Atlas V Rocket to Launch New Sun Mission Takes Shape at Cape Canaveral

The booster of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket that will launch the Solar Orbiter spacecraft is lifted into the vertical position at the Vertical Integration Facility near Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Jan. 6, 2020.
The booster of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket that will launch the Solar Orbiter spacecraft is lifted into the vertical position at the Vertical Integration Facility near Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Jan. 6, 2020. Photo credits: NASA/Ben Smegelsky

The booster of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket that will launch the Solar Orbiter spacecraft is lifted into the vertical position at the Vertical Integration Facility near Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Jan. 6, 2020.The rocket that will launch a new spacecraft to study the Sun is beginning to take shape at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The first-stage booster for the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket is “on stand,” meaning it has been raised to a vertical position inside the complex’s Vertical Integration Facility. In the coming days, the one solid rocket booster needed for the mission will be added to the booster, followed by the single-engine Centaur upper stage.

Solar Orbiter is an international cooperative mission between ESA (European Space Agency) and NASA. The mission aims to study the Sun, its outer atmosphere and solar wind. The spacecraft will provide the first images of the Sun’s poles. NASA’s Launch Services Program based at Kennedy Space Center in Florida is managing the launch. Liftoff is scheduled for Feb. 5, 2020.

NASA’s Launch Services Program Prepares for Upcoming 2020 Missions

An artist's concept of NASA's Mars 2020 rover exploring the Red Planet.
An artist’s concept of NASA’s Mars 2020 rover exploring the Red Planet. Photo credit: NASA

NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) is ringing in the New Year with three planned science missions in 2020, aimed at studying the Sun, Mars and our oceans. The first two missions will be launching from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, while the third will launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Launching in February, Solar Orbiter is a collaborative mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA, which will study the Sun, its outer atmosphere and the solar wind. The spacecraft, developed by Airbus Defence and Space, will provide the first-ever images of the Sun’s poles. The Solar Orbiter spacecraft will launch aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 411 rocket, and liftoff is scheduled for Feb. 5. LSP will manage the launch.

NASA’s Mars 2020 mission is targeting to launch in July. Established under the agency’s Mars Exploration Program, the mission will send a rover to the Red Planet to search for signs of ancient microbial life. It also will help us better understand the planet’s geology, collect rock and soil samples that can later be returned to Earth and test new technologies that could pave the way for future human exploration of Mars.

The rover is being manufactured at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and will be sent to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in mid-February. The rover will launch on a ULA Atlas V 541 rocket, procured by LSP, and is expected to land on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021.

Sentinel-6/Jason CS (Continuity of Service), the final mission of 2020, is projected to launch later in the year and will observe global sea level changes. The mission – a collaboration between ESA and NASA – aims to collect high-precision ocean altimetry measurements using two consecutive and identical satellites. The Sentinel-6 mission will launch from California on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

“LSP is incredibly excited to execute the 2020 launch manifest,” said Tim Dunn, LSP launch director. “Additionally, LSP will provide advisory expertise for four Commercial Crew Program missions and four Commercial Resupply Services program missions – all in support of the International Space Station. Also, throughout the year, LSP will be launching numerous CubeSat missions, focused on making space accessible to educational institutions.”

Mars 2020 Rover’s Heat Shield, Back Shell Arrive at Florida Spaceport

Mars 2020 heat shield and back shell
The heat shield and back shell for the Mars 2020 rover are unboxed inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 13, 2019. Photo credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky

Two vital pieces of equipment for the Mars 2020 rover were flown from Lockheed Martin Space in Denver, Colorado and recently delivered to the agency’s Kennedy Space Center.

The rover’s heat shield and back shell arrived at Kennedy’s Launch and Landing Facility (formerly the Shuttle Landing Facility) on Dec. 11, 2019, and were then transported to the Florida spaceport’s Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility. Built by Lockheed Martin Space, these two essential parts of the spacecraft will protect the rover during its passage to Mars. The Mars 2020 rover is being manufactured at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California and, once complete, will be delivered to Kennedy in mid-February, 2020.

Mars 2020 rover heat shield and back shell unboxing
The heat shield and back shell will protect the Mars 2020 rover during its passage to Mars. Photo credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky

As the spacecraft descends through the Martian atmosphere, the heat shield will encounter extreme amounts of friction, creating temperatures as high as about 3,200 degrees Fahrenheit. The back shell contains several elements critical to landing the rover, including the parachute and antennas for communication. Some of these key components will be integrated in the months to come by the NASA-JPL team at Kennedy.

The mission is scheduled to launch in the summer of 2020 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 541 rocket, procured by NASA’s Launch Services Program. It will land on the Red Planet on Feb. 18, 2021.

About the size of a car with dimensions similar to the Curiosity rover, the Mars 2020 rover will carry seven different scientific instruments. Developed under NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, the mission aims to search for signs of past microbial life, characterize the planet’s climate and geology, collect samples for future return to Earth and pave the way for human exploration of Mars.

Visit the mission website for more information.

Solar Orbiter Spacecraft Unboxed; Atlas V Launch Vehicle Arrives

The Solar Orbiter spacecraft has been removed from its shipping container inside the Astrotech Space Operations facility in Titusville, Florida.
The Solar Orbiter spacecraft has been removed from its shipping container inside the Astrotech Space Operations facility in Titusville, Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V booster that will launch the Solar Orbiter on its upcoming mission to study the Sun has arrived at the Florida spaceport, while the spacecraft is beginning launch preparations of its own.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V booster that will launch the Solar Orbiter spacecraft is delivered by truck to the Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 21, 2019.
The United Launch Alliance Atlas V booster that will launch the Solar Orbiter spacecraft is delivered by truck to the Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 21, 2019. Photo credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky

The company’s cargo vessel, Rocketship – formerly known as Mariner – delivered the Atlas V first stage and Centaur upper stage to Port Canaveral on Nov. 20, 2019, after traveling from the booster’s manufacturing facility at Decatur, Alabama. Upon arrival at the port, the launch hardware was trucked to separate facilities at nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station: the booster to ULA’s Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center (ASOC) and the Centaur to a separate facility. Both stages will undergo preflight checkouts before the components are stacked for launch at the Space Launch Complex 41 Vertical Integration Facility closer to liftoff.

Meanwhile, the Solar Orbiter spacecraft has been removed from its shipping container for the start of its own prelaunch preparations at the Astrotech Space Operations Facility in Titusville, Florida. The spacecraft was uncrated Nov. 15 and rotated to vertical on Nov. 18, paving the way for upcoming processing and checkouts, including tests of the spacecraft and its suite of science instruments, as well as its propellant pressurization system.

Solar Orbiter is a European Space Agency mission with strong NASA participation. The mission aims to study the Sun, its outer atmosphere and solar winds. The spacecraft will provide the first images of the Sun’s poles. NASA’s Launch Services Program based at Kennedy is managing the launch. Liftoff is scheduled for Feb. 5, 2020, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 aboard the ULA Atlas V launch vehicle.

Solar Orbiter Arrives at Kennedy from Europe

The Solar Orbiter spacecraft is placed on a truck for transportation from the Launch and Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to the Astrotech Space Operations facility in nearby Titusville on Nov. 1, 2019.
The Solar Orbiter spacecraft is placed on a truck for transportation from the Launch and Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to the Astrotech Space Operations facility in nearby Titusville on Nov. 1, 2019. Photo credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Solar Orbiter spacecraft arrived at the Launch and Landing Facility, formerly known as the Shuttle Landing Facility, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida aboard an Antonov cargo plane from Munich, Germany, on Nov. 1. Upon arrival at the Florida spaceport, the spacecraft was offloaded and transported to the Astrotech Space Operations facility in nearby Titusville, where it will spend the next few months undergoing final preparations, tests and checkouts for liftoff.

Solar Orbiter is an ESA mission that will study the Sun, its outer atmosphere and solar winds. Using high spatial resolution telescopes, the spacecraft will observe the Sun’s atmosphere up close and compare these observations with measurements taken around the spacecraft. Due to its unique orbit, Solar Orbiter will provide the first images of the Sun’s poles. NASA’s Launch Services Program based at Kennedy is managing the launch.

Although developed independently, ESA’s Solar Orbiter and NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which launched Aug. 12, 2018, are natural teammates. Solar Orbiter’s comprehensive science instruments and unique orbit will help scientists place NASA’s Parker Solar Probe’s measurements in context. By working together in this way, the two spacecraft will collect complementary data sets allowing more science to be gathered from the two missions than either could manage on its own.

The spacecraft’s mission to the Sun is planned for launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V-411 rocket from SLC-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Feb. 5, 2020, at 11:15 p.m. EST.

ICON Successfully Launches from Pegasus XL Rocket

Northrop Grumman’s L-1011 Stargazer aircraft, with the company’s Pegasus XL rocket attached beneath, takes off from the Skid Strip runway at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Oct. 10, 2019. NASA's Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) is secured inside the rocket's payload fairing
Northrop Grumman’s L-1011 Stargazer aircraft, with the company’s Pegasus XL rocket attached beneath, takes off from the Skid Strip runway at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Oct. 10, 2019. NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) is secured inside the rocket’s payload fairing. Photo credit: NASA/Frank Michaux

A Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket launched NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, satellite at 9:59 p.m. EDT on Oct. 10 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) to study the dynamic zone in our atmosphere where terrestrial weather from below meets space weather from above.

The satellite was attached to the Pegasus XL rocket, which hitched a ride on the company’s L-1011 Stargazer aircraft. Once the aircraft reached an altitude of 39,000 feet, the rocket was dropped, with ignition occurring five seconds after.

ICON is expected to improve the forecasts of extreme space weather by utilizing in-situ and remote-sensing instruments to survey the variability of Earth’s ionosphere. The mission also will help determine the physics of our space environment, paving the way for mitigating its effects on our technology, communications systems and society.

For more, visit https://www.nasa.gov/icon.

Teams Prepare for ICON Launch Tonight

Northrop Grumman’s L-1011 Stargazer aircraft has arrived at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Oct. 1, 2019.
Northrop Grumman’s L-1011 Stargazer aircraft has arrived at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Oct. 1, 2019. The company’s Pegasus XL rocket, containing NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON), is attached beneath the aircraft. ICON will study the frontier of space – the dynamic zone high in Earth’s atmosphere where terrestrial weather from below meets space weather above. Photo credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky

The Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) will launch tonight on a Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket from the company’s Stargazer L-1011 aircraft. The Stargazer will take off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 8:33 p.m. EDT.

The first launch attempt for ICON is 9:30 p.m. EDT. Follow live coverage here on the blog as well as on NASA TV and on the web at http://nasa.gov/live beginning at 9:15 p.m. EDT.

NASA, Northrop Grumman Prepare for Launch of ICON

Northrop Grumman’s L-1011 Stargazer aircraft has arrived at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Oct. 1, 2019.
Northrop Grumman’s L-1011 Stargazer aircraft has arrived at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Oct. 1, 2019. The company’s Pegasus XL rocket, containing NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON), is attached beneath the aircraft. ICON will study the frontier of space – the dynamic zone high in Earth’s atmosphere where terrestrial weather from below meets space weather above. Photo credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky

NASA and Northrop Grumman will hold a mission briefing at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 1 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, Oct. 8, in preparation for the launch of NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) satellite. Tune in to NASA TV and the agency’s website to watch the mission briefing live.

The Northrop Grumman L-1011 Stargazer aircraft, carrying a Pegasus XL rocket with the agency’s ICON satellite, will take off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Skid Strip on Oct. 9. The launch window will be open from 9:25 to 10:55 p.m., with a targeted release at 9:30 p.m. Ignition of the Pegasus XL rocket will occur five seconds after release from the Stargazer.

ICON is designed to study the frontier of space: the dynamic zone high in our atmosphere where terrestrial weather from below meets space weather above.

Be sure to follow our blog for launch updates. Live launch coverage here and on NASA TV will begin at 9:15 p.m. on Oct. 9.

ICON Launch Now Targeted for Oct. 9

The Northrop Grumman L-1011 Stargazer aircraft lands on Oct. 19, 2018 at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. A Pegasus XL rocket is attached to the underside of the aircraft with NASA's Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, satellite. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett
The Northrop Grumman L-1011 Stargazer aircraft lands on Oct. 19, 2018 at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. A Pegasus XL rocket is attached to the underside of the aircraft with NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, satellite.
Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

NASA and Northrop Grumman coordinated with the U.S. Air Force Eastern Range for an earlier launch date for the agency’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, spacecraft from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. ICON is now targeted for launch on Oct. 9, 2019, aboard a Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket carried by the company’s L-1011 Stargazer aircraft.

ICON Launch Targeted for Oct. 10

Technicians extend the solar array on NASA's Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) during a deployment test inside Building 1555 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Aug. 10, 2019.
Technicians extend the solar array on NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) during a deployment test inside Building 1555 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Aug. 10, 2019. Photo credit: NASA/Randy Beaudoin

NASA and Northrop Grumman currently are preparing the agency’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON spacecraft, and the Pegasus XL rocket at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for ferry to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida by the L-1011 Stargazer aircraft on Oct. 1, 2019. The launch has been rescheduled to Oct. 10, 2019, following the completion of a joint NASA/Northrop Grumman investigation into a Pegasus sensor reading that was not within normal limits during previous ferry and launch attempt flights. The cause of the issue is understood, and the flight hardware has been modified to address the issue. Two L-1011 flights with Pegasus were conducted to verify the effectiveness of the modification with no issues. Functional tests are being performed on NASA’s ICON spacecraft, which utilizes Northrop Grumman’s LEOStar-2 platform, to ensure that the ICON spacecraft is ready for the upcoming integration activity, ferry flight and launch. As always, mission success for Pegasus and ICON is the top priority.