A couple days later on the opposite side of the country the final 400 series Atlas V launched the JPSS-2 weather satellite for NOAA and the LOFTID demonstrator for NASA and ULA.
JPSS-2 or Joint Polar Satellite System 2 is a next generation weather satellite developed by NOAA to replace the Advanced TIROS-N series of spacecraft, which concluded with NOAA-19. As designed, both NOAA and the US Military were to use the same satellites, but the military portion was canceled. Instead, the military will continue to build their own weather satellites.
JPSS-2 is different from JPSS-1. It was built by a different company, Orbital ATK (now part of Northrop Grumman), using the same satellite bus as Landsat 8 and 9, and ICESat-2. However, it has the same instruments as JPSS-1.
Also on the Atlas V 401 rocket was the LOFTID, or Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Demonstrator. This payload was carried to orbit below JPSS-2. Its purpose was to demonstrate an inflatable heat shield through a low Earth orbit reentry for the first time.
Operations started after the separation of JPSS-2 from a special payload adapter. The rocket’s upper stage commanded it to inflate, and then performed a deorbit burn. Centaur released the payload and then performed one final burn to get out of the way.
LOFTID entered the atmosphere over Hawaii and successfully splashed down under a parachute. It was recovered by a waiting ship.
If the parachute had failed NASA would have still been able to get data from the reentry as the spacecraft was equipped with a special impact resistant, buoyant and waterproof data recorder. It separated at 15 kilometers altitude and impacted somewhere in the pacific ocean. The recorder had a GPS beacon to make it easier to find. NASA recovered both recorders after the successful splashdown.
It is one of the widest blunt body reentry vehicles to make a reentry.
Besides accommodating the secondary payload for NASA, ULA had an economic interest in the inflatable heat shield technology for their upcoming Vulcan rocket. In the future, the rocket’s two BE-4 first stage engines will be recovered after a suborbital reentry for reuse. This engine pod will use an inflatable heat shield to survive reentry and be picked up mid air by a helicopter.
ULA’s math says that recovering just the engines and not the entire stage makes economic sense for their purposes, and it does not require reserving propellant in the rocket, which would reduce its performance.
Read more about LOFTID here