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ULA completes Launch Readiness Review for OSIRIS-REx

OSIRIS-REx mission artwork. Credit: ULA

OSIRIS-REx mission artwork. Credit: ULA

United Launch Alliance (ULA) continues to progress towards Thursday’s launch of NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft. ULA completed their Launch Readiness Review on Tuesday, September 6, and are currently working no reported issues ahead of the September 8 launch date.

The L-2 forecast currently calls for an 80 percent chance of favorable weather, with the primary concern being cumulus clouds during the nearly 2-hour launch window. Should a 24-hour delay be necessary, the following day’s forecast worsens slightly with a 70 percent chance of favorable weather, with both cumulus and anvil clouds being the primary concerns.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is NASA’s first vehicle designed to return asteroid samples to Earth. Scientists hope to collect at least 60 grams (2.11 ounces) — or as much as 2 kilograms (4.41 pounds) — of material from the asteroid 101955 Bennu, and return it to the Utah Test and Training range in September 2023.

Launching atop a ULA Atlas V rocket in the comparatively rare 411 configuration — 4-meter payload fairing, single solid rocket booster, single-engined Centaur stage —  the 1,529 kilogram (3,371 pound) explorer will conduct a variety of experiments ahead of the sample collection. Once the asteroid’s material has been secured, all science activities will cease as part of a measure to ensure the pristine material isn’t contaminated.

OSIRIS-REx is part of NASA’s highly successful New Frontiers program. Managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, New Frontiers has fielded a couple of notable missions: New Horizons and Juno.

Thursday’s launch window opens at 7:05 pm EDT and extends to 9:00 pm EDT, and will launch from SLC-41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

United Launch Alliance once again selected for a flagship NASA mission

Archive photo of a ULA Atlas V in the 541 configuration. Credit: ULA

Archive photo of a ULA Atlas V in the 541 configuration. Credit: ULA

NASA has again called upon United Launch Alliance (ULA) to provide launch services for a flagship mission to Mars. The agency announced that ULA has been awarded the contract to launch the Mars 2020 rover atop an Atlas V 541 vehicle and is aiming for liftoff in July 2020.

ULA has been instrumental in many of the agency’s missions to the Red Planet, an achievement of which the company is justifiably proud.

“We are honored that NASA has selected ULA to provide another robotic science rover to Mars on this tremendously exciting mission,” said Laura Maginnis, ULA’s vice president of Custom Services, in a release issued by the company. “Our launch vehicles have a rich heritage with Mars, supporting 17 successful…”

Read more in my full piece at SpaceFlight Insider.

Crew access arm installed at SLC-41

The Crew Access Arm for Commerical Crew Program (CCP) being installed to the tower at Pad 41. Credit: NASA

The Crew Access Arm for Commerical Crew Program (CCP) being installed to the tower at Pad 41. Credit: NASA

Astronauts hoping to catch a ride to space on Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner now have a way to board the next-generation spacecraft. The crew access arm has been installed at SLC-41, and will be the embarkation point for astronauts launching aboard the CST-100.

The 90,000 pound (40,823 kilogram) arm will stretch 50 feet (15.24 meters) from the launch tower to the spacecraft, allowing astronauts to enter the capsule via the ‘white room’. Nearly 18 months in development, the tower and access arm are some of the most visible changes to the launch complex and are evidence of the continued progress in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

“You have to stop and celebrate these moments in the craziness of all the things we do,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, in a release issued by the agency. “It’s going to be so cool when our astronauts are walking out across this access arm to get on the spacecraft and go to the space station.” The launch tower and crew access arm are the first to be erected and installed at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station since the Apollo program.

In an interesting bookend to the installation of the crew access arm, astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) are preparing for a spacewalk to attach the recently-delivered International Docking Adapter (IDA) to the orbiting outpost. The IDA will allow visiting spacecraft, such as Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s crewed Dragon, to dock/berth to the station.

USAF AFSPC-6 / ULA Delta IV mission update

The USAF's AFSPC-6 payload is raised to be mated with a ULA Delta IV rocket. Credit: ULA

The USAF’s AFSPC-6 payload is raised to be mated with a ULA Delta IV rocket. Credit: ULA

Everything is progressing towards the scheduled launch of the United States Air Force’s AFSPC-6 mission atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV on Friday, August 19, 2016. Set to lift off from SLC-37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) in a 4-hour window beginning at 12:00 am, the dual Orbital ATK-built satellite payload is already encapsulated in a 4-meter diameter fairing, and will be delivered to a near-geosynchronous orbit.

The L-4 weather forecast currently indicates a 20% chance of violating weather launch constraint criteria, with the primary concern being cumulus clouds. Should a 24-hour delay be necessary, the following day’s forecast is essentially identical.

Check back with The Liftoff Report for updates.

ULA successfully launches classified NROL-61 payload

Atlas V, carrying the classified NROL-61 payload, lifts off on its way to an undisclosed orbit. Photo credit: ULA

Atlas V, carrying the classified NROL-61 payload, lifts off on its way to an undisclosed orbit. Photo credit: ULA

At 8:37 a.m., precisely on-time, United Launch Alliance (ULA) launched the NROL-61 payload atop its reliable Atlas V rocket. Lifting off from SLC-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the vehicle quickly cleared the tower on its way to delivering the secretive National Reconnaissance Office’s (NRO) satellite to an undisclosed orbit. Today’s launch marks the sixth of the year for ULA, and is the third NRO mission of 2016.

Prior to launch, weather conditions had improved to 100% favorable, thus effectively eliminating weather as a concern for a launch delay.

In a press release issued by United Launch Alliance, Laura Maginnis – ULA vice president of Custom Services – was quoted: “Thank you to the entire mission team for years of hard work and collaboration on today’s successful launch of NROL-61. We are proud the U.S. Air Force and NRO Office of Space Launch have entrusted ULA with delivering this critical asset for our nation’s security.”

NROL-61 mission patch. Image credit: NRO

NROL-61 mission patch. Image credit: NRO

The NROL-61 mission marked the 109th successful launch for ULA since the company’s founding in December 2006. ULA’s next launch is the Air Force’s AFSPC-6 satellite on a Delta IV, scheduled for August 19 from SLC-37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Of interest for this particular mission is the buzz surrounding the mission’s “mascot”. Prior to the launch, photos showing artwork for this mission appeared to show a green gecko sitting atop the world as an Atlas V roared past. Additionally, the mission patch – which is painted on the payload fairing – showed the gecko riding atop the rocket on its way to space. The mascot was named ‘Spike’ and seemed to take on a story all his own, with tweets indicating interest from children in how Spike was doing after launch. With the NRO being such a secretive arm of the United States’ intelligence apparatus, this sort of widespread public interest is a bit out-of-character.

For a recap of today’s launch, be sure to check out the official “highlight reel” from United Launch Alliance embedded below.

 

Countdown progressing for NROL-61 launch

ULA's Atlas V stand ready to launch classified NROL-61 payload. Photo credit: ULA

ULA’s Atlas V stand ready to launch classified NROL-61 payload. Photo credit: ULA

The countdown is progressing towards Thursday’s 8:37 a.m. launch of the classified NROL-61 payload on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from SLC-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Weather remains favorable, with only a 10% chance of violating weather constraint criteria. This will be the third NRO launch of the year, and the sixth launch for ULA.

ULA will begin providing coverage of the launch on their YouTube channel approximately 20 minutes prior to the scheduled launch time.

Favorable forecast for NROL-61

ULA's Atlas V, carrying a classified payload for the NRO, stands at the pad for the NROL-61 mission. Photo credit: ULA

ULA’s Atlas V, carrying a classified payload for the NRO, stands at the pad for the NROL-61 mission. Photo credit: ULA

The weather forecast for the Thursday, July 28, 2016 launch of NROL-61 has improved to 90% favorable. Less than 24 hours out from the anticipated 8:37 a.m. EDT launch time on an Atlas V 421, the forecast gives a 10% chance that conditions will violate weather constraint criteria, with the primary concern being cumulus clouds. Should a delay be necessary, the following day’s forecast remains favorable, though the possibility of violating weather constraints increases to 20%.

United Launch Alliance plans to start coverage at 8:17 a.m. EDT. Visit the United Launch Alliance website for more information.

Classified payload makes its way to the pad

Atlas V, in the 421 configuration, makes its way out to the pad for the NROL-61 mission. Photo credit: ULA

Atlas V, in the 421 configuration, makes its way out to the padfor the NROL-61 mission. Photo credit: ULA

United Launch Alliance has transported the Atlas V 421 out to SLC-41 in preparation for Thursday’s launch of the classified NROL-61 mission. You can read more about this mission in my write-up for SpaceFlight Insider.

Structural test article for SLS’s second stage arrives at NASA Marshall

ICPS structural test article being lifted from its shipping container. Photo credit: NASA

ICPS structural test article being lifted from its shipping container. Photo credit: NASA

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) has taken another step in its preparation for a projected 2018 launch with the arrival of the rocket’s upper stage Structural Test Article (STA). The United Launch Alliance (ULA)-built Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) STA arrived at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), after a short barge trip from ULA’s facility in Decatur, Alabama.

Read more in my exclusive coverage at SpaceFlight Insider.