The first launch from anewly christened commercial spaceport on the coast of Virginia will haul a U.S. military experimental tactical satellite and a tiny research craft into space Mondaymorning.
Engineers are spending theweekend conducting final preparations for the mission, which is scheduled tobegin as early as 7:00 a.m. EST (1200 GMT) Monday, or less than 10 minutesbefore sunrise. Monday's launch window extends for three hours. [Click here forlaunch viewing information].
The four-stage Minotaurrocket will blast away from its seaside launch pad at the Mid-Atlantic RegionalSpaceport on the southern tip of NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on the Delmarva Peninsula.
The rocket will flysoutheast away from the U.S. East Coast before deploying its payloads over the Atlantic Ocean.
Developed by OrbitalSciences Corp., the Minotaur combines a unique blend of hardware from heritagemissile and rocket programs.
The launcher's first andsecond stages use solid rocket motors from decommissioned Minuteman 2 ballisticmissiles. The solid-fueled third and fourth stages come from designs fromOrbital's commercial air-launched Pegasus rocket program.
The weather outlook forMonday morning appears favorable, with forecasters predicting partly cloudy skiesand westerly winds of about 10 knots. Temperatures are expected to be in themid-30s, said NASA spokesman Keith Koehler.
The launch could put on aspectacular light show for millions of residents in eastern Virginia and Maryland as the rocket ascends into sunlight.
Tucked away inside theMinotaur booster's modified bulbous 61-inch (154-centimeters) payload fairingare the U.S. military's TacSat 2demonstration satellite and the 10-pound (4.5 kilograms) GeneSat 1 spacecraftfor NASA.
All five previous Minotaurmissions used a standard nose cone based on the fairing used by the Pegasusrocket.
Both payloads are destinedfor an orbit roughly 255 miles (410 kilometers) high with an inclination ofaround 40 degrees.
The 814-pound (369-kilogram)TacSat 2 spacecraft carries a slate of 11 experiments to be conducted duringthe satellite's mission, which could last up to one year.
One of the primaryobjectives of the mission was a rapid design cycle, construction and launch ofthe satellite, which was first approved two years ago, according to an AirForce statement.
Officials expect the craftto be declared operational just a day after launch if all goes as planned.
Many of the experimentsaboard TacSat 2 focus on tactical objectives, such as testing communicationlinks between ground stations in the United States and military units deployedoverseas.
Critical imagery of theateroperations could be transmitted through the spacecraft, according to militaryofficials.
TacSat 2 will also attemptto demonstrate autonomous operations, a RoadRunner onboard processor, a GPSoccultation receiver for navigation and 500-watt recycled solar panels forpower production.
The project is jointlymanaged by the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Space Development and TestWing, the Naval Research Laboratory, the Army Space Program Office, Air ForceSpace Command and the Space Warfare Center.
A small secondary payloadfor NASA is also on the cargo manifest for Monday's launch.
GeneSat 1 will test theaffects of spaceflight on bacteria samples carried inside the satellite'sminiature laboratory. The E. coli bacteria samples are similar to those used tohelp digest food in the human body.
Biological test resultswill be monitored for about four days, but ground controllers will continue totrack the craft's systems for up to a year as it continues to circle Earth. Themission also includes a significant contribution from University students.
Monday's launch will be thefirst orbital mission to originate from Wallops since 1999, when a Pegasusrocket was launched from the belly of an L-1011 jet offshore. It is the firstattempted ground-launched space mission from the site in more than 11 years.
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