NASA's Landsat 9 successfully launched aboard Atlas V from Vandenberg -

United Launch Alliance has launched NASA’s most powerful Earth-imaging satellite, Landsat 9, on an Atlas V rocket. Liftoff occurred at 11:12 AM PDT (18:12 UTC) on Monday, September 27, from Space Launch Complex-3 East (SLC-3E) at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

Atlas V placed the satellite into a near-polar, sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 705 km and a 98.2-degree inclination. Sun-synchronous orbits are often used by Earth-imaging satellites to ensure that the spacecraft will always be at the same position relative to the sun when visiting the same location on Earth. This allows scientists to accurately compare two images at different times and track changes over time.

Atlas V is ULA’s workhorse rocket, with a total of 87 launches prior to Landsat 9. The variant in use for this mission, the Atlas V 401, was previously launched 38 times.

Using a three-digit configuration number, the first digit denotes the diameter of the payload fairing, the second indicates the number of solid rocket motors (SRMs), and the third represents the number of RL-10 engines on the Centaur upper stage. For this mission, Atlas used the longest-available 4.2-meter fairing known as the Extra Extended Payload Fairing (XEPF), no SRMs, and a single RL-10 engine on the Centaur upper stage.

Landsat 9 is ready to launch atop a mighty Atlas V rocket from SLC-3E at Vandenberg Space Force Base tomorrow. This will be the final daytime Atlas V launch from Vandy (there is one more coming before Vulcan, but it’s at night), so hopefully the fog cooperates! @NASASpaceflight

— Jack Beyer (@thejackbeyer) September 26, 2021

This is the same configuration used to launch the Landsat 8 mission in 2013. Another Atlas V 401 will launch on October 16 with the Lucy Trojan Asteroid explorer.

This was the 88th launch of the Atlas V rocket and the 20th in partnership with NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP).

This launch was previously scheduled for December 2020, but due to acute shortages of liquid oxygen and liquid nitrogen because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was delayed to September 2021.

The Landsat Program

Landsat 9 is the latest satellite in the NASA and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Landsat program, started in 1972 as an Earth observation satellite program. Of eight satellites previously launched, seven successfully reached orbit, and two are still currently in operation.

List of Satellites Launch Vehicle Launch Date Retirement Date Time in Operation
Landsat 1 Delta-900 July 23, 1972 January 6, 1978 5 years, 5 months
Landsat 2 Delta-2910 January 22, 1975 July 27, 1983 8 years, 6 months
Landsat 3 Delta-2910 March 5, 1978 September 7, 1983 5 years, 6 months
Landsat 4 Delta-3920 July 17, 1982 June 15, 2001 18 years, 10 months
Landsat 5 Delta-3920 March 1, 1984 July 5, 2013 28 years, 10 months
Landsat 6 Titan-2(23) G-Star-27XFP-ISS October 5, 1993 Never Reached Orbit N/A
Landsat 7 Delta II 7920-10C April 15, 1999 Still in Service ~ 22 years
Landsat 8 Atlas V 401 February 11, 2013 Still in Service ~ 8 years, 6 months

Managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), Landsat is the only U.S. satellite system designed and operated to repeatedly observe the global land surface at a scale that shows both natural and human-induced change. The program will help monitor, understand, and manage land resources on Earth.

Landsat 9 is a near-identical twin of the Landsat 8 satellite. Both satellites are based on the Northrop Grumman LEOStar-3 satellite. LEOStar-3 is Northrop Grumman’s newest low Earth orbit satellite bus offering and is the same satellite bus that will be used for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS).

Onboard the satellite are two instruments for Earth observation, both similar to ones flown on Landsat 8. These will study tropical deforestation, urban expansion, natural disasters and subsequent recovery of the landscape, glacial retreat, and freshwater resources for agriculture.

The first instrument is the Operational Land Imager (OLI-2), built by Ball Aerospace. OLI-2 will take measurements in the visible, near-infrared, and shortwave infrared portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. The spatial resolution of the images will be 15 meters for the panchromatic band and 30 meters for the multispectral bands. OLI-2 has a 15-degree field of view covering 185 kilometers across the ground.

The second instrument used on Landsat 9 is Thermal Infrared Sensor 2 (TIRS-2). TIRS-2 will measure land surface temperature in two thermal infrared bands. Just like OLI-2, TIRS-2 will have the same 15-degree field of view covering 185 kilometers.

Both instruments for Landsat 9 were completed and delivered to Northrop Grumman in Arizona in late 2019 and were integrated with the satellite in January 2020. This allowed the satellite to begin final testing for launch and operations. Landsat 9 completed electromagnetic and radiation testing in the fall of 2020, and in April 2021, the satellite completed 42 days of thermal vacuum testing.

NASA's Landsat 9 successfully launched aboard Atlas V from Vandenberg -

Landsat 9 is encapsulated in the Atlas V payload fairing – via NASA

Landsat 9 will replace Landsat 7 (launched in 1999), taking its place in orbit and joining Landsat 8. Both satellite orbits will be eight days out of phase, meaning that Landsat 8 and Landsat 9 will be able to take images of an area every eight days, similar to current operations with Landsat 8 and Landsat 7.

Together, these satellites will add nearly 1,500 new scenes a day to the USGS archive. These new scenes can allow the study of changes to the Earth’s surface made every day. Some of these changes can be deforestation, urban expansion, and glacier and ice-shelf retreat. The satellites will be able to see most of the Earth’s surface and 98% of Earth’s glaciers.

Alongside Landsat 9, Atlas V also launched multiple CubeSats, facilitated by the Landsat 9 Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adapter (ESPA) Flight System (EFS). EFS is a U.S. Space Force technology to demonstrate the capability of integrating and delivering secondary payloads to orbit on an adapter ring.

There are four CubeSats on this mission sponsored by the Defence Innovation Unit, Air Force Research Laboratory, Missile Defence Agency, and NASA. The NASA CubeSats include the Colorado Ultraviolet Transit Experiment (CUTE) from the University of Colorado at Boulder and the Cusp Plasma Imaging Detector (CuPID) from Boston University.

CUTE will measure how near-ultraviolet light from a host star changes when an exoplanet passes in front of it and through a planet’s atmosphere. CuPID will measure X-rays emitted when solar wind plasma collides with neutral atoms in Earth’s atmosphere.

NASA's Landsat 9 successfully launched aboard Atlas V from Vandenberg -

Atlas V booster AV-092 arrives at Vandenberg Space Force Base – via NASA

Atlas V and Centaur Milestones

The Atlas V core in use for this mission is AV-092. It was delivered to Vandenberg on an Antonov An-124 cargo aircraft on June 28 and underwent preparations to go vertical at Mobile Service Tower (MST). Just under a month later, on July 13, the Atlas V first stage was lifted vertically by the MST crane onto the Fixed Launch Platform (FLP), in a milestone known as Launch Vehicle on Stand (LVOS).

The next day, the Atlas V interstage was installed on top of the first stage followed by the Centaur upper stage installation on July 15. The lower portion of the payload fairing, the boattail, was then installed on top of the Centaur, completing the majority of the Atlas rocket.

On September 3, Atlas V underwent a Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR). A WDR is one of the final major tests of all the systems on the Atlas V, which includes fueling the rocket as if it is about to launch.

After completing its Pre-Ship review and Flight Operations Review, Landsat 9 was delivered to VSFB in early July.

The fairing halves that encapsulate the satellite went vertical for encapsulation in July and, on August 10, Landsat 9 was approved by NASA to proceed with its September launch.

NASA's Landsat 9 successfully launched aboard Atlas V from Vandenberg -

The encapsulated Landsat 9 payload is lifted for integration with the Atlas V rocket – via ULA

After receiving this approval, the satellite was stacked on top of the EFS and safely encapsulated in its 4.2-meter payload fairing. On September 15, the encapsulated payload was transported from the Integrated Processing Facility (IPF) to SLC-3E and was later integrated with the Atlas V.

On September 25, the ULA, NASA, and Space Force teams underwent a Launch Readiness Review (LRR) and gave the approval to continue preparations for the launch on Monday. The LRR, led by NASA Launch Manager Tim Dunn, assessed the readiness of rocket, payload, and mission assets, and heard technical overviews of the countdown and the flight. The teams polled and gave a unanimous “ready” status for launch.

The Atlas V used for this mission is dedicated to Thomas M. Heter II, father of ULA’s launch director for the mission. A space icon, he was Lockheed Martin’s director of Vandenberg launch operations, having supported more than 200 Atlas, Titan, and Athena rocket launches.

Mission Profile

The launch countdown began with the loading of liquid oxygen onboard Atlas V. The rocket was already fueled with RP-1 kerosene from the previously completed WDR.

NASA's Landsat 9 successfully launched aboard Atlas V from Vandenberg -

Landsat 9 launch visibility map – via ULA

At T – 2 seconds, the RD-180 engine ignited, and the rocket lifted off. At T + 1 minute and 27 seconds, Atlas V reached maximum aerodynamic pressure, where the rocket experienced the largest forces exerted by the Earth’s atmosphere.

At T+ 4 minutes and 8 seconds, the RD-180 engine shut down, the Centaur upper stage separated from the booster, and the RL-10 engine ignited. It burned for over 12 minutes before the first Main Engine Cutoff (MECO-1) at T+ 16 minutes. After 1 hour and 4 minutes, Landsat 9 was separated from the payload adapter.

Next up is the deployment of the CubeSats. For that, Centaur’s main engine undergoes two more burns to reduce its orbit. The CubeSat deployment begins at T+ 2 hours and 14 minutes. Once the deployments are complete, Centaur initiates a fourth and final burn to deorbit itself, completing Atlas V’s mission.

(Lead photo via Jack Beyer for NSF)