Space Traffic, Meteor Showers Threaten Next Shuttle Launch Date
In Orbiter Processing Facility 1 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, space shuttle Atlantis' payload bay doors are being closed in preparation for a Nov. 12, 2009 launch toward the International Space Station on the STS-129 supply delivery mission.
Credit: NASA/Jack Pfaller

CAPE CANAVERAL - Two planned rocket launches, short shuttle launch windows, traffic congestion at the International Space Station and two meteor showers could conspire to push space shuttle Atlantis' planned November flight into the new year.

But for now, NASA is staying focused on Nov. 12 as the targeted launch date and prepping the orbiter for its move to Kennedy Space Center's Vehicle Assembly Building on Tuesday.

Here's the situation:

Atlantis and six astronauts are slated to blast off at 4:04 p.m. Nov. 12, setting sail on a mission to haul large spare parts to the outpost.

NASA, however, will have just eight days to get the shuttle aloft.

The sun angle on the station from Nov. 21 through Dec. 5 will be such that the outpost could not generate enough electricity, or dispel enough heat, to support a docked shuttle.

A delay beyond Nov. 20 would push launch to a weeklong window that opens Dec. 6. NASA in that case would need to launch Atlantis by Dec. 13 to finish its mission and depart the station in advance of the Dec. 23 arrival of a Russian crew transport craft.

Bottom line: If Atlantis still is on the ground Dec. 14, its launch would be delayed until around Jan. 7. NASA would avoid flying during the New Year's holiday because the shuttle's computers are not designed to handle the year-end rollover.

Two other factors are in play:

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket is scheduled to loft a commercial communications satellite on Nov. 14. Then a Delta 4 rocket is set to blast off Nov. 18.

The U.S. Air Force Eastern Range provides tracking and public safety services for all launches from Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center. But 24 to 48 hours are required to reset systems between launches.

So NASA might have to stand down Atlantis if the Nov. 12 launch is delayed.

The annual Leonids meteor shower will peak on Nov. 17; the Geminids will peak Dec. 13 and Dec. 14.

The showers will produce hundreds of meteoroids per hour. NASA wouldn't launch a shuttle into a cosmic shooting gallery, so managers likely would forego any launch opportunity at the peak of either shower.

NASA in August 1993 delayed a Discovery launch attempt by a day to avoid the peak of an extra active Perseid meteor shower.