SpaceX’s second Starlink launch of the month is currently tracking towards a June 13th liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
In order for a rocket launch to get off the ground, however, a perfect mix of ingredients must come together. One of the most crucial ingredients is the weather. Behind the scenes, the U.S. Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron of the 45th Space Wing Operations Group – based out of Patrick Air Force Base – works diligently to monitor and predict weather conditions leading up to and at the time of liftoff. Every rocket launch that lifts off from Kennedy Space Center or Cape Canaveral Air Force Station utilizes the weather monitoring services provided by the 45th Weather Squadron and SpaceX – the most prolific US launch company is – no different.
For SpaceX’s upcoming Starlink V1 L8 Rideshare Program mission, the entire weather team on console is female, a first in program history. The team is made up of six women all responsible for specific roles that must coordinate and work cohesively to monitor the weather and determine when it is safe to launch the Falcon 9.
The diverse team is comprised of military personnel and civilian weather officers. It is overseen by Maj Emily Graves, Launch Weather Commander, and orchestrated by Capt. Nancy Zimmerman, Launch Weather Director. A Lead Launch Weather Officer, Arlena Moses, coordinates information between the launch customer, SpaceX, and the 45th while three other members constantly monitor and decipher mountains of weather data.
Airman 1st class Hannah Mulcahey serves as Duty Forecaster and Jessica Williams serves as Radar Launch Weather Officer. Williams is responsible for monitoring information produced by a series of systems every three minutes. She monitors radar data for the amount of precipitation, clouds that are present in the area, and the thickness of the clouds among other things. This information is used to determine whether or not the rocket’s flight path is safe for the duration of the mission. Thick clouds can be an indicator of an unstable atmosphere capable of producing electricity – either naturally as cloud produced lightning or lightning produced by a rocket thrusting through the unstable atmosphere called triggered lightning.
Should radar information be too ambiguous or overexaggerated, the Reconnaissance Launch Weather Officer, Melody Lovin, coordinates the mission with a reconnaissance aircraft known as Weather One. For SpaceX’s upcoming launch, Weather One will only be activated if there is going to be bad weather present for launch, a small possibility if the launch date slips. Other launch customers such as NASA or United Launch Alliance will sometimes have Weather One in the air on standby throughout the duration of the countdown to launch dependent on mission constraints.
When Launch Weather Director, Capt Nancy Zimmerman, was asked during a media teleconference about how this historical assignment came about, she stated that it was pure coincidence. “It was happenstance. The flight commander of space lift, my supervisor, actually created a team, as he always does, and was like ‘Huh, this is actually an all-female team. Have we ever done this?’ And looking back through the database, you know, it hasn’t been done and he was like ‘Well, should we do this?’ and I said ‘Yes, let’s do it.'” Zimmerman said .
A primary factor enabling an all-female led launch weather team is simply that the workforce of the 45th Weather Squadron is now comprised of more females than ever before. According to Lovin, “We simply have more women on the team. Before we only had one and that was from the year 2000 to 2018 and 2018 came around and a lot of resident launch weather officers left and they also decided to expand the unit.” She went on to state that the massive uptick in launches from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center was a driving factor of the weather unit expansion, “when they expanded the unit they hired three more women, so that means we have six women on the team.”
The personnel of the 45th Weather Squadron work day in and day out to monitor and forecast weather conditions ensuring safe air and space operation all year round. When it comes to rocket launches, watching the weather begins early and is done frequently. Weather patterns in central Florida can change rapidly causing a rocket launch attempt to be scrubbed completely, which is what occurred with SpaceX’s first attempt to launch NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station.
Understanding and tracking developing weather patterns of central Florida allows the 45th Weather Squadron to create launch mission execution forecasts that outline a possibility of violation (POV) of specific launch weather constraints ahead of a launch attempt and any planned backup attempts. These comprehensive forecasts cover everything from systems like frontal boundaries that influence area weather to the type of clouds expected at the time of launch. The forecasts are put together based on a series of ten Lightning Launch Commit Criteria rules and a series of user-defined constraint rules that are specific to each mission and launch vehicle such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 or United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V for example.
The ten lightning launch commit criteria rules have been in place since the 1980s when an Atlas-Centaur rocket was ultimately lost due to triggered lightning. The rocket launched into a highly unstable and electrified atmosphere full of thick clouds creating the conditions necessary to trigger a lightning strike of the vehicle. It lost its navigation system and began to dangerously veer from its course. It was then destroyed in-flight by launch teams.
Given the high degree of uncertainty of Florida weather, a well-versed team of highly trained weather professionals is a necessary piece of the puzzle that is rocket launching. For the first time, that team is made up of incredibly inspiring females that undoubtedly will make the correct GO/NO GO call on launch day.
For SpaceX’s first Starlink SmallSat Rideshare Program mission, targeted to launch no earlier than (NET) Saturday, June 13 at 5:21 a.m. EDT (09:21 UTC), the 45th Weather Squadron team predicts a 30% chance of violation – meaning that weather is 70% GO for launch. The primary concern is a bank of cumulus clouds expected to be in the area. You can view the full launch mission execution forecast on the 45th Weather Squadron’s website.
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