Alabama rocket builder ULA prepares for scheduled February Solar Orbiter launch
A powerful Atlas V rocket built at United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) world-class Decatur facility is assembled and set for yet another Alabama-powered historic launch.
The Atlas V rocket has now been stacked to launch Solar Orbiter, an international spacecraft bound for the inner solar system to gain unparalleled insights into the lifestyle of the sun, according to a release from ULA this week.
The Alabama rocket maker detailed a busy – and productive – week of operations at ULA’s Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
ULA first kicked off the new year by bringing together the Atlas V rocket’s first stage, single solid rocket motor and Centaur upper stage aboard the Mobile Launch Platform (MLP).
Engineers then gave approval for the pre-launch milestone known as LVOS, or Launch Vehicle on Stand, during a readiness review last Friday. That authorized the first stage to be hauled from the Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center (ASOC) to the VIF on the following Monday morning. Cranes lifted the 107-foot-long stage from its ground transportation equipment and rotated it vertically for maneuvering through the VIF doorway and alignment on the MLP.
The next day, the 100,000-pound strap-on solid rocket booster was brought to the VIF, pulled from its erector device and secured to the north-facing side Atlas V first stage.
Then, Wednesday saw the basic build-up of the rocket completed as the pre-integrated assembly known as OVI, or Off-site Vertical Integration, arrived at the VIF for hoisting atop the first stage. The OVI is comprised for the interstage, Centaur upper stage and base of the payload fairing.
In the coming days, the launch vehicle will be powered up, its flight controls tested and engine nozzles gimbaled. Then, a simulated launch sequence will be conducted before the MLP transports the rocket to the pad for a Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR).
That WDR will be conducted to mitigate any issues before the interplanetary launch window opens. Once the WDR is accomplished and the rocket is returned to the VIF from the pad, crews will mount Solar Orbiter atop the rocket. The spacecraft is undergoing final preparations at the Astrotech payload processing facility in Titusville, FL, which is where the satellite will be fueled and then encapsulated in the rocket’s four-meter-diameter payload fairing.
The Atlas V has a three-week period to launch Solar Orbiter while Earth and Venus are properly aligned to carry out the mission plan. Launch of Solar Orbiter is currently scheduled for February 5.
The spacecraft’s highly elliptical orbit will periodically swing by Venus and Earth to receive gravity-assists in order to refine the orbit around the sun and change the viewing angle to see the poles.
The first encounter with the sun should occur this June.
Solar Orbiter is an international cooperative mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA. ULA is conducting the launch under contract to NASA’s Launch Services Program.
This launch would follow ULA’s perfect launch of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and NASA selecting the ULA Atlas V rocket to power the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-T (GOES-T) into space last month.
ULA’s Alabama built rockets boast an incredible 100% mission success rate, delivering more than 130 satellites to orbit that provide Earth observation capabilities, enable global communications, strengthens the United States’ national security, unlock the mysteries of the solar system and support life-saving technology.
The Atlas V rocket, manufactured at ULA’s 1.6 million square foot facility in Decatur, has “more than 15 years of 100% mission success founded on a heritage of more than 600 Atlas program launches,” according to the company.
Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn