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The Mission

Rocket: Taurus XL
Payload: ROCSAT 2
Date: May 20, 2004
Window: 1747-1811 GMT (1:47-2:11 p.m. EDT)
Site: Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
Satellite feed: AMC-9, Transponder 19, Ku-band

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Atlas launches AMC-11
The Lockheed Martin Atlas 2AS rocket launches from Cape Canaveral carryin the AMC-11 communications satellite. (4min 30sec file)
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Tower camera
A camera mounted on the launch pad's umbilical tower captures this dramatic view of the Atlas 2AS rocket blasting off. (15sec file)
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Spacecraft deployed
The AMC-11 cable television satellite is successfully deployed from the Centaur upper stage to complete the launch. (25sec file)
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Rover looks into crater
The spectacular high-resolution, color panorama from the Mars rover Opportunity at the edge of Endurance Crater is presented with expert narration by Steve Squyres, the mission's lead scientist. (2min 08sec file)
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The Columbia Hills
Explore the Columbia Hills at Gusev Crater where Spirit is headed in this computer-generated movie using imagery from orbit. Expert narration by Amy Knudson, science team collaborator. (3min 11sec file)
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Thursday's Mars briefing
The Mars rover Opportunity's arrival at Endurance Crater and Spirit's trek to the Columbia Hills are topics in this news conference from May 6. (42min 12sec file)
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Tale of Soyuz ride
Expedition 8 commander Mike Foale describes what it is like to land in a Soyuz capsule and reflects on his half-year mission aboard the International Space Station in this post-flight interview. (23min 37sec file)
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Taurus XL rocket launches Taiwan's new orbiting eye

Posted: May 20, 2004

The first Taurus XL rocket, a beefed up model of Orbital Sciences' small satellite launcher, darted into polar orbit Thursday, deploying a Taiwanese spacecraft and potentially attracting customers for future missions.

The Taurus XL rocket blasts off carrying ROCSAT 2. Credit: Gene Blevins

Following a smooth countdown, the four-stage rocket blasted off on-time at 1747 GMT (1:47 p.m. EDT; 10:47 a.m. local) from pad 576E at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

Fourteen minutes later, the rocket successfully completed the launch by releasing its cargo in space.

"We are very pleased with the results of the Taurus launch and wish our customers from Taiwan's National Space Program Office the very best with their satellite mission," said Ron Grabe, Orbital's executive vice president and general manager of its Launch Systems Group.

Thursday's launch was crucial for the Taurus rocket. Not only was the XL version making its debut, but it also marked the return-to-flight for the Taurus vehicle family after a failure nearly three years ago.

"We're clearly all a little anxious on this one. Like in any of these vehicles, you've got 100,000 parts that all have to do their job at the right time and you hope you've done everything you could from a test perspective to flush any bad parts out. But unfortuately until you actually go fly through the environment you don't know," Bill Wrobel, Orbital's Taurus program manager, said in an interview.

The last mission in September 2001 was lost when a steering mechanism on the second stage motor jammed at ignition, robbing the rocket of its speed and preventing it from achieving orbit.

Taurus climbs away from its launch pad overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Credit: Gene Blevins
A redesigned steering system, which borrowed technology from the Ground-based Midcourse Defense Segment missile program, was used Thursday with a successful outcome.

The XL version of Taurus uses longer second and third stages packed with additional propellant, providing up to 25 percent more performance during launch.

"It's something we always wanted to do," Wrobel said.

"The actual development phase of the vehicle went pretty well. We've had some smaller problems but honestly with the XL portion of things that's been fairly straight-forward."

Orbital's air-launched Pegasus rocket was up-sized from its original "standard" configuration to the XL version nearly a decade ago.

"Taurus was one of the last hold outs still using the standard size," Wrobel said.

"The other thing is this mission required additional performance that we could not get with a standard vehicle. So it really was a requirement, more or less, under this mission to get that developed."

This mission lofted the 1,600-pound, French-built ROCSAT 2 spacecraft that becomes Taiwan's second Earth-observing satellite.

ROCSAT 2 undergoes pre-launch activities. Credit: NSPO
Once maneuvered into its operational orbit 550 miles above the planet, ROCSAT 2 will will snap pictures for environmental monitoring and use an onboard instrument to study upper atmospheric lightning, called red sprites.

"The land images could be used to monitor the environment and resources throughout Taiwan, the offshore remote islands, Taiwan Strait and its surrounding ocean," according to the Taiwanese space agency.

Uses of the ROCSAT 2 imagery include agriculture projections of crop yields, land usage studies for economic growth, detecting oil spills off the Taiwanese shore and environmental research. Observations following natural disasters is another role the satellite will fulfill.

"Taiwan has frequently endured natural disasters caused by typhoons during summer and fall. In the aftermath, Taiwan crucially needs timely remote sensing data for damage assessment," the program says.

"The satellite images will be very valuable for assessing damages, possibly within one day if weather allows. The extent and condition of flood-submerged crop fields can be appraised. The extent of mud slides and the structural integrity of hillsides can be assessed as well."

An artist's concept shows ROCSAT 2 orbiting Earth. Credit: NSPO
The lightning investigation aims to gather clues about electrodynamic relationship between thunderclouds and the upper atmosphere. ROCSAT 2 is expected to determine the location, time and characteristics "red sprite" lightning events.

The satellite has a five-year life expectancy.

For Taurus, the rocket's future launch schedule is sparse. Two launches for NASA are scheduled in August and December 2007 from Vandenberg carrying the Orbiting Carbon Observatory and GLORY satellites.

With three years until the next firm mission, Orbital is hoping to snare additional business.

"There absolutely are other opportunities out there," Wrobel said.

The company played host to potential customers during this latest Taurus flight.

"We actually have a number of other people that are up watching this mission just to see how it goes. We've had some other folks that have come by and watched some of the final processing that we did just to see from their perspective how it would flow into what their requirements might be.

"There's definitely people looking."