Back-to-back launches scheduled from Cape Canaveral this weekend

An Atlas 5 rocket, seen inside its Vertical Integration Facility at Cape Canaveral, is set for launch Saturday morning with the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B spaceplane. Credit: United Launch Alliance

Working under physical distancing requirements and other precautions against the coronavirus pandemic, range teams at Cape Canaveral are preparing for launches of Atlas 5 and Falcon 9 rockets from neighboring pads this weekend.

The back-to-back launches are scheduled for Saturday and Sunday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, hauling up the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B spaceplane and another batch of around 60 satellites for SpaceX’s Starlink Internet network.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket is first in line, with liftoff scheduled Saturday from Cape Canaveral’s Complex 41 launch pad. The Atlas 5 will carry into orbit the military’s reusable winged X-37B mini-space shuttle some time between 8:24 a.m. and 10:53 a.m. EDT (1224-1453 GMT), according to airspace warning notices associated with the launch.

Meanwhile, at pad 40 around a mile-and-half to the south of pad 41, SpaceX is gearing up to launch a Falcon 9 rocket at 3:53 a.m. EDT (0753 GMT) Sunday with 60 more Starlink spacecraft for the company’s satellite broadband network.

The Falcon 9 launch attempt Sunday will only go ahead if the Atlas 5 rocket takes off as scheduled Saturday, according to Brig. Gen. Doug Schiess, commander of the 45th Space Wing, which manages range operations at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

For now, the Atlas 5 has Sunday booked as a backup launch opportunity on the Eastern Range at Cape Canaveral.

“We do have a really busy couple of weeks coming up here,” Schiess said Tuesday. “We’re working ver diligently for Saturday’s (Atlas 5) launch … then if that goes on schedule on Saturday morning, about 20 hours later, early Sunday morning, we will support a SpaceX commercial launch for Starlink.”

The two launches this weekend will be followed by the liftoff of two NASA astronauts atop a Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center adjacent to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. That will be the first launch of astronauts from Florida’s Space Coast since the last flight of the space shuttle in July 2011.

“In our partnership and SpaceX … we are excited for the return of human spaceflight from the Eastern Range, Cape Canaveral, Kennedy Space Center and the Space Coast on May 27 for the SpaceX crew mission,” Schiess said.

In addition to the usual safety, weather forecasting and security support it provides for all missions from the Space Coast, the 45th Space Wing will host an emergency team that would be dispatched to rescue the astronauts in the event of a launch abort. In such a scenario, the rescue personnel would fly offshore on military helicopters and transport planes and parachute into the Atlantic Ocean to meet the astronauts.

“Our Detachment 3, which has been re-designated for this event as Task Force 45, is preparing to be able to rescue astronauts if for some reason there was a catastrophic event,” Schiess said. “We don’t think that will happen, and we hope that it never does, but we are preparing for the possibility and being prepared to do that.”

If the Atlas 5 and Falcon 9 launches go off as scheduled this weekend, they would occur 20 hours, 31 minutes apart. That would mark the shortest turnaround between two orbital launches from Cape Canaveral since September 1967 when Delta-G and Atlas-Centaur rockets took off within a 10-hour span from separate launch pads, according to a launch log maintained by Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who tracks global satellite and launch activity.

Last August, a Falcon 9 and an Atlas 5 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral in a period of less than 35 hours. That was the shortest span between two orbital missions at Cape Canaveral since May 1981.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket stands vertical Wednesday morning on pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: William Harwood/CBS News

Schiess said Tuesday that range teams at Cape Canaveral are working to reduce the time required between launches. In the last few decades, the range team needed up to 48 hours to reconfigure infrastructure between launches.

That was primarily driven by readying tracking radars, transmitters and other equipment to monitor the trajectory of rockets as they arced downrange, and to send a destruct command if the launcher flew off course.

The range now tracks rockets using the GPS satellite navigation network, and the Falcon 9 launches with an autonomous flight safety system, an on-board computer that would automatically terminate the flight in the event of a major problem.

Schiess said the range team for an Atlas 5 launch, which uses a ground-commanded flight termination system, numbers around 300 people, including range operations, security forces, the fire department and other support teams. That number is around 200 people for this weekend’s Falcon 9 launch, which uses an autonomous flight safety system and will fly with commercial satellites, rather than a military payload.

“The fact that one is a flight termination system (with a human in the loop), and one is an autonomous flight safety system is what really gets us to the ability to do (two launches) within 24 hours,” Schiess said.

Schiess said that the range recently assessed the possibility of launching two SpaceX missions within six hours from different launch pads. That appears feasible with two rockets that use autonomous flight safety systems, Schiess said.

Launch operations at Cape Canaveral have continued amid the coronavirus pandemic. In a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Schiess said 11 people connected with Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and nearby Patrick Air Force Base — where the 45th Space Wing is headquartered — have tested positive for the COVID-19 viral disease.

There have been no deaths attributed to the coronavirus among military personnel at Cape Canaveral, he said.

Range teams have introduced new physical distancing measures inside operations centers at Cape Canaveral, and workers are assigned to rotating shifts to minimize contact. When possible, teams are working remotely.

“We’re now all wearing face coverings any time that you enter into a building on Patrick Air Force Base or Cape Canaveral Air Force Station,” Schiess said. “Then within the operations center, if you cannot maintain 6 feet of physical separation, then you’re wearing masks.”

He said morale is high among the military team at Cape Canaveral.

“There are a lot of different things going on that impact people, but our own folks are really excited about this weekend with a couple of launches, and the whole team is very very excited about the return of human spaceflight to the Space Coast and the Eastern Range,” Schiess said.

NASA Administrator has urged people not to travel to Florida’s Space Coast to view the crewed launch May 27, and the Kennedy Space Center will not allow the public to access the closest viewing sites. Schiess said the 45th Space Wing is following a similar policy.

While Kennedy and Cape Canaveral are two different installations, they are joined, so we make sure we’re doing things together,” he said. “Right now, they’re in the status where they won’t have any public viewing, so we won’t have any public viewing or placard viewing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at this time for the May 27 (crew) launch.”

SpaceX test-fired a Falcon 9 rocket at pad 40 Wednesday in preparation for Sunday morning’s launch. The rocket’s nine Merlin engines fired up for several seconds while hold-down restraints kept the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) rocket on the ground.

The Falcon 9 will launch on the eighth dedicated flight since May 2019 for SpaceX’s Starlink broadband network. SpaceX has launched 420 Starlink spacecraft on seven previous missions, making the company the operator of the world’s largest fleet of commercial satellites.

SpaceX aims to launch around 1,000 more Starlink satellites later this year and next year to begin offering worldwide Internet service. Initial beta testing of the Starlink network could begin later this year, beginning in higher latitude regions like Canada and the northern United States.

The Falcon 9 launch this weekend is the final planned SpaceX mission before the Crew Dragon demonstration flight launching May 27.

ULA ground crews plan to transfer the Atlas 5 rocket to pad 41 Thursday morning from the Vertical Integration Facility, where the launcher was stacked over the last few weeks. ULA installed the X-37B spacecraft on top of the Atlas 5 inside the vertical hangar May 5.

There is a 40 percent chance of favorable conditions for launch of the Atlas 5 rocket Saturday, according to the official launch weather forecast.

The launch Saturday will be the sixth flight of the Air Force’s reusable X-37B spaceplane, which takes off on top of a conventional rocket and lands on a runway. Around one-quarter the length of NASA’s space shuttle, the Boeing-built X-37B will deploy a small experimental satellite developed by cadets at the Air Force Academy and perform other research investigations in orbit for NASA and the Naval Research Laboratory.

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