Bad Weather Keeps NASA Rocket Test on Hold
As the sun rises over Launch Pad 39B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the rotating service structure and the arms of the vehicle stabilization system have been retracted from around the Constellation Program's 327-foot-tall Ares I-X rocket, resting atop its mobile launcher platform, for an Oct. 27, 2009, launch try.
Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Bad weather continues to plague NASA?s experimental Ares I-X test rocket as the space agency tries to launch the new booster on a critical test flight for the second day in a row.

The $445 million rocket's launch window opened at 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT), but high clouds and countdown delays have kept it on the ground so far. Weather officer Kathy Winters has predicted a 40 percent chance of conditions good enough to launch today, so mission managers are still holding out hope that a break in the clouds will come. NASA has until 12 p.m. EDT (1600 GMT) to try to launch Ares I-X today.

NASA is requiring good visibility and nary a cloud in sight for this first flight of the untried rocket. If the rocket travels through high clouds it runs a risk of triggering "trioboelectrification" - static electricity that could interfere with sensitive onboard instruments.

Tuesday night a thunderstorm passed over the launch pad, and about 150 lightning strikes were seen to fall nearby, with four strikes hitting within about a half mile of the rocket. Wednesday's countdown was delayed while crews checked out the rocket's systems to make sure they hadn't been impacted.

"We had to go verify a lot of things to verify the rocket is still good to go fly," said Ares I-X deputy mission manager Jon Cowart. "We looked at all the systems that could have been affected by this and all the data indicates that there was absolutely no real effect."

A first launch try on Tuesday was stymied by clouds, winds and the threat of rain. In addition to those concerns, a stuck cover on one of the rocket's probes stalled Tuesday morning, further delaying the countdown, and a freight boat later strayed into restricted waters close to the launch pad, thwarting one launch attempt.

The mission is a trial run for the Ares I vehicle slated to transport astronauts to low-Earth orbit and on to the moon. This unmanned flight will be the first test of the rocket's design and configuration, and engineers plan to analyze readings from over 700 sensors on the booster to study its performance.

The 327-foot (100-meter) tall rocket is designed to burn its engines for just over two minutes, before its first and second stages separate and drop into the Atlantic Ocean. Retrieval boats are in place to collect the solid rocket first stage, which contains many of the sensors loaded with data from the trip. The dummy second stage - designed to mimic the size and weight of the real stage intended for Ares I - is destined to sink into the sea.

If NASA does not launch the Ares I-X test rocket this week, it could be delayed until mid-November, mission managers have said.

SPACE.com will provide full coverage of NASA's Ares I-X test flight with Staff Writer Clara Moskowitz in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and Managing Editor Tariq Malik in New York. Click here for full mission coverage.