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Atlas 5 Rocket to Launch Commercial Craft on Wednesday from Vandenberg Air Force Base

Morning liftoff planned for WorldView-3 satellite, which will provide Earth imaging and geospatial data for government, scientific and everyday uses

A worker prepares the WorldView-3 commercial imaging satellite for launch aboard an Atlas 5 rocket at Vandenberg Air Force Base. The satellite is scheduled for a Wednesday launch date.

A worker prepares the WorldView-3 commercial imaging satellite for launch aboard an Atlas 5 rocket at Vandenberg Air Force Base. The satellite is scheduled for a Wednesday launch date.  (Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. photo)

By Janene Scully, Noozhawk North County Editor | @JaneneScully |

Promising to deliver images with significantly greater clarity than its siblings, a commercial satellite will head to space Wednesday aboard an Atlas 5 rocket set to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Liftoff of the 19-story-tall rocket built by United Launch Alliance is planned for 11:30 a.m. Wednesday from Space Launch Complex-3 East on South Base. The mission has just one shot a day to get the satellite where it needs to be in space. Air Force officials incorrectly said the launch was planned for 11:29 a.m. 

Weather willing, the Atlas 5 launch pad is visible south of Ocean Avenue (Highway 246) west of Lompoc, as well as from vantage points around Vandenberg Village, including the peak of Harris Grade Road and the intersection of Moonglow and Stardust roads.

The Atlas rocket will carry the 6,200-pound WorldView-3, the first multi-instrument, super-spectral, high-resolution commercial satellite for collecting images of locations on Earth plus advanced geospatial data. Those images will have a variety of government, scientific and everyday uses.

Jeff Dierks, WorldView-3 program manager with Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., has worked on commercial imaging satellites since the mid-1990s. He said recently that he has mixed emotions as launch day nears.

“For me, it ends up being more relieving than exciting,” Dierks said. “I told my wife it was kind of like your kids going to kindergarten and college for the first day at the same time. It’s something we’ve been working on for four years and coming to an end. Once they’re launched we get to follow what they do for years and years so it’s pretty cool.”

Ball Aerospace developed, integrated and tested the craft for it customer, DigitalGlobe.

The WorldView-3 commercial imaging satellite is pictured sitting between the two halves of the Atlas 5 rocket payload fairing. The satellite is scheduled to launch Wednesday from Space Launch Complex-3 at Vandenberg Air Force Base. (Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. image)
The WorldView-3 commercial imaging satellite is pictured sitting between the two halves of the Atlas 5 rocket payload fairing. The satellite is scheduled to launch Wednesday from Space Launch Complex-3 at Vandenberg Air Force Base. (Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. image)

From its spot some 383 miles high — roughly the distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco driving Interstate 5 — WorldView-3 will collect black-and-white images with 31 centimeter resolution, or 12 inches, meaning it can see items of that size. It also will get color images with 1.24-meter resolution. 

Unlike its predecessors, WorldView-3 features multiple instruments including the Exelis-built, 1.1-meter aperture telescope and the primary visible/SWIR (shortwave infrared) sensor to see through smoke and haze.

It also sports the Ball Aerospace-developed instrument dubbed CAVIS — for Clouds, Aerosol, water Vapor, Ice and Snow — to monitor the atmosphere. This will allow the craft to better calibrate multispectral data when atmospheric conditions obscure objects on Earth, officials said.

“They’re continually trying to figure out more innovative and unique ways to utilize the multispectral, or color, data and one way to do that is to better ascertain is it really taking an image of the true color on the ground,” Dierks said. “As one guy says, ‘Is that Ferrari we just took a picture of a true Ferrari red or some other red?’ So having that calibration helps them better, for example, ascertain crop health and various things like that.”

An archeologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham reportedly is eager for the WorldView-3 images, believing the increased capability will allow her to better see ancient structures and roadways that are buried beneath sands in the Middle East, according to Dierks.

Of course, the federal government is expected to be a big user of the data, he added.

But everyday computer users also can get their hands on WorldView-3 images.

“If you’ve looked up your house on Google Earth, the image taken from space on there was probably taken by one of the WorldView spacecraft,” Dierks said. “The public also is very familiar with seeing images on the evening news of whatever latest trouble spot around the world. You’ll often see the little DigitalGlobe logo down in the corner.

“But it has uses far beyond that.”

WorldView-3 uses a similar spacecraft bus, or frame, as the earlier satellites, which launched in 2007 and 2009 from Vandenberg, but boasts improved capabilities over its siblings, Dierks said. 

The first WorldView satellites only collected black-and-white images. WorldView-2 could do multispectral or color images, but had resolution of 46 centimeters or 18 inches.

WorldView-3 has the capability for a 1.2-gigabit per second downlink of the image data, more than the first two WorldView satellites which could download 800 megabits per second.

The satellite is designed to operate more than seven years, but its owners expect it will remain in service up to 12 years.

WorldView-3 will be the 10th of 15 planned missions ULA is slated to launch in 2014 from both Vandenberg and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., and ULA’s 87th since the company formed.

“The entire 30th Space Wing team of military, government civilians and contractors are all honored to launch the first Atlas 5 commercial mission from Vandenberg AFB,” said Col. Marc Del Rosario, this mission’s launch decision authority and 30th Operations Group commander.

“The team’s planning and behind the scenes hard-work with United Launch Alliance, Lockheed Martin and the Federal Aviation Administration are all integral to provide safe launch operations on the Western Range.”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.




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