Atlas 5 rocket launches NOAA weather satellite, tests inflatable heat shield

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket boosted a high-power weather satellite into orbit early Thursday and then fired an inflated “decelerator” back into the atmosphere for a hypersonic re-entry in a dramatic test of heat shield technology that one day could help land astronauts on Mars.

But the Joint Polar Satellite System, or JPSS 2, weather station was the primary payload. Launched by NASA and operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, JPSS 2 was released into a 500-mile-high polar orbit 28 minutes after liftoff from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California at 4:49 a.m. EST.

Equipped with a suite of sophisticated cameras and sensors, the $1.4 billion JPSS 2 “represents an essential step in preserving the continuity of low-Earth orbit observations,” said Jordan Gerth, a NOAA meteorologist and satellite scientist.

“JPSS data is a major input into U.S. and international global numerical weather prediction modeling systems,” he said. “With JPSS, the quality of local three- to seven-day weather forecasts is outstanding.

“Second, particularly for Alaskans, JPSS provides regular coverage over the poles to detect fires, monitor flood extent and track Arctic weather phenomena. And for all Americans, JPSS provides more than twice daily observations over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans” where data from weather balloons and buoys are sparse.

JPSS 2 is the second of four satellites in a $12.9 billion program that includes ground station upgrades.

The laun