SpaceX will launch NASA's PACE mission on a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral – Spaceflight Now

The Falcon 9 with NASA's PACE mission is ready for launch at pad 40. Image: SpaceX.

SpaceX is preparing to launch its second NASA mission of the year on Tuesday morning. A Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Earth observation spacecraft PACE (Plankton, aerosol, cloud, ocean ecosystem) is scheduled to launch on Tuesday morning.

After completing a launch readiness review Sunday afternoon, teams from NASA, SpaceX and Space Launch Delta 45 (SLD45) aim for liftoff at 1:33 a.m. EDT (0633 UTC) from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40). At Cape Canaveral Space Station. Power station.

This will be the eighth launch from Florida in 2024 and SpaceX's seventh from the Space Coast this year. Spaceflight Now will have live coverage of the mission starting at 11:30 PM EDT (0430 UTC).

The PACE launch will be the first time a U.S. government mission has targeted polar orbit from Cape Canaveral in more than 60 years. Polar flights were halted after a cow was killed in Cuba by falling debris from a botched launch in 1960, sparking protests in Havana.

“At that point, we decided as a government, let's move all polar launch missions to the West, and we have successfully launched into polar orbit hundreds of times since the 1960s from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California,” Tim Dunn said. , senior launch manager for NASA's Launch Services Program.

SpaceX resumed launches from the Cape on southern trajectories in 2020. The company successfully launched 11 missions to polar orbit from the Florida spaceport without incident.

“SpaceX came out a few years ago with an autonomous flight safety system and the ability to return a first-stage booster to land here at the Cape or land on a drone offshore,” Dunn said. “And with a combination of those two things, we were then able to do all the calculations to protect the public, here in the United States as well as our international neighbors in the Caribbean and especially in Cuba and get the numbers right where we can now do that successfully.”

The Falcon 9 first stage booster supporting this launch, tail number B1081, will make its fourth flight. It had previously launched the Crew-7 quartet to the International Space Station in addition to the Cargo Dragon and Starlink missions.

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Dunn said their consideration of re-flying aboard a booster rocket has less to do with the base number and more to do with the types of missions flown so far.

“We're not looking at the specific number of flights for the engine. We're looking at the qualification status of all the components that go into this booster,” Dunn explained. “We're evaluating and as long as we don't exceed [qualification] Condition, some components are replaced between flights, then we analyze some structures that are not replaced, and we are satisfied.

NASA's Europa Clipper will be the first time the agency has relied on the boosters, which have flown five previous missions. Falcon Heavy's side boosters recently supported the launch of NASA's Psyche spacecraft.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with NASA's PACE (Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, Ocean Ecosystem) spacecraft enveloped on top is rolled to the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on Monday, February 5, 2024. Image: SpaceX

After stage separation, the booster will flip over and return to land at Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1) at the Cape approximately 7.5 minutes after liftoff. This will be the third landing of the LZ-1 out of four flights.

This will be the 36th landing for LZ-1 and the 45th in Florida. Assuming SpaceX is unable to launch Starlink from VSFB on Monday night and the PACE mission is successful, this will be the company's 270th landing to date.

The total cost of the mission, between building the spacecraft, launch operations and supporting the mission once it reaches orbit, is $948 million, according to Dunn. For Falcon 9 launch services, NASA paid SpaceX about $81 million.

Dunn said they are using new payload covers on this flight, but are evaluating that possibility in the future.

“We're under evaluation with SpaceX right now, and I expect that to happen within the next year and a half or two,” Dunn said. “We'll see how things go with the gift.”

NASA's PACE (Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, Oceanic) spacecraft encased inside SpaceX's Falcon 9 payload bay is transported from the Astrotech Space Operations Facility near the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida to Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Station For the Space Force on Thursday, February 1, 2024, it will pair with a SpaceX Falcon 9 in preparation for liftoff scheduled no later than 1:33 a.m. EDT on Tuesday, February 6, 2024. Image: NASA/Ben Smegelsky

Weather concerns for the atmospheric monitoring mission

As launch teams head toward the overnight launch window, the weather remains a monitoring element. During a pre-launch news conference, Brian Cizyk, a launch weather officer with the US Space Force's 45th Weather Squadron, said the probability of a weather violation was 60 percent for the launch chance Tuesday morning.

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“We're going to see this type of wind coming up the Florida coast from north to south. That's also going to bring some additional moisture into the air,” Cizek said. “So, there are some concerns about the launch tonight because of that.”

Žižek said take-off winds would be “close to maximum” at launch time, with winds increasing “as the night progresses.” Those winds will decrease by Tuesday night, he said, which is partly why the launch forecast has improved to just a 40 percent chance of a weather violation Wednesday morning.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket stands against a cloudy background at Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Image: Adam Bernstein/Space Flight Now

He also said forecasters with SLD45 also have concerns about rainfall along the coast causing the cumulus cloud rule to be violated. Opposite clouds are also powering the base of thick cloud layers for this first launch opportunity as well.

“The thing for the backup day is that the main concern will be the take-off winds again. We said it kind of peaks during the morning and afternoon on Tuesday and then it starts to decrease again as we head into Tuesday evening,” Cicek said. “And then it continues.” “The weather is improving as we get through this.”

Expand understanding of the oceans and atmosphere

The PACE mission is designed to nominally last three years, but carries enough fuel to support a 10-year mission. NASA will reevaluate things about every three years to determine if it is able and willing to extend the mission.

The goal of the Earth observation spacecraft will be to increase our understanding of the interaction between the oceans and the atmosphere through the lens of some of the smaller parts of each: phytoplankton and aerosols.

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“These microalgae, which form the base of the marine food chain, serve our fisheries and serve the health of the oceans, but they can also be toxic, and we need to know that too,” said Karen Saint-Germain, head of the research team. Director of the Earth Sciences Division at NASA. “They are also responsible, through the process of photosynthesis, for absorbing a huge amount of carbon dioxide and converting it to oxygen in the atmosphere.”

“We also look at small things in the atmosphere. These are called aerosols. “They are small particles that play a huge role in our weather, our air quality and even our climate,” she added. “They come from sources such as dust blowing in from the Sahara, forest fires and even human activities. They seed clouds that can grow into hurricanes coming across the Atlantic, but they also reflect a lot of the sun's energy. Therefore, they play an important role in the long-term stability of Earth's climate.

The mission builds on 20 years of NASA's work monitoring the oceans and more than 60 years of NASA's comprehensive Earth observation, St. Germain said. She noted that understanding these systems and the interaction between them is not only important for enhancing scientific understanding, but also has a major role for the American economy.

“The ocean economy accounts for more than $350 billion of our GDP annually. It employs 3.1 million people in our country, but it can also face negative impacts from things like harmful algal blooms, which can cost $50 million annually,” said Saint-Germain. “Or more.” “So, the work we do with PACE and the work we do in geoscience is about making observations to help us understand the Earth system, capturing that understanding in predictive models and tools and putting that information into the hands of people who can use it to make better decisions.” every day.

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