Updated 7:50 a.m. EST with LOFTID splashdown, JPSS-2 board issue.
WASHINGTON — An Atlas 5 successfully launched a polar-orbiting weather satellite and re-entry technology demonstrator during the vehicle’s final flight from California.
The United Launch Alliance Atlas 5,401 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 3 at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California at 4:49 a.m. Eastern Time on November 10. A problem loading liquid oxygen into the rocket’s Centaur upper stage delayed liftoff by 24 minutes, two-thirds of the way into the 36-minute launch window.
The Centaur upper stage deployed the mission’s primary payload, the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) 2 satellite, 28 minutes after liftoff, placing it into a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of approximately 800 kilometers. The spacecraft made contact with controllers shortly after deployment. However, NASA reported about three hours after liftoff that it had yet to receive telemetry indicating the solar array had deployed as expected.
JPSS-2 is the second of four polar-orbiting weather satellites planned in the JPSS program to provide weather data to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. JPSS-1, built by Ball Aerospace, launched in 2017 and is in service as NOAA-20. An older satellite, Suomi NPP, also provides weather data from polar orbit but is nearing the end of its life because it lacks a station-keeping thruster.
Northrop Grumman built JPSS-2 and has contracts for JPSS-3 and -4, which will ensure the continuity of the JPSS program into the 2030s. Steve Krein, vice president of civil and commercial space at Northrop Grumman, said in an interview in October that the company was “well advanced” in producing the two future JPSS satellites.
The satellites use the latest version of Northrop’s LEOStar-3 bus. “We’ve got a new avionics suite, we’ve got a new set of sensors, wheels, star trackers, etc., that we’ve put to work for the Landsat  mission and the JPSS mission,” he said. “It’s a continuous upgrade of components and operating paradigms.”
JPSS satellites provide essential meteorological data that complement observations from the GOES series of satellites in geostationary orbit. “JPSS data is a major contribution to U.S. and international numerical weather prediction models,” said Jordan Gerth, meteorologist and satellite specialist at NOAA’s National Weather Service, during a pre-launch briefing Nov. 8. . “With JPSS, the quality of local data for three to seven day weather forecasts is exceptional.
A secondary payload at launch was the Low Earth Orbit Inflatable Decelerator Flight Test (LOFTID), a technology demonstration of an inflatable heat shield. LOFTID separated from the Centaur 75 minutes after liftoff, after the upper stage performed two burns to place it on a reentry course.
The vehicle appeared to perform as intended during reentry, deploying a parachute and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean east of Hawaii 2 hours and 13 minutes after liftoff. A recovery vessel will recover the spacecraft along with a separate data logger ejected from the LOFTID prior to splashdown.
LOFTID is designed to test the performance of a six-meter-diameter inflatable decelerator, collecting data during reentry before diving east of Hawaii. NASA wants to use this technology, on a large scale, for landing future Mars missions too large for existing entry, descent and landing systems. ULA, which cooperated with NASA on LOFTID under a Space Act agreement, is studying the use of this technology to recover the engines of its Vulcan rocket.
The launch was the 100th mission of NASA’s Launch Services Program, which coordinates launches for NASA science missions. This is also the last Atlas 5 launch for the program and the last Atlas 5 launch from Vandenberg. ULA will convert the launch pad for use by Vulcan.
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