Major parts of the launch vehicle for NASA’s most ambitious rover mission to Mars, successfully launched into orbit on November 26th, were delivered to the Cape Canaveral launch site in Florida by Volga-Dnepr Airlines.

The Mars Science Laboratory ‘Curiosity’ will take eight and a half months to reach its destination. Onboard is a car-sized rover vehicle that will scour soil and rocks for any signs of current or past environments on the planet that could have supported life. NASA says Curiosity is the largest and most complex piece of equipment ever to try to reach the surface of another planet.

In support of the mission, a Volga-Dnepr AN-124-100 freighter aircraft safely delivered the Atlas V active expendable launch system, part of the Atlas rocket family operated by the Lockheed Martin-Boeing joint venture, United Launch Alliance. The flight departed from Huntsville, Alabama, for Cape Canaveral.

This is just the latest space mission to call upon Volga-Dnepr’s air logistics expertise. Since 1997, Volga-Dnepr has regularly provided transportation services for the U.S. space launch programme. In addition to delivering the Atlas V launch system, the airline has also carried the Russian-built RD-180 engines used in Atlas V from Moscow via Denver to Cape Canaveral.

The Russian carrier also delivers the Atlas V payload fairing developed by RUAG Emmen in Switzerland and the Centaur upper stage from Huntsville to Cape Canaveral.

Each Atlas V rocket delivered by Volga-Dnepr’s AN-124-100 aircraft weighs up to 25 tonnes and is 36 metres in length. It has a diameter of 3.8 metres and is 4.3 metres high in transport configuration. The weight of the Centaur upper stage reaches up to nine tonnes. It measures 14 metres in length and 3.3 metres in diameter.

‘To provide services to United Launch Alliance, the utmost punctuality, preciseness and technical discipline are needed. We conduct meticulous loading and offloading in strict accordance with all technological requirements by using Lockheed Martin equipment that has been specially adjusted for our AN-124-100 ‘Ruslan’ specifications,’ says Vladimir Vyshemirsky, Head of Volga-Dnepr’s Engineering Logistics Centre in the UK.

Dennis Gliznoutsa, Group Commercial Director (Charters) for Volga-Dnepr, added: ‘A lot of careful planning goes into these transportation operations. Their unique character lies in high-technology specificity. While in flight, we maintain design target parameters in relation to temperature and air pressure in the cargo compartment. Quality assurance is undertaken for all stages of the loading and transportation process, and this is reflected in the customer’s process charts. These shipments once again demonstrate that Volga-Dnepr’s fleet of AN-124-100 aircraft, with their unique operating capability, are able to deliver the most technically complex cargo shipments in accordance with the most specific requirements of our clients. We are delighted to assist our long-term customer, United Launch Alliance, in providing services to space mission programmes which broaden the horizons of the whole of humanity.’