How to Spot the Antares Launch from NASA Wallops on Wednesday

A space launch marking a new era is departing from the Virginia coast this Wednesday evening, and if you live anywhere along a wide area of the US Eastern seaboard, you’ll have a great opportunity to witness the launch with your own eyes. Here’s all the information you’ll need to see it, plus some tips for capturing it with your camera.

Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket will launch from Pad 0A at NASA’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport based on Wallops Island, Virginia. This will mark not only the first launch of Antares, but the first orbital launch of a liquid-fueled rocket from Wallops. The launch window runs from 5:00 to 8:00 PM EDT (21:00-24:00 UT).

There were some concerns when a technical anomaly shutdown a “Wet Dress Rehearsal” test this weekend at T-16 minutes, but Orbital Sciences has stated that the problems have been resolved and the launch is pressing ahead as planned.

Space shots are a familiar sight to the residents of the Florida Space Coast, but will provide a unique show for residents of the U.S. central Atlantic region. The launch of Antares from Wallops will be visible for hundreds of miles and be over 10° above the horizon for an arc spanning from Wilmington, North Carolina to Washington D.C. and north to the New York City tri-state area as it heads off to the southeast. Antares is a two stage rocket with a 1st stage liquid fueled engine and a solid-fueled 2nd stage. The primary mission for Wednesday’s Antares A-One flight will be to demonstrate the ability for the Antares rocket to place a payload into orbit. If all goes well, Orbital Sciences will join SpaceX this summer in the select club of private companies with the ability provide cargo delivery access to the International Space Station in Low Earth Orbit.

Antares heads to orbit. Artist's concept. (Credit: Orbital Sciences Corperation).
Antares heads to orbit. Artist’s concept. (Credit: Orbital Sciences Corporation).

Antares will deploy a dummy mass simulating the Cygnus module. Also onboard are the Phonesat-1a, -1b, and -1c micro-cubesats and the Dove 1 satellite.

Be sure to watch for the launch of Antares if you live in the region. Find a spot with a low uncluttered eastern horizon and watch from an elevated rooftop or hilltop location if possible. I live a hundred miles west of Cape Canaveral and I’ve followed launches all the way through Main Engine Cutoff and first stage separation with binoculars.

Be sure to also follow the launch broadcast live for any last minute delays via NASA TV or Universe Today will have a live feed as well. Antares is aiming to put the Cygnus test mass in a 250 x 300 kilometre orbit with a 51.6° inclination. This is similar to what will be necessary to head to the ISS, but this week’s launch will not be trailing the ISS in its path. This also means that the launch window can be extended over three hours rather than having to be instantaneous.

If the launch goes at the beginning of the window, the local sun angle over the launch facility will be 30° to the west. Sunset at Wallops on the evening of April 17th occurs at 7:41PM EDT, meaning we could be in for a photogenic dusk launch of Antares if it stretches to the end of the target window.

And speaking of which, a pre-sunset launch means short daytime exposure settings for photography. Be prepared to switch over for dusk conditions if the launch extends into the end of the window. Conditions during twilight can change almost moment-to-moment. One of the most memorable launches we witnessed was the pre-dawn liftoff of STS-131 on April 5th, 2010:

The predawn launch of STS-131 as seen from 100 miles west. (Photo by author).
The predawn launch of STS-131 as seen from 100 miles west. (Photo by author).

Once in orbit, the launch of Antares should generate four visible objects; the test mass payload, the two clam-shell fairings, and the stage two booster. This configuration is similar to a Falcon 9/Dragon launch, minus the solar panel covers. These objects should be visible to the naked eye at magnitudes +3 to +5. The cubesat payloads are tiny and below the threshold of naked eye visibility.

Preliminary visibility for the objects will favor latitudes 0-30° north at dusk to 10-40° at dawn. Keep in mind these predictions could change as the launch window evolves. The next NORAD tracking ID in the queue is 2013-015A. Yesterday’s launch of Anik G1 from Baikonur was just cataloged today as 2013-014A plus associated hardware. The weather is forecast to be 45% “go” for tomorrow’s launch. In the event of a scrub, the next launch window for Antares is April 18-21st.

First orbit of the Cygnus test mass; shadow orientation of the Earth assumes a nominal launch at 22:00UT on April 17th. (Created by the author using Orbitron. TLEs courtesy of (name)
First orbit of the Cygnus test mass; shadow orientation of the Earth assumes a nominal launch at 22:00 UT on April 17th. (Created by the author using Orbitron. Two-Line Elements courtesy of Henry Hallam).

It’ll be exciting to follow this first flight of Antares and its first scheduled mission to the International Space Station this summer. Also watch for the first ever lunar mission to depart Wallops on August 12 with the launch of the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE).

Finally, if you’ve got a pass of the International Space Station this week, keep an eye out for Progress M-17M currently about 10 minutes ahead of the station in its orbit. The unmanned Progress vehicle just undocked yesterday from the station and will be conducting a series of experiments monitoring the interactions of its thrusters with the ionosphere before burning up on reentry over the South Pacific on April 21st.

A pass of the ISS over UK tonite (April 16th) with Progress leading at 20:30UT. (Created by the author in Orbitron).
A pass of the ISS over UK tonite (April 16th) with Progress leading at 20:30UT. (Created by the author in Orbitron).

The ISS and more can be tracked using Heavens-Above. Also, we’ll be tweeting all of the updates and orbital action as it evolves as @Astroguyz. Let us know of those launch sightings both near and far. It’ll be interesting to see what, if any, impact launches visible to a large portion of the U.S. population will have on the public’s perception of spaceflight. Be sure to look up tomorrow night!

Canadarm Ready to Ensnare Space Dragon after March 1 Blast Off

Wouldn’t you love to wake up to this gorgeous view of our home planet as a big hand waves a friendly good morning ?!

Well, having survived high speed wayward Asteroids and Meteors these past few days, the human crew circling Earth aboard the International Space Station (ISS) is game to snatch a flying Space Dragon before too long.

NASA will dispatch astronaut fun to orbit in the form of the privately built SpaceX Dragon in a tad less than two weeks time that the crew will ensnare with that robotic hand from Canada and join to the ISS.

On March 1 at 10:10 AM EST, a Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) Falcon 9 rocket is slated to blast off topped by the Dragon cargo vehicle on what will be only the 2nd commercial resupply mission ever to the ISS.

The flight, dubbed CRS-2, will lift off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida carrying about 1,200 pounds of vital supplies and science experiments for the six man international crew living aboard the million pound orbiting outpost.

SpaceX, Dragon spacecraft stands inside a processing hangar at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Teams had just installed the spacecraft's solar array fairings. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett
SpaceX Dragon spacecraft stands inside processing hangar at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Teams had just installed the spacecraft’s solar array fairings. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

The ISS would plummet from the sky like a flaming, exploding meteor and disintegrate without periodic and critical cargo and fueling resupply flights from the ISS partner nations.

There will be some heightened anticipation for the March 1 SpaceX launch following the premature shutdown of a 1st stage Merlin engine during the last Falcon 9 launch in 2012.

The solar powered Dragon capsule will rendezvous with the ISS a day later on March 2, when NASA astronauts Kevin Ford and Tom Marshburn will reach out with the Canadian built robotic marvel, grab the Dragon by the proverbial “tail” and attach it to the Earth-facing port of the station’s Harmony module.

The Dragon will remain docked to the ISS for about three weeks while the crew unloads all manner of supplies including food, water, clothing, spare parts and gear and new science experiments.

Then the astronauts will replace all that cargo load with numerous critical experiment samples they have stored during ongoing research activities, as well as no longer needed equipment and trash totaling about 2300 pounds, for the return trip to Earth and a Pacific Ocean splashdown set for March 25 – as things stand now.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket before May 2012 blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on historic maiden private commercial launch to the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket before May 2012 blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on historic maiden private commercial launch to the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com

SpaceX is under contract to NASA to deliver about 44,000 pounds of cargo to the ISS during a dozen flights over the next few years at a cost of about $1.6 Billion.

SpaceX comprises one half of NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services program to replace the cargo up mass capability the US lost following the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle orbiters in 2011.

SpaceX also won a NASA contract to develop a manned version of the Dragon capsule and aims for the first crewed test flight in about 2 to 3 years – sometime during 2015 depending on the funding available from NASA.

The US is now totally dependent on the Russians to loft American astronauts to the ISS on their Soyuz capsules for at least the next 3 to 5 years directly as a result of the shuttle shutdown.

Along with SpaceX, Orbital Sciences Corp also won a $1.9 Billion cargo resupply contract from NASA to deliver some 44,000 pounds of cargo to the ISS using the firm’s new Antares rocket and Cygnus capsule – launching 8 times from a newly constructed pad at NASA’s Wallops Island Facility in Virginia.

The maiden launch of Orbital’s Antares/Cygnus system has repeatedly been delayed – like SpaceX before them.

NASA hopes the first Antares/Cygnus demonstration test flight will now occur in March or April. However, the Antares 1st stage hot fire test scheduled for earlier this week on Feb. 13 had to be aborted at the last second due to a technical glitch caused by a low nitrogen purge pressurization.

For the SpaceX launch, NASA has invited 50 lucky social media users to apply for credentials for the March 1 launch

Watch for my upcoming SpaceX launch reports from the Kennedy Space Center and SpaceX launch facilities.

Ken Kremer

Workers lift a solar array fairing prior to installation on the company's Dragon spacecraft. The spacecraft will launch on the upcoming SpaceX CRS-2 mission. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett
SpaceX technicians lift a solar array fairing prior to installation on the company’s Dragon spacecraft. The spacecraft will launch on the upcoming SpaceX CRS-2 mission. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett