United Launch Alliance launched an Atlas V rocket off of Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) early Thursday morning, carrying the fifth Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF-5) satellite for use by the USAF. I attended the ULA Social event for this mission and was given a great deal of access to the buildings being used to facilitate many of the operations carried out by both ULA and the Space and Missile Systems Center, a subordinate unit of Air Force Space Command.
From the ULA press release:
“The AEHF system, developed by Lockheed Martin, provides vastly improved global, survivable, protected communications capabilities for strategic command and tactical warfighters. This jam-resistant system also serves international partners including Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
AEHF-5 will be a protected communications relay to provide the highest levels of information protection to the nation’s most critical users. The Lockheed Martin A2100 satellite gives senior leadership a survivable line of communications to military forces in all levels of conflict, including nuclear war. The system features encryption, low probability of intercept and detection, jammer resistance and the ability to penetrate the electromagnetic interference caused by nuclear weapons to route communications, real-time video, maps and targeting data to users on land, at sea or in the air.”
We were especially fortunate to see the Atlas V booster that will be used for the Crewed Flight Test (CFT). Currently undergoing processing in the Atlas spaceflight Operations Center (ASOC) this upcoming mission will launch astronauts NASA astronauts Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann as well as Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson to the International Space Station to demonstrate Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and the Atlas V’s ability to safely carry crew to and from the ISS.
Originally slated to take off at the start of the launch window beginning at 5:44 a.m. EDT, two minor issues were encountered by ULA which required them to hold the countdown until they could find a resolution.
Fortunately, the problems were addressed and the rocket was successfully launched at 6:13 a.m. EDT.
The most remarkable sight came shortly after booster separation, when the exhaust from Atlas V began to glow. This effect, commonly referred to as the “jellyfish effect”, is produced when the rays of the sun illuminate the growing exhaust plume which naturally expands as the atmospheric pressure decreases with altitude.