Atlas 5 launches weather satellite, return tech demo mission
Updated 7:50 AM Eastern with LOFTID splashdown, JPSS-2 array issue.
WASHINGTON — An Atlas 5 successfully launched a weather satellite into polar orbit and demonstrated reentry technology on the vehicle’s final flight from California.
The United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 401 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 3 at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California at 4:49 a.m. on Nov. 10. A problem loading liquid oxygen into the top stage of the rocket’s Centaur delayed launch by 24 minutes, two-thirds of the way into the 36-minute launch window.
The Centaur’s upper stage deployed the mission’s Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) 2 satellite, 28 minutes after launch, into sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of about 800 kilometers. The spacecraft made contact with controllers shortly after deployment. However, just three hours after launch, NASA reported that they had not received telemetry that the solar panel had deployed as planned.
JPSS-2 is the second of four planned polar weather satellites in the JPSS program to provide weather data to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. JPSS-1, built by Ball Aerospace, launched in 2017 and in service as NOAA-20. An older satellite, Suomi NPP, also provides weather data from polar orbit but nearing the end of his life because the stationary propellant is running out.
Northrop Grumman has built JPSS-2 and has contracts for JPSS-3 and -4, which will ensure the continuity of the JPSS program into the 2030s. Steve Krein, vice president of civil and commercial space at Northrop Grumman, said in an October interview that the company is “well on the way” with production of the two future JPSS satellites.
The satellites use the latest version of Northrop’s LEOStar-3 bus. “We’ve got a new avionics suite, we’ve got a new set of sensors, wheels, star trackers, etc.  mission and the JPSS mission,” he said. “It’s a continuous upgrade of components and operational paradigms.”
The JPSS satellites provide critical weather data that complements the observations made by the GOES satellites in geostationary orbit. “JPSS data is an important input for U.S. and international global numerical weather forecast models,” said Jordan Gerth, a meteorologist and satellite scientist at NOAA’s National Weather Service, at a pre-launch briefing Nov. 8. “With JPSS, the quality of local three- to seven-day weather forecasts is excellent.”
A second payload at launch was the Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID), a technological demonstration of an inflatable heat shield. LOFTID separated 75 minutes after launch from the Centaur, after the upper stage performed two burns to place it on a return trajectory.
The vehicle appeared to perform as expected with reentry, parachute deployment and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean east of Hawaii 2 hours 13 minutes after launch. A salvage craft will pick up the spacecraft, as well as a separate data recorder ejected from LOFTID before landing.
LOFTID is designed to test the performance of a six meter wide inflatable retarder, collecting data during the reentry before splashing down east of Hawaii. NASA is interested in using that technology, scaled up, to land future Mars missions that are too large for existing entry, descent and landing systems. ULA, which partnered with NASA on LOFTID through a Space Act Agreement, is studying how to use that technology to repair engines on its Vulcan rocket.
The launch was the 100th mission for NASA’s Launch Services Program, which coordinates launches for NASA science missions. It is also the last Atlas 5 launch for the program and the last Atlas 5 launch from Vandenberg. ULA will convert the launch pad for use by Vulcan.
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