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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Rocket Summer and Other Space News


Up, up and away for the Delta-4. Credit: ULA.

For rocket lovers, we live in a wonderful time for rocket watching. Every summer is a rocket summer. On July 29 rocket fans watched United Launch Alliance and the US Air Force launch a satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Blasting off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center), the Delta-4 Heavy lifted a classified NRO satellite (NROL-15) into orbit.

Liftoff from LC-37. Credit: ULA.

The Delta-4 Heavy is the most powerful variant of the Delta family of rockets (scroll down to the article on the Atlas-5 launch for the graphic display of the Delta family of rockets). It's even more powerful now, with this latest launch featuring new versions of the RL-68 rocket engines, the RL-68A's. These new engines feature an additional 36-39,000 pounds of thrust for a total of 797,000 pounds of thrust. The distinguishing feature of the Delta-4 Heavy is the addition of the two side boosters, which are liquid-fueled instead of the commonly-seen solid rocket boosters. 
With this Delta-4 Heavy launch, it means we've seen recently a launch of the Delta-4, the Atlas-5, the Long March variant for Shenzhou-9, with upcoming launches of the Soyuz and another Atlas-5 in July.

Rocket Motor Two tests in the desert. Credit: Virgin Galactic.

And it's not just rocket flights, either. There's plenty of rocket engine testing going on in the race for commercial rocket development. Virgin Galactic is preparing for the first tourists flights into sub-orbit, and continuing testing of the Rocket Two engine at their facilities in the Mojave desert.

ATK fires up in the Utah desert. Credit: ATK

ATK continues working feverishly to advance the Liberty rocket system. In northern Utah at their facility near Brigham City, ATK fired the GEM-60 solid rocket motor which will power the first stage of Liberty. Liberty is expected to fly in 2014.

Liberty rocket and capsule. Art by ATK.

In fact, it's not just rocket engines that fly the machines, it's computers as well. ATK has recently completed a technical review of its program software with NASA, fulfilling another step in the long checklist of items towards launch. ATK expects to have two unmanned launches in 2014 and 2015, with the first crewed launch in 2015. Other companies will have to press onward quickly to match this schedule, should ATK manage to maintain this pace.

China: Shenzhou 9 Returns to Earth

Shenzhou 9 (right) docked with Tiangong 1. China Space Agency art.

After completing several milestones in Chinese space exploration history, the 3-man crew returned to Earth yesterday, landing in Inner Mongolia. The manned spacecraft had docked under automatic controls on June 18. Liu Yang became the first Chinese Woman Taikonaut in their space program. On June 24, the crew boarded the Shenzhou 9 and undocked from the station. They re-docked with the station, performing the first manual docking in their program. On Friday June 29 they undocked for the last time and jettisoned their service and science modules, returning through the atmosphere in the crew module.

View from Tiangong 1 of Shenzhou 9 re-docking with the station on June 24. Credit: CCTV.

Back on Earth, Liu Yang is helped from the hatch of the tipped-over capsule. Credit: Xinhua News Agency.
Posted by Mark Daymont
Space Center Educator

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