ULA to Launch NASA Solar Probe Plus Mission

Delta IV Heavy lifts off with Orion capsule. (Credit: Lockheed Martin, United Launch Alliance)
Delta IV Heavy lifts off with Orion capsule. (Credit: Lockheed Martin, United Launch Alliance)

CENTENNIAL, Colo., March 18, 2015 (ULA PR) –  NASA’s Launch Services Program announced today that it selected United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) proven Delta IV Heavy vehicle to launch the Solar Probe Plus (SPP) mission to study the Sun’s outer atmosphere. This award resulted from a competitive procurement that considered multiple launch providers.

“The ULA team is very proud that NASA has selected the Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle for this extraordinary science mission,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs. “The Delta IV Heavy rocket is uniquely qualified to provide the launch service for this vital science mission that will help us understand processes near the surface of the sun that affect space weather and radiation environments. We look forward to successfully delivering this critical spacecraft to orbit for NASA.”

The Solar Probe Plus mission is scheduled to launch in July 2018 from Space Launch Complex-37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. This mission will launch aboard a Delta IV Heavy, vehicle which features a center common booster core along with two strap-on common booster cores. Each common booster core is powered by the RS-68 cryogenic engine. An RL10 cryogenic engine will power the second stage. Due to the extremely high energy required for this mission, the Delta IV Heavy’s capability will be augmented by a powerful third stage provided by Orbital ATK, based on the flight proven Star-48 solid rocket motor.

“ULA has considerable successful experience integrating third stages on top of our already capable vehicles,” Sponnick added.  “We did something very similar when we launched the New Horizons mission, which will fly by Pluto and its moons later this year.  We are proud to have Orbital ATK as our teammate for the development of the third stage for the SPP mission.”

Solar Probe Plus will repeatedly sample the near-Sun environment, revolutionizing our knowledge and understanding of coronal heating and of the origin and evolution of the solar wind and answering critical questions in heliophysics that have been ranked as top priorities for decades. The probe will make direct, in-situ measurements of the region where some of the most hazardous solar energetic particles are energized.

With more than a century of combined heritage, United Launch Alliance is the nation’s most experienced and reliable launch service provider. ULA has successfully delivered more than 90 satellites to orbit that provide critical capabilities for troops in the field, aid meteorologists in tracking severe weather, enable personal device-based GPS navigation and unlock the mysteries of our solar system.

For more information on ULA, visit the ULA website at www.ulalaunch.com, or call the ULA Launch Hotline at 1-877-ULA-4321 (852-4321). Join the conversation at www.facebook.com/ulalaunch, twitter.com/ulalaunch and instagram.com/ulalaunch.

  • Larry J

    It’s a reasonable decision for that particular mission. While the Falcon Heavy would be able to do the job, it hasn’t flown yet and is unproven. When you’re three years out from launch on a major deep space mission, you’re making the final decisions about trajectories and vehicle design. To hit the launch date, they need to make the launch decision now. They can’t afford to wait on a vehicle that will fly someday. Once SpaceX gets the Falcon Heavy working and proven, it’ll open up many more possibilities for future missions.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Maybe they should wait about a year for Falcon Heavy availability. The Delta IV Heavy with the supplemental Star-48 kick stage is about 3 to 4 times more expensive than the Falcon Heavy with less performance. Or about 40% to 45% of the cost of the whole mission.

  • Larry J

    The Falcon Heavy was supposed to fly over a year ago. They’re saying it’ll fly sometime this year. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. At this point, no one outside of SpaceX (and perhaps within SpaceX) knows for sure. If they want the booster to fly three missions to prove itself before committing a very expensive payload, how long will that take? As planned, the mission is going to need a series of Venus flyby maneuvers in order to change the orbit enough to reach the desired 3.5 million miles from the sun. Delaying the mission for a year for a rocket that may or may not be ready even then would mean they’d have to replan the trajectory. There are also overhead expenses of personnel and storage that have to factored in. How many people are supporting this mission? What are they going to do for that year? A delay like that is something to avoid if at all possible.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    SpaceNews have reported the price of the DeltaIV Heavy at $389 million. The as yet unflown FH was previously priced at $77 million (6400 kg to GTO) and $133 million (53000 kg to LEO, 21200 kg to GTO). The 6400kg to GTO version is now priced at $90 million and the balls out version has no price listed. Following the same percentage increase puts it at about $155 million, so there’s a potential saving of perhaps as much as $230 million. I don’t imagine replanning trajectory would be an issue, but what if FH never happens?. It’s a crying shame not to be able to take advantage of FH’s pricing, but they have to make a decision to book a launcher.

  • TimR

    Falcon Heavy having not flown was likely an issue but who knows if their upper stage could provide the impulse needed for this solar mission? ULA has had an advantage in that they have some potent upper stages. The first stage of F-H can get a lot of mass to LEO and GTO but you need a substantial upper stage to achieve escape velocity for this solar mission. Its seems that these type of interplanetary missions are not well suited to Falcons but there is not much demand for them and that has likely why SpaceX has not spent the denaro for a more powerful upper stage.

  • windbourne

    Wait? Uh no. The amount of money saved would be trivial compared to the costs of the storage, politics, etc.
    I am a fan of spacex, but FH was not ready.
    Spacex really needs to get FH on a test regimine so as to prove it.
    And I suspect that 3 successful flights is all that they need to prove it.
    One cheap way, is after the initial launch spacex could use FH to fly a crs mission combined with say a Bigelow. Or a crs combined with something else.