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OK, What is it?

Closeup of ULA Atlas V 501 launch, May 20, 2015

I have not noticed it on previous launches. It's also visible in AFSPC-5 launch videos, for example in this one:

And it also comes into view of the camera immediately following the vehicle's pitch, yaw & roll maneuver in this mission profile video:

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    $\begingroup$ That's a Communotron 16 that they added after building the fairing (and forgot to reconfigure the fairing to accommodate). ;-P $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 1:02

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That's a hydrogen vent fin disposing of GH2 (gaseous hydrogen) that can outgas into the payload fairing from the Centaur upper stage's LH2 (liquid hydrogen) tank that is stored in a balloon tank at the top of the upper stage. From History of the Titan Centaur Launch Vehicle (PDF):

   enter image description here

This liquid hydrogen leakage caused explosion of the launch vehicle during the first Atlas-Centaur launch in May 8, 1962. According to Taming Liquid Hydrogen: The Centaur Upper Stage Rocket 1958-2002 (PDF), The Failure of F-1, the First Atlas-Centaur Launch (starting on page 63):

Testing at Lewis not only provided independent verification of contractor performance, but also contributed new solutions to problems. The loss of F-1 had occurred within a tenth of a second after hydrogen gas had been vented from an opening at the top of the vehicle. A test program in the 8-by-6-foot supersonic wind tunnel at Lewis revealed that the hydrogen-venting system posed a fire hazard during flight. The solution was to design a vent fin or snout on the nose fairing that extended about 50 inches from the tank, just far enough away to keep the hydrogen gas from igniting along the hot surface of the vehicle.

This GH2 vent fin is not unique to the 5 meter diameter payload fairing used during AFSPC-5 launch, for example, here's a video of SBIRS GEO-2 launch on Atlas V 401 with a 4.2 m Ø fairing:

It is shown in Atlas V Launch Services User's Guide (PDF) in the schematic for the 4.2 m Ø fairing (page 267):

 enter image description here

And identified in text for the 5 m Ø fairing (page 283):

   enter image description here


In this Universe Today article, on the first photograph (I can't reproduce it here because it's copyrighted), you can see that vent fin connected with umbilical to the launch tower, where it would be purged with nitrogen provided through the air conditioning (A/C) inlet (seen on photograph as the topmost duct) and vented out the vent fin at the bottom of the Centaur upper stage's forward adapter, just above the CFLR (Centaur Forward Load Reactor) deck.

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  • $\begingroup$ Does the vent fin stay attached to the fairing, or aeroskirt in the case of Starliner launches, until fairing/skirt separation? $\endgroup$
    – kwc
    Commented Jun 8 at 5:35
  • $\begingroup$ Answering my own question: I think it does - you can see it on the fairing during separation in this video. (I feel like this is probably too esoteric of a subject to be its own question...) $\endgroup$
    – kwc
    Commented Jun 8 at 5:44

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