On Thursday evening, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 booster launched NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, TDRS-L on its way to geostationary transfer orbit. After testing, the spacecraft will move to its permanent station at 49 degrees West where it will join the rest of the TDRS fleet in providing space to ground communications for the diverse fleet of NASA spacecraft as well as other users.
Liftoff was delayed due to a fluctuating radio link between the spacecraft and ground control, but mission controllers bypassed the issue by switching to a solid link through the umbilical, and the countdown resumed without incident, with liftoff occurring at 9:33 p.m. EST.
Thursday evening’s flight marked the 43rd launch of the Atlas V, and the 20th to fly in the 401 configuration. Each flight has been powered by the Russian built RD-180 staged combustion main engine, and ULA’s exclusive access to the impressive powerplant is currently the subject of a lawsuit by Orbital Sciences Corporation and in investigation by the Federal Trade Commission.
The flight was procured as part of a four unit $600 million award announced on March 16, 2009 which also included the TDRS-K satellite which is still undergoing on orbit testing, the Radiation Belt and Storm Probes/Van Allen spacecraft and the Magnetospheric MultiScale Mission set to launch at the end of this year. Approximate prices for the first three launches would have been $137 million each, with the latter being more expensive due to the two solid strap-on boosters.