Last week, I was fortunate to be able to join the NASA Social team at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, California for the launch of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 (OCO-2) satellite. This unique opportunity provided the chance to experience a Delta II rocket launch and learn more about NASA, rockets, space and space tourism. I can’t say what the most impressive aspect was because, one week later, I’m still in awe about the entire trip. I’ve chosen to share some highlights that you may enjoy.
As a long-time aviation geek, I was naturally interested to learn more about the rocket that would carry OCO-2 into orbit. I was surprised to learn that, in almost all cases, NASA doesn’t own the rocket. They contract with various 3rd party companies who build and launch the rocket. Each launch company uses a different type of rocket, and in this case, United Launch Alliance (a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture) used a Delta II 7320 rocket. Since most people haven’t seen a Delta II rocket up close, here’s a quick comparison with one of our Boeing 737-800 series aircraft to give you an idea of size.
Of course, there are some major differences between a Boeing 737NG, which is designed to cruise through the lower stratosphere, and a Delta II rocket, which is designed to fly into space. Our 737 aircraft cruise at an altitude up to 12,000 metres (40,000 feet) at a maximum speed of Mach 0.785 (960 km/h). The Delta II 7320 rocket surpasses 960 km/h about 50 seconds after launch, and eventually tops out at Mach 10 (12,250 km/h) before the main engine stops around 78,000 metres (260,000 feet) in altitude. Once the second stage engine is started, it doesn’t take long for the rocket to exceed Mach 20 on its way to low Earth orbit.
The Delta II rocket is very reliable and is commonly referred to as a workhorse in the rocket industry. It has been in service for decades and is based on the original Thor rockets that the U.S. military developed during the Cold War. We got to check out a vintage Thor rocket on our tour of Vandenberg Air Force Base. Check out the photos here. The OCO-2 launch was the 51st Delta II mission for NASA, and is the first of two Delta II launches they’ll do this year.
(photo credit: NASA Twitter)
The OCO-2 satellite is part of NASA’s Earth Right Now earth science missions, which include four other satellites that measure various aspects of our planet’s climate and environment, including global snow and rain, ocean winds, pollution, dust and smoke in the atmosphere, atmospheric carbon dioxide, and soil moisture.
(photo credit: NASAJPL/NASA)
According to NASA, “OCO-2 will be collecting space-based global measurements of atmospheric CO2 with the precision, resolution, and coverage needed to characterize sources and sinks on regional scales”, or quite simply, where carbon dioxide comes from and where it goes. The science behind OCO-2 is pretty complex, and you can learn more about it on the NASA Mission Science page.
OCO-2 will orbit the Earth at an altitude of 705 kilometers (438 miles) and will complete one near-polar Earth orbit every 99 minutes. The orbital path will allow it to observe most of the Earth’s surface every 16 days. In addition, OCO-2 will have friends in space. It’ll fly with a series of other satellites, commonly referred to as the “A-train” or “afternoon train”, which cross the equator every day around noon. Flying these Earth-observing satellites together allows NASA researchers to correlate data from all the different satellites.
After a week of testing the satellite’s various systems in space, and verifying to be sure that it flies like it was designed to, it’ll take just less than a month to manoeuver OCO-2 into the right position where it’ll then be able to merge to the front of the A-train at the leisurely speed of 23,000 km/h (17,000 mph)! Once there, OCO-2 has funding to continue for two years and enough fuel on board to extend the mission an additional 10 years.
When someone mentions a NASA rocket launch, most people think of Cape Canaveral and/or Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. There are however, multiple locations where NASA rocket launches occur and they will almost certainly be at a secure location like an Air Force base, usually next to the ocean. The two primary NASA launch sites are Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Cape Canaveral is one of the most well-known launch locations thanks to its role in the Space Shuttle program and its long history of major rocket launches, such as the Saturn V lunar Apollo missions. Though rockets launched from Cape Canaveral have propelled humans and spacecraft beyond low Earth orbit, Cape Canaveral’s recent missions have generally been used to launch spacecraft into equatorial Earth orbit (i.e. they will orbit Earth around the equator).
If a polar Earth orbit (i.e. orbiting Earth around the North and South Poles) is required, NASA will launch from the 30th Space Wing facilities at Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) in California. VAFB is located on a point where the Pacific coastline runs East-West instead of North-South, so it is a perfect location to launch rockets to the south. Vandenberg is where OCO-2 launched from, and is also where NASA’s next Delta II launch, scheduled for November, will take the soil moisture measuring “SMAP” into space to join the other A-train satellites.
Much in the same way that many factors can cause a commercial flight delay, there are a number of factors that can cause a rocket launch delay. In OCO-2’s case, it took two attempts to successfully launch. On the first attempt, a failure in the VAFB Space Launch Complex 2 pad water system caused the cancellation of the launch at T-45 seconds. Though the rocket was good to go, the pad water system failed, so the rocket could not launch safely.
On the second launch attempt, the Delta II rocket carrying OCO-2 successfully launched at 2:56 a.m. PST on July 2. Here’s a quick video from United Launch Alliance showing the launch highlights.
This longer video from NASA covers the various stages of launch.
Though we could not see the actual launch on July 2, we could feel the rumble from the launch viewing platform, nearly 6 kilometres away. Thankfully a few different photographers found alternate locations to capture the rocket launch. These two photos from Jeff Sullivan are my favourites.
The NASA Experience
Overall, this trip was nothing short of amazing. In addition to seeing the Delta II rocket up close, then actually experiencing the rocket launch, we met the NASA Social team and spent time with a variety of others who were selected to join the NASA Social group (below) for the OCO-2 launch. We also got the chance to come to a NASA social media briefing, where the scientists, engineers and rocket launchers provided us with an overview of what to expect. You can watch the entire 90 minute briefing here.
The NASA people clearly love their jobs, and do an amazing job sharing the complexity and beauty of space with the people of Earth. If you don’t already follow NASA on its various social media platforms, I highly recommend that you check them it out at http://www.nasa.gov/socialmedia. Their photos are out of this world (pun intended), their posts and Tweets are informative and entertaining and their videos will educate you. If you want to keep up with what’s happening on the OCO-2 front, follow @IamOCO2 on Twitter, and don’t be afraid to Tweet the phone-booth sized satellite up there in orbit. You may just get a reply from space!
If you’re ready to go see a rocket launch for yourself, you don’t need to wait for an official NASA Social event. Just check out the NASA rocket launch schedule to find out where the upcoming launches are, then book your WestJet flight to Los Angeles or Orlando. Once there, you’ll likely need to rent a car to get to Lompoc, CA (the city closest to Vandenberg) or to Cape Canaveral.
Here’s a one-time rocket launch viewer (aka pro) tip: find out where the launch viewing areas are and get there at least an hour prior to launch. Many areas will have speakers set up to broadcast the countdown commentary, but there are also NASA smartphone apps that you can use to listen to (or watch) the live broadcast, no matter where you are.
[feature photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls]