NASA launched their latest third-generation communications satellite on Thursday night to upgrade their network which will improve communications and data transfer between ground control and a variety of celestial objects. The 3.8-ton $360 million TDRS-L was built by Boeing and lifted off atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The satellite is the first of many launches that NASA has planned for 2014.
Thursday’s launch by NASA was for their Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) network that allows the International Space Station (ISS), Hubble Space Telescope (HST), and other satellites to maintain a constant data connection with ground control. This satellite will build redundancy to NASA’s network of satellites by working as an extra spare.
NASA’s TDRS system is so important to the space program that it has been called a national asset. Occasionally NASA will use the TDRS system to assist other countries’ space programs and the U.S. military. A TDRS satellite assisted doctors located in Massachusetts to oversee surgery on a patient’s knee in the Antarctic in 2002.
The TDRS system started to be developed in the early 70’s when NASA was looking at improving communications with satellites. In the early years NASA needed to rely on many ground stations to communicate and relay information from spacecraft to NASA when the satellite passed over one of the stations. Now NASA’s TDRS system allows one ground station to communicate 24/7 with multiple spacecraft at the same time.
The first-generation of NASA’s many TDRS satellites were launched between 1983 and 1985 and included a total of seven spacecraft (six + 1 spare). The three second-generation spacecraft were launched between 2000 and 2002. The third-generation also includes three satellites, the first of which was launched one year ago. The third satellite for the current generation of TDRS is scheduled to be launched in 2015.
The satellites that make up NASA’s TDRS system are first assigned a letter that corresponds to the number of satellites in the system. The satellite launched on Thursday is known as TDRS-L as it sits in a temporary low-earth orbit. As the satellite climbs to its final 22,300 mile (35,888 kilometers) altitude by late spring it will be renamed TDRS-12. Six of the satellites currently make up the TDRS service (not including TDRS-L), one is in orbital storage, two satellites have been decommissioned, and TDRS-11 is now being tested. TDRS-2 was destroyed in the space shuttle Challenger tragedy in 1986.
NASA has an ambitious year ahead with another five space missions spanning February to November. Two of the planned launches will be for instruments that will be added to the ISS and the other three launches will be for satellites.
The instruments that will be added to the ISS include devices to measure ocean winds, layers of clouds, rainfall, the amount of moisture in soil, and carbon dioxide. The instruments will provide immediate readings for short-term weather forecasting and long-term climate predictions.
The first of the other three satellite launches will be for the Global Precipitation Measurement Core Observatory on February 27 in a joint effort between NASA and the Japanese space program. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 will be launched from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base in July and will monitor carbon monoxide. The Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite will be launched in November and will produce highly detailed maps of water moisture in soil. The three other satellites that NASA will launch this year will allow many scientists across the globe to study global warming on a much deeper level.
By Brent Matsalla