With the space industry facing a potential paradigm shift following the conflict in Ukraine, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) has now shelved a Space Force mission.
Even though all parties involved have yet to share the reasons for the launch, speculations have begun to fly about whether the ULA will be able to meet many of its other commitments.
Not So Ready Yet
In the earlier part of this month, the ULA announced that it had indefinitely postponed the launch of USSF-12 - a mission run by the United States Space Force. The announcement explained that this pause was due to a “customer request,” although the ULA failed to provide any further clarifications.
The Space Force confirmed that USSF-12 would be postponed in an announcement of its own, also electing to provide as little information as possible about what caused this. Speaking to reporters, a spokesperson for the Space Systems Command explained that they don’t have any specifics about the exact cause of the delay or what time the mission will be back on track. For now, their focus is getting things in order as quickly as possible.
The USSF-12 was planned to be a two-satellite mission that would launch on the ULA’s Atlas V rocket. The mission would carry the geosynchronous Wide Field of View mid-size satellite, which itself carries a missile-warning system.
Looking to absolve itself of any blame, Boeing's Millennium Space Systems - which designed the satellite - said in a statement of its own that it had delivered its payload to the Space Force a month ago at the latter’s Cape Canaveral launch processing facility. At the same time, all indications point to the Atlas V rocket itself being ready to launch.
“This satellite was procured by the Space Systems Command to serve as a testbed for Wide Field of View technologies in geosynchronous orbit for the missile warning mission, and as an enabling asset for the missile tracking and missile defense missions,” the Boeing subsidiary explained.
Given all that is known, it seems plausible that an issue would have caused the delay with the secondary payload. For now, no one is making comments on that. The Space Force spokesperson simply said that they would put the Wide Field of View satellite in storage until they can decide how to move forward.
Wide Field of View first got commissioned in 2016. The system was designed to help test advanced missile warning systems, which will improve global security and alertness.
Is the ULA Feeling Some Heat?
While it would appear that the ULA wasn’t at fault, initial speculations show that the organization might have been feeling the brunt of new sanctions from the Russian space authorities (Roscosmos).
The Russians recently announced that they would no longer sell or ship rocket engines to the United States. Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, explained that Western countries could feel free to find somewhere else to get their rocket engines as they had decided to take retaliatory actions following economic sanctions from the international community in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Specifically, Rogozin had said that Russia delivered 122 RD-180 engines to the United States, of which 98 have now been used. Following Roscosmos' decision, all servicing for these rocket engines will be halted.
As soon as the restriction was announced, industry insiders began looking for anyone who would be affected by this. Soon, it became obvious that the ULA might be vulnerable. The Atlas V rocket relies on Russian-made RD-180 engines to power the Atlas V, and a halting of shipments would weigh down its operations.
However, the ULA has also been weaning itself off Russian-made engines for a while. The organization selected Blue Origin to build an engine for its Vulcan rocket a few years back. ULA CEO Tony Bruno also confirmed recently that the organization is fully equipped to weather the storm of Russia’s sanctions.
Next Up, Possible Redemption For Boeing
Now that USSF-12 has been delayed, the ULA will move ahead with the launch of a Starliner crew capsule from Boeing. The test flight had been delayed since August 2021, and it was tentatively scheduled to launch on May 20 from Cape Canaveral.
The Starliner mission is a redo of the first test, which ran in December 2019. The mission was cut short after software problems prevented the craft from docking at the International Space Station. Following the capsule’s safe return to New Mexico, the Starliner team went back to the drawing board to see the problem.
A second mission was scheduled for August 2021. The spacecraft was readied at the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, but tests revealed that some valve in the propulsion system had been stuck. Now, Boeing will hope that it can get things right the third time.