Delta 4 Heavy launch now delayed indefinitely due to launchpad issues

ULA has now delayed indefinitely the launch of a military reconnaissance satellite using its Delta 4 Heavy rocket because of ongoing issues in the swing arms on the launch tower.

According to ULA’s CEO, Tory Bruno:

..ULA was “working through an issue with pad hydraulics” associated with the swing arm retraction system at the Delta 4 launch pad. Three swing arms feeding propellants and conditioned air to the rocket and its satellite payload are designed to retract as the Delta 4-Heavy lifts off.

“Fixing is always easy,” Bruno tweeted. “Making sure something stays fixed takes more work and lots of discipline.”

This launch has been delayed numerous times in the past two months, almost always because of a variety of different problems, most related to the launchpad, with two scrubs occurring as launch aborts at launch. As the article at the link correctly notes,

The repeated problems with different parts of the Delta 4-Heavy’s launch pad have raised questions about aging infrastructure at pad 37B, which was originally built to support Saturn rocket launches in the 1960s, then mothballed until Boeing took over the facility in the 1990s for the Delta 4 program.

Boeing built the towering mobile gantry for the Delta 4 rocket, along with a then-new fixed umbilical tower with huge swing arms designed to pull away from the launcher as it climbs away from the pad.

The age of the launchpad, combined with the expensive complexity of the Delta 4 Heavy that results in very few launches spread over many years, cannot result in reliable operations.

Endless technical issues force Delta 4 Heavy launch scrubs

BUMPED and revised to include the September 30th launch abort.

Can we count the ways? For what has become a string of seemingly endless technical issues, ULA on September 29th was forced to once again scrub the launch of a military reconnaissance satellite because of a technical issue with its Delta 4 Heavy rocket and launchpad.

Apparently when they tried to move the launchpad’s mobile gantry away from the rocket they discovered “a hydraulic leak in the ground system.”

On the evening of September 30th (tonight) they tried again, only to have an abort at T-7 seconds, just as the engines were to ignite as planned.

They have been trying to get this bird off the ground now for more than a month. Here is a chronology of the launch scrubs, with all the various technical issues described.

August 26: Scrub because of “several problems,” the primary cause being a “pneumatics system issue.” This same countdown also had a long hold because of two blown fuses in a launchpad heater.

August 29: Aborted at T-3 seconds, due to “a torn diaphragm in one of three pressure regulators” in the launchpad. During the countdown they also had holds to deal with a fuel valve issue, a fuel sensor issue, and a temperature payload issue.

September 26: Scrubbed because of issue with the launchpad “swing arm retraction system.”

September 27: Scrubbed because of a continuing issue with the launchpad “swing arm retraction system.”

September 29 (just after midnight): A lightning strike forced a scrub. This was the only scrub not caused by technical issues.

September 29 (just before midnight): Scrubbed because of a hydraulic leak in the ground system.

September 30: Aborted at T-7 seconds. Under investigation. No new launch date yet announced.

This string of seemingly minor and apparently easy-to-fix problems does not reflect well on the quality control systems at ULA. I understand that this is rocket science, and thus difficult. At the same time engineers have now been doing launches for more than a half century, and this tale of woe above is more reminiscent of the early days of rocketry in the 1960s, when you might have a dozen or more scrubs because of these kinds of technical issues. You’d think by now ULA’s launch engineers would have worked these kinks out.

From a customer perspective this list of issues is also troubling, considering that the Delta 4 Heavy costs the customer more than any other commercial rocket. Granted it can put up a lot of payload, but the Falcon Heavy can put up more, and do it for less than half the cost and far more reliably. If I was ULA’s customer I would not be very satisfied with the product I am getting, even if the launch turns out to be a complete success.

The delays are also impacting other launches. SpaceX has had to repeatedly delay the launch of a GPS satellite on its Falcon 9 because for scheduling reasons the ULA launch must come first.

China and Russia launch a bunch of satellites

Russia today used its Soyuz-2 rocket to launch three communication satellites plus 19 commercial smallsats.

This was the first time Russia used the Soyuz-2 for these particular small communications satellites, as previously they had been launched by a variety of smaller rockets.

China in turn today used its Long March 4B to place two Earth resource satellites into orbit.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

25 China
15 SpaceX
10 Russia
4 ULA
4 Europe (Arianespace)

China has moved ahead of the U.S. 25 to 24 in the national rankings.

These numbers should change again in the next few days. The U.S. has had a number of scrubs and launch delays in the past few days. ULA has been repeatedly pushing back the previously delayed launch of a National Security Agency reconnaissance satellite due to a variety of problems related to its Delta 4 Heavy rocket. The launch is now set for just after midnight tonight (Monday night). [UPDATE: Launch scrubbed due to lightning and poor weather. Tentatively rescheduled for 11:58 pm (Eastern) on September 29.]

SpaceX meanwhile had to scrub a launch this morning (September 28) of another 60 Starlink satellites due to weather. No new launch date has yet been announced.

Northrop Grumman also has had to scrub tomorrow’s Antares launch of a Cygnus cargo freighter because of poor weather at Wallops Island. It is now set for the evening of October 1st.

SpaceX also has a scheduled launch tomorrow morning of a GPS satellite on its Falcon 9 rocket. This is also threatened by weather. There is also no word whether the ULA launch scrub will cause this launch to be delayed.

ULA pinpoints cause of Delta launch abort, reschedules launch

ULA has identified the cause of the launch abort of its Delta 4 Heavy rocket on August 29th, and has now aiming for a launch no earlier than September 18th.

A torn diaphragm in one of three pressure regulators at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 37 caused the computer-controlled scrub just three seconds before liftoff on Aug. 29, ULA CEO Tory Bruno said via Twitter on Wednesday. The engines briefly lit on fire, but the rocket remained firmly on the pad.

“Torn diaphragm (in the regulator), which can occur over time,” Bruno said. “Verifying the condition of the other two regulators. We will replace or rebuild as needed, re-test, and then resume towards launch.” [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words illustrate the less than stellar old space rocket design that the Delta 4 Heavy represents, and that ULA is perpetuating as long as it uses this rocket. Rather than redesign so that these torn diaphragms will no longer be a problem, it appears they will simply make sure this design is tested and works, for this launch. Thus, this issue has the possibility of reappearing in a future launch.

Wouldn’t it be better to upgrade and eliminate such a problem, for good, once it is identified? That appears to be SpaceX’s strategy, and the consequence is that their rockets and spacecraft get increasingly more reliable with time.

Anyway, if ULA’s schedule holds, it means there will be two launches at Cape Canaveral in less than 24 hours, as SpaceX is aiming for another Starlink launch the day earlier.

ULA’s Delta 4 Heavy: Launch abort at T-3 seconds tonight

Delta 4 Heavy immediately after engine shutdown

UPDATE: It appears ULA will need at least a week to analyze the situation before attempting another launch. It also appears that SpaceX is going forward with its two launches on August 30.

—————————
Tonight’s attempt by ULA to launch a National Reconnaissance Satellite on its Delta 4 Heavy rocket was aborted at T-3 seconds when the rocket’s main engines did an automatic abort. The image to the right shows the rocket immediately after the engines shut down, the smoke clearing and the rocket still sitting on the launch pad.

They are presently unfueling the rocket and will not launch tonight. They have not set a new launch date, and there is also no word on whether this launch delay will force delays in the two SpaceX launches set for August 30th. My guess is that the issue tonight will take time to assess, so they will give up their place in line and let SpaceX proceed as planned.

In watching ULA’s broadcast tonight, as well as reviewing the issues that prevented launch two days ago, I was struck by several things. First, ULA’s promo films to tout the wonders of the Delta family of rockets actually made them seem incredibly clunky and complex. There seemed to be too many pieces and complex operations to get the rocket ready for launch, which makes sense as Delta rockets are very costly and not competitive with today’s market. This is the exact reason ULA is in the process of retiring the entire Delta family. They will complete the already purchased and scheduled launches, but in the future will use their new Vulcan rocket for similar future bids.

Second, the number of minor and major technical issues during both countdowns reinforced my impressions above. This is a very complex rocket to launch, and that complexity apparently leads to many issues that make launch difficult.

For the scrub on August 26 they first had two blown fuses in a launchpad heater that had to be replaced, then a pneumatics system issue that was apparently not solved during the countdown. When they scrubbed, however, they said they did it because of “several problems,” not just this one.

On tonight’s launch they first had an issue with a fuel valve, then several fuel sensor alarms gave them problems, requiring them to disable them to proceed, then the temperatures in the payload electronics posed an issue that after some analysis was considered acceptable. These issues caused the launch to be delayed by about an hour and a half.

Finally, the rocket’s main engines shut down at the rescheduled lift-off time.

It might not be fair, but in comparing this ULA launch effort with the numerous countdowns by SpaceX the differences were stark. SpaceX has had comparable few issues during recent launches, with only one launch recently scrubbed due to a technical issue in July. Moreover, the company’s launch team has several times had similar launch aborts at T-0, and still were able to recycle everything and proceed to launch immediately.

All these impressions once again suggest that ULA is making the right decision to retire Delta. That it is going to take them several more years however to launch several more government surveillance satellites raises questions about the decisions of our government to pay for such a unwieldy and expensive rocket. There now are better and cheaper options available.

Five American launches in two days!

Capitalism in space: Though the first launches in the string of four American launches that was initially scheduled to begin two days ago and continue through the weekend was delayed because of weather and then technical issues, all these delays have done is pack those scheduled launches into a shorter time period, with the addition of a fifth launch!

If all goes as scheduled (hardly guaranteed), we will see five launches from three spaceports and four private companies in less than two days. The schedule, as of this moment:

August 29th at 2:04 am (Eastern): ULA’s Delta 4 Heavy to launch a military reconnaissance satellite from Cape Canaveral. The company’s webcast of the launch can be seen here.

August 29th at 11:05 pm (Eastern): Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket will launch a commercial radar satellite from New Zealand. The launch can be watched at the company’s live stream channel.

August 30th at 10:08 am (Eastern): SpaceX’s Falcon 9 will launch more of its Starlink satellites from Cape Canaveral. All SpaceX launches are live streamed from SpaceX’s website, though the links are not yet up.

August 30th at 7:19 pm (Eastern): SpaceX’s Falcon 9 will launch an Argentinian Earth observation satellite from Cape Canaveral. All SpaceX launches are live streamed from SpaceX’s website, though the links are not yet up.

August 30th at 10:00 pm (Eastern): Astra will attempt the first orbital test launch of its privately built rocket from Kodiak, Alaska. They will not be live streaming their launch, but will provide updates at their Twitter feed.

All times and dates list only the beginning of the launch windows, which means they might launch, but not exactly at the times listed.

Also, SpaceX is aiming to do its second Starship test hop this weekend, the first for its sixth prototype.

Delta 4 Heavy launch scrubbed

Tonight’s launch of ULA’s Delta 4 Heavy was scrubbed due to a variety of technical problems. They have not set a new launch time, though they say they are aiming for the early morning hours of August 28.

This was to have been the first of four American launches in the next four days. The next, a Falcon 9 launch of an Argentinian radar Earth observation satellite, was scheduled for tomorrow, August 27th, at 7:19 pm (Eastern). No word on whether it is going forward as planned, though it might be since the ULA launch has shifted after it, to August 28th.

The third, by Rocket Lab, is presently scheduled also for August 28rd at 11:05 pm (Eastern), launching out of New Zealand.

The fourth, another SpaceX launch of more Starlink satellites, had been scheduled for 10:30 am (Eastern) on August 29th. Once again, this schedule could change due to tonight’s ULA scrub.

Stay tuned. I suspect all three companies are going to aggressively work to get all four launches off as fast as possible, even if not exactly as presently scheduled.

Four American launches in the four days

UPDATE: Rocket Lab’s launch has been delayed to 11:05 pm (Eastern) August 28 due of weather.

Beginning tomorrow, the next four days will be very busy for the American space rocket industry, with three companies attempting to complete four different launches.

First comes Rocket Lab, which will attempt its first launch of its Electron rocket since its first operational launch failure on July 4. Launch is scheduled for 11:05 pm (Eastern) on August 26th.

Next ULA is scheduled to use its most powerful rocket, the Delta 4 Heavy, to put a National Reconnaissance Office surveillance satellite into orbit. Launch is set for 2:12 am (Eastern) on August 27th. This very expensive rocket (which costs three to four times that of a Falcon Heavy) has only four launches left before being permanently retired.

Then SpaceX will attempt two launches in quick succession. The first will launch at 7:19 pm (Eastern) on August 27th, putting up an Argentinian Earth observation radar satellite. On this launch the first stage is a new one, and will attempt the first landing at Cape Canaveral since March 2020.

SpaceX will then follow with its third Starlink launch this month and twelfth overall, scheduled for 10:30 am (Eastern) on August 29th out of its facility at Cape Canaveral, assuming the other launches at Kennedy go as planned.

Moreover, the startup smallsat rocket company Astra is also aiming to attempt its first test launch before the end of August. The date is not yet set.

Busy times for sure, but note that this is only the beginning. I expect by the end of the 2020s the launch schedule will get increasingly packed. Soon having three three launches per week will seem routine.

More strange terrain in the Martian “Death Valley”

More strange terrain in Hellas Basin
Click for full image.

Today’s cool image, rotated cropped, and reduced to post here, might show what the science team for the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) have labeled “strange banded terrain”, but anyone who has spent any time perusing images of Hellas Basin, what I have labeled the basement of Mars because it has the lowest elevation on the planet, will recognize the features.

They might be inexplicable, but for Hellas Basin they are entirely familiar. Just take a look at some of my earlier posts:
» Read more

ULA successfully launches U.S. spy satellite

Capitalism in space: Using its Delta-4 Heavy rocket, the most powerful in its rocket family, ULA today successfully placed a National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) spy satellite into orbit.

It was also revealed in this article that ULA plans a total of seven launches in 2019, including today’s launch, the fewest in a year since ULA was formed in 2007 from a partnership of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

The standings in the 2019 launch race:

1 China
1 SpaceX
1 Japan
1 ULA

The U.S. leads in the national standings 2 to 1 over China.

Three launches scrubbed

Capitalism in space: Both SpaceX and Blue Origin scrubbed planned launches today due to what appear to be minor technical issues.

SpaceX was launching a GPS satellite for the military, while Blue Origin was going to fly its New Shepard suborbital spacecraft on its third flight. SpaceX will try again tomorrow, while Blue Origin has not yet announced a new launch date.

Meanwhile, ULA’s attempt to launch a National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) spy satellite tonight with its most powerful rocket, the Delta 4 Heavy, faces bad weather, with only a 20% chance of launch.

UPDATE: I missed a third launch scrub today, Arianespace’s attempt to launch a trio of French military satellites using a Soyuz rocket from French Guiana. They will try again tomorrow.

This means there will be three launch attempts tomorrow, since India plans a launch of its GSLV rocket as well.

ULA’s Delta-4 Heavy successfully launches the Parker Solar Probe

ULA’s Delta-4 Heavy has successfully launched the Parker Solar Probe.

As I write this the spacecraft is in orbit, but there are several more steps needed to confirm the spacecraft is on course, including a second burn of the upper stage, its separation from the spacecraft, followed by the firing of the solid rocket kick stage and then its separation from the spacecraft. All these steps will take another 40 minutes or so, so reporting them will have to wait until tomorrow.

Update: The spacecraft has successfully separated from its last stage and is on its way.

Over the next two months, Parker Solar Probe will fly towards Venus, performing its first Venus gravity assist in early October – a maneuver a bit like a handbrake turn – that whips the spacecraft around the planet, using Venus’s gravity to trim the spacecraft’s orbit tighter around the Sun. This first flyby will place Parker Solar Probe in position in early November to fly as close as 15 million miles from the Sun – within the blazing solar atmosphere, known as the corona – closer than anything made by humanity has ever gone before.

The leaders in the 2018 launch standings:

22 China
15 SpaceX
8 Russia
6 ULA
4 Japan
4 Europe

The U.S. and China are once again tied in the national rankings, 22 each.

ULA chief says Congress deal clears path to Vulcan

The competition heats up: The CEO of ULA, Tory Bruno, said in an industry publication interview today that the Congressional deal that allows the company to buy 22 more Russian engines for its Atlas 5 clears the way for their eventual transition to the Vulcan rocket and an end to dependence on those Russian engines.

The article is worth a careful read, as it also provides a very detailed look at ULA’s future plans for its Atlas 5, Delta 4 Heavy, and Vulcan rockets. This paragraph was especially interesting:

The next major milestone is determining what engine will replace the [Russian] RD-180. Washington-based Blue Origin is developing the BE-4, a privately funded Liquid Oxygen (Lox) and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) engine capable of 550,000 pounds of thrust (lbf); and California-based Aerojet Rocketdyne is creating the AR1, a government-supported Lox/Kerosene (RP-1) engine capable of 500,000lbf. Either replacement will require two engines to match the power of the RD-180. Blue Origin claims its engine, already four years into development, will be flight qualified by 2017, while Aerojet Rocketdyne, having started its development later, says the AR1 will be flight qualified by 2019. Bruno said ULA would make its decision soon.

“Sometime close to the end of the year we are going to down-select, and then move into our Critical Design Review (CDR) and start manufacturing the rocket,” he said.

I strongly suspect they want to go with Blue Origin’s engine, because it is more powerful, farther along in development, and almost certainly less expensive. The question will be whether pressure from Congress, which favors Aerojet Rocketdyne’s engine for pork barrel reasons (Congress is funding it), will force ULA to go with it instead.

Successful ULA Delta 4 Heavy launch today

The competition heats up: ULA today successfully launched a U.S. National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite, using what is presently the world’s most powerful rocket, the Delta 4 Heavy.

In many ways, this rocket’s launch, which you can see in the video embedded below the fold, gives a rough idea of what a Falcon Heavy launch will look like, since the rockets have somewhat similar configurations.
» Read more

Delta 4 Heavy moved to launchpad for Orion flight

In preparation for a December test flight of the first Orion capsule, the Delta 4 Heavy rocket has been positioned on the launchpad.

The unmanned Dec. 4 mission, known as Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), is designed to test out Orion’s critical crew-safety systems, such as its thermal-protection gear. During the four-hour flight, the Orion capsule will fly 3,600 miles (5,800 kilometers) from Earth, then come speeding back into the planet’s atmosphere at about 20,000 mph (32,190 km/h) before splashing down softly in the Pacific Ocean, NASA officials said.

Forgive me if I remain decidedly unexcited. I still believe SLS to be an enormous waste of resources that would be better spent onother things.

Posted on the road south of Phoenix.

The most powerful rocket presently in service, the Delta-4 Heavy, successfully launched a U.S. surveillance satellite this morning.

The most powerful rocket presently in service, the Delta-4 Heavy, successfully launched a U.S. surveillance satellite this morning.

The booster features three core rocket boosters and is topped with a second stage to place payloads into orbit. It is 235 feet tall (72 meters) and can carry payloads of up to 24 tons into low-Earth orbit and 11 tons to geosynchronous orbits.

SpaceX’s proposed Falcon Heavy would launch about 50 tons into low Earth orbit, making it twice as powerful, should it be built. The next obvious question, which I can’t answer at the moment, is how do these two rockets compare in terms of cost?

NASA picks the Delta 4 Heavy to launch Orion into orbit on its first test flight

NASA has chosen the Delta 4 Heavy rocket to launch the Orion capsule into orbit for its first test flight in 2014.

So, tell me again why NASA needs to spend $18 to $62 billion for a new rocket, when it already can hire Lockheed Martin to do the same thing? Though the Delta 4 Heavy can only get about 28 tons into low Earth orbit, and only about 10 tons into geosynchronous orbit — far less than the planned heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket — Boeing Lockheed has a variety of proposed upgrades to Delta 4 Heavy that could bring these numbers way up. Building these upgrades would surely be far cheaper than starting from scratch to build SLS.

Corrected above as per comments below.