The Biggest Airplane Taxis Down the Runway, By 2020 it Could Be Launching Rockets

In 2011, Stratolaunch Systems was founded with a simple goal: to reduce the costs of rocket launches by creating the world’s largest air-launch-to-orbit system. Similar to Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, this concept involves a large air carrier – Scaled Composites Model 351 (aka. the “Roc”) – deploying rockets from high altitudes so they can deliver small payloads to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO).

Recently, the aircraft reached a major milestone when it conducted its second taxi test at the Mojave Air and Space Port. The test consisted of the aircraft rolling down the runway at a speed of 74 km/h (46 mph) in preparation for its maiden flight. The event was captured on video and posted to twitter by Stratolaunch Systems (and Microsoft) co-founder Paul Allen, who was on hand for the event.

The Roc is essentially two 747 hulls mated together, making it the largest aircraft in the world – spanning 117 meters (385 ft) from one wingtip to the other and weighing 226,796 kg (500,000 lbs). It is powered by six Pratt & Whitney turbofan engines, giving it a maximum lift capacity of up to 249,476 kg (550,000 pounds). This would allow it to air-launch rockets that could deploy satellites to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO).

As with other alternatives to rocket launches, the concept of an air-launch-to-orbit system is a time-honored one. During the early days of the Space Race, NASA relied on heavy aircraft to bring experimental aircraft to high altitudes (like the Bell X-1) where they would then be deployed. Since that time, NASA has partnered with companies like Orbital ATK and the Virgin Group to develop such a system to launch rockets.

However, the process is still somewhat limited when it comes to what kinds of payloads can be deployed. For instance, Orbital ATK’s three-stage Pegasus rocket is capable of deploying only small satellites weighing up to 454 kg (1,000 pounds) to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). Looking to accommodating heavier payloads, which could include space planes, StratoLaunch has created the heaviest commercial airlift craft in history.

Back on May 31st, 2017, the aircraft was presented to the world for the first time as it was rolled out of the company’s hangar facility at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. This presentation also marked the beginning of several tests, which including fueling tests, engine runs, and a series of taxi tests. The engine testing took place in September, 19th, 2017, and involved the aircraft starting it’s six Pratt & Whitney turbofan engines.

The testing followed a build-up approach that consisted of three phases. First, there was the “dry motor” phase, where an auxiliary power unit charged the engines. This was followed by the “wet motor” phase, where fuel was introduced to the engines. In the final phase, the engines were started one at a time and were allowed to idle.

This test was followed in December 18th, 2017, with the aircraft conducting its first low-speed taxi test, where it traveled down the runway under its own power. The primary purpose of this was to test the aircraft’s ability to steer and stop, and saw the aircraft reach a maximum taxing speed of 45 km/h (28 mph). This latest test almost doubled that taxing speed and brought the aircraft one step closer to flight.

The aircraft’s maiden flight is currently scheduled to take place in 2019. If successful, the Roc could be conducted regular satellite runs within a few years time, helping to fuel the commercialization of LEO. Alongside companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and the Virgin Group, StratoLaunch will be yet another company that is making space more accessible.

Further Reading: The Verge

Monster Stratolaunch Aircraft Rolled Out, Getting Closer to First Flights

In 2011, Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen and Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan announced the launch of their private space venture. Known as Stratolaunch Systems, this Seattle-based company was founded with the intention of developing air-launch-to-orbit systems. Similar to Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, this concept involves a large air carrier flying rockets to launch altitude as cost-effective means of delivering small payloads to orbit.

On Thursday, May 31st, the company unveiled their launch vehicle, the Scaled Composites Model 351 (aka. the “Roc”). Consisting of two 747 hulls mated together, this aircraft is the the largest in the world – spanning 117 meters (385 ft) from one wingtip to the other and weighing 226,796 kg (500,000 lbs). This plane will make its first test flight in a few days time, and the company hopes to make its first commercial launch by 2019.

The rollout of the Roc – which took place at the company’s hangar facility at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California – was a media circus. In addition to being the first time that the public got to see the aircraft since construction began, the occasion marked the beginning of several tests which will take place over the coming days – including fueling tests, engine runs, taxi tests, and its first test flight.

Aerial view of the Roc aircraft, showing its massive 117 m (385 ft) wingspan. Credit: Stratolaunch Systems

As Stratolaunch CEO Jean Floyd said in a press statement:

“We’re excited to announce that Stratolaunch aircraft has reached a major milestone in its journey toward providing convenient, reliable, and routine access to low Earth orbit. Today, we’re moving the Stratolaunch aircraft out of the hangar – for the first time ever – to conduct aircraft fueling tests. This marks the completion of the initial aircraft construction phase and the beginning of the aircraft ground and flight testing phase.”

Measuring about 72.5 meters (238 ft) from nose to tail, the aircraft also stands 15.24 meters (50 ft) tall, measured from the ground to the top of the vertical tail. It has a maximum takeoff weight of 589,670 kg (1.3 million lbs), meaning that it is capable of airlifting payloads of up to 249,476 kg (550,000 lbs). These kinds of payloads mean that it will be capable of flying rockets and heavy space planes to launch altitude.

Last fall, the company announced their plan to conduct a launch using a single Orbital ATK Pegasus XL vehicle, a three-stage rocket used to deploy small satellites to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). This agreement was part of a multi-year collaboration between the two companies, which would see the former combining their aircraft with the latter’s extensive air-launch experience.

Artist’s impression of the Roc aircraft, with a full loadout of three Pegasus rockets. Credit: Stratolaunch Systems

First unveiled in 1990, the Pegasus XL quickly established itself as a cost-effective means for launching small payloads to LEO. These typically would consist of small satellites weighing up to 443 kg (977 lbs) from beneath a NASA B-52 aircraft. Since then, the Pegasus has carried out 43 space launch missions and successfully placed a total of 94 satellites into orbit for various reasons – ranging from scientific research and communications to defense.

In time, the company plans to explore a wide range of launch vehicles that can provide flexibility in terms of missions and payloads. But in the meantime, they will be conducting ground and flight line testing from the Mojave Air and Space Port to ensure that Roc is capable of doing all it was designed for. If all goes well, they plan to make their first commercial launch by 2019.

“This marks a historic step in our work to achieve Paul G. Allen’s vision of normalizing access to low Earth orbit,” said Floyd. “It is proud day for us at Stratolaunch, for our partners at Scaled Composites, and for our founder Paul Allen. We have a lot of exciting activity ahead as we enter the testing process, and we look forward to sharing our progress during the coming months.”

One of the hallmarks of the commercial aerospace (aka. NewSpace) industry has been the development of cost-saving measures. Whereas companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin has looked to reusable rocket technology, other companies have sought to reduce costs with Single-Stage-to-Orbit (SSTO) rockets and plug-in payloads. Air-launch-to-orbit systems are just another way in which space is becoming more accessible.

And be sure to check out this video of the Roc’s unveiling:

Further Reading: Stratolaunch News

NASA’s Experimental Hurricane Monitoring Fleet Launched by Pegasus rocket

Launch of the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket carrying NASA’s CYGNSS spacecraft at 8:37 a.m. EST on Dec. 15, 2016.  Credit: NASA TV/Ken Kremer
Launch of the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket carrying NASA’s CYGNSS spacecraft at 8:37 a.m. EST on Dec. 15, 2016. Credit: NASA TV/Ken Kremer

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – NASA’s constellation of experimental hurricane monitoring CYGNSS microsatellites was successfully air launched by the unique Orbital ATK winged Pegasus rocket on Thursday, Dec 15 – opening a new era in weather forecasters ability to measure the buildup of hurricane intensity in the tropics from orbit that will eventually help save lives and property from impending destructive storms here on Earth.

The agency’s innovative Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) earth science mission was launched at 8:37 a.m. EST, Dec. 15, aboard a commercially developed Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket from a designated point over the Atlantic Ocean off the east coast of Florida.

Officials just announced this morning Dec. 16 that the entire fleet is operating well.

“NASA confirmed Friday morning that all eight spacecraft of its latest Earth science mission are in good shape.”

“The launch of CYGNSS is a first for NASA and for the scientific community,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

“As the first orbital mission in our Earth Venture program, CYGNSS will make unprecedented measurements in the most violent, dynamic, and important portions of tropical storms and hurricanes.”

An Orbital ATK L-1011 “Stargazer” aircraft carrying a Pegasus XL rocket with NASA’s CYGNSS spacecraft takes off from the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Dec. 15, 2016 and successfully launches the spacecraft. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
An Orbital ATK L-1011 “Stargazer” aircraft carrying a Pegasus XL rocket with NASA’s CYGNSS spacecraft takes off from the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Dec. 15, 2016 and successfully launches the spacecraft. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Late Thursday, NASA announced that contact had been made with the entire fleet of eight small satellites after they had been successfully deployed and safely delivered to their intended position in low Earth orbit.

“We have successfully contacted each of the 8 observatories on our first attempt,” announced Chris Ruf, CYGNSS principal investigator with the Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering at the University of Michigan.

“This bodes very well for their health and “status, which is the next thing we will be carefully checking with the next contacts in the coming days.”

The three stage Pegasus XL rocket housing the CYGNSS earth science payload inside the payload fairing had been carried aloft to 39,000 feet by an Orbital ATK L-1011 Tristar and dropped from the aircrafts belly for an air launch over the Atlantic Ocean and about 110 nautical miles east-northeast of Daytona Beach.

The Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket with NASA’s CYGNSS hurricane observing microsatellites  is attached to the belly of the Stargazer L-1011 as technicians work at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.  It launched the payload to orbit on Dec. 15, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket with NASA’s CYGNSS hurricane observing microsatellites is attached to the belly of the Stargazer L-1011 as technicians work at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It launched the payload to orbit on Dec. 15, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The L-1011 nicknamed Stargazer took off at about 7:30 a.m. EST from NASA’s Skid Strip on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida as the media including myself watched the events unfold under near perfect Sunshine State weather with brilliantly clear blue skies.

After flying to the dropbox point – measuring about 40-miles by 10-miles (64-kilometers by 16-kilometers) – the Pegasus rocket was dropped from the belly, on command by the pilot, for a short freefall of about 5 seconds to initiate the launch sequence and engine ignition.

Pegasus launches horizontally in midair with ignition of the first stage engine burn, and then tilts up to space to begin the approximate ten minute trek to LEO.

The rocket launch and satellite release when exactly as planned with no hiccups.

It’s a beautiful day, with gorgeous weather,” said NASA CYGNSS launch director Tim Dunn. “We had a nominal flyout, and all three stages performed beautifully. We had no issues at all with launch vehicle performance.”

Deployment of the first pair of CYGNSS satellites in the eight satellite fleet started just 13 minutes after launch. The other six followed sequentially staged some 30 seconds apart.

“It’s a great event when you have a successful spacecraft separation – and with eight microsatellites, you get to multiply that times eight,” Dunn added.

“The deployments looked great — right on time,” said John Scherrer, CYGNSS Project Manager at the Southwest Research Institute and today’s CYGNSS mission manager, soon after launch.

“We think everything looks really, really good. About three hours after launch we’ll attempt first contact, and after that, we’ll go through a series of four contacts where we hit two [observatories] each time, checking the health and status of each spacecraft,” Scherrer added several prior to contact..

CYGNSS small satellite constellation launch came after a few days postponement due to technical issues following an aborted attempt on Monday, when the release mechanism failed and satellite parameter issues cropped up on Tuesday, both of which were rectified.

NASA’s innovative Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) mission is expected to revolutionize hurricane forecasting by measuring the intensity buildup for the first time.

“The CYGNSS constellation consists of eight microsatellite observatories that will measure surface winds in and near a hurricane’s inner core, including regions beneath the eyewall and intense inner rainbands that previously could not be measured from space,” according to a NASA factsheet.

CYGNSS is an experimental mission to demonstrate proof-of-concept that could eventually turn operational in a future follow-up mission if the resulting data returns turn out as well as the researchers hope.

The CYGNSS constellation of 8 identical satellites works in coordination with the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite constellation.

The eight satellite CYGNSS fleet “will team up with the Global Positioning System (GPS) constellation to measure wind speeds over Earth’s oceans and air-sea interactions, information expected to help scientists better understand tropical cyclones, ultimately leading to improved hurricane intensity forecasts.”

They will receive direct and reflected signals from GPS satellites.

“The direct signals pinpoint CYGNSS observatory positions, while the reflected signals respond to ocean surface roughness, from which wind speed is retrieved.”

This schematic outlines the key launch events:

Schematic of Orbital ATK L-1011 aircraft and Pegasus XL rocket air drop launch of NASA’s CYGNSS microsatellite fleet.  Credit: Orbital ATK
Schematic of Orbital ATK L-1011 aircraft and Pegasus XL rocket air drop launch of NASA’s CYGNSS microsatellite fleet. Credit: Orbital ATK

The $157 million fleet of eight identical spacecraft comprising the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) system were all delivered to low Earth orbit by the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket.

The nominal mission lifetime for CYGNSS is two years but the team says they could potentially last as long as five years or more if the spacecraft continue functioning.

Artist's concept of the deployment of the eight Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) microsatellite observatories in space.  Credits: NASA
Artist’s concept of the deployment of the eight Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) microsatellite observatories in space. Credits: NASA

Pegasus launches from the Florida Space Coast are infrequent. The last once took place over 13 years ago in late April 2003 for the GALEX mission.

Typically they take place from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California or the Reagan Test Range on the Kwajalein Atoll.

An Orbital ATK L-1011 “Stargazer” aircraft carrying a Pegasus XL rocket with NASA’s CYGNSS spacecraft takes off from the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Dec. 12, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
An Orbital ATK L-1011 “Stargazer” aircraft carrying a Pegasus XL rocket with NASA’s CYGNSS spacecraft takes off from the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Dec. 12, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CYGNSS counts as the 20th Pegasus mission for NASA and the 43rd mission overall for Orbital ATK.

The CYGNSS spacecraft were built by Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

The solar panels and spacecraft dispenser were built by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC).

Each one weighs approx 29 kg. The deployed solar panels measure 1.65 meters in length.

The solar panels measure 5 feet in length and will be deployed within about 15 minutes of launch.

“We are thrilled to be a part of a project that helps gain better hurricane data that can eventually help keep a lot of people safe, but from a business side, we are also glad we could help SwRI achieve their mission requirements with better performance and lower cost and risk,” said Bryan Helgesen, director of strategy and business development for Space Technologies in SNC’s Space Systems business area, in a statement.

Rear view into the first stage engine of Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket that will launch NASA's CYGNSS experimental hurricane observation payload on Dec. 14, 2016. They are mated to the bottom of the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Rear view into the first stage engine of Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket that will launch NASA’s CYGNSS experimental hurricane observation payload on Dec. 14, 2016. They are mated to the bottom of the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Space Physics Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan College of Engineering in Ann Arbor leads overall mission execution in partnership with the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

The Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering Department at the University of Michigan leads the science investigation, and the Earth Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate oversees the mission.

The Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Attached beneath the Stargazer is the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL with NASA's CYGNSS payload on board, being processed for launch on Dec. 12, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Attached beneath the Stargazer is the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL with NASA’s CYGNSS payload on board, being processed for launch on Dec. 12, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

An Orbital ATK technician checks the installation of two of the eight the CYGNSS microsatellites on their deployment module at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.  Credits: Photo credit: USAF
An Orbital ATK technician checks the installation of two of the eight the CYGNSS microsatellites on their deployment module at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Credits: Photo credit: USAF

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Hydraulic Pump Glitch Aborts NASA’s Hurricane MicroSat Fleet Launch to Dec. 15 – Live Coverage

An Orbital ATK L-1011 “Stargazer” aircraft carrying a Pegasus XL rocket with NASA’s CYGNSS spacecraft takes off from the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Dec. 12. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
An Orbital ATK L-1011 “Stargazer” aircraft carrying a Pegasus XL rocket with NASA’s CYGNSS spacecraft takes off from the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Dec. 12, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Monday’s (Dec. 12) planned launch of NASA’s innovative Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) hurricane microsatellite fleet was aborted when a pump in the hydraulic system that releases the Pegasus air-launch booster from its L-1011 carrier aircraft failed in flight. UPDATE: launch delayed to Dec 15, story revised

NASA and Orbital ATK confirmed this afternoon that the launch of the Orbital ATK commercial Pegasus-XL rocket carrying the CYGNSS small satellite constellation has been rescheduled again to Thursday, Dec. 15 at 8:26 a.m. EST from a drop point over the Atlantic Ocean.

Late last night the launch was postponed another day from Dec. 14 to Dec. 15 to solve a flight parameter issue on the CYGNSS spacecraft. New software was uploaded to the spacecraft that corrected the issue, NASA officials said.

“NASA’s launch of CYGNSS spacecraft is targeted for Thursday, Dec. 15,” NASA announced.

“We are go for launch of our #Pegasus rocket carrying #CYGNSS tomorrow, December 15 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station,” Orbital ATK announced.

An Orbital ATK L-1011 “Stargazer” aircraft carrying a Pegasus XL rocket with NASA’s CYGNSS spacecraft takes off from the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Dec. 12. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
An Orbital ATK L-1011 “Stargazer” aircraft carrying a Pegasus XL rocket with NASA’s CYGNSS spacecraft takes off from the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Dec. 12. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“The CYGNSS constellation consists of eight microsatellite observatories that will measure surface winds in and near a hurricane’s inner core, including regions beneath the eyewall and intense inner rainbands that previously could not be measured from space,” according to a NASA factsheet.

Despite valiant efforts by the flight crew to restore the hydraulic pump release system to operation as the L-1011 flew aloft near the Pegasus drop zone, they were unsuccessful before the launch window ended and the mission had to be scrubbed for the day by NASA Launch Director Tim Dunn.

The Pegasus/CYGNSS vehicle is attached to the bottom of the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer carrier aircraft.

Orbital ATK L-1011 “Stargazer” aircraft carrying a Pegasus XL rocket with NASA’s CYGNSS spacecraft takes off from the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Dec. 12, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orbital ATK L-1011 “Stargazer” aircraft carrying a Pegasus XL rocket with NASA’s CYGNSS spacecraft takes off from the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Dec. 12, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The hydraulic release system passed its pre-flight checks before takeoff of the Stargazer.

“Launch of the Pegasus rocket was aborted due to an issue with the launch vehicle release on the L-1011 Stargazer. The hydraulic release system operates the mechanism that releases the Pegasus rocket from the carrier aircraft. The hydraulic system functioned properly during the pre-flight checks of the airplane,” said NASA.

A replacement hydraulic pump system component was flown in from Mojave, California, and successfully installed and checked out. Required crew rest requirements were also met.

Technician works on Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket with NASA's CYGNSS payload on board on Dec. 10, 2016 in this rear side view showing the first stage engine. They are mated to the bottom of the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.  Launch is slated for Dec. 12, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Technician works on Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket with NASA’s CYGNSS payload on board on Dec. 10, 2016 in this rear side view showing the first stage engine. They are mated to the bottom of the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Launch is slated for Dec. 12, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The one-hour launch window opens at 8:20 a.m and the actual deployment of the rocket from the L-1011 Tristar is timed to occur 5 minutes into the window at 8:26 a.m.

NASA’s Pegasus/CYGNUS launch coverage and commentary will be carried live on NASA TV – beginning at 7 a.m. EDT

You can watch the launch live on NASA TV at – http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

Live countdown coverage on NASA’s Launch Blog begins at 6:30 a.m. Dec. 15.

Coverage will include live updates as countdown milestones occur, as well as video clips highlighting launch preparations and the flight.

A prelaunch program by NASA EDGE will begin at 6 a.m.

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center is also providing live coverage on social media at:

http://www.twitter.com/NASAKennedy

https://www.facebook.com/NASAKennedy

Orbital ATK is also providing launch and mission update at:
twitter.com/OrbitalATK

The weather forecast from the Air Force’s 45th Weather Squadron at Cape Canaveral has significantly increased to predicting a 90% chance of favorable conditions on Thursday, Dec. 15.

The primary weather concerns are for flight cumulus clouds.

The Pegasus rocket cannot fly through rain or clouds due to a negative impact and possible damage on the rocket’s thermal protection system (TPS).

In the event of a delay, the range is also reserved for Friday, Dec. 16 where the daily outlook remains at a 90% chance of favorable weather conditions.

Rear view into the first stage engine of Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket that will launch NASA's CYGNSS experimental hurricane observation payload on Dec. 14, 2016. They are mated to the bottom of the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Rear view into the first stage engine of Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket that will launch NASA’s CYGNSS experimental hurricane observation payload on Dec. 14, 2016. They are mated to the bottom of the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

After Stargazer takes off from the Skid Strip early Thursday around 6:30 a.m. EST, it will fly north to a designated drop point box about 126 miles east of Daytona Beach, Florida over the Atlantic Ocean. The crew can search for a favorable launch point if needed, just as they did Monday morning.

The drop box point measures about 40-miles by 10-miles (64-kilometers by 16-kilometers). The flight crew flew through the drop box twice on Monday, about a half an hour apart, as they tried to repair the hydraulic system by repeatedly cycling it on and off and sending commands.

“It was not meeting the prescribed launch release pressures, indicating a problem with the hydraulic pump,” said NASA CYGNSS launch director Tim Dunn.

“Fortunately, we had a little bit of launch window to work with, so we did a lot of valiant troubleshooting in the air. As you can imagine, everyone wanted to preserve every opportunity to have another launch attempt today, so we did circle around the race once, resetting breakers on-board the aircraft, doing what we could in flight to try to get that system back into function again.”

The rocket will be dropped for a short freefall of about 5 seconds to initiate the launch sewuence. It launches horizontally in midair with ignition of the first stage engine burn, and then tilts up to space to begin the trek to LEO.

Here’s a schematic of key launch events:

Schematic of Orbital ATK L-1011 aircraft and Pegasus XL rocket air drop launch of NASA’s CYGNSS microsatellite fleet.  Credit: Orbital ATK
Schematic of Orbital ATK L-1011 aircraft and Pegasus XL rocket air drop launch of NASA’s CYGNSS microsatellite fleet. Credit: Orbital ATK

The $157 million fleet of eight identical spacecraft comprising the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) system will be delivered to low Earth orbit by the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket.

The nominal mission lifetime for CYGNSS is two years but the team says they could potentially last as long as five years or more if the spacecraft continue functioning.

Artist's concept of the deployment of the eight Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) microsatellite observatories in space.  Credits: NASA
Artist’s concept of the deployment of the eight Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) microsatellite observatories in space. Credits: NASA

Pegasus launches from the Florida Space Coast are infrequent. The last once took place over 13 years ago in April 2003 for the GALEX mission.

Typically they take place from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California or the Reagan Test Range on the Kwajalein Atoll.

CYGNSS counts as the 20th Pegasus mission for NASA.

The CYGNSS spacecraft were built by Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. Each one weighs approx 29 kg. The deployed solar panels measure 1.65 meters in length.

The solar panels measure 5 feet in length and will be deployed within about 15 minutes of launch.

The Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Attached beneath the Stargazer is the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL with NASA's CYGNSS payload on board, being processed for launch on Dec. 12, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Attached beneath the Stargazer is the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL with NASA’s CYGNSS payload on board, being processed for launch on Dec. 12, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Space Physics Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan College of Engineering in Ann Arbor leads overall mission execution in partnership with the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

The Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering Department at the University of Michigan leads the science investigation, and the Earth Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate oversees the mission.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

CYGNSS Constellation of Hurricane Monitoring MicroSats Set for Dec. 12 Launch – Watch Live

Artist's concept of the deployment of the eight Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) microsatellite observatories in space.  Credits: NASA
Artist’s concept of the deployment of the eight Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) microsatellite observatories in space. Credits: NASA

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – An exciting new chapter in hurricane monitoring and forecasting intensity prediction is due to open Monday morning at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center when a new constellation of microsatellites dubbed CYGNSS are slated to be deployed from an air-launched Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket.

The fleet of eight identical spacecraft comprising the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) system will be delivered to Earth orbit by an Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket.

The Pegasus/CYGNSS vehicle is attached to the bottom of the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer carrier aircraft.

“The CYGNSS constellation consists of eight microsatellite observatories that will measure surface winds in and near a hurricane’s inner core, including regions beneath the eyewall and intense inner rainbands that previously could not be measured from space,” according to a NASA factsheet.

The data obtained by studying the inner core of tropical cyclones “will help scientists and meteorologists better understand and predict the path of a hurricane.”

Improved hurricane forecasts can help protect lives and mitigate property damage in coastal areas under threat from hurricanes and cyclones.

The Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Attached beneath the Stargazer is the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL with NASA's CYGNSS payload on board, being processed for launch on Dec. 12, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Attached beneath the Stargazer is the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL with NASA’s CYGNSS payload on board, being processed for launch on Dec. 12, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CYGNSS is an experimental mission to demonstrate proof-of-concept that could eventually turn operational in a future follow-up mission if the resulting data returns turn out as well as the researchers hope.

The Pegasus XL rocket with the eight observatories are tucked inside the nose cone will be air-launched by dropping them from the belly of Orbital’s modified L-1011 carrier aircraft, nicknamed Stargazer, after taking off from the “Skid Strip” runway at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

If all goes well, the rocket will be dropped from Stargazer’s belly for the launch currently planned for Monday, Dec. 12 at 8:24 a.m. EST.

Five seconds after the rocket is deployed at 39,000 feet, the solid fueled Pegasus XL first stage engine with ignite for the trip to low earth orbit.

They will be deployed from a dispenser at an altitude of about 510 km and an inclination of 35 degrees above the equator.

Technician works on Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket with NASA's CYGNSS payload on board on Dec. 10, 2016 in this rear side view showing the first stage engine. They are mated to the bottom of the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.  Launch is slated for Dec. 12, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Technician works on Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket with NASA’s CYGNSS payload on board on Dec. 10, 2016 in this rear side view showing the first stage engine. They are mated to the bottom of the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Launch is slated for Dec. 12, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The launch window lasts 1 hour with the actual deployment timed to occur 5 minutes into the window.

NASA’s Pegasus/CYGNUS launch coverage and commentary will be carried live on NASA TV – beginning at 6:45 a.m. EDT

You can watch the launch live on NASA TV at – http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

Live countdown coverage on NASA’s Launch Blog begins at 6:30 a.m. Dec. 12.

The weather forecast from the Air Force’s 45th Weather Squadron at Cape Canaveral is currently predicting a 40% chance of favorable conditions on Monday Dec 12.

The primary weather concerns are for flight through precipitation and cumulus clouds.

The Pegasus rocket cannot fly through rain or clouds due to a negative impact on the thermal protection system.

In the event of a delay, the range is also reserved for Tuesday, Dec. 13 where the daily outlook increases significantly to an 80% chance of favorable weather conditions.

After Stargazer takes off from the Skid Strip early Monday morning around 6:30 a.m. EST, it will fly north to a designated point about 126 miles east of Daytona Beach, Florida over the Atlantic Ocean. The crew can search for a favorable launch point if needed.

The rocket will be dropped for a short freefall of about 5 seconds. It launches horizontally in midair with ignition of the first stage engine burn, and then tilts up to space to begin the trek to LEO.

The $157 million CYGNSS constellation works in coordination with the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite constellation.

The eight satellite CYGNSS fleet “will team up with the Global Positioning System (GPS) constellation to measure wind speeds over Earth’s oceans and air-sea interactions, information expected to help scientists better understand tropical cyclones, ultimately leading to improved hurricane intensity forecasts.”

They will receive direct and reflected signals from GPS satellites.

“The direct signals pinpoint CYGNSS observatory positions, while the reflected signals respond to ocean surface roughness, from which wind speed is retrieved.”

“Forecasting capabilities are going to be greatly increased,” NASA Launch Manager Tim Dunn said at the prelaunch media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center on Dec. 10. “As a Floridian, I will really appreciate that, certainly based on what we had to do this fall with Hurricane Matthew.”

Indeed the CYGNSS launch was delayed by Hurricane Matthew, just like the NASA/NOAA GOES-R launch was also delayed from early to mid-November by the deadly Cat 4 storm.

The nominal mission lifetime for CYGNSS is two years but the team says they could potentially last as long as five years or more if the spacecraft continue functioning.

Pegasus launches from the Florida Space Coast are infrequent. The last once took place over 13 years ago.

Typically they take place from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California or the Reagan Test Range on the Kwajalein Atoll.

CYGNSS counts as the 20th Pegasus mission for NASA.

Flight deck of the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft that will launch the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket carrying NASA's CYGNSS payload to low Earth orbit.  Credit: Julian Leek
Flight deck of the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft that will launch the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket carrying NASA’s CYGNSS payload to low Earth orbit. Credit: Julian Leek

The CYGNSS spacecraft were built by Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. Each one weighs approx 29 kg. The deployed solar panels measure 1.65 meters in length.

The Space Physics Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan College of Engineering in Ann Arbor leads overall mission execution in partnership with the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

The Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering Department at the University of Michigan leads the science investigation, and the Earth Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate oversees the mission.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

An Orbital ATK technician checks the installation of two of the eight the CYGNSS microsatellites on their deployment module at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.  Credits: Photo credit: USAF
An Orbital ATK technician checks the installation of two of the eight the CYGNSS microsatellites on their deployment module at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Credits: Photo credit: USAF
Flight crew for the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida who will drop and deploy Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket delivering NASA’s CYGUS micro satellites to LEO. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Flight crew for the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida who will drop and deploy Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket delivering NASA’s CYGUS micro satellites to LEO. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com