An Atlas V vehicle provided by International Launch Services (ILS) successfully propelled NASA's New Horizons spacecraft today on a 9-and-a-half-year mission to Pluto.
The Atlas V-551 model lifted off at 2 p.m. EST. The vehicle's RD-180 main engine plus five solid rocket boosters provided more than 2 million pounds of thrust, enabling the New Horizons observatory to leave Earth orbit nearly 45 minutes later at a speed of around 10 miles per second.
This was the most powerful Atlas vehicle launched to date, and the 78th consecutive successful launch for the Atlas series. ILS, a Lockheed Martin joint venture, markets launch services on the Lockheed Martin-built Atlas vehicle. NASA's Kennedy Space Center procured the launch under a long-term contract with ILS. This was ILS' first launch of the year.
"Today's launch once again demonstrates the capabilities and flexibility of the Atlas V," said ILS President Mark Albrecht. "This mission had a need for speed, so we provided our biggest and most powerful vehicle. This was our seventh Atlas V flight, and the second Atlas V mission for NASA. We're proud that Atlas vehicles of all configurations have launched a total of 135 NASA missions."
The New Horizons observatory is the first dedicated spacecraft to explore Pluto and its moon Charon, at the outer reaches of our solar system. The spacecraft is expected to arrive at its destination, 3 billion miles away, in 2015. It carries seven scientific instruments designed to characterize the geology and environment of Pluto and Charon, map their surface compositions and temperatures and examine Pluto's complex atmosphere.
The Atlas V series is designed to lift payloads up to nearly 8,700 kg to geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO). It was developed both for ILS commercial missions and to meet the U.S. Air Force requirements for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV).
The Atlas V incorporates state-of-the-art designs, materials and processes, including the variable-thrust Russian-built RD-180 engine, provided by RD-AMROSS, a joint venture of Pratt & Whitney in the United States and Energomash of Russia.
The Atlas rockets and their Centaur upper stages are built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. at facilities in Denver, Colo.; Harlingen, Texas; and San Diego, Calif. Aerojet of Sacramento, Calif., provides the solid rocket boosters. Contraves of Geneva, Switzerland, builds the 5-meter payload fairing.
International Launch Services is the global leader in the space launch industry, offering the two best launch systems: Atlas and Proton. With a remarkable launch tempo, the Atlas and Proton launch vehicles have consistently demonstrated the reliability and flexibility that have made them preferred choice among satellite operators worldwide. ILS, a Lockheed Martin joint venture, was formed in 1995, and is based in McLean, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C.
Lockheed Martin, headquartered in Bethesda, Md., employs about 135,000 people worldwide and is principally engaged in the research, design, development, manufacture and integration of advanced technology systems, products and services. The corporation reported 2004 sales of $35.5 billion.
International Launch Services, McLean
Fran Slimmer, 571-633-7462