3 types of weather that can delay a SpaceX launch


The countdown hits zero, the roar of engines fills the air, and a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket soars into the sky on its journey to space, but this spectacle can only happen if everything goes perfectly, including the weather.

Thorough planning is required with every launch, but all the hard work of countless people can be derailed at the last second by Mother Nature, forcing a much-anticipated launch to be postponed.

Forecasting tasks are handled by Space Launch Delta 45, part of the United States Space Force, with meteorologists who meticulously examine all aspects of the weather to ensure that a launch can be carried out safely.

Mr. David Craft, the 45th Meteorological Squadron launch weather officer, led his team through severe weather conditions and lightning leading up to a rocket launch on August 26, 2017 (US Air Force / Phil Sunkel)

The weather criteria are slightly different for each rocket, but are all organized for the sake of safety. A few additional meteorological precautions are taken into account when a rocket launches a crewed spacecraft.

Here are the types of weather conditions that can delay the launch of a SpaceX rocket.

Florida is sometimes referred to as the lightning capital of the United States, and for good reason. Thunderstorms can occur at virtually any time of the year, posing a major problem when it comes to launching rockets into the atmosphere.

A rocket is like a lightning rod flying in the sky, and a lightning strike could be catastrophic. Even if it doesn’t trigger the rocket explosion, a bolt can damage computers or other crucial system on board.

Apollo 12, the second mission to the surface of the moon, nearly canceled the mission 36 seconds after takeoff when Saturn V rocket was struck by lightning. Fortunately, the quick thinking of mission control allowed the crew to bypass the problems caused by lightning, allowing for a successful trip to the moon.

The rocket launch rules are similar to the rules adopted by many outdoor sports venues, such as football stadiums or golf courses.

The rocket launch is not allowed if there has been a lightning strike within 10 nautical miles of the launch pad in the last 30 minutes, according to NASA. Additionally, a rocket will remain on the ground if an anvil cloud from a thunderstorm is in the area.

Each launch pad is equipped with lightning rods around the rocket so that if a thunderstorm passes directly overhead, the lightning is more likely to strike the lightning rods than the rocket.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket seconds after takeoff. The four towers of the launch pad are lightning rods to protect the rocket if a thunderstorm moves over the launch pad. (SpaceX-Imaging)

Even if no lightning was detected in the area, the risk of lightning could still cause a delay.

Instruments stationed all around Cape Canaveral measure the amount of electricity in the atmosphere, and if the readings are high enough, a rocket launch can trigger a thunderbolt.

“A launcher and its plume climbing through the clouds can trigger lightning to electric fields lower than those required for natural lightning, ”explained NASA. “This is because the vehicle and the plume act as conductors and decrease the strength of the electric field required to create a lightning bolt. “

It could be a sunny day at Cape Canaveral, but the weather could still stop a SpaceX launch long before the countdown hits zero.

If the winds are too fast, it can force a postponement of a launch. Strong winds can disrupt a rocket that traverses the atmosphere, both on the launch pad and miles above the ground.

At the launch pad, sustained winds cannot exceed 30 mph. Even if the winds are just below this limit at 29 mph, the launch can be delayed by being overcautious.

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At higher levels of the atmosphere, there is a phenomenon known as wind shear that forecasters need to watch out for.

Wind shear is the change of winds through different layers of the atmosphere, so if there is a big difference in wind speeds over a short distance, it can disrupt the trajectory of the rocket.

It is also one of the main factors of the development of tropical systems.

With SpaceX now launching humans into space, both for NASA or for a private crew of civilians, there are more weather conditions that need to be taken into account before the Falcon 9 rocket engines fail. light up.

The weather conditions on the launch pad can be perfect, but in the event that the crew must abort the launch before reaching space, the weather conditions should be clear.

Crewed launches take off from the east coast of Florida and travel east over the Atlantic Ocean, so more factors need to be considered beyond lightning and wind.

The height of the waves should be taken into account along the projected path of the rocket, so that if the crew abort, they splash in a calm ocean and not in a turbulent ocean near a storm or a sea. hurricane.

“Downstream weather is monitored at more than 50 locations along the ascent trail along the east coast of North America and across the North Atlantic, ”explained NASA.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon 2 spacecraft takes off at Kennedy Space Center pad 39A for an International Space Station resupply mission from Cape Canaveral, Fla. On Thursday, June 3, 2021 (AP Photo / John Raoux)

SpaceX also prefers calm downstream weather when the company attempts to land and retrieve the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket on a floating platform in the middle of the ocean.

The launch can be successful without a smooth landing, but being able to salvage, refurbish and reuse that part of the rocket helps the company save money and reduce its impact on the environment.

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