Today’s Tidbits: March 26, 2020

Today’s Tidbits: March 26, 2020

Here are’s tidbits for March 26, 2020:  successful first launch for U.S. Space Force, COVID-19 and Europe’s space program, Al Worden passes away.  Be sure to check our website for feature stories and follow us on Twitter (@SpcPlcyOnline) for more news and live tweeting of events.

Successful First Launch for U.S. Space Force

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) lofted an Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) communications satellite to orbit today after a brief delay due to a technical hitch.  This is the sixth (AEHF-6) and final satellite in the series, the successor to the Milstar satellites.  AEHF provides global, survivable, protected communications for the military.

This is the first launch for the new U.S. Space Force (USSF), commanded by Gen. Jay Raymond,  and thus the first to sport the USSF seal.

The launch of the Atlas V rocket was supposed to take place at 2:57 pm ET, but a hold was called at T-46 seconds due to what turned out to be a “bad amplifier card on a ground system hydraulic pump controller” in the words of ULA CEO Tory Bruno.  They fixed it and the launch took place at 4:18 pm ET instead.  The satellite is destined for geostationary orbit, requiring three burns of the Centaur upper stage, powered by an Aerojet Rocketdyne RL-10 engine.  Today’s was the 500th RL-10.  It was a long trip and ULA finally declared mission success just after 10:00 pm ET.

COVID-19 and Europe’s Space Program

The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic may not have stopped the ULA launch, which was deemed “mission essential,” but Europe has completely shut down its launch site in Kourou, French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America.

Europe’s space launch company, Arianespace, announced on March 16 that operations at the Guiana Space Center are suspended until further notice “to protect the health of employees and the local population, while also maintaining the security needed to prepare for schedule launches.”  The French space agency, CNES, operates the spaceport. It is the launch site for Ariane and Vega, as well as commercial launches of Soyuz rockets through a partnership with Russia. Commercial Soyuz launches also take from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Those are unaffected.

Separately, the European Space Agency (ESA) discontinued science operations of four of its missions, including one that was just launched last month, in order to reduce staff at the European Space Operations Center (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany.  ESA’s Director of Operations, Rolf Densing, explained that “Our priority is the health of our workforce, and we will therefore reduce activity on some of our scientific missions, especially on interplanetary spacecraft, which currently require the highest number of personnel on site.”

The four missions are:

  • Cluster, a set of four spacecraft orbiting Earth since 2000 to study the interaction between the solar wind and Earth’s magnetic field;
  • ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which has been orbiting Mars since 2016 studying the planet’s atmosphere and serving as a communications relay for NASA’s Curiosity rover;
  • Mars Express, orbiting Mars since 2003, imaging the surface and also serving as a communications relay; and
  • Solar Orbiter, launched last month and currently on its way to its destination where it will orbit the Sun around its poles.

The spacecraft have been placed in safe mode and operations will resume when the COVID-19 situation improves.  Densing said the temporary suspension should have a “negligible impact on their overall mission performance.” Meanwhile, ESOC will continue to operate 17 other European missions.

Al Worden Passes Away

Apollo astronaut Al Worden died on March 18 after suffering a stroke at the age of 88.   Worden was the Command Module Pilot for Apollo 15, remaining in lunar orbit while Dave Scott and Jim Irwin landed on the surface.

In a video interview for Apollo’s 50th anniversary, he talked about that mission and doing a stand-up extravehicular activity (EVA) in the hatch of the Command Module on the trip between the Earth and the Moon.  It was “an uncanny, unbelievable place to be.”

With his passing, only 12 of the 24 men who traveled to the Moon and back (on Apollo 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17) are still alive, including Scott.  Irwin died of a heart attack in 1991.

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Correction: this article originally referred to the Space Force “logo,” but that is the Space Force “seal.”  The logo was not revealed until July 22, 2020.

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