NASA data relay craft successfully blossoms in space

CAPE CANAVERAL — NASA’s new communications satellite, launched to a preliminary orbit August 18, has ascended to geosynchronous altitude more than 22,000 miles up, deployed its giant antennas and extended twin solar arrays to begin in-space commissioning.

The $408 million Tracking and Data Relay satellite-M, was successfully lofted to a high-perigee geosynchronous transfer orbit by United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral less than two weeks ago.

It then performed a series of orbit-raising maneuvers with its 100-pound thrust engine that boosted its highly elliptical orbit — roughly 2,888 statute miles at its closest approach to Earth to 22,230 statute miles at apogee with 26.1 degrees inclination — to a circular orbit.

The burns systematically raised the perigee to:
– 6,568 miles at 17.6 degrees
– 13,679 miles at 10.6 degrees
– 19,918 miles at 7.7 degrees
– 21,934 miles at 7.2 degrees
– 22,204 miles at 7.1 degrees

After reaching a good orbit Monday, the craft spent Tuesday extending its power-generating solar panels that had been stowed against the satellite’s main body for launch. TDRS-M now has a wingspan of 69 feet tip-to-tip.

Also, the booms holding the two 15-foot-diameter graphite composite mesh antennas were unfolded and the Space-to-Ground Link antenna was unlocked and re-positioned for use.

The current orbital slot is 150 degrees West longitude, over the Pacific, for checkout. Control of the satellite is being handed from Boeing’s facilities in California to NASA’s White Sands Complex in New Mexico for the start of on-orbit testing.

Commissioning will continue through January by Boeing engineers to demonstrate the spacecraft is functioning properly before NASA accepts ownership.

TDRS-M is the 12th and final Tracking and Data Relay satellite of the current era to be launched since 1983. Its addition to the existing 7-satellite constellation will ensure the system’s viability into the mid-2020s at least.

TDRS provides constant communications between Earth-orbiting spacecraft and ground controllers, supporting round-the-clock operations of the International Space Station, plus data relay functions from the Hubble Space Telescope and nearly 40 scientific observatories.

Animation of TDRS-M orbit raising and deploying antennas and solar arrays in orbit. Credit: NASA/Scientific Visualization Studio