Spaceflight Now: Delta launch report

Space weather satellite launched by Boeing rocket

Posted: March 26, 2000

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- A NASA satellite built to see Earth's invisible magnetosphere was trucked into orbit on Saturday by a Boeing Delta 2 rocket.

The Boeing Delta 2 rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex-2 West at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Photo: Thom Baur/Boeing
The $82 million Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration probe, or IMAGE, will serve as a new pair of eyes in space to study the solar wind and its affect on Earth.

Liftoff occurred right on time for the $50 million Delta 2 rocket at 2034:43 GMT (3:34:43 p.m. EST) from Space Launch Complex-2 West at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Saturday's launch was the 277th for a Delta vehicle.

Despite worrisome weather forecasts over the past few days, conditions were ideal for the lunchtime space shot from Central California's Pacific Coastline.

As the three-stage, 331,000-pound Delta rocket streaked southward, its three strap-on solid rocket boosters burned out 64 seconds into flight. The Delta rocket carried the spent boosters for another 35 seconds before jettisoning them to fall into the Pacific Ocean once the vehicle had passed clear of several oil-drilling platforms positioned just off the Vandenberg coastline.

Riding on just the power of the first stage main engine, the Delta continued toward space. The engine was shutdown and the stage separated about 4 1/2 minutes after launch.

The liquid-fueled second stage then took over, and the protective payload fairing enclosing the IMAGE satellite atop the rocket was released about five minutes after launch. The rocket and attached IMAGE satellite arrived into a preliminary parking orbit around Earth less than 12 minutes after takeoff, ranging from 99.9 to 581 nautical miles.

With the vehicle in space, a long coast began as the Delta neared the high point of its orbit around Earth. Some 50 minutes into flight, the second stage separated and the solid-fueled third stage ignited to complete IMAGE's journey to space.

The IMAGE spacecraft atop the Delta 2 rocket last week during installation of payload fairing nose cone. Photo: NASA TV/SPACEFLIGHT NOW
IMAGE was released on its own from the Delta launcher high above Madagascar off the southeastern coast of Africa, about 56 minutes after leaving California.

See the Mission Status Center with our live updates from launch day.

Ground controllers quickly established communications with the eight-sided satellite through a tracking station in Madrid and checked its vital signs. All systems looked healthy with no problems reported.

Over the coming 40 days, IMAGE's antennas will be deployed and the craft completely tested before starting full-time science observations for the next two years. The satellite's final orbit ranges from about 540 nautical miles on the low end to 24,800 nautical miles on the high point, taking 14 hours to complete one trip around the planet. IMAGE is a spinning satellite, making 2 1/2 revolutions ever minute.

IMAGE will stretch 1,640-feet tip-to-tip with its radio plasma antennas extended, becoming the longest satellite in space and 180 feet taller than the Empire State Building in New York City, NY.

Scientists from around the world will use the satellite's unique images of the Earth's magnetosphere, a protective shell that shields the upper atmosphere from the supersonic stream of charged particles from the sun called the solar wind. IMAGE will study how charged particles change in the magnetosphere, which encompasses nearly one trillion cubic miles.

Never before have global images been taken of the magnetosphere because such technology was not developed. But now IMAGE will use state-of-the-art techniques to see the invisible.

"Before now, scientists have only been able to see individual points of the magnetosphere," said Dr. James Burch, IMAGE's principal investigator. "Those points would then have to be combined for a more complete picture -- an often difficult and inaccurate process. The six science instruments aboard IMAGE will enable researchers to accurately see the 'big picture' for the first time."

Artist's concept of NASA's IMAGE satellite orbiting Earth. Photo: NASA TV/SPACEFLIGHT NOW
Data from the IMAGE mission, which is led by the Southwest Research Institute for NASA, should provide new information about the solar wind's interaction with the magnetosphere and the processes that affect magnetospheric plasmas during geomagnetic storms.

Such storms are known to cause disruptions in communications and power systems on Earth and harm satellites and astronauts in space. Knowledge gained from IMAGE could help researchers predict these space storms, allowing NASA, the military and commercial companies prepare for such events.

IMAGE begins its research as the "solar maximum" approaches. This peak during an 11-year cycle means even a larger number of intense storms on the sun will cause the magnetosphere to be more disturbed than at other times.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will also use IMAGE data in real-time for space weather forecasting.

IMAGE is the first satellite launched as part of NASA's Medium-class Explorer missions, or MIDEX. Lockheed Martin Missiles & Space built the half-ton satellite. The total cost of the IMAGE mission is $154 million including $21.5 million for its two-year flight and science analysis.

Saturday's launch was the second Delta rocket flight of 2000 and first from Vandenberg in nearly a year. The SLC-2W launch pad had undergone extensive refurbishment and upgrades during the lull.

The next Delta 2 rocket launch is planned for April 21 from Cape Canaveral, Fla., when the U.S. Air Force NAVSTAR Global Positioning System 2R-4 navigation satellite will be carried into space.

Flight Data File
Vehicle: Delta 2 (7326)
Payload: NASA's IMAGE
Launch date: March 25, 2000
Launch window: 2034:43-2042:43 GMT (3:34-3:42 p.m. EST)
Launch site: SLC-2W, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

Video vault
The Boeing Delta 2 rocket lifts off with NASA's IMAGE satellite from Vandenberg.
  PLAY (215k, 25sec QuickTime file)

Animation shows NASA's IMAGE satellite orbiting the Earth for its space weather science mission.
  PLAY (179k, 12sec QuickTime file)

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Virtual Vandenberg
The scene at Vandenberg Air Force Base's Space Launch Complex (SLC) 2 captured by Spaceflight Now on March 23 during final preparations for the launch of NASA's IMAGE spacecraft on a Boeing's Delta 2 rocket.
  VIEW (191k QuickTime file)

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Photo gallery
Launch - Pictures from the countdown and liftoff.

Pre-launch briefing
Launch timeline - Chart with times and descriptions of events to occur during the launch.

Orbit trace - Maps showing the ground track the rocket will follow during flight.

Delta 2 rocket - Overview of the Delta 2 7326-model rocket used to launch IMAGE.

IMAGE - Description of the IMAGE satellite and its science mission.

Explore the Net
Delta 2 - Official Web site of Boeing's Delta 2 expendable launch vehicle program.

IMAGE - NASA site gives overview of Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration mission.

SwRI - The official IMAGE mission home page at Southwest Research Institute.

LMMS - Lockheed Martin Missiles & Space built IMAGE.

Explorers Program - NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center site devoted to Explorer missions.

Vandenberg Air Force Base - West Coast launch site for Delta in California.

History of Delta - A private Web site devoted to past Delta launches with valuable facts and figures.

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