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Jason 1 – A Well TIMED Launch

A Delta II launch from Vandenberg lofts two science satellites to study the Earth

by Michelle Evans


Everyone hates El Nino. Prior to a few years ago, no one had even heard the name, but within the span of one very strange winter season, hardly a weather report went by where the dreaded name wasn’t mentioned. Anything that went wrong seemed to be the fault of El Nino. Rain hasn’t let up for days – blame El Nino. Mud slides take out a movie star’s home – blame El Nino. Your car won’t start in the morning or your neighbor’s dog barks too much – you guessed it!


The changing of sea temperatures (and thus the height of the surface) of the Pacific is a real phenomenon that definitely affects our weather. We may not want to hear the name, but we certainly want to know when it impacts our lives.


Nearly ten years ago, in August 1992, a three-ton spacecraft called Topex/Poseidon lofted into orbit to study ocean circulation by measuring the surface height to a very high precision (approximately 4.5 cm). These data gave us the first true understanding of El Nino. It showed that the western Pacific had dropped its average height by 8 to 12 inches and that this water had flowed into the eastern Pacific, raising its height by up to 16 inches.


Topex/Poseidon has gone well beyond its expected lifespan and is now in need of a new and even more precise replacement. Enter Jason-1, a joint project of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the National Space Agency of France CNES (Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales). Jason will be accurate to an amazing 1 cm of ocean height and has a life expectancy of three to five years, with hopes of lasting as long as its predecessor.


Originally scheduled for launch in mid-September, that had to be slipped when a possible problem cropped up with the solar array drive mechanisms. Instead of taking any chances that they might malfunction while on orbit, the motors were removed from the spacecraft and returned to Toulouse, France. After repair, they were returned to Vandenberg Air Force Base on the central California coast, for reinstallation, with a new launch date set for Friday, December 7, 2001.


Nestled just underneath Jason, and set for deployment from the Delta II booster after its release, is a second scientific payload, the TIMED satellite. As you should note from the capitalization of its name, TIMED is an acronym for Thermosphere, Ionosphere, Mesosphere, Energetics and Dynamics.


The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, is the prime contractor for the NASA-sponsored TIMED mission. Its objectives are to study a little-known area of the Earth’s atmosphere that ranges between 40 and 110 miles above the surface. Here it is too high for instruments carried by balloons to reach, sounding rockets can only study it for a few minutes as they pass through, and conventional satellites usually fly too high. TIMED will circumvent these problems from its orbit of 388 miles over a two year projected lifetime.


The components for launch started to come together when TIMED arrived at Vandenberg AFB on May 30, last year. Two months later, Jason-1 arrived and the Delta II vehicle stacking commenced on October 25. Final spacecraft mating occurred on November 20 and was completed with the white aerodynamic payload shroud being put in place at the apex of the booster on December 2.


On the morning of December 6, NASA held their pre-launch press conference with the lead people from each aspect of the mission. Chuck Dovale and Joy Bryant gave us the basics of what to expect behind the launch and deployment of the vehicles. They were fairly matter-of-fact in their presentation, having participated in numerous previous launches of the highly reliable Delta II rocket. This launch was to be the 100th for this booster.


Changing the tone was Gary Kuntsmann, the Jason-1 Program Manager from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He pointed out that this was his first launch and he was extremely excited to be there. His enthusiasm was also mirrored by Kristi Marren with the TIMED mission from Johns Hopkins, when I talked with her briefly after the conference.


That evening, we had the opportunity to go out to Space Launch Complex 2 to witness the rollback of the servicing tower for the Delta. This is the first time that the complete rocket was visible and it marked the fact that we were just hours away from the liftoff of these two exciting science missions to better understand the Earth we live on.


While at the pad the wind was blowing fairly hard, but we understood that the direction was such that it wouldn’t affect the morning launch. The really surprising thing was that it wasn’t that cold. Temperatures had actually been increasing over the days prior to this, so what could have been a very freezing evening experience turned out to rather pleasant.


With the international aspect to this mission there was a large contingent of foreign press, scientists, and other project officials. Most of these were from France. This launch would be the first ever for the French from Vandenberg, so interest was very high from that quarter.


After finishing at the pad, there were only a few hours in which to capture some sleep, but this is a normal routine for a launch. Sleep comes after everything is safely off the pad and into orbit.


Arriving at the gate at 5:00 am, all the media had to undergo a full inspection of their vehicles by security police and a bomb-sniffing dog. These were the only visible security differences that I saw at the base dealing with September 11, but then Vandenberg AFB is a very tight place to enter on any normal day.


After setting up cameras on a platform in front of the Base Operations building we waited for sunrise and the short launch window. At exactly 35 seconds past 7:07 am, the Delta jumped off the pad and blazed toward orbit. More spectacular than usual, the Delta soared right past the Moon, then disappeared into the south.


Passing over Poker Flats, Alaska, just 90 minutes after launch, Jason-1 signaled that it had successfully deployed its solar panels and all systems were up and running. Thirty-five minutes later TIMED was deployed into its orbit and then at T+3 hours it checked in with the proper signals that all was well. Two new science missions were on their way.

Beware, El Nino. We have you under surveillance.