After disgusting delays, the United Launch Alliance Delta 4 heavy rocket was finally shot down Thursday evening from the newly renamed Cape Canaveral Space Force Base, illuminating the night sky miles away, the location of a secret national reconnaissance reconnaissance satellite.
Three-and-a-half months after the dramatic last second abortion on August 29, the three-rocket RS-68A engines of the booster’s triple-core first stage were ignited with a burning flame at 8:09 p.m. Floor equipment in trouble.
An additional problem was discovered with Delta’s launch pad, triggering additional delays, but the countdown finally reached zero on Thursday and the heavy-lift booster pulled away from pad 37 at the military launch pad complex.
The site, known for decades as Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, was renamed by Vice President Mike Pence earlier this week at a ceremony that will include the nearby Patrick Air Force – now Air Force – base. Both installations were renamed after the U.S. Air Force transferred to operations.
As usual with the Delta 4 heavy launch, the orange flames rose from the bottom of the rocket as free hydrogen gas was ignited in the fury of the engine ignition. But as the 233-foot-high booster accelerated into the sky and moved eastward in the Atlantic Ocean, the flames quickly dissipated.
After one and a half minutes, the large Delta 4 ran through the zone of maximum aerodynamic pressure as it exited at the speed of sound and out of the dense lower atmosphere.
The boosters on both sides of the rocket closed and followed four minutes later with the central general booster core as planned four minutes later. The Delta 4’s secondary RL10 engine, built by Aerojet Rocketine, continued to be pushed into orbit at the time.
After the United Launch Alliance ignited its webcast and ascending commentary moments with the second stage engine, the rest of the flight was carried out in general silence, a standard procedure for assorted work. No details have been released about the satellite payload.
Respected Independent Satellite Analyst Ted Molkson said the orbit of the East, the use of the powerful Delta 4 heavy rocket and the timing of the flight suggested a heavy weight signals intelligence satellite with a large sortable antenna the size of a football field.
However, this is the 41st launch of the Delta 4 and the 12th aircraft of the heavy variant since the rocket was launched in 2002. As the company shifts to newer, lower-priced Vulcan rockets, there are only four heavies left in ULA’s cargo, which will eventually replace Delta 4 and ULA’s Atlas 5 rockets.
Delta 4 Heavy was originally scheduled to take off on August 26, but the launch slipped one day at the request of the NRO. An attempt was halted on August 27 due to a missile pad pneumatics issue, and then a major problem with the underground equipment triggered the last second stop on August 29.
After that problem was fixed, the engineers encountered problems with the system used to retrieve the Country Access weapons from the rocket when launched, and then again with bad weather and high pad problems. But on Thursday, the countdown finally led to zero and the rocket exploded in spectacular fashion.
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