Should a rocket blast off on schedule early next Monday [SEE UPDATE BOX FOR NEW LAUNCH DATE] morning from NASA's Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia, a potentially spectacular sight might greet early risers en route to work and school.
It would be the first attempt at launching an orbital rocket from this coastal Virginia range-located just south of Assateague Island-in over eleven years. It would also be one of the most powerful rockets that has ever been launched from Wallops.
Should good weather conditions prevail, a 69-foot, 5-foot wide, 35-ton, four-stage Minotaur I rocket will liftoff at 7:00 a.m. EST. The chief goal of this flight is to place the 814-pound TacSat2 satellite with its 11 onboard experiments into a circular orbit 255 miles above the Earth. In addition, a 22-pound nanosatellite developed by NASA's Ames Research Center in California that goes by the name "GeneSat1" will also be carried into space by the Minotaur I.
A launch window from Dec. 11 to Dec. 20, from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. each day, has been established to take into account bad weather or equipment glitches (see "Final Points" below).
A 7 a.m. launch would occur just prior to sunrise along the entire Atlantic Coastline.
What to expect
Over the years, similar rocket firings have routinely taken place from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base. Rocket launches that have occurred around the time of sunrise or sunset have left long, glowing contrails in their wake that have been seen for a few hundred miles across the Desert Southwest; often becoming contorted by high level winds into strange and exotic patterns and sometimes, prismatic colors (examples).
While many Westerners are fairly familiar with such sightings, they are all but unknown here in the East and as such may end up surprising millions of people should the Minotaur I lift off on schedule at 7 a.m. on Monday morning.
Wallops Public Affairs officer Keith Koehler said he not want to comment on the potential visibility of the rocket, noting that this type of rocket launch has never occurred at Wallops before, so nobody is quite sure just how far away it will be seen.
"I don't want to make any promises in an official press release and then have to do a lot of explaining if it doesn't live up to expectations," Koehler said in a telephone interview.
But using similar dusk and dawn launches from Vandenberg as a guide, I've determined that it may be possible that Monday's pre-sunrise launch may be visible as far north as southern Maine; as far south as northeastern Florida and as far west as eastern Kentucky. The rocket will be launched on a southeast trajectory. Approximately six minutes after launch it will be passing north of Bermuda. Three minutes later it will reach orbital altitude over the middle of the North Atlantic.
Observers who are situated within about 800 statute miles of the Wallops Island Flight Facility appear to have a reasonable chance of catching a view of the Minotaur I contrail within the first few minutes after launch.
The key to making a sighting is to have a clear, unobstructed view of the horizon in the direction of Wallops Island. For example, a viewer in Raleigh, North Carolina should look toward the northeast; in Boston, Massachusetts look southwest; in Wheeling, West Virginia it's due east.
Areas farther to the west have an advantage, since skies will be darker-sunrise will come somewhat later than it will along the immediate coast.
Should the launch be delayed until well after sunrise, it may only be barely visible, if at all against the blue daytime sky.
The first two stages of the Minotaur I are decommissioned Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles, while the two upper stages utilize Pegasus rocket motors, built for the U.S. Air Force by Orbital Sciences Corporation.
"This vehicle has spent most of its life in the nation's defense," says Jay Pittman, Chief of the Wallops range, adding, "The level of confidence we have in this vehicle is quite high. It is something that has flown many, many times."
Another factor in this launch the already delayed launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery at Cape Canaveral, Florida. According to Koehler, some of the Wallops tracking systems are needed to support a shuttle Launch. "The Shuttle has priority. If it slides, then we'll have to consider how much time it will take to turn everything back around to support our launch."
More info on the launch including latest launch status and contact information can be found here. The launch will be webcast here.
- SPACE.com's Launch Forecast
Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for The New York Times and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, New York.