Spitzer Space Telescope Launched

The space history series is not dead yet! Here’s an item I missed the first go-round.

Ten years ago today — August 25, 2003 — a Delta 2 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral carrying the fourth of NASA’s “Great Observatories.”

(Artist’s conception of the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Earth’s orbital track. NASA image.)

Originally called the Space InfraRed Telescope Facility (SIRTF), it was renamed the Spitzer Space Telescope after astrophysicist Lyman Spitzer, Jr. (1914-1997), who “was the first person to propose the idea of placing a large telescope in space and was the driving force behind the development of the Hubble Space Telescope.”

The Spitzer orbiting observatory was the largest space-based infrared telescope yet launched. It trails behind the Earth in a heliocentric orbit.

More about the Spitzer mission is on this site.

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Pioneer Zero: First Attempted Lunar Mission

Fifty-five years ago today — August. 17, 1958 — the U.S. made its first attempt at sending a spacecraft to the Moon.

(Pioneer 0. NASA image.)

Called alternately Pioneer 0 or Able 1, the satellite launched on a Thor-Able rocket out of Cape Canaveral. Not only was it the first attempt to reach the Moon, but it was “the first attempted lauch beyond Earth orbit by any country.”

Unfortunately, the first stage of the Thor exploded 77 seconds into the flight.

Failure was suspected to be due to a ruptured fuel or oxygen line or a faulty turbopump gearbox. Erratic telemetry signals were received from the payload and upper stages for 123 seconds after the explosion, and the upper stages were tracked to impact in the ocean.

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Soyuz and SCISAT

Fifteen years ago today — August 13, 1998 — the Russians launched a crew to the Mir space station, and the U.S. launched a small science satellite.

(SCISAT-1. NASA image.)

Soyuz TM-28 launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome with Gennadi I.Padalka, Sergei V.Avdeyev, and Yuri M.Baturin aboard. The trio docked with Mir two days later using manual controls because one of the two automatic systems had failed.

And on this date 10 years ago, the Canadian research satellite SCISAT 1 launched on a Pegasus XL rocket. The Pegasus was released over the Pacific Ocean from its L-1011 carrier plane, on a flight that originated out of Vandenberg AFB, and placed SCISAT in orbit to monitor atmospheric ozone and dust.

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ICE: First Spacecraft to Study Two Comets

Thirty-five years ago today — August 12, 1978 — an Explorer-class spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral on a Delta rocket.

(ISEE 3. NASA image.)

Originally named International Sun-Earth Explorer 3, the spacecraft was placed in a halo orbit around Lagrange point L-1 between the Earth and the Sun to study the magnetosphere. In 1982, after its L-1 observations, it was put through a series of maneuvers that took it through several encounters at the L-2 Lagrange point on the other side of Earth from the Sun.

After several passes through the Earth’s magnetotail, with gravity assists from lunar flybys in March, April, September and October of 1983, a final close lunar flyby (119.4 km above the moon’s surface) on December 22, 1983, ejected the spacecraft out of the Earth-Moon system and into a heliocentric orbit ahead of the Earth, on a trajectory intercepting that of Comet Giacobini-Zinner. At this time, the spacecraft was renamed International Cometary Explorer (ICE)…. [T]he spacecraft traversed the plasma tail of Comet Giacobini-Zinner on September 11, 1985, and made in situ measurements of particles, fields, and waves. It also transited between the Sun and Comet Halley in late March 1986, when other spacecraft (Giotto, Planet-A, MS-T5, VEGA) were also in the vicinity of Comet Halley on their early March comet rendezvous missions. ICE became the first spacecraft to directly investigate two comets.

In 1991, ICE was re-tasked for solar study. It operated until May 1997.

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Mars 7’s Ill-Fated Voyage, Plus One

Yesterday was a strange day … so odd that I missed posting a space history anniversary. It crossed my mind, briefly, once. I’m deeply disappointed in myself, of course.

It just so happens that forty years ago yesterday — August 9, 1973 — the USSR launched Mars 7 on a Proton K rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

(Mars 7, essentially the same as Mars 6. Image from the National Space Science Data Center.)

Launched four days after its sister ship, Mars 6, and about two weeks after a companion pair of spacecraft, Mars 4 and Mars 5, Mars 7

reached Mars on 9 March 1974. Due to a problem in the operation of one of the onboard systems (attitude control or retro-rockets) the landing probe separated prematurely (4 hours before encounter) and missed the planet by 1300 km. The early separation was probably due to a computer chip error which resulted in degradation of the systems during the trip to Mars…. The lander and bus continued on into heliocentric orbits.

While we’re on the subject of ill-fated spacecraft, and to return to the usual space history routine, 45 years ago today — August 10, 1968 — Applications Technology Satellite 4 (ATS 4) launched from Cape Canaveral atop an Atlas Centaur. The rocket’s second stage failed, however, and stranded the spacecraft in a parking orbit instead of boosting it to the planned geosynchronous orbit. Put bluntly, even though some experiments were performed, “The primary objective of inserting a gravity-gradient-stabilized spacecraft into a geosynchronous orbit was not accomplished.”

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Pioneer Venus Multiprobe Mission

Thirty-five years ago today — August 8, 1978 — a US mission to Venus, featuring four separate probes, launched from Cape Canaveral on an Atlas Centaur rocket.

(Artist’s conception of one of the probes descending toward the surface of Venus. NASA image.)

The Pioneer Venus Multiprobe Bus carried the four probes on the 123-day journey to Venus. On November 16, the Bus released the Large Probe and on the 20th it released the three small probes, which were designated Day, Night, and North, according to their entry into the Venusian atmosphere.

Two Small Probes entered on the nightside, and one Small Probe and the Large Probe entered on the dayside of the planet. The spacecraft was spin-stabilized. The Large Probe took 1-1/2 h to descend through the atmosphere, while the three smaller probes reached the surface of the planet 75 min after entry…. The Probes stopped transmitting temperature data about 15 km above the surface of Venus, but two Probes survived on the surface and transmitted other data for a matter of seconds to minutes.

The Bus itself acted as a fifth probe, though it was not intended to get near the surface. It

was targeted to enter the Venusian atmosphere at a shallow entry angle and transmit data to Earth until [it] was destroyed by the heat of atmospheric friction during its descent…. [It] ceased transmitting data at an altitude of about 165 km.

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Mars 6 Launched From Baikonur

Forty years ago today — August 5, 1973 — the Soviet Union launched their third of four 1973 missions to Mars from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on a Proton K rocket.

(Mars 6. Image from the National Space Science Data Center.)

The Mars 6 “interplanetary station” featured a descent module that separated from the spacecraft bus to enter the Martian atmosphere. The bus continued on a flyby, while transmitting back telemetry.

The first pair of the USSR’s 1973 Mars spacecraft had launched in July, and reached Mars in February 1974. Mars 6 arrived at Mars on March 12, 1974.

The descent module separated from the bus at a distance of 48,000 km from Mars. The bus continued on into a heliocentric orbit after passing within 1600 km of Mars. The descent module entered the atmosphere at 09:05:53 UT at a speed of 5.6 km/s. The parachute opened at 09:08:32 UT after the module had slowed its speed to 600 m/s by aerobraking. During this time the craft was collecting data and transmitting it directly to the bus for immediate relay to Earth. Contact with the descent module was lost at 09:11:05 UT in “direct proximity to the surface”, probably either when the retrorockets fired or when it hit the surface at an estimated 61 m/s. Mars 6 landed at 23.90 S, 19.42 W in the Margaritifer Sinus region of Mars.

Mars 6 was the first spacecraft to send back data from Mars, though its lifespan was very short as indicated above. It sent back a little under 4 minutes’ worth of data (224 seconds, to be exact).

Unfortunately, much of the data were unreadable due to a flaw in a computer chip which led to degradation of the system during its journey to Mars.

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Skylab 3

Forty years ago today — July 28, 1973 — the second manned mission to the Skylab station was launched from the Kennedy Space Center on a Saturn 1B rocket.

(Skylab in its low Earth orbit. NASA image.)

The Skylab 3 crew — Alan L. Bean, Owen K. Garriott, and Jack R. Lousma — spent 59 days aboard the station. They installed a solar shield and did other station maintenance, and performed many solar and Earth observation experiments.

Skylab 3 is sometimes referred to as Skylab II, due to miscommunication about the mission numbering. The first Skylab mission, Skylab 1, was actually the mission that placed the station itself in orbit.


Ten years later, on this date in 1983, the Telstar 3A communications satellite was launched on a Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral. This was the first operational Telstar owned by AT&T; previously, AT&T had leased satellites.

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First Geosynchronous Satellite

Fifty years ago today — July 26, 1963 — a Thor Delta rocket out of Cape Canaveral placed the first geosynchronous satellite in orbit.

(Syncom 2, which looked remarkably like Syncom 1. NASA image.)

Syncom 2, a follow-on to the lost Syncom 1, was geosynchronous but not geostationary: its orbital inclination was 33 degrees from the equator, which meant that its ground track formed a figure-8, the top and bottom of which were 33 degrees north and south of the equator, respectively. The satellite enabled transmission of “voice, teletype, facsimile, and data” between ground stations and ships at sea, and proved the viability of communication relay from high orbit that science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke had envisioned many years before. The Department of Defense took over operations of the satellite in January 1965.

Also on this date in space history, 5 years before Syncom 2 launched, the Explorer 4 satellite was launched from Cape Canaveral on a Jupiter C rocket. It measured charged particles (protons and electrons) in the Earth’s radiation belts, though the satellite’s unintended tumbling made the data hard to interpret and the satellite lost power after only three months.

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First Pair of a Four-Part Soviet Mission to Mars

Forty years ago this week, the Soviet Union was in the midst of launching the first two spacecraft of a four-vehicle mission to the red planet. Each was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on a Proton booster.

(Mars 4. Image from the National Space Science Data Center.)

The first of the spacecraft, Mars 4, was launched on July 21, 1973 — so 40 years ago today, it was on its way. Unfortunately, it was unable to enter orbit when it got to Mars.

It was put into Earth orbit by a Proton SL-12/D-1-e booster and launched from its orbital platform roughly an hour and a half later on a Mars trajectory. A mid-course correction burn was made on 30 July 1973. It reached Mars on 10 February 1974. Due to a flaw in the computer chip which resulted in degradation of the chip during the voyage to Mars, the retro-rockets never fired to slow the craft into Mars orbit, and Mars 4 flew by the planet at a range of 2200 km. It returned one swath of pictures and some radio occultation data which constituted the first detection of the nightside ionosphere on Mars. It continued to return interplanetary data from solar orbit after the flyby.

The first of its companion spacecraft, Mars 5, was launched on July 25, 1973 — so 40 years ago today it and its Proton booster were undergoing final preparations for launch. Mars 5 successfully achieved Martian orbit, but operated for only a short time.

After a mid-course correction burn on 3 August, the spacecraft reached Mars on 12 February 1974 at 15:45 UT and was inserted into an elliptical 1755 km x 32,555 km, 24 hr, 53 min. orbit with an inclination of 35.3 degrees. Mars 5 collected data for 22 orbits until a loss of pressurization in the transmitter housing ended the mission. About 60 images were returned over a nine day period showing swaths of the area south of Valles Marineris, from 5 N, 330 W to 20 S, 130 W. Measurements by other instruments were made near periapsis along 7 adjacent arcs in this same region.

The next two missions, Mars 6 and 7, would be launched on August 5th and 9th, respectively. The loss of Mars 5 would make their operations harder, as it had been “designed to act as a communications link to the Mars 6 and 7 landers.”

Despite their ultimate failures, the series of launches themselves were quite an achievement: preparing and launching two big boosters one right after the other, and then doing it again two weeks later. One of the most interesting experiences of my Air Force career was getting to observe the initial stages — primarily mating the spacecraft to the launch vehicle — of a Proton launch campaign at Baikonur. Having seen what goes into a single launch, that they launched four payloads in such a short time is very impressive.

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