From the Land of the Rising Sun, a Satellite to Study the Sun

Twenty years ago today — August 30, 1991 — the Yohkoh solar astronomy satellite launched from Kagoshima Space Center, Japan.


(Artist’s conception of the Yohkoh spacecraft. NASA image.)

Yohkoh was originally named “Solar-A,” and was a joint venture between Japan, Great Britain, and the US. “Yohkoh” means “sunlight” in English.

The Yohkoh mission lasted a decade, until an anomaly ended the satellite’s life. According to this Marshall Space Flight Center page,

Yohkoh suffered a spacecraft failure in December 2001 that has put an end to this mission. During the solar eclipse of December 14th the spacecraft lost pointing and the batteries discharged. The spacecraft operators were unable to command the satellite to point toward the sun.

If you have a child interested in such things — or if you yourself have a childlike interest in such things — you can build your own model Yohkoh satellite, using actual satellite blueprints.

And in other space history, on this date 50 years ago the U.S. launched Discoverer-29 on a Thor rocket out of Vandenberg AFB. According to this Wikipedia page, Discoverer-29 was the first of the KH-3 series of reconnaissance satellites launched by the NRO in the Corona program.

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First West Coast Titan-IV Launch

Twenty years ago today — March 8, 1991 — a Titan-IV rocket carrying a DoD payload launched from Vandenberg AFB.


(Titan-IVA launch. USAF image. Click to enlarge.)

The Titan-IV, an “A” model, was the first to be launched from Vandy, and carried a satellite identified as USA-69 for the National Reconnaissance Office.

A few years earlier, I had conducted environmental monitoring of a Titan-IV solid rocket motor test firing, and two years later I joined the Titan System Program Office at Vandenberg and worked on a number of related projects. At the time of this launch, however, I was stationed back in South Carolina and, if memory serves, was on leave — having welcomed my son into the world a few days before.

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Discoverer-19: CORONA Meets Missile Detection

Fifty years ago today — December 20, 1960 — the Discoverer-19 satellite launched from Vandenberg AFB.


(Discoverer-19 “launch cover” postcard, cancelled the day of launch. From the “Unmanned Satellite Philately” site created by Don Hillger and Garry Toth at Colorado State University.)

Part of the CORONA program and listed as an Air Force photoreconnaissance satellite, Discoverer-19 “did not carry a film capsule,” but was launched “as a test for the MIDAS missile-detection system.” MIDAS, the “Missile Detection Alarm System,” was an infrared detection system and precursor to the Defense Support Program and Space-Based Infrared systems.

The National Reconnaissance Office produced an interesting history of MIDAS, declassified in the late 1990s. That history points out that Discoverer-19 carried instruments to measure the background IR radiation emitted by the Earth “to confirm the technical feasibility of the MIDAS concept.”

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Last Titan Launch

Five years ago today — October 19, 2005 — the last Titan-IV rocket launched from Vandenberg AFB. (The next-to-last Titan rocket had been launched successfully about six months earlier, on April 29th, from Cape Canaveral.)


(Final Titan-IV launch, Space Launch Complex 4, Vandenberg AFB. USAF image. Click to enlarge.)

The rocket carried a classified DoD payload for the National Reconnaissance Office.

This last Titan launch was a milestone of sorts for me, for two reasons.

First, I’d worked on Titan twice in my Air Force career — at Edwards AFB, supporting Titan-34D and Titan-IV test firings, and in the Titan System Program Office at Vandenberg, managing the engineering and contracting for the facility that stored and processed Titan-IV solid rocket motor upgrade segments. (If you ever come to my office, ask me about the piece of a failed Titan-IV that sits on my desk.)

Second, I’d written a speech for the Under Secretary of the Air Force to honor the final launch. It’s not often that the speeches we write for others have to do with things that are so special to us.

Each Titan was a huge, complex machine built to carry out a difficult task. It was an honor to be associated with the program.

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First Successful CORONA Mission

Fifty years ago today — August 18, 1960 — Discoverer-14 launched from Vandenberg AFB. It was known to the public by that name, but to insiders in what would become the National Reconnaissance Office it was known as CORONA Mission 9009.


(Aerial recovery of Discoverer-14. USAF image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Discoverer-14 was the first CORONA mission in which the film canisters were successfully recovered from orbit.

The National Space Science Data Center describes the film recovery process:

Over Alaska on the 17th pass around the earth, the Agena ejected Discoverer 14 from its nose and retrorockets attached to the reentry vehicle fired to slow it for the return from orbit. After Discoverer 14 reentered the atmosphere, it released a parachute and floated earthward. The descending parachute was sighted 360 miles southeast of Honolulu, Hawaii, by the crew of a US Air Force C-119 recovery aircraft from the 6593rd Test Squardon based at Hickam AFB, Hawaii. On the C-119’s third pass over the parachute, the recovery gear trailing behind the aircraft successfully snagged the parachute canopy. A winch operator aboard the C-119 then reeled in the Discoverer after its 27-hour, 450,000 mile journey through space. This was the first successful recovery of film from an orbiting satellite and the first aerial recovery of an object returning from Earth orbit.

The NSSDC also notes that “38 Discoverer satellites were launched by February 1962,” although the CORONA project itself continued until 1972. CORONA was declassified in 1995.

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Spy Satellite Proof-of-Concept Launch, 50 Years Ago

A half-century ago today — August 10, 1960 — Discoverer-13 launched from Vandenberg AFB on a Thor-Agena rocket.


(President Eisenhower presented with U.S. flag flown inside Discoverer capsule. Dwight D. Eisenhower Library image from the National Air & Space Museum.)

Discoverer-13, and indeed the entire Discoverer series of spacecraft, was part of the highly classified CORONA program managed by the National Reconnaissance Office. Discoverer-13 did not take any images itself, however, as it was used to prove that all the systems would work. Discoverer-14 took the program’s first images a few days later.

The Discoverer-13 capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean and became the first man-made object recovered from space. The first segment of this YouTube newsreel video shows President Eisenhower being presented with a U.S. flag that flew inside the capsule.

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My Day at the Strategic Space Symposium

Coming to Omaha for the 2009 Strategic Space Symposium seemed like a good time to revive the Space Warfare Forum, so yesterday I posted a long report about day one at the symposium.

I made some good contacts with company representatives and saw some of my old colleagues, so it was a good day at the symposium. Highlights:

  • The symposium is extremely well-run (in large part by one of my former students): good facilities, exhibits, and speakers
  • NE Governor Heineman mentioned their “Nebraska Advantage” program to bring military contractors to the state … I’ll investigate it when I get back to NC
  • USSTRATCOM Commander, General Kevin Chilton, outlined his “wish list” of space capabilities … one key item was improved space situational awareness, which could be a real opportunity for some ambitious technology companies
  • The combatant commands agreed on the importance of space systems and space support to their operations
  • I’m going to start distinguishing between macro-targeting (looking at large areas, for strategic purposes) and micro-targeting (looking at smaller, precise targets for tactical purposes)
  • The NRO plans to reinvigorate their science and technology efforts, which should spawn some new opportunities for industry
  • Building any kind of Operationally Responsive Space capability will require a new business model for acquisition, which also means lots of potential for contractors throughout the supply chain

Here’s hoping day 2 will be as good, or better!

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