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As September Rocket Launch Dates Near, Satellites Begin Arriving at Vandenberg Air Force Base

WorldView-4, first pair of Iridium NEXT satellites trucked to launch site while excitement builds for flurry of blastoffs

A Lockheed Martin-built WorldView-4 satellite is prepared for shipping to Vandenberg Air Force Base, where it will be launched in September aboard an Atlas V rocket. Click to view larger
A Lockheed Martin-built WorldView-4 satellite is prepared for shipping to Vandenberg Air Force Base, where it will be launched in September aboard an Atlas V rocket. (Lockheed Martin photo)

This year’s lull in launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base is nearing an end.

Satellite manufacturers have announced the shipment of spacecraft to the Central Coast as the base gets back into the blastoff business.

The approximately six-month interruption was the result of work involving equipment used to monitor just-launched rockets and missiles, which the base commander said would lead to a compressed but busy year.

In late July, the Lockheed Martin-built WorldView-4 satellite traveled 250 miles to the base from Sunnyvale in a special container designed to mimic a clean-room environment.

The DigitalGlobe commercial imaging spacecraft is scheduled to take a much-longer trip Sept. 15 when it heads to a place in space 400 miles above Earth aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.

“WorldView-4 will help us continue to transform the way we see the world, and advance our mission of keeping our planet and its people safe and secure,” said Walter Scott, founder and chief technology officer of Westminster, Colo.-based DigitalGlobe.

Once launched, WorldView-4 will double DigitalGlobe’s coverage and increase the rate at which it grows its 15-year library of time-lapse high-resolution imagery.

The spacecraft will circle the globe every 90 minutes, traveling 17,000 mph and capturing more than 262.550 square miles of the Earth’s surface daily —  the equivalent of the land area of Texas.

On Aug. 2, the first two Iridium NEXT satellites left Orbital ATK’s satellite manufacturing facility in Gilbert, Ariz., arriving safely at Vandenberg after the truck trip.

Officials say the arrival marks a significant milestone toward the first launch of the Iridium NEXT constellation, which is targeted for Sept. 19 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

When deployed in space, the WorldView-4 satellite will circle the globe every 90 minutes, traveling 17,000 mph and daily capturing on camera an area the size of the state of Texas. Click to view larger
When deployed in space, the WorldView-4 satellite will circle the globe every 90 minutes, traveling 17,000 mph and daily capturing on camera an area the size of the state of Texas. (Lockheed Martin photo)

Ten Iridium NEXT satellites are set to fly aboard the rocket. As the remaining eight are completed, they will be shipped two at a time to Vandenberg, officials say.

Orbital ATK employees, along with prime contractor Thales Alenia Space, assemble, integrate and test the satellites at the Gilbert manufacturing facility.

A total of 81 satellites are scheduled to roll off the assembly line, with 66 serving as the operational satellites to replace the existing Iridium network, officials said. The remainder will serve as spares, some positioned in space and others waiting on the ground to be called into service.

All Iridium NEXT satellites — which are intended to provide voice and data communications across the globe — are scheduled for launch by late 2017, the company said.

For the Orbital ATK employees, the ramped-up production meant completing more than five satellites per month through an assembly-line system with 18 different work stations.

Each satellite features more than 5,000 assembled individual parts, culminating in 100,000 hours of work by hundreds of engineers, including the Orbital ATK team, company officials say.

The constellation initially was named for iridium, the periodic table’s 77th chemical element, because plans called for the system to use 77 satellites. Revisions later saw the constellation drop to 66 satellites — dysprosium on the periodic table — but the name remained Iridium.

Delta II rockets launched from Vandenberg carried 60 of the satellites — five per blastoff — from May 1997 through February 2002, with most of those missions conducted in the first 18 months, United Launch Alliance said.

In all, some 93 satellites were put into orbit for the constellation’s first generation, with others launching aboard Russian Proton rockets and Chinese LongMarch boosters.

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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