NASA launches laser space communication system

The Space Test Program-3 (STP-3) mission was launched at 7:19 am (GMT) this Tuesday (7) aboard the rocket Atlas V, of the United Launch Alliance (ULC), from the launch base of the Space Force in Florida. STP-3 sent national security payloads and a NASA satellite to demonstrate laser communications established in Earth orbit.

Launch was initially scheduled for Dec. 5, but a leak in the fuel storage system prompted the postponement. The $1.1 billion mission successfully took off into geosynchronous orbit, driven by the Atlas 5 551 and its five solid thrusters.

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This was the 90th Atlas V flight, also the vehicle’s longest mission which required three burns with the RL10C-1 upper stage engine. While the secondary payload is scheduled to be released about 7 hours after takeoff, the primary payload will be released just over 8 hours — at about 35 km altitude.

The STP-3 mission would have taken place in 2019, had it not been for delays in the development of NASA’s laser communication payloads and the 2020 stoppages due to the covid-19 pandemic.

Mission payloads

The primary payload, called STPSat-6, includes the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Space and Atmospheric Explosion Reporting System 3 (SABRS-3). SABRS-3 is a sensor designed to detect nuclear explosions.

The STPSat-6 also carries the NASA Laser Communication Relay Demonstration (LCRD) payload, a system that will be used to test laser communication between Earth and geosynchronous orbit. The LCRD is led by the Goddard Space Flight Center.

NASA Communications and Navigation Program Deputy Associate Administrator Badri Younes said the LCRD was designed to be able to download optical signals at a rate of 1.2 gigabits per second. A map of Mars sent to Earth with current radio systems could take up to nine years, but only nine weeks with laser communication.

The mission also sent the secondary payload, the Long Duration Propulsive ESPA (LDPE-1), a small satellite adapter ring designed to deploy military experiments, including six US Space Force experiments for space weather and situational awareness. Both STPSat-6 and LPDE-1 were manufactured by Northrop Grumman.

What’s New on the Atlas V Rocket

ULA Vice President of Government and Commercial Programs Gary Wentz explained that the Atlas V used for this launch debuted three new items. The first is a 5 meter diameter payload fairing developed by RUAG — through production outside the autoclave, where carbon fiber composites are cured in an oven.

The Atlas V rocket for this release included three new features (Image: Playback/ULA)

There is also a flight power system to charge the satellite batteries and an advanced GPS navigation system in the upper Centaur stage, with the aim of improving the accuracy of payload insertions in Earth orbit.

According to Wentz, the company wanted to test the new features on the Atlas V to gain experiences that will be applied in the transition to the next rocket, the Vulcan Centaur — with more than 5.4 meters in diameter in the fairing.

Check out the entire launch event broadcast by NASA below:

Source: NASA; Via SpaceNews

About Raju Singh

Raju has an exquisite taste. For him, video games are more than entertainment and he likes to discuss forms and art.

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