CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. --
On the pointy end of Cape Canaveral at Latitude 28°27′30″N and Longitude 80°31′42″W stands Launch Complex-46, site for NASA’s July 2 Ascent Abort (AA)-2 test flight.
LC-46, the easternmost launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, was last used on Aug. 26, 2017 to support the Operationally Responsive Space-5 launch for U.S. Air Force Space Command’s Space and Missile Systems Center.
“SMC’s ORS-5 mission, also known as SensorSat, is a Space-Based Surveillance System ‘bridging’ mission that we launched from LC-46,” said Lt. Col. Heather Bogstie, former branch chief and Advanced Ground Development Operations program manager for the ORS-5 mission. “It’s currently in orbit after we flew it atop a Minotaur IV launch vehicle – essentially a repurposed and modified five-stage Peacekeeper ICBM acquired through SMC’s Rocket Systems Launch Program with support from Orbital/Alliant Techsystems (now Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems),” said Bogstie.
LC-46 was originally used for Trident II missile tests between 1987 and 1987. A total of 18 Trident II D5 submarine-launch ballistic missiles SLBMs were launched before the test program moved to sea launches aboard nuclear submarines in March 1989. At that point, LC-46 was deactivated until 1993, when the U.S. Navy began sharing the complex with the State of Florida.
The Spaceport Florida Authority (now Space Florida) won an Air Force grant to redesign the north end of LC-46 to handle small commercial space operations and by March 1996, construction started on a redesigned launch complex. By 1997, a Mobile Access Structure with umbilical foundation was completed which could be moved into place over the launch pad/flame trench area.
In 1998 and 1999 respectively, Lockheed Martin successfully launched the Athena II and Athena I launch vehicles from LC-46. The Athena II, carried NASA’s Lunar Prospector spacecraft, which orbited the Moon. A little over a year later, Athena I lifted off with Taiwan's first satellite, ROCSAT-1, carrying experimental communications, ocean imagery, and ionospheric studies instruments.
Then, dead silence.
Save for the gentle waves off the Atlantic Ocean and Cape winds rustling around the MAS, launch activities stood still. Time, salt air and sea-water began to take their toll on the complex, slowly turning LC-46 into the Rodney Dangerfield of launch pads, getting no respect for nearly a decade.
It wasn’t until March 2010, when the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing issued real property licenses to Space Florida for Launch Complex-36 (future site for Blue Origin’s New Glenn launch vehicle in 2020) and -46, that new life was breathed into the place for a second act.
After extensive infrastructure refurbishment, on Feb. 12, 2017, LC-46 was back on the world stage, when an inert Minotaur IV rocket was placed on the pad for test-fitting of the new launch mount, umbilical tower and mobile gantry in advance of SMC’s ORS-5 mission on Aug. 26 of that year.
Fast-forward two more years to the present-day “Summer of Launch 2019” campaign of SMC’s Launch Enterprise Systems Directorate.
“The early morning launch of NASA’s Ascent Abort-2 mission on July 2 from LC-46 will utilize a repurposed SR118 Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missile first-stage motor, procured by SMC's Rocket Systems Launch Program as an abort test booster, or ATB,” said Lt. Col. Ryan Rose, chief of SMC’s Small Launch and Targets Division at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.
During this "Three Minutes of Fire and Fury," the AA-2 test flight will help pave the path for NASA’s return to the moon under the space agency’s Artemis program by testing the launch abort system of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle -- an American-European interplanetary spacecraft, intended to carry a crew of four astronauts to destinations at or beyond low Earth orbit and bring them home.
According to NASA, the ATB will send an unmanned test article of the Orion MPCV with its launch abort system to an altitude of about six miles, traveling at more than 1,000 miles per hour. The LAS motor will quickly whisk the Orion crew module away from the ATB, simulating an in-flight emergency. The attitude control motor will then maneuver the assembly into position to jettison the crew module.
“The repurposed ATB contributes toward meeting SMC’s Rocket Systems Launch Program's responsibilities to re-utilize excess ICBM rocket motors for U.S. government research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) activities,” said Rose.
There are still more acts to come in the future for LC-46. This was the first launch facility in the world not specifically limited to only one vehicle configuration. The adjustable design uniquely accommodates a range of launch vehicle families from three different launch companies and supports a variety of vehicle diameters and heights for stacking, integration and pre-launch servicing. Since the multi-user pad was constructed with 10-foot diameter launch vehicles in mind, the current infrastructure of LC-46 supports maximum dimensions of 120 feet in height, multiple vehicle/payload diameters between 50 and 120 inches and payload lift capabilities in excess of 4,900 pounds to low Earth orbit.
As a result, Vector Launch Inc., an American space technology company, announced plans in 2017 to cover the commercial small satellite market of CubeSats from LC-46 with the company’s Vector-H(eavy), a two- or three-stage expendable launch vehicle in 2019. Vector Launch is aiming for a launch cadence of 100 vehicles between the Vector-R(apid) and Vector-H.
From SMC to NASA missions, from the U.S. Navy to the commercial small satellite industry, LC-46 stands ready to support future space missions to the stars.
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