The Space Test Program-3 (STP-3) operation for the US Space Force was launched on December 7 by the ULA (United Launch Alliance) Atlas 5 rocket. The rocket took off from Space Launch Complex-41 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, which is in Florida at 5:19 a.m. Eastern. On the Atlas 5 551 with 5 strap-on solid rockets, the STP-3 mission, which is valued at $1.1 billion, was launched into geosynchronous Earth orbit. STP-3 carried a NASA mission to test in-space laser communications as well as sensitive national security payloads. The launch was originally slated for December 5, but it was postponed due to the propellant ground storage system leak.

This was the Atlas 5’s 90th flight and the rocket’s longest mission ever, requiring three RL10C-1 engine burns in the upper stage. The secondary payload was discharged 7 hours and ten minutes after liftoff, while the primary payload separated successfully 8 hours and 8 minutes later, at an altitude of 22,300 miles above Earth, according to ULA. The main payload, STPSat-6, carried the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Space and Atmospheric Burst Reporting System 3 (SABRS-3), which is a nuclear-detection sensor.

The LCRD (Laser Communication Relay Demonstration) payload on STPSat-6 will be used to demonstrate laser communication in the space between the GEO orbit and Earth. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is in charge of the LCRD mission.

The LCRD was developed to be easy to downlink data using optical signals at a speed of 1.2 gigabits per second, according to Badri Younes, deputy assistant administrator for NASA’s space communications as well as navigation program. With present radio technologies, transmitting a map of the Mars to Earth could take nine years, but with laser communications, it could take as little as 9 weeks.

The Long Duration Propulsive ESPA, (LDPE-1), was secondary payload, which is a small-satellite adapter ring meant to deliver military experiments. Six US Space Force tests concentrating on space weather as well as situational awareness were carried out on this mission. Northrop Grumman designed and manufactured the LPDE-1 and the STPSat-6 spacecraft. Originally, the STP-3 mission was set to launch in 2019. The mission was delayed due to setbacks in the construction of the NASA’s laser communications payload as well as scheduling issues induced by the pandemic.

The Atlas 5 that deployed the STP-3 mission featured three new items, according to Gary Wentz, ULA’s vice president in charge of the government and commercial programs: RUAG’s first 5-meter diameter payload fairing created with out-of-autoclave manufacturing process, which is an in-flight power program to charge the satellites’ batteries, and a sophisticated GPS navigation system for Centaur upper stage aiming to enhance orbit insertion accuracy.

Carbon fiber composites are cured using simply an oven in out-of-autoclave manufacture. Wentz explained that the corporation wants to test these new capabilities on Atlas 5 to gain expertise before moving to ULA’s upcoming Vulcan Centaur rocket, which will have a bigger 5.4-meter payload fairing.

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