Liquid nitrogen shortage delays Landsat 9 launch

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WASHINGTON — A one-week delay in the launch of the next Landsat satellite on an Atlas 5 is the result of a ripple effect in the supply chain caused by increased demand for liquid oxygen to treat COVID-19 patients.

NASA announced Aug. 27 that the launch of Landsat 9 on an Atlas 5 from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California had slipped a week, from Sept. 16 to no earlier than Sept. 23, because “pandemic demands for medical liquid oxygen have impacted the delivery of the needed liquid nitrogen supply.” Liquid nitrogen, or LN2, is used to create gaseous nitrogen needed to support launch site activities.

During an Aug. 31 virtual news briefing about the upcoming launch, Del Jenstrom, NASA Landsat 9 project manager, said the issue was not an overall lack of liquid nitrogen but instead a transportation issue.

“There’s plenty of liquid nitrogen in the Los Angeles area. The problem is they need some trucks to bring it up to Vandenberg,” he said. “Because of the pandemic, from what we understand, liquid oxygen deliveries have been paying much higher premiums than liquid nitrogen deliveries, and LN2 trucks have been converted to carry liquid oxygen.”

Jenstrom said that the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) informed the project Aug. 23 that liquid nitrogen supplies at the base were “critically low” and could not support upcoming prelaunch test activities or the launch itself. That prompted NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy to contact senior DLA officials to discuss ways to restore the base’s nitrogen supply.

Airgas, the company that handles the nitrogen supply at Vandenberg, is bringing in “a dozen or so” liquid nitrogen tankers from the Gulf Coast temporarily to increase deliveries. “We’re seeing a substantial increase of the number of LN2 deliveries to the base right now,” he said, “and as far as we know, based on latest reports, we’re on track to support our launch on Sept. 23.”

Supply chain issues related directly or indirectly to liquid oxygen, which is used by hospitals as the oxygen source for ventilators, came to light recently when Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, mentioned them during a panel discussion at the 36th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs Aug. 24.

“We’re actually going to be impacted this year with the lack of liquid oxygen for launch,” she said. “We certainly are going to make sure the hospitals are going to have the oxygen that they need, but for anybody who has liquid oxygen to spare, send me an email.”

At that time, Tory Bruno, chief executive of United Launch Alliance, hinted at a problem getting liquid nitrogen to Vandenberg to support the upcoming Landsat 9 launch. “Working that situation now,” Bruno said.

The next launch planned for Vandenberg is not the Atlas 5 launch of Landsat 9. Instead, Firefly Aerospace has scheduled the inaugural launch of its Alpha rocket from the base on Sept. 2, during a four-hour window that opens at 9 p.m. Eastern. Company spokesperson Kim Jennett told SpaceNews Aug. 31 the launch remains on schedule and is not affected by any liquid nitrogen or other supply issues.

Liquid oxygen supply chain problems extend beyond the United States. Dmitry Rogozin, head of Roscosmos, tweeted Aug. 29 that Roscosmos had for months been transferring “almost all” of the oxygen produced by its various enterprises to hospitals. That has postponed testing of rocket engines, he claimed.