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NASA's TDRS K shipped to the Cape for Jan. 29 launch

Posted: December 18, 2012

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The next addition to NASA's constellation of Tracking and Data Relay Satellites has arrived at the Kennedy Space Center, landing this morning aboard a military transport aircraft after a cross-country ride inside a shipping container from Boeing's factory in Los Angeles.

The C-17 lands at KSC carrying TDRS K. Credit: NASA
Dubbed TDRS K, this latest spacecraft for the agency's global communications infrastructure is scheduled for launch atop an Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral's Complex 41 on Jan. 29.

"This launch will provide even greater capabilities to a network that has become key to enabling many of NASA's scientific discoveries," said Jeff Gramling, project manager for TDRS at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Today's arrival, touching down at the Shuttle Landing Facility at 8:29 a.m. EST in the Air Force C-17, kicks off the launch campaign for the satellite, which will include final testing, the loading of maneuvering propellant and encapsulation within the rocket's nose cone.

Those activities will be performed in the spacecraft preparation facilities at the commercial Astrotech campus in Titusville over the next month. Once packed within the Atlas shroud, TDRS K will be hauled across the river to the rocket's assembly hangar Jan. 17 for mounting atop the booster.

Stacking of the Atlas at the Vertical Integration Facility aboard a mobile launch platform begins with the first stage's erection on Jan. 3. After putting the interstage in place, the Centaur upper stage gets hoisted on Jan. 4.

TDRS K is unloaded from the transport plane. Credit: NASA
The path for launch was set last Tuesday when the United Launch Alliance-made Atlas resumed missions with the successful trek to orbit with the X-37B military spaceplane.

That launch and TDRS K's had been on hold so that the RL10 upper stage engine used by Atlas could be examined in the wake of a low-thrust condition experienced by a similar powerplant in early October by a Delta 4 booster.

The investigation moved TDRS K's launch date from Dec. 13 to its new target of Jan. 29. The evening's liftoff window extends from 8:52 to 9:32 p.m. EST (0152-0232 GMT Jan. 30).

NASA began deploying the TDRS system using the space shuttle in 1983, with the maiden flight of Challenger putting up the first craft built by TRW. Seven birds in that era were built and launched though 1995, although the second was lost in the 1986 explosion of Challenger.

Between 2000 and 2002, NASA began fielding three replenishment craft made by Boeing -- the TDRS H, I and J satellite series -- to keep the space agency's preeminent communications relay system functioning and also increasing its capabilities.

The Tracking and Data Relay Satellite K logo. Credit: NASA
Now, the follow-up effort also manufactured by Boeing takes flight next month to bolster the geosynchronous network 22,300 miles above the planet for relaying communications from the International Space Station, the Hubble Space Telescope and a range of other satellites in low-Earth-orbit. The system enables the flow of information up and down between the orbiting spacecraft and ground controllers.

TDRS L will follow in 2014 and TDRS M is slated for launch in 2015.