Yesterday saw the launch of the 17th Satellite in the latest GPS Constellation: GPS 2R-17 powered by a Delta 2 rocket. I just happened to be on holiday in Florida at the time (or so I told my wife) and was invited by the 45th Space Wing from Patrick Air Force Base to join a number of other reporters just under 1.5 miles from Launch Complex 17 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base to watch the spacecraft being blasted into space.
My day started at 4:30 when I got in my car for the 2 hour journey to Cape Canaveral. It was damp and dark, but being florida it was also hot and humid with temperatures around 75F. Of course I was utilising the functionality of the old GPS satellite systems to guide me with pinpoint accuracy to the meeting point just outside the security checkpoint for Cape Canaveral AFB. There were about 30 journalists marshaled on a parking lot just behind an old rocket. As I was approaching Cape Canaveral I could see a white beacon illuminating the sky from about 25 miles away. As I approached I realised that this was actually the lights on the launch pad allowing the rocket to be observed during the final stages of the countdown..
Although I had seen a rocket launch from LC 17A before it was from Jetty Beach about 7 miles from the Launch Complex. So I was getting quite excited chatting to the military personnel and fellow reporters. There were 2 television crews and a host of reporters from college press to national news and the major Space Internet Portals. Being in the middle of a swamp has some major disadvantages the mosquitoes there were having the meal of their lives at my expense.
Just as dawn was breaking at 6:45 we had a quick briefing before being taken in convoy through the Air Force Base to the press viewing area. We were told that they had a 15 minute window to launch and that there was a 60% chance of the weather being suitable for the launch. It had changed overnight from 40/60 to 60/40.
We set off in a convoy of about 15 vehicles just before 7 for the 6 mile drive to the rocket launch viewing area. Looking at the image taken from Google Earth you can see that it was just under 1.5 miles from our observation point to launch pad 17A. The terrain between the rocket viewing area and the launch pad was mainly scrubby bushes, which would have obstructed our view of the launch site. Fortunately they appreciated that we would like a clear view and two paths had been cleared through the brush to give excellent views of both launch pads in complex 17.
I grabbed what I considered the best position and set up my tripod ready for the rocket to be launched. With about an hour to go the mission control audio feed was broadcast to the press area and it was with great relief that we heard that all systems were go and we were ready for a launch right at the opening of the launch window. I then wandered around chatting to the old pros trying to work out what would happen and the sequence it would happen in.
There was a small control booth which 2 of the military guys set up in and gave us some final instructions including the rather ominous statement: "If there is a launch anomaly we must grab our equipment and rapidly enter a building a few hundred yards away where we would wait for the plume to disperse". It was at this point that it brought home to me the delicate nature and risks involved in putting a spacecraft into orbit. The success of a multi-million dollar project is totally reliant on launching a fragile vehicle into the air on top of a delivery mechanism that is essentially a controlled release of high explosives. And there I was less than 1 and a half miles from it all...
Whilst the final hour was ticking away I took the opportunity to grab a few pictures of the rocket with it's GPS Satellite payload sitting on top. I also got to meet some representatives of the consortium who collaborate to build, launch and commission the spacecraft. United Launch Alliance are responsible for the Rocket delivery system, Lockheed-Martin build the GPS Satellite, and the US Military operate the GPS systems from their Schriever AFB in Colorado. I was hoping to interview the team involved in launching and commissioning the GPS this week, but the press conference was cancelled at the last minute. Never mind, this gives me the opportunity to come back another time.
As the final minutes ticked away the TV guys lit up the presenters and started a live commentary while I set the video rolling and grabbed my camera with the shutter set on continuous shooting. At 8:23 you can just about hear the countdown "3,2,1 We have liftoff" and then an orange flame can be seen as the rocket, slowly at first, starts to rise into the air. It is quite eerie as the rocket accelerates because with the adrenaline flowing time seems to have slowed down a bit. Then all of a sudden the roar of the rocket's six solid booster engines assaults your ears, and boy is it loud. The exhaust plume from the engines has billowed out over the launch pad and the rocket is away in a blaze of orange.
As the rocket with its GPS payload rises into the sky we can track it visually and from the commentary coming from the mission control centre. Everything has proceeded to plan and there is a perfect launch. The first stage separates from the rest of the launch vehicle and the second stage ignites. This is about the point that we loose site of the rocket as it heads into the sun. All in all from the ignition of the Delta 2 rocket engines to it disappearing from view was just over 2 minutes.
We waited until we heard that the rocket had achieved MECO (Main Engine Cut Off) before returning to our cars and once again heading out in convoy to the main gates. Another bird successfully launched to help both the military and civilian Global Positioning System service across the globe.
The next GPS Satellite launch is scheduled for late December, and despite trying I have been unable to persuade my wife that we need to be there for it. I will however be in Florida before the launch so I am hoping to make some arrangements with the guys at Lockheed-Martin and the USAF Space Wing to let me have access to the preparations for flight. It make a very pleasant change for me to be looking at the technology enabling the consumer GPS products, and I hope we can cover more of this in the future.
I have included some of the 60 or so images recording the launch and a (amateurish) attempt to video the launch. Next time I need to take a partner one for the video and one for the stills filming.
Click here for a quicktime movie of the launch or here for a windows media version. I am afraid the sound has not recorded very well and I dont have the correct tools to record a voice over on my laptop. I will fix this on my return and will post in the forum when the movie has been updated properly.
Below is the official press release issued by the United States Air Force from the Partick AFB.
|USAF LAUNCHES DELTA II/GPS MISSION
CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, Fla. – The U.S. Air Force successfully launched a United Launch Alliance Delta II booster carrying the fourth modernized NAVSTAR Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite into space today. The NAVSTAR GPS was launched at 8:23 a.m. (EDT) from Space Launch Complex 17A here.
The satellite will join the constellation of 30 operational satellites on-orbit providing global coverage and increased performance of the GPS services to users worldwide.
“The 45th Space Wing and its mission partners have again accomplished another major milestone in our national quest to improve and maintain our space capabilities,” said Col. Stephen Butler, 45th Space Wing vice commander. “The GPS constellation has worldwide significance and all of the satellites are launched from right here at the world’s premier gateway to space.”
GPS is the world’s foremost space-based positioning and navigation system. Endeavors such as mapping, aerial refueling, rendezvous operations, geodetic surveying and search and rescue operations have all benefited from GPS’s accuracy.
“GPS is not only a military asset, but a national asset due to its civil applications,” said Capt. Bill Bakker, GPS IIR field program manager, 45th Launch Support Squadron. “This mission is vital to the sustainment of our GPS constellation. Our team takes a great deal of satisfaction and pride in replenishing a constellation that is so critical to our warfighters.”