In the new age of space, it is somewhat rare to see a pad fall silent. For Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, this dearth of launches is finally coming to an end. One of the legends of modern rocketry, United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V, is ready to break the silence, gearing up for its next mission for the Department of Defense. With Pad 41 activated for the National Reconnaissance Office’s SILENT BARKER mission, the historic launch complex looks ready to begin a long stretch of continued launch operations with Atlas and Vulcan.
Atlas V has been notably absent from the Cape’s roster over the last 11 months, with the last launch being SES-20/21, the first commercial payload managed directly by United Launch Alliance. This mission delivered two smaller satellites to geostationary orbit on October 4th, 2022, where they remain in successful operation today. After launching their final payload from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California in November of 2022, ULA has consolidated all remaining Atlas flights to the East Coast as SLC-3E is overhauled ahead of its first flight of Vulcan.
However, the silence will end this coming Sunday. On September 10th 2023, at 8:47 AM local time, an Atlas V 551 will lift off from Pad 41 carrying the SILENTBARKER/NROL-107 payload for the United States Space Force and National Reconnaissance Office. The payload itself is novel for the Space Force, a direct response to the rise in so called “inspector” satellites being launched by China and Russia. SILENTBARKER refers to not only this payload, but the constellation of payloads planned to be launched by the NRO in the coming years, each with “one or more” vehicles. The director of the NRO, Christopher J. Scolese has publicly stated that SILENTBARKER will have a capability to continuously track moving objects in geosynchronous orbit which the current space awareness satellites lack. The payload will be launched directly to a geostationary orbit – an approach leveraged by ULA’s high performance Atlas V vehicle.
With the launch of SILENTBARKER, the floodgates will be well and truly open for Pad 41 and ULA’s future launch operations. In October 2023, ULA plans to launch two test satellites as part of Project Kuiper, Amazon’s internet constellation of 3,263 vehicles. These two satellites, originally slated to launch on the debut flight of Vulcan, have been moved to Atlas in the face of schedule slips. This too is the case for USSF-51, a Department of Defense payload originally planned to be launched on Vulcan as part of their NSSL Round II win.
In this timeframe, Vulcan will also begin to pick up cadence as it demonstrates its capabilities for potential public and private customers. ULA, not wanting a stand down in capability, engineered their new Vulcan Launch Platform to plug in to new and existing pad infrastructure, enabling overlap between the two launch vehicles. This avoids crucial periods where no launch capability is available – a stand down companies like Arianespace are contending with. Vulcan Certification-1, the first flight, will demonstrate the new first stage powered by Blue Origin BE-4 engines, as well as the all new Centaur V upper stage for the first time. This launch will carry the Astrobotic Peregrine lander to the Lunar surface, demonstrating technologies for both the Artemis program and commercial customers. This launch is currently targeted towards the end of this year, with the goal of ramping up cadence in 2024. In January 2024, Vulcan is slated to fly once more with the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser space plane. This mission, known as Demo-1, will see the new spacecraft berth to the International Space Station as part of the Commercial Resupply Service-2 contract with NASA before beginning regular cargo runs. This launch has been delayed numerous times, largely due to teething issues with the spacecraft itself. Rather crucially, Vulcan requires two missions to be flown to clear the vehicle for Department of Defense payloads, ensuring that the vehicle can perform in a wide range of orbits.
Following this second flight and clearance from the Department of Defense, however, the cadence of Vulcan launches will drastically increase as Atlas winds down, with a final flight targeted in 2029. Vulcan, not having flown at the time of writing, has an impressive backlog of missions – with 70+ confirmed launches on the books, not including an unknown number of commercial contracts contingent on vehicle readiness. ULA CEO Tory Bruno has discussed rapid turnaround of the pad, aiming for as low as 11 days between launches in surge periods. This could further shrink to 5 days as later upgrades come online, such as a second Vulcan Launch Platforms and Vertical Integration Facilities. Upgrades to the Eastern Range have enabled greater turnaround across the complex, enabling multiple missions to get off the ground in a single day, enabling users of the variety of launch complexes to perform their missions on time. These upgrades have already been proven with rapid turnaround launches across SpaceX’s two pads, Historic Launch Complex-39A and Pad 40.
For ULA, the future looks bright. The consolidation of their two iconic launch vehicles, Atlas and Delta, into a successor with the best qualities of both cements them as a formidable player in the market. As for Space Launch Complex 41, the liftoff of SILENTBARKER ushers in a new, non-stop era of spaceflight, one that won’t let up for quite some time.
Note: Article updated to reflect September 10th’s scrub and reset for Sunday.