With clear skies as a backdrop, the West Coast’s last Atlas V rocket loudly climbed away from Vandenberg Space Force Base early Thursday en route to delivering a pair of payloads to collect weather data and test revolutionary technology for future missions.
The Atlas V rocket, standing 191-feet-tall and built by United Launch Alliance, climbed away from Space Launch Complex-3 on South Base at 1:49 a.m. The launch occurred minutes later than planned after the chores took longer than expected.
The rocket carried the next in the series of weather satellites, the Northrop Grumman-built Joint Polar Satellite System, or JPSS-2, a collaborative effort involving NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Also hitching a ride was NASA’s Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator, or LOFTID, to demonstrate heat shield technology for future space missions.
Spacecraft separation for JPSS — to be renamed NOAA-21 after arriving in orbit — occurred 28 minutes after launch. Ground controllers were working Thursday to assess the status of the solar array which is critical for keeping the craft’s batteries powered for the mission.
Deployment of LOFTID took place 75 minutes after the rocket’s departure from Vandenberg.
Carrying four instruments to gather assorted data, JPSS-2 will circle the globe 14 times a day from 512 miles above Earth’s surface, providing key measurements available to more than 120 National Weather Service field offices across the United States.
“The National Weather Service has a mission of saving lives and protecting property,” said Jordan Gerth, a weather service meteorologist and satellite scientist. “JPSS supports our ability to meet that mission.”
He said the new weather satellite will help preserve the continuity of low-Earth orbit observations that have spanned for decades.
Data from hew newest spacecraft will be added to numerical weather prediction modeling systems already using information gathered by two sibling satellites that launched in 2011 and 2017 from Vandenberg.
“The observations are global, the predictions are local,” Gerth said. “With JPSS the quality of local three- to seven-day weather forecasts is outstanding.”
For Alaskans, JPSS provides regular coverage over the North Pole to detect fires, monitor flood and track arctic weather phenomenon.
“And for all Americans, JPSS provides more than twice daily observations over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that helps meteorologists monitor weather systems where we do not have the benefit of weather balloons and only limited buoys compared to the dense weather station network over land,” Gerth said.
An increasing number of extreme weather events such as wildfires on the West Coast and hurricanes on the East Coast have made the JPSS satellites even more critical, officials said.
For instance from 2017-2022, there were 104 separate disasters that topped $1 billion each, according to Irene Parker, deputy assistant administrator, NOAA Systems, National Environmental Satellite, Data and Services.
“By comparison from 1987 through 1991, there were only 15,” she said.
JPSS involves a series of five satellites. Plans call for launch of JPSS-3 in 2027 and JPSS-4 in 2032, according to NASA.
The Atlas rocket’s second payload, LOFTID, will test inflatable heat shield technology that will be used on a future Mars mission or a returning a component from a low-Earth orbit mission.
The demonstration was expected to happen quickly — some 125 minutes from launch until splash down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Hawai‘i.
“The flexibility is what makes the technology so valuable,” Reuter said. “It can stow for launch.”
The technology has been in development for a decade with suborbital tests of smaller versions of the inflatable heat shield taking place first. LOFTID’s mission marked the largest heat shield — at 20 feet — to ever enter the atmosphere, officials said.
“It’s a common technology that we can utilize to solve multiple problems,” Reuter added.
ULA’s newest rocket family, Vulcan Centaur, could use LOFTID technology to return the key components for future reuse, officials have said.
With the Atlas program done on the West Coast, ULA will now prep SLC-3 for the Vulcan launch vehicle.