SpaceX is preparing to launch its second NASA mission of the year on Tuesday morning. A Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Earth observation spacecraft PACE (Plankton, aerosol, cloud, marine ecosystem) liftoff is scheduled for Tuesday morning.
After completing a launch readiness review Sunday afternoon, the crews of NASA, SpaceX and Space Launch Delta 45 (SLD45) are on target for liftoff at 1:33 a.m. EST (0633 UTC) from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Space. . Force station.
It will be the eighth launch from Florida in 2024, and SpaceX's seventh launch from the Space Coast this year. Spaceflight Now will have live coverage of the mission beginning at 11:30 pm EST (0430 UTC).
PACE is the first U.S. government mission to aim for a polar orbit from Cape Canaveral in more than 60 years. In 1960, polar flights were halted after a cow in Cuba was killed by debris from a failed missile, sparking protests in Havana.
“At that time, we decided as a government that we would take all of our polar launch missions to the West, and since the '60s we've successfully launched into polar orbit hundreds of times from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California,” Tim Dunn said. , Senior Launch Director of NASA's Launch Services Program.
SpaceX resumed launches on southern routes from the Cape in 2020. The company has successfully flown 11 missions into polar orbit from the Florida spaceport.
“SpaceX came up with an autonomous flight defense system a few years ago and has the ability to land the first stage booster back here on the Cape or land it on a droneship off shore,” Dunn said. “The combination of those two things allowed us to make all the calculations to protect civilians in the United States and our international neighbors in the Caribbean, especially in Cuba. We can now do that successfully.
The Falcon 9 first stage booster supporting this launch, tail number B1081, will make its fourth flight. It previously launched the Crew-7 quartet to the ISS and the Cargo Dragon and Starlink missions.
Dunn said their consideration for a trip in a booster has less to do with the base number than what kind of trips it has taken to date.
“We do not look at the specific number of flights of the booster. We look at the qualification level of all the components that go into that booster,” Dunn explained. “We do an evaluation and we're not in violation. [qualification] position, and some elements are changed between planes, and then we analyze some structures that are not changed, and we are comfortable.
NASA's Europa Clipper will be the first to rely on boosters that the agency has flown on five previous missions. Those Falcon Heavy side boosters most recently supported the launch of NASA's Psyche spacecraft.
Following phase separation, the booster will be flipped for a landing at Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1) in Cape 7.5 minutes after liftoff. This was the third LZ-1 landing in four flights.
The landing was the 36th for LZ-1 and the 45th in Florida. Assuming SpaceX doesn't screw up Monday night's Starlink launch from VSFB and the PACE mission is successful, it will be the company's 270th booster landing to date.
Dunn says the total cost of the mission, between building the spacecraft, launch operations and mission support once in orbit, is $948 million. NASA paid SpaceX about $81 million for launch services for the Falcon 9 rocket.
Dunn said they are using new payload fairings on this aircraft, but are evaluating the possibility for the future.
“We're in an evaluation with SpaceX right now, and I expect that to happen in the next year and a half to two years,” Dunn said. “We'll see how it goes at the fair.”
Meteorological concerns for the atmospheric monitoring mission
As launch teams head toward an overnight launch window, the weather remains an object of observation. During a preview briefing with reporters, Brian Cicek, the missile weather officer for the U.S. Space Force's 45th Weather Wing, said there was a 60 percent chance of a weather violation for Tuesday morning's launch.
“We're going to see this wind surge moving from north to south along the Florida coast. It's going to bring some additional moisture into the air,” Cicek said. “So, because of that, some concerns starting tonight.”
Cicek said liftoff winds will “approach the limits” at launch time, with “winds increasing as the night progresses.” Those winds will subside by Tuesday night, he said, which is why the missile forecast improves to just a 40 percent chance of exceeding weather forecast Wednesday morning.
Forecasters with SLD45 also have concerns about rain along the coast, he said. Corresponding clouds enforce the rule of thick cloud layers for this first launch opportunity as well.
“The thing for the backup day is the big concern is the winds again. They peak Tuesday morning and afternoon and then start to taper off again Tuesday evening,” Cicek said. “And then as we get past it the weather improves.”
Expanding ocean and atmospheric understanding
The PACE mission is designed to nominally last three years, but has enough fuel to support a 10-year mission. NASA will review things every three years to decide if they can extend the mission.
The goal of the Earth-observing spacecraft is to increase our understanding of the interaction of the oceans and atmosphere through the lens of the smallest parts of each, phytoplankton and aerosols.
“These micro-algae at the bottom of the marine food chain serve our fisheries and serve the health of the oceans, but they can also be toxic, and we need to be aware of that,” said Karen St. Germain. Director of NASA's Earth Sciences Division. “Through photosynthesis, they are responsible for absorbing huge amounts of carbon dioxide and converting it into oxygen in the atmosphere.”
“We're also looking at tiny things in the atmosphere. These are called aerosols. They're tiny particles that play a huge role in our weather, our air quality and our climate,” he added. “They come from sources such as dust from the Sahara, wildfires and human activity. They seed clouds that can grow into hurricanes across the Atlantic, but they also reflect the sun's energy. Therefore, they play an important role in the long-term stability of Earth's climate.
St. Germain said the data is based on both NASA's 20 years of observing the oceans and more than 60 years of overall NASA Earth observation. Understanding these systems and their interactions is not only important to advancing scientific understanding, but also plays a large role in the U.S. economy, he noted.
“The maritime economy contributes more than $350 billion to our GDP annually. It employs 3.1 million people in our country, but it can experience adverse impacts from things like harmful algal blooms, which cost $50 million or more a year,” said St. Germain. “So the work we do with PACE and the work we do in Earth Science, Earth Making observations that help us understand the system, capturing that understanding in models and predictive tools, and putting that information in the hands of those who can get it. Use it to make better decisions every day.