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Jet taking off from Florida will launch NASA weather satellite

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ORLANDO, Fla., Oct. 9 (UPI) — After a two-year delay, NASA is ready to use a jet aircraft to launch a new space weather satellite from Florida on Wednesday, weather permitting.

The Ionospheric Connection Explorer or ICON satellite will help NASA understand and predict how solar flares interact with the earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field, including our planet’s deadly Van Allen radiation belts. The data is expected to help satellites avoid radiation.

Weather is not looking good for the launch Wednesday, with the Air Force predicting only 30 percent chance for acceptable conditions. That improves to 70 percent for an attempt Thursday night.

The rocket will be carried high over the Atlantic from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on a Northrop Grumman L-1011 Stargazer aircraft. When it’s about 50 to 100 miles east of Daytona Beach, it will drop a 52,000-pound Pegasus XL rocket, which will ignite and carry the satellite into orbit.

“This satellite will help us get exactly the right physics, and you will now have a much more accurate prediction about what that solar flare is going to do,” said Nicola Fox, heliophysics division director for NASA.

The flight is set to take off about 9:30 p.m. The rocket should launch after about one hour, at roughly 40,000 feet. The rocket itself will only fly for about 10 minutes before releasing its payload.

Previous launches set for 2017 and 2018 were scrubbed due to faulty sensors and vibrations detected from the rocket, Northrop Grumman officials said.

The Pegasus has launched 90 satellites on 43 previous missions, according to Northrop.

Dropping the rocket is “the most exciting part of the flight,” said Phil Joyce, vice president of space launch programs at the company. A copilot on board actually pushing a switch to drop the Pegasus, if weather and all other conditions are good.

“It’s dropping 52,000 pounds, but the plane still has the same lift,” he said. “So the plane climbs fairly rapidly about 1,200 to 1,500 feet as the rocket drops for about 5 seconds before firing. That also gives us safety margin of distance.”

NASA believes the ionosphere, where the Sun ionizes the air to create charged particles, is significantly influenced by storms in Earth’s lower atmosphere. ICON will also help NASA better understand how atmospheric winds control ionospheric variability.

Northrop Grumman began air-launching Pegasus rockets in 1990, when one launched from beneath a NASA B-52 aircraft.

Pegasus launches have been conducted from six separate sites in the United States, Europe and the Marshall Islands.

A crew of seven will be on the ICON mission plane when it takes off. In case of storms or other delays, there is a 90-minute launch window.

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