The United Launch Alliance returned to one of its two main platforms at Cape Canaveral Air Station on Wednesday to try to disrupt a string of recent launches due to various issues, primarily related to the ground system .
The company’s Atlas V rocket is scheduled to take off from the Space Launch Complex-41 at 5:54 pm EST (22:54 UTC), bringing a satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office. The mission is designated NROL-101, and its final trajectory has been classified. There is a 70% chance of having favorable conditions.
The venerable Atlas V missile, which has performed 85 sorties since its launch in 2002, will test new hardware with this flight. For the first time ever, the Atlas V will use a solid-state rocket built by Northrop Grumman instead of the Aerojet Rocketdyne. These GEM-63 boosters are priced lower than those used in the past. The United Launch Alliance plans to use an expanded version of this booster, the GEM-63L, on the Vulcan missile, able to make its first flight in a year or so.
Perhaps the biggest question raised in today’s launch attempt is whether the Atlas V missile will take off. The mission was originally scheduled to be carried out on Tuesday, but after its launch on Monday the company discovered a problem with the pipeline of the environmental control system. This could have been damaged during high winds at the launch site on Monday. After being sent back to its hangar, where the pipeline was swapped, the Atlas V rocket rolled back to its pedestal on Tuesday.
So far, too good – as of Wednesday morning, the company says things are on track for Atlas V’s takeoff later in the day.
The United Launch Alliance can do it with a successful takeoff. It has been a rough couple of months as the company struggled to launch another mission for the National Reconnaissance Office, a key customer paying the fees to bring its high-value satellites into space.
This NROL-44 mission, which was launched by a Delta IV Heavy missile on a nearby pedestal, has been performed half a dozen times since the end of August. Most of these incidents were caused by problems with ground support equipment. and usually occurs within seconds after the scheduled takeoff time. This raises questions about the aging infrastructure at the Delta launch site in Florida. A new launch date has yet to be set for the mission the US government has been hoping to put into space by June.
The company’s webcast for today’s launch will start about 20 minutes before takeoff.