Today, NASA will attempt to launch eight small satellites to space on board a Pegasus XL rocket, manufactured by private spaceflight company Orbital ATK. Called the CYGNSS mission, the probes are meant to study various aspects of tropical storms and hurricanes from orbit, in order to help scientists better understand how these cyclones form. But launching these satellites into orbit won’t look like your typical trip to space, where a rocket takes off vertically from a launch pad on the ground. Instead, this launch will take place in the air

This launch will take place in the air

That’s because the Pegasus XL rocket launches after being dropped from the belly of an airplane. First, Orbital’s Stargazer L-1011 aircraft will take off from Cape Canaveral, Florida and carry the rocket to a target drop zone over the Atlantic Ocean, an area that sits at an altitude of 39,000 feet. There, the Pegasus is released and ignites its main rocket motor about five seconds later. The vehicle will then ignite two additional motors over the course of the flight to get to the right altitude and orientation for the eight spacecraft to deploy properly into lower Earth orbit.

Once that happens, the spacecraft depart in twos. Opposing pairs of CYGNSS probes will separate every 30 seconds from the deployment module — a tube-like structure that the satellites are connected to throughout launch. The module is also responsible for helping to “kick” the spacecraft out into orbit. About 10 minutes after one satellite deploys, it will automatically open up its solar arrays to get energy from the Sun. Overall, the entire trip — from the launch of the rocket to the last spacecraft deployment — will take about 14 and a half minutes.

CYGNSS will “see” through the parts of hurricanes where its raining. NASA will then make contact with the satellites about three hours after they’ve deployed, and that’s when the science work begins. From orbit, the CYGNSS satellites will be studying the ocean surface winds within the inner cores of hurricanes — important indicators of how intense a storm can get. To do this, the probes will receive reflected signals from GPS satellites, which will allow the CYGNSS team to “see” through the parts of hurricanes where it’s raining and measure the surface winds in those areas. It’s something that most Earth science missions aren’t able to do, according to NASA. These measurements will help scientists better predict how strong a hurricane or storm is going to be when it makes landfall.

Today’s mission gets underway at 7:30AM ET, when Orbital’s Stargazer airplane taxis onto the runway before taking off at 7:37AM ET. Originally takeoff was supposed to be at 7:26AM ET, but the time was delayed due to fog in the area. The launch window for the Pegasus rocket then opens about an hour later at 8:19AM ET, with release of the vehicle slated for the (revised) time of 8:40AM ET.

Up until now, weather hasn’t looked too great for the mission. There was a 40 percent chance of favorable conditions, thanks to a cold front that just moved through southern Florida. As the front moves out of the area, there’s a chance that the region could see some rain, and Orbital ATK doesn’t want to launch the Pegasus through any precipitation or heavy clouds. It seems that the weather forecast has improved somewhat though, as there’s now a 60 percent chance of good conditions. But if the launch doesn’t happen today, there is always backup option on Tuesday.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *