Atlas 5 puts science-relay satellite into orbit for NASA

Posted by n280668993 on January 31st, 2013

Advancing from the days of ground stations providing sporadic coverage of man's early exploits in space to the creation of an orbiting satellite network for constant communications, the third generation of NASA's tracking stations in the sky roared off the launch pad Wednesday night.
A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, capping its quickest pre-flight processing flow to date, fired into the nighttime sky from Cape Canaveral's Complex 41 at 8: 48 p. m. EST (0148 GMT).

At just 27 days from the start of stacking to main engine ignition, ULA's efforts at "span reductions" bore fruit by besting the previous quick mark by two weeks. The launch provider says the improved tempo will heighten efficiencies, increase available slots in the manifest and cut costs.

"It offers our customers added manifest flexibility to meet their schedules and it also offers additional launch opportunities to ensure payloads can be launched on time and reliably, " said Vern Thorp, ULA's program manager for NASA missions.

Displaying that reliably Wednesday night on its 35th mission in a decade and the 8th for NASA, the Atlas-Centaur artfully propelled the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite K into its prescribed orbit, reaching an elliptical orbit with a high point of 22, 245 statute miles, low point of 2, 680 statute miles and inclination of 25. 6 degrees.

Lasting an hour and 46 minutes from departing the launch pad through deployment of the payload in the geosynchronous transfer orbit, the ascent went exactly as planned to bolster NASA's in-space communications infrastructure.

"Launch is just the beginning of this satellite's journey, and the addition of TDRS K to the overall constellation will continue the successful legacy of the project and strengthen NASA's communications system that is so vital to the International Space Station and many other satellites in orbit today and will be in the future, " Thorp said.
The TDRS system was born in 1973 to keep astronauts and satellites in constant contact with mission controllers, closing the substantial gaps every orbit as spacecraft passed into and out of range of ground stations scattered around the globe.

When TDRS first became operational in late 1983, the initial space shuttle mission to use the system relayed more information to the ground during its 10 days in orbit than in all 39 previous American manned spaceflights.

Relying on dispersed ground Archeage beta account stations was a costly requirement and subjected the sites' operators to dangerous conditions in far-off countries, yet the system provided only 15 percent communications capability per orbit.

"What would it take to have continuous 24/7 communications services for NASA missions? That is what prompted the TDRS constellation, " said Paul Buchanan, TDRS deputy project manager and contracting officer.

"We didn't want to the outages of voice or data, that prompted to the TDRS system to be designed and built. "

Prolonged disconnections were eliminated with the debut of TDRS, effectively moving those tracking stations 22, 300 miles into the sky to gaze down at the user spacecraft, upping the blanket coverage to 85 percent per orbit with two operational TDRS satellites.

But looking to close that remaining gap, or zone of exclusion, more spacecraft were put into operation to create full 100 percent orbital coverage.

Six of the seven first-generation satellites went into orbit, with one lost in the Challenger accident. The space shuttles deployed those TRW-built craft between 1983 and 1995, with four of the long-lived birds still doing the job today 22, 300 miles above Earth.

"As spacecraft age, they all kind of develop their own unique set of problems, especially for spacecraft beyond their design life. So each one has to be cared for in different ways, " said Jeff Gramling, NASA's TDRS project manager from the Goddard Space Flight Center.

But despite their advanced ages, they remain useful, and the demands of communications services continue to grow.

"We've been fortunate in that our first-generation spacecraft, the one of those we launched through 1995 with a 10-year design life, have lived well beyond the design life. That has given us the time to make sure are able to repopulate or recapitalize the network, " said Gramling.

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