Atlas 5 launches weather satellite, reentry tech demo mission

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Updated 7:50 a.m. Eastern with LOFTID splashdown, JPSS-2 array issue.

WASHINGTON — An Atlas 5 successfully launched a polar-orbiting weather satellite and a reentry technology demonstrator on the final flight of the vehicle 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. Eastern Nov. 10. A problem loading liquid oxygen in the rocket’s Centaur upper stage delayed the 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 into a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of approximately 800 kilometers. The spacecraft made contact with controllers shortly after deployment. However, NASA reported nerly three hours after liftoff that they had yet to receive telemetry that the solar array deployed 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, launched in 2017 and is in service as NOAA-20. An older satellite, Suomi NPP, also provides weather data from polar orbit but is nearing the end of its life as it runs out of stationkeeping propellant.

Northrop Grumman built JPSS-2 and has contracts for JPSS-3 and -4, which will provide continuity for 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 along” in the 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, et cetera, that we brought to bear both for the Landsat [9] mission and the JPSS mission,” he said. “It’s a continuous upgrade in components and operating paradigms.”

The JPSS satellites provide critical weather data that complements observations by the GOES series of satellites in geostationary orbit. “JPSS data is a major input into U.S. and international global numerical weather prediction models,” said Jordan Gerth, meteorologist and satellite scientist at NOAA’s National Weather Service, during a pre-launch briefing Nov. 8. “With JPSS, the quality of local three- to seven-day weather forecasts is outstanding.”

A secondary payload on the launch was the Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID), a technology demonstration of an inflatable heat shield. LOFTID separated from the Centaur 75 minutes after liftoff, after the upper stage performed two burns to place it on a reentry trajectory.

The vehicle appeared to perform as expected through reentry, deploying a parachute and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean east of Hawaii 2 hours and 13 minutes after liftoff. A recovery vessel will pick up the spacecraft as well as a separate data recorder ejected from LOFTID before splashdown.

LOFTID is designed to test the performance of an inflatable decelerator six meters across, collecting data during reentry before splashing down east of Hawaii. NASA is interested in using that technology, scaled up, for landing future Mars missions too large for existing entry, descent and landing systems. ULA, which cooperated with NASA on LOFTID through a Space Act Agreement, is studying using that technology for recovering engines from 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 final Atlas 5 launch for the program and the final Atlas 5 launch from Vandenberg. ULA will convert the launch pad for use by Vulcan.