Watch live: Jet will launch NASA space weather satellite
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.
The flight is set to take off about 8:32 p.m. Thursday. The rocket should launch after about one hour, at roughly 40,000 feet. NASA will broadcast the event starting at 9:15 p.m. The rocket itself will only fly for about 10 minutes before releasing its payload.
“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 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 and payload. The rocket will ignite and carry the satellite into orbit.
Previous launches in 2017 and 2018 were delayed due to faulty sensors and vibrations detected from the rocket as it was carried by the jet, Northrop Grumman officials said. Those issues were corrected after lengthy, difficult testing during which engineers had to mimic the conditions of the rocket’s high-altitude journey.
Despite the delays, the mission is coming in at its original budget of $252 million, NASA officials said.
Weather delayed the launch Wednesday night. There’s a better chance for good launch conditions Thursday night — 70 percent, according to the U.S. Air Force.
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 pushes 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.