The final weekend of August 2020 is shaping up to be an exciting one in the world of rocket launching. United Launch Alliance (ULA) looks to kick off weekend activities early on Saturday morning with the launch of its Delta IV Heavy rocket carrying a classified satellite payload for the National Reconnaissance Office at 2:04 am EDT (0604 UTC) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 37. Following a successful ULA launch, the weekend’s activity will kick into high gear. Even SpaceX founder and CEO, Elon Musk, agrees that this weekend could be “intense” as stated in a post to his Twitter account Friday, August 28.
According to weather Launch Mission Execution Forecasts provided by the 45th Weather Squadron and confirmed via the company’s Twitter account, SpaceX aims to get two Falcon 9’s launched from the Florida coast just nine hours apart. The company also has a possible flight test of its Starship prototype vehicle on the books from Boca Chica, Texas this weekend. Rocket Lab looks to join in the launching activity with the return to flight mission of its Electron rocket following the wrap-up of its recent in-flight anomaly investigation.
SpaceX can only launch this weekend if ULA does too
As SpaceX and ULA both launch from what is referred to as the eastern range – the location of all launches originating from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station or Kennedy Space Center – only one launch provider can be supported at a time by the 45th Space Wing and 45th Weather Squadron which oversee eastern range operations.
As a part of the reservation process ahead of securing a launch date with the eastern range, each launch provider chooses a targeted launch date and secures a number of back-up launch opportunities should a delay occur.
In the case of ULA’s NROL-44 mission, a primary launch opportunity and two back-up opportunities – 24 hours and 48 hours after the initial launch attempt – have been identified. This means that should the Delta IV Heavy suffer another critical issue resulting in a delay during its Saturday, August 29 primary launch attempt, both of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch opportunities will be delayed as well.
ULA’s NROL-44 Delta IV Heavy carries a classified satellite payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, a national security division of the United States government. As such, the NROL-44 mission is a matter of national security and takes precedence over both SpaceX’s internal Starlink mission and SAOCOM-1B payload for customer Comisión Nacional de Actividades Espaciales, Argentina’s national space agency.
If the ULA NROL-44 mission is delayed through both back-up launch opportunities SpaceX, presumably, would have to wait until no earlier than Tuesday, September 1 to launch a Falcon 9.
Rocket Lab “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Optical”
While SpaceX will have to wait for ULA’s Delta IV Heavy to clear its pad before attempting either of the planned Falcon 9 launches, Rocket Lab will attempt the return to flight mission of its Electron rocket – the fourteenth flight overall – regardless (weather permitting).
The launch attempt initially scheduled for 11:04pm ET (0304 UTC) Friday, August 28 was rescheduled due to high winds and heavy cloud cover over Launch Complex-1A in Mahia, New Zealand. The next available launch attempt at 11:05 pm ET Sunday, August 30 (0305 UTC Monday, August 31) lines up for Electron to take off just four hours after SpaceX’s SAOCOM-1B mission.
Following an in-flight anomaly during Electron’s thirteenth mission in July, Rocket Lab was forced to stand down from active launching status to complete a full investigation into the incident. In about a month’s time, Rocket Lab was able to track down and remedy an overheating issue with a single electrical connection on Electron’s second stage.
After receiving clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration to resume operational launches, Rocket Lab has announced that Electron’s fourteenth flight -nicknamed “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Optical” – will be a dedicated mission for Capella Space, a California-based company that utilizes Earth observation data to provide information services.
According to a statement provided by Rocket Lab, the satellite payload called “Sequoia” is “a single 100 kg class microsatellite which will be the first publicly available satellite in the company’s commercial Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) constellation.”
A big goal of Rocket Lab’s is to join competitor SpaceX in a class of launchers that regularly recovers and reuses orbital-class boosters. Rocket Lab intends to catch an Electron first-stage booster in-flight once it has been dispensed by catching the falling booster’s parachute canopy with a grappling hook secured to a helicopter.
However, the company has stated that a full-scale demonstration of this effort is targeted for no earlier than the seventeenth mission of Electron currently slated to occur in Fall 2020.
If all proceeds as planned, this weekend could end up as a launchfest of rockets and spaceship prototypes. At the time of publishing, all is proceeding as expected for ULA’s Delta IV Heavy launch attempt and the weather looks good on Saturday, August 29.
ULA has confirmed that the previous issues that caused a launch attempt delay have all been cleared and weather outlook remains at an 80% chance of favorable launching conditions.
The launch attempt will be streamed live and is expected to begin at 1:43 am EDT (0543 UTC) on the company’s website or viewed below.