NASA Wallops Island's Big Launch Month

By Doug Mohney September 05, 2013

NASA's Wallops Island Flight Facility (WFF) will be the site of two ambitious activities this month. Located about three hours drive from the nation's capital and an hour south of Ocean City, MD, the humble facility is scheduled to launch a satellite to the moon on September 6, followed two weeks later by a full-up demonstration of Orbital Sciences Corporation's commercial supply service for the International Space Station (ISS).

The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) is scheduled to be launched at 11:27 p.m. ET on Friday evening on board an Orbital Sciences Corporation Minotaur V rocket. The launch will be the first interplanetary launch from Wallops Island, Virginia.

Built at NASA's Ames Research Center, LADEE is built around a modular common spacecraft architecture bus designed to lower the cost and speed up manufacturing and assembly of satellites. It will circle the moon for 100 days, gathering information about the near-intangible lunar "exosphere" atmosphere and dust at a low orbit between 31 miles and 93 miles.

Also onboard LADEE is a high-speed laser communication demonstration package. The demonstration is designed to show the ability to transmit 622 Mbps -- a data rate far faster than ever done before around the moon. To date, satellites have used radio frequencies and the use of smaller antennas, limiting data rates to tens and hundreds of kilobits per second. Laser communication holds the promise of lighter, smaller systems than today's radio packages, as well as using less power.

Another first is the launch of the Minotaur V rocket. The first three stages of the five stage solid fueled rocket are former U.S. Air Force ICBM Peacekeeper solid rocket motors, while the fourth and fifth stages are commercial STAR rocket motors supplied by ATK. Solid fuel provides advantages in terms of simplicity of operation, since there is no need to pump in multiple liquid fuels and gases for launch, but it also is more expensive.

Once LADEE leaves the pad, Wallops and Orbital Sciences have 10 days until the first launch of the Cygnus cargo freighter. Scheduled for September 17 at 11:16 a.m. ET, Cygnus will launch aboard an Orbital Antares rocket. Once in orbit, Cygnus will go through a series of test maneuvers with a targeted grapple and berthing to the ISS on September 22. This will be Orbital's first mission to ISS under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services development program. Successful completion means Orbital can start delivering cargo to the space station under an eight-flight, $1.9 billion NASA Commercial Resupply Services contract.

Both NASA and Orbital would like to see a smooth flight. NASA wants two fully qualified commercial providers for space station supply between now and 2015, while Orbital would be in prime position to compete for future ISS supply contracts between 2015 and the end of life of the space station. ISS is currently authorized to operate through 2020 with a proposal to continue operations through 2028.

Edited by Rory J. Thompson

Contributing Editor

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