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Tracking and Data Relay Satellite arrives in orbit

Posted: Feb. 5, 2014

NASA's newest communications relay satellite, launched from Cape Canaveral last month, has maneuvered itself to geosynchronous orbit and deployed its antennas and power-generating solar arrays as planned.

An artist's concept of TDRS K in orbit. Credit: NASA
The Boeing Co. designed and built the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite L for NASA and is controlling the spacecraft during its early days in orbit.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket carried TDRS L into a geosynchronous transfer orbit, an elliptical type of orbit that is the customary drop off point for spacecraft bound for a parking spot about 22,300 miles above Earth.

From there, Boeing satellite controllers reduced the inclination and raised the low point to circularize it into a geosynchronous orbit where TDRS L now matches Earth's rotation and appears parked at 150 degrees West longitude, the planned location of in-space testing and checkout.

The satellite stood 26 feet tall and weighed over 7,600 pounds at launch, including 3,700 pounds of maneuvering fuel loaded inside the craft. Once fully deployed in space, TDRS K's solar wings will stretch 69 feet tip-to-tip to generate 3,220 watts of power and charge internal nickel-hydrogen batteries.

The primary physical feature of the satellite is two 15-foot-diameter flexible graphite mesh antenna dishes that were folded like taco shells for launch, then successfully sprung into shape once released in orbit.

The antennas offer gimbal tracking of targeted spacecraft flying beneath the satellite, providing high-gain communications to the station, Hubble and other craft for vital contacts and data dumps.

"TDRS-L and the entire TDRS fleet provide a vital service to America's space program by supporting missions that range from Earth-observation to deep space discoveries," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "TDRS also will support the first test of NASA's new deep space spacecraft, the Orion crew module, in September. This test will see Orion travel farther into space than any human spacecraft has gone in more than 40 years."

After finishing the orbit-raising activities, the spacecraft's full appendages were deployed, starting with one solar array, then the booms holding the Single Access antennas fold out, the other solar wing extends, the forward Omni swings into place and the space-to-ground antenna is positioned.

Once the satellite undergoes three months of testing at 150 degrees West, NASA will "take the keys" from Boeing and drift the craft to its operational location at 49 degrees West for the start of a 15-year service life later this spring.

"This launch ensures continuity of services for the many missions that rely on the system every day," said Jeffrey Gramling, TDRS project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.