launch that was awarded in March.

This contract award is not as competitive as they make it seem. I suspect that if the Air Force was required to take the lowest bid, SpaceX would have won, since its launch prices are far less than $191 million. Instead, I think the Air Force gave this contract to ULA because SpaceX had won the previous two bids, and they wanted to give some business to ULA in order to keep that company viable.

In the short run, this policy will keep ULA above water. In the long run, the company is in serious trouble if it can’t lower its launch prices significantly.

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Air Force budget reveals cost differences between ULA and SpaceX

Eric Berger at Ars Technica has found that the most recent Air Force budget provides a good estimate of the price ULA charges the military for its launches.

According to the Air Force estimate, the “unit cost” of a single rocket launch in fiscal year 2020 is $422 million, and $424 million for a year later.

This is a complex number to unpack. But based upon discussions with various space policy experts, this is the maximum amount the Air Force believes it will need to pay, per launch, if United Launch Alliance is selected for all of its launch needs in 2020. ULA launches about a half-dozen payloads for the Air Force in a given year, on variants of its rockets. Therefore, the 2020 unit cost likely includes a mix of mostly Atlas V rockets (sold on the commercial market for about $100 million) and perhaps one Delta rocket launch (up to $350 million on the commercial market for a Heavy variant).

In other words, the $422 million estimate per launch is the most they will pay. Atlas 5 launches will certainly be less, about $100 to $150 million, while the Falcon 9 will likely be under $100 million. What they are doing is budgeting high so they guarantee they have the money they need to pay for the most expensive launches, usually on the Delta Heavy.

From my perspective, they are budgeting far too high, and if I was in Congress I would insist that this number be reduced significantly, especially considering this Air Force statement on page 109 of the budget document [pdf]:

The Air Force, National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) agreed to a coordinated strategy for certification of New Entrants to launch payloads in support of NSS and other USG requirements which has so far resulted in the certification of one New Entrant. The Air Force continues to actively work with potential New Entrants to reliably launch NSS requirements. The Government may award early integration contracts to ensure each potential offeror’s launch system is compatible with the intended payload. Beginning in Fiscal Year 2018, the Air Force will compete all launch service procurements for each mission where more than one certified provider can service the required reference orbit. [emphasis mine]

The “New Entrant” is of course SpaceX. They are also saying that they are going to encourage competitive bidding now on all future launch contracts.

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Israeli student cubesat launched from Atlas 5

When the Cygnus capsule was placed in orbit yesterday, it also released a number of nanosats, one of which was a cubesat built by Israeli high school students.

More than 80 pupils in grades 9-12 at schools in Herzliya, Ofakim, Yeruham, Ofra, and the Bedouin town of Hura helped to construct Duchifat-2, which weighs just 1.8 kilograms (four pounds), and is just 20 centimeters (eight inches) tall and 10 centimeters wide. Due to its small size, the satellite has no motors and instead uses the earth’s magnetic field to keep itself correctly aligned in space.

Cubesats have generally been built and launched as college projects to help teach students the engineering behind satellites. This however was the only nanosat released by the Atlas 5 that involved high school students.

Note also that the project did not simply involve Jewish students.

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ULA successfully launches Cygnus to ISS

Capitalism in space: ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket today sucessfully launched Orbital ATK’s Cygnus freighter to ISS.

This success ends a month-long delay for the Atlas 5, which was supposed to put this Cygnus capsule in orbit last month. Hydraulic problems in the rocket and ground systems had to be fixed first.

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ULA slashes launch prices for Atlas 5

Capitalism in space: In order to compete with SpaceX ULA announced this week that it will cut its launch price for the Atlas 5 rocket by one third.

United Launch Alliance has dropped the price of its workhorse Atlas 5 rocket flights by about one-third in response to mounting competition from rival SpaceX and others, the company’s chief executive said on Tuesday. “We’re seeing that price is even more important than it had been in the past,” Tory Bruno, chief executive of United Launch Alliance, or ULA, said during an interview at the U.S. Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. “We’re dropping the cost of Atlas almost every day. Atlas is now down more than a third in its cost,” Bruno said.

It appears that they have discovered that the prime reason they lost their bid of an Air Force GPS satellite launch to SpaceX was because their price was too high.

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Atlas 5/Cygnus launch delayed until mid-April

ULA has delayed its next Atlas 5 launch to send a Cygnus cargo capsule to ISS until mid-April.

Gatens said NASA was now expecting the Cygnus to launch to the station no earlier than the middle of April. “The Orbital launch, the next launch, has slipped due to an investigation of a hydraulic leak in the booster engine compartment that’s in work,” she said. “There are some components being replaced. The investigation is going on and we’re currently targeting no earlier than, probably, a mid-April launch.”

ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye said March 28 that a new launch date has not been set yet for the mission. “Additional information will be provided once testing to resolve the booster hydraulic issue is complete,” she said.

The launch was initially planned for mid-March. This delay has forced NASA to delay a spacewalk because it involves installing equipment that the Cygnus capsule is bringing to ISS.

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Atlas 5/Cygnus launch delayed again

ULA has now delayed the launch of its Atlas 5 rocket, taking Cygnus to ISS, indefinitely because of the discovery of another hydraulic issue, this time with the booster.

This is the third time hydraulic issues have delayed the launch, the second time those problems were related to the booster itself.

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Atlas 5/Cygnus launch delayed until next week due to technical issue

The launch of the next Cygnus freighter to ISS has been delayed by ULA until next week in order to fix “a hydraulic issue found on ground support equipment.”

The launch had been delayed previously because of a hydraulic issue in the rocket itself.

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Lockheed Martin abandons Athena rocket

Lockheed Martin has decided to shutdown its Athena rocket, and instead focus on flying its Atlas 5 rocket, even after ULA’s transitions to the new Vulcan rocket.

They say they will not retire Atlas until 2023, when the final version of Vulcan is expected to fly.

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Blue Origin proposes unmanned lunar mission

The competition heats up: Blue Origin has proposed building for NASA an unmanned lunar mission to visit Shackleton Crater at the Moon’s south pole by 2020.

The Post says the company’s seven-page proposal, dated Jan. 4, has been circulating among NASA’s leadership and President Donald Trump’s transition team. It’s only one of several proposals aimed at turning the focus of exploration beyond Earth orbit to the moon and its environs during Trump’s term.

As described by the Post, the proposal seeks NASA’s support for sending a “Blue Moon” lander to Shackleton Crater near the moon’s south pole. The lander would be designed to carry up to 10,000 pounds of payload. It could be launched by Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, which is currently under development, or by other vehicles including NASA’s Space Launch System or United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5. [emphasis mine]

The important take-away from this story is not the proposal to go to the Moon, but the proposal, as highlighted, that other rockets could do it instead of SLS. Though the proposal includes SLS as a possible launch vehicle, NASA’s giant rocket simply won’t be ready by 2020. That New Glenn might be illustrates again how much better private space does things, as this rocket is only now beginning development. If it is ready by 2020, which is what Blue Origin has been promising, it will have taken the company only about four years to build it, one fourth the time it is taking NASA to build SLS.

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Aerojet Rocketdyne sets record testing new rocket engine

The competition heats up: In recent static fire tests of its new AR-1 rocket engine Aerojet Rocketdyne set a record for the highest chamber pressure for any American engine using oxygen and kerosene.

They hope to convince ULA to use this engine in its Atlas 5 rocket to replace the Russian engine they presently use. At the moment, though ULA has made no commitment, it appears however that the company is favoring Blue Origin’s engine instead. That Congress favors Aerojet Rocketdyne is their one ace in the hole, since Congress controls the purse strings.

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Killing both commercial space and American astronauts

This all reeks of politics: A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released yesterday says that NASA it should not permit Boeing and SpaceX to fly humans on their capsules and rockets until they fix certain issues and test both repeatedly on unmanned flights before the first manned flights to ISS.

This GAO report was mandated by Congress, and it requires NASA to certify that both Boeing and SpaceX have met NASA’s requirements before allowing those first manned flights. While the technical issues outlined in the report — to which NASA concurs — might be of concern, my overall impression in reading the report, combined with yesterday’s announcement by NASA that they are seriously considering flying humans on SLS’s first test flight, is that this process is actually designed to put obstacles in front of Boeing and SpaceX so as to slow their progress and allow SLS to launch first with humans aboard.

For example, the report lists three main problems with the commercial manned effort. First there is the Russian engine on the Atlas 5. From the report itself [pdf]:
» Read more

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Another successful ULA Atlas 5 launch

The competition heats up: ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket successfully launched a commercial communications satellite on Sunday.

In its sixty-seven flights before Sunday’s launch, the Atlas V has achieved sixty-six successes, including a stretch of fifty-seven missions going back to October 2007. The only mission which was not a complete success, June 2007’s launch of the NROL-30 mission, a pair of naval intelligence satellites for the National Reconnaissance Office – reached a lower-than-planned orbit but the satellites were able to correct for this using their own propulsion. ULA describes the launch as successful from its customer’s perspective, while independent analysts consider it a partial failure.

Though the article notes that most Atlas 5 launches have been for the government, the company has recently been aggressively courting the private sector.

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New ULA website allows customers to configure their launch

The competition heats up: ULA today announced the creation of a new website, dubbed Rocketbuilder, where customers and the public and configure their own launch rocket.

ULA noted that the tool also provides insight into reliability, schedule assurance and performance, allowing users to make a true value comparison. “The value of a launch is a lot more than its price tag,” said Tory Bruno, ULA president and chief executive officer. “Through our RocketBuilder website, customers are now empowered with pricing information that can be used to make decisions during their spacecraft development process, potentially helping customers keep program costs down. In addition, customers are able to build a rocket based on the needs they input, their spacecraft specifications and mission requirements.”

Users have the flexibility to select a launch date, the satellite’s orbit, rocket configuration and the customized service level needed for the mission. Finally, the site will capture savings in extra revenue or mission life, provide the true total cost of the specific mission requirements, and allow users to begin the contracting process.

This is great news, as it shows that Bruno and ULA are very serious about competing aggressively with SpaceX. For example, Bruno notes that the price of the cheapest Atlas 5 configuration has dropped from $191 million to $109 million in the last few years. And while this price remains significantly more expensive than SpaceX’s $62 million, this new tool should help to drive the costs down more. When ULA learns which configurations sell best, it will then be able to make those configurations cheaper.

The site is also cool. I tried it, and found that it strongly resembles the experience of buying an airplane ticket at sites like Travelocity. You pick various options (payload weight, payload size, orbit, etc) and the site automatically adjusts the rocket’s configuration and the price.

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Atlas 5 launches NOAA weather satellite

Successfully completing its second launch in 8 days, ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket put a new NOAA weather satellite in orbit on Saturday.

NOAA is giving this new satellite a big PR push, claiming it will revolutionize weather monitoring and forecasting. While the satellite might be state of the art, it is also was very expensive, costing $1 billion. I strongly suspect that the same thing could have been built far cheaper, and quicker, if left to the private sector.

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Atlas 5 to launch Cygnus in March

NASA has ordered Orbital ATK to use ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket for its next Cygnus cargo run to ISS in order to maximize the cargo that the capsule can deliver.

A Cygnus reached the station last month with over 5,000 pounds of supplies after launching atop Orbital ATK’s own Antares rocket. It was the first such flight for the booster in two years, a lull instigated by the 2014 explosion of an Antares and Orbital ATK’s decision to replace the main engines with a different design. But the more-powerful Atlas 5 rocket can launch over 7,700 pounds of provisions inside a Cygnus, and the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday night that NASA has pushed Orbital ATK to buy another Atlas 5 for its greater lift capacity and reliability record.

Sources told Spaceflight Now that the Atlas 5 would launch the OA-7 mission in March and that Orbital ATK was working with Kennedy Space Center to book facility time to process the Cygnus.
It was not immediately clear if NASA or Orbital ATK would pay for the extra costs associated with the Atlas 5 rocket.

This decision by NASA to favor Atlas 5 here over Antares illustrates some of the commercial weaknesses of Antares. Orbital ATK’s decision to launch the rocket from Wallops Island in Virginia had some political advantages, putting their launch facilities in the state and congressional district of legislators whose approval they were soliciting. The decision, however, limited the cargo capacity of the rocket because of the site’s higher latitude. This might also help explain why Orbital ATK has as yet failed to find any other customers for Antares, besides NASA.

I also wonder whether some political pressure from other legislators who favor ULA also helped influence this decision. The political game is brutal these days in Washington and almost nothing connected to the federal government is done anymore without some crony and corrupt political maneuvers in the background.

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Atlas 5 Vandenberg launch delayed again

The ULA Atlas 5 launch of a commercial satellite at Vandenberg that has been delayed repeatedly for numerous reasons, some (wildfires) completely unrelated to the rocket, has been delayed again for five days because of “booster issues”.

The news reports do not say what these issues are.

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