Saturday, October 17, 2009

Atlas rocket marks 600th milestone this Sunday

During the last five decades, the Atlas rocket has given Americans an edge in space flight technology.

Beginning in 1957, the Atlas missile was turned into a more powerful rocket launcher as the space program began to mature. Four Americans were carried into earth orbit aboard newer versions of the Atlas beginning with John Glenn in February 1962.

Since then the Atlas has carried aloft satellite payloads for both civilian and military use, including the Mariner probes which flew to Mercury and the Agena docking vehicle during the NASA Gemini program. Atlas also took the LRO-LCROSS satellites to the Moon this year.

On Sunday, the Atlas program will begin a new chapter as the 600th Atlas rocket is launched on a military flight from California.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V -- the newest and most powerful of the rocket heritage -- is set to carry the Air Force’s Defense Meteorological Satellite Program F18 from space launch complex 3E at Vandenberg, AFB in California. The launch time is 12:12 pm EDT (9:12 am local time).

Once the bronze and white rocket lifts-off, it will perform a pitch over 17 seconds into flight. As Atlas continues to build up speed as it pushes through the atmosphere, it will throttle down it's RD-180 engine which burns kerosene and liquid oxygen. As the Atlas V travel south over the eastern Pacific Ocean, it's first stage booster will shutdown just over four minutes into the ascent.

According to a United Launch Alliance spokesperson, "During the program’s history, 314 launches have taken place from CCAFS (Cape Canaveral) while 285 have launched from Vandenberg." ULA is the prime support company for the Atlas launchers.

Eighteen minutes after launch, the space craft will separate from the Atlas' Centaur upper stage as it flies over a anrea near Hanamenu Island in the central Pacific.

Sunday's 600th Atlas mission will carry the DMSP F18 into a polar orbit of 463 nautical miles with an orbital period of 101 minutes each revolution.

The DMSP is a space based weather observation platform for the U.S. military and will aid in operation forecast for manuvers.

As the military and civilian launch teams celebrate the 600th Atlas launch, Vandenberg last month celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first ICBM Atlas launch from it's complex.

On the
morning of September 9, 1959, the Vandy launch team launched an Atlas 12D rocket - the first of it kind.

"Before the Atlas 12D was launched, nothing to its magnitude had ever been accomplished," Jay Prichard who is the curator of the Vandenberg Heritage Center stated last month on the 50th anniversary. "It is amazing how the pioneers of Vandenberg took, at the time, only a concept and created something that was operationally reliable. The kicker is -- we still use it today. They weren't just doing rocket science, they were creating it."

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