Launch companies and U.S. Space Force range officials at Cape Canaveral are reassessing long-standing weather rules, looking at beefing up rocket defenses against lightning, and considering strategies to prepare for two different launch windows on a given day to guard against weather delays, something SpaceX may demonstrate with a Falcon 9 launch early Thursday.
The moves could open up more launch opportunities on the Eastern Range, which manages support infrastructure and oversees range safety at the Florida spaceport.
Brig. Gen. Stephen Purdy, commander of the 45th Space Wing, said Feb. 23 that launch providers requested 297 launch opportunities in the previous 12 months. Range officials approved 225 of those requests, and 55 of those launch opportunities went into countdown operations, resulting in 32 launches, Purdy said last week at the 47th Spaceport Summit.
Purdy said the Space Force wants to be able to approve all launch opportunity requests on the Eastern Range, providing companies with services more akin to an airport than the way government-run spaceports typically operate. That requires a chance in mentality and thinking, he said.
Officials are looking at all pieces of launch support infrastructure — from transportation to electricity, communications, security, and propellants and high-pressure gases — “to figure out how to break through any of the pieces that are limiting us in order to get to that launch-on-demand” goal, Purdy said.
One area for improvement is reducing the number of weather-related launch delays at Cape Canaveral, where lightning is a major risk for rockets climbing through the atmosphere.
SpaceX is the most active launch company on the Eastern Range, and many of its Falcon 9 launches have just a one-second launch window. Crew and cargo missions to the International Space Station and launches with Starlink internet satellites have instantaneous windows each day.
And once SpaceX begins filling the Falcon 9 rocket with kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants 35 minutes before launch time, the launch window often shrinks to one second even if there is a longer period available to meet payload requirements. That’s because the Falcon 9 uses super-chilled, condensed propellants, and holding the countdown would cause the liquids to get too warm.
If a launch window stretches several hours, there might be enough time for SpaceX to abort a countdown, recycle the clock, recondition propellant, and then load the Falcon 9 again for a second launch attempt the same day.
The tight one-second launch windows, coupled with SpaceX’s high launch tempo, mean the company’s Falcon 9 rockets are grounded by bad weather more often than other launch vehicles.
Hans Koenigsmann, a senior advisor and former vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX, said a fundamental goal is to “improve the vehicle’s susceptibility to lightning,” and then adapt the launch weather rules after verifying it is safe to launch with an increased risk of lightning.
He said the Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron, which tracks launch weather conditions at Cape Canaveral, is “absolutely amazing.”
“The level of detail that we get is remarkable, how good the forecast is,” Koenigsmann said. “There are launches where we work the entire time with the weather officer and try to find the right time.
“The big problem, in general, is that in many launches you have to launch in one particular second,” Koenigsmann said. “You do not have a a lot of flexibility there, and that might be not a good time. Five minutes later might be a great time, but that is not what you needed for that particular orbit.”
One option SpaceX appears to be trying out this week is developing two different flight plans for a single launch.
SpaceX’s next Falcon 9 mission is set for early Thursday from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, and the company aims to launch the rocket with 60 Starlink internet satellites at 3:24 a.m. EST (0824 GMT). But if a technical issue or bad weather gets in the way, the company has a backup time available at 5:42 a.m. EST (1042 GMT).
The plan would allow SpaceX to launch the Falcon 9 rocket without having to wait nearly 24 hours for the next launch window.
SpaceX would aim to launch the 60 Starlink satellites into one plane, or part, of the Starlink constellation if it takes the first launch opportunity Thursday. The second launch time Thursday would target a different plane in the Starlink network.
Koenigsmann said last week SpaceX could “have two different flight plans” available for a single launch, and managers could decide to take the option with better weather. That strategy is particularly useful for Starlink missions, since the fleet flies in 72 different orbital planes, affording numerous launch…