Atlas 5 launches weather satellite, reentry tech demo mission
Updated at 7:50 am ET with LOFTID splashdown, JPSS-2 array issue.
WASHINGTON — Atlas 5 successfully launched a polar-orbiting weather satellite and re-entry technology demonstrator on the vehicle’s final flight from California.
United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 401 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 3 at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California at 4:49 a.m. Eastern on Nov. 10. A problem with liquid oxygen refueling in the Centaur rocket’s upper stage delayed liftoff by 24 minutes, two-thirds of the way into the 36-minute launch window.
The Centaur upper stage deployed the mission’s primary payload, the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) 2 satellite, 28 minutes after liftoff, placing it in a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of approximately 800 kilometers. The spacecraft made contact with controllers shortly after deployment. However, NASA reported nearly three hours after liftoff that they had not yet received the telemetry that the solar array had set as planned.
JPSS-2 is the second of four planned polar-orbiting weather satellites in the JPSS program to provide weather data for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. JPSS-1, built by Ball Aerospace, was launched in 2017 and is in service as NOAA-20. An older satellite, the Suomi NPP, also provides weather data from a polar orbit but it is nearing the end of its life as he runs out of fuel to guard the stations.
Northrop Grumman built JPSS-2 and has contracts for JPSS-3 and -4, which will ensure 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 “making good progress” on the production of the two future JPSS satellites.
The satellites use the latest version of Northrop’s LEOStar-3 bus. “We have a new avionics package, we have a new set of sensors, wheels, star trackers, etc., that we’ve brought to work for Landsat as well  mission and 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 of the GOES series of satellites in geostationary orbit. “JPSS data is a major input to US and international global numerical weather prediction models,” said Jordan Gerth, a meteorologist and satellite scientist at NOAA’s National Weather Service, during a Nov. 8 pre-launch briefing. “With JPSS, the quality of the local Weather forecast for three to seven days is outstanding.”
The secondary launch payload was the Inflatable Low Orbit Flight Test (LOFTID), a technology demonstration of an inflatable heat shield. LOFTID separated from Centaur 75 minutes after liftoff, after the upper stage performed two burns to set it on a reentry path.
The vehicle appeared to perform as expected on reentry, deploying its parachute and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean east of Hawaii 2 hours and 13 minutes after liftoff. The recovery ship will pick up the spacecraft as well as the special data recorder ejected from LOFTID before the crash.
LOFTID is designed to test the performance of six meter diameter inflatable retarders, gathering data during reentry before it makes landfall east of Hawaii. NASA is interested in using that technology, scaled up, to land future Mars missions too large for existing entry, descent and landing systems. ULA, which collaborated with NASA on LOFTID through the Space Act Agreement, is studying the use of the technology to extract engines from its Vulcan rocket.
The launch was the 100th mission for NASA’s Launch Services Program, which coordinates the launch of NASA’s 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 Vulcan.
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