Delta 4 Medium Makes Penultimate Launch

John Kraus photos
A great image taken by John Kraus of the Delta 4’s main booster and four smaller boosters, and the awesome power they produce. Visit his patreon to find more! Credit: John Kraus

Just after midnight, 00:23 UTC on March 16th 2019, a Delta 4 medium rocket placed a US military network relay satellite into orbit. Launching from Space Launch Complex 37B at Cape Canaveral AFB in Florida, the 66 meter tall Delta 4 is nearing retirement, with this being its second to last launch. After several technical issues, the ground teams eventually got the rocket and the satellite tracking network functioning correctly. The hydrogen fueled RS-68A main engine ignited moments before liftoff for 5 seconds before the hold down bolts released at T-0, firing away with 1.8 million pounds of thrust. This mission has extended ULA’s streak of successful missions to 133 since its inception in 2006.

Marcus Cote
Maybe the photo of the night by Marcus Cote, showing the huge exhaust plume created by the Delta 4 in 5, 4 configuration. Credit: Marcus Cote
marcus cote
A great time lapse of the Delta 4 launching WGS10 satellite into a geostationary orbit. Credit: Marcus Cote.

The rocket veered towards an easterly direction over the Atlantic Ocean, aiming to place the communications satellite to its final operating position 36,000 km (22,000 miles) above the equator in geostationary orbit. The solid rocket boosters burned out and were jettisoned in pairs roughly 1 minute and 40 seconds into flight. The main engine continued to fly on until 4 minutes in when the first stage was cut off, and then released shortly after. The first stage then fell back to Earth into the Atlantic Ocean. The upper stage was powered by a RL10B-2 engine, made by Aerojet Rocketdyne, the same manufacturers of the main engine. The upper stage engine ignited twice to push the satellite into an elliptical transfer orbit. The satellite separated from the second stage at T+36 minutes 50 seconds.

An image showing the scary power of the rocket boosters at liftoff, the rocket firing 1.8 million pounds of thrust into the ground trying to escape the Earth. Credit: ULA.

On board was the WGS 10 military communications satellite. It is a 6000kg (13,200 lb) broadband satellite, that is joining nine others that have been slowly placed in orbit since 2007. The idea is to form a globe spanning network that can relay video, data and other useful information between the battlefield and the headquarters, wherever they may be. The WGS fleet transmits both classified and unclassified information, and supports the US and its allies. On board is a digital channelizer that allows the satellite to relay signals using high data-rate X-band and Ka-band frequencies during its 14 year expected life. All of the WGS satellites were launched on ULA rockets, with the first two on Atlas V’s and all the rest on Delta 4’s. This mission had an estimated price tag of $400 million.

Glen Davis
An almost artistic image of the Delta 4 medium launching. Heavily edited, but still capturing that raw power. Credit: Glen Davis

Marking the second to last flight of the Delta 4 Medium variant rocket, it is noticeable as only having a single first stage core, whereas the Delta 4 Heavy has three. ULA are retiring certain areas of their launch family as they plan to debut the new Vulcan booster soon which will apparently be cheaper than their current offering. The decision to halt selling of the Delta 4 medium flight was made in 2014, but this and the next launch were already on the books at that time. The Delta 4 medium is apparently more expensive than the Atlas V launcher, but with a similar launch capability, leading to the reason for retirement. ULA described it as it being cheaper to run a few launchers more frequently than many launchers sporadically. The bigger Delta 4 heavy will continue to launch heavier payloads well into the mid 2020’s. Another reason for keeping the Delta 4 Medium was to allow the US military to have two choices to launch their payloads, that and the Atlas V. Now that the Falcon 9 is cleared to fly military satellites there is less need for the Delta variant.

marcus cote
The Delta 4 sitting on the pad, ready to launch the WGS10 satellite. Taken close up by Marcus cote the day before when setting up the remote cameras for the launch. Credit: Marcus Cote.
mike seely
A behind the scenes photo of setting up cameras before the launch. Credit: Mike Seeley.

Thank you for reading, take a look at my other posts if you are interested in space, electronics, or military history. If you are interested, follow me on Twitter to get updates on projects I am currently working on.

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The Crew Dragon Flies

Crew Demo landing

This weekend a very important event happened, something many rocket enthusiasts have been waiting for. The first capsule designed to hold commercial crew was launched by SpaceX. A successful launch, the Falcon 9 carrying the first crew Dragon lifted off from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Centre, Cape Canaveral, FL on the 2nd of March 2019 at 07:49 UTC. This was the first orbital test of the Dragon capsule, and although it was unmanned, it did hold a dummy test astronaut nicknamed Ripley, after the heroine from Alien.

loading the rocket
The modified Falcon 9 being rolled out towards the launch pad on the specially designed trailer. Credit: SpaceX
Crew Dragon
A close up side on view of the Crew Dragon while it it waiting to be loaded. Credit: SpaceX

The capsule was launched on top of the 70m tall Falcon 9 that had minor changes to work with NASA’s strict requirements for commercial crew. Trailing off in a north easterly direction, the Dragon capsule sailed on a 27 hour autonomous route towards the International Space Station. The capsule itself is 16ft tall, and 13ft in diameter, and is designed to be able to hold 7 people in relative comfort (compared to the previous equivalents). This capsule sits on top of a trunk that could contain some cargo on future trips. The capsule is 12ft tall, 12ft in diameter, and coated in solar arrays. The cargo section is not designed to survive a journey back to Earth, with the heat shield and thermal protection system being on the capsule itself.

John Kraus Photos
A great long exposure shot of the Crew Demo launching, taken from Merritt Island. FL. Credit: John Kraus Photography. Click on the photo and buy one of his rocket prints!

The first stage of the Falcon 9 powered through the thick lower atmosphere for about 2 and a half minutes before shutting down and separating. The booster B1051.1 was brand new, performing landing burns on its way back through the atmosphere to come back and land successfully on the autonomous drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You”. The landing was particularly rough with choppy seas out in the Atlantic that day. The booster did not manage to hit right on the X on the pad, but was still stood up when it returned to port Canaveral. This was a big moment as it is now the 35th successful booster recovery. Just a minute after the first stage landed the second stage engine cut-off. A few moments later the Crew Dragon was released from the second stage to begin the 27 hour journey to the ISS.

A landscape view of the launchpad 39A at Cape Canaveral, with the first commercial crew mission on board the Falcon 9. Credit: Marcus Cote Photography. Click the image and go buy one of his prints!

The 400lb capsule glided to an automated docking early on Sunday morning, completing one of the major milestones of the mission. Aided by a laser rangefinder and a thermal camera the Dragon capsule approached the space station and linked with the docking port on the forward end of the complex at 10:51 UTC. This is now the first privately owned human rated spaceship to reach the ISS. The link up happened at over 400km over the northern end of New Zealand during what is known as orbital night time. The capsule first held back at around 60 m from the station, testing radio links. When given the go ahead it then moved towards the ISS at 10cm per second or 0.2mph. The capsule actually arrived 9 minutes ahead of schedule when the latches engaged to create a connection with the International docking adapter.

Crew Dragon
The Crew Dragon moving slowly towards the ISS. Credit: NASA

The station docking adaptor was installed over the old space shuttle docking port, at the forward end of the Harmony module. The arrival marks the first time a visiting spaceship has docked there since the last flight of the shuttle Atlantis in 2011. Once docked 12 hooks closed to forma firm mechanical connection, and then two umbilical lines were attached by robotic arms to allow the stations electrical system to power the Dragon module during the stay. After a number of checks, Saint-Jacques opened the crew Dragons hatch, becoming the first person to board the ship. The crew wore face masks when entering the Dragon, as they would with any other visiting spacecraft, for precaution. Once the capsule was given the all clear the crew removed their masks and unloaded the 100 lb of cargo stowed under the seats. On board the Dragon was a small stuffed toy in the shape of Earth, made by Celestial Buddies. NASA astronaut Anne McClain quickly picked it up and made a video with it. Celestial buddies were unaware that they would have one of their toys would be going on a mission, and they are therefore sold out for now, but they have some great other toys on offer instead.

Crew Dragon
A closer view of the Crew Dragon, just moments bore docking. Credit: NASA
long exposure of the Falcon 9
A 277 second exposure of the Falcon 9 launching from LC-39A, so long that it shows the separation of the first stage. Credit: Mike Seeley.

The Crew Dragon will depart the space station early on Friday at 07:31 UTC, followed by a de-orbit burn at 12:50 UTC. The spacecraft jettisons the unpressurised trunk section, with the solar panels and radiator, what will burn up in the atmosphere. The heat shield on the Crew dragon will then protect it as it comes into the atmosphere from a northwest to southeast direction. Aiming for a splashdown under the four parachutes somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, east of Cape Canaveral at 13:45 UTC. The next big test for the Crew Dragon will be a launch where the launch escape system is tested. Designed to push the capsule away from the rocket if there is a major failure, that launch will be in late June of 2019 if all goes well. The first crewed mission is planned for July this year.

A great image turned into a poster from the rocket launch, with an emotive quote by Elon Musk. Credit: Erik Kuna.

Thank you for reading, take a look at my other posts if you are interested in space, electronics, or military history. If you are interested, follow me on Twitter to get updates on projects I am currently working on.

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