Antares Breaks Launch Week Curse, as SpaceX Suffers Last-Second Scrub

Antares leaps into the night from Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Va., at 9:16 p.m. EDT Friday. Photo Credit: NASA Wallops/Patrick Black

After a frustrating week in which United Launch Alliance (ULA), SpaceX and Northrop Grumman Corp. have now endured no less than seven scrubbed launch attempts due to appalling weather and agonizing last-moment technical troubles, the rocket’s red glare returned to the eastern seaboard of the United States on Friday evening, as one planned flight—but not the other—turned night into day for spectators along the Virginia coast.

Northrop Grumman’s Antares 230+ booster sprang from Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Va., at 9:16 p.m. EDT, carrying the NG-14 Cygnus spacecraft on a cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS). But the “Launch Week Curse” was not quite done with Florida, as a brand-new SpaceX Falcon 9 on Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. was dramatically aborted at T-2 seconds before its targeted 9:43 p.m. EDT liftoff. It must await another attempt, no sooner than 9:39 p.m. EDT Saturday.

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It is often said that a week is a long time in politics, and so too in spaceflight, for despite dreary weather in Florida on Monday morning, there existed high hopes that as many as four launches might occur within four days. Mother Nature threw the first proverbial spanner in the works, forcing SpaceX to scrub its planned 10:22 a.m. EDT liftoff of a previously-flown Falcon 9 with a 60-strong batch of Starlink internet communications satellites from historic Pad 39A at KSC.

The “Launch Week Curse” apparently broke at 9:16 p.m. EDT Friday, as Antares roared aloft with the NG-14 Cygnus mission. Photo Credit: NASA Wallops/Patrick Black

As the gloomy overcast virtually obscured the rocket and the Eastern Range remained steadfastly “Red” (“No-Go”), Monday morning’s attempt was aborted at T-31 seconds. Nor was the weather any kinder to ULA’s Delta IV Heavy and its highly secretive NROL-44 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, which was twice thwarted by poor weather and lightning warnings both Monday and Tuesday nights.  

ULA’s snakebitten Delta IV Heavy has been twice scrubbed due to weather, and once at T-7 seconds due to a technical abort. It must await a new launch attempt. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

Technical issues have also played an unwanted role in the week’s misfortunes. A hydraulic hose failure in the Mobile Service Tower (MST) at the Cape’s SLC-37B certainly did not help get the Delta IV Heavy on its way and, despite an improved weather outlook, the beleaguered mission was dramatically aborted at T-7 seconds due to a sensor glitch shortly before midnight Wednesday.

Inside the 65-foot-tall (19.8-meter) payload fairing of the Delta IV Heavy is the highly secretive NROL-44 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

SpaceX’s Starlink also counted down to T-18 seconds on Thursday morning, before scrubbing due to an “out-of-family” sensor issue. Then Northrop Grumman’s Antares—laden with the NG-14 Cygnus cargo ship, bound for the International Space Station (ISS)—was called off in the final minutes before its Thursday evening liftoff, due to a Ground Support Equipment (GSE) problem associated with software.

Thursday’s launch attempt of SpaceX’s long-delayed Starlink mission was abruptly halted at T-18 seconds, due to an out-of-family sensor issue. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Following resolution of the problem, Northrop Grumman realigned for a backup launch opportunity on Friday evening and the 133-foot-tall (40.5-meter) Antares duly speared aloft from Pad 0A at 9:16 p.m. EDT. Having successfully injected the NG-14 Cygnus into low-Earth orbit, the cargo ship began deploying its circular solar arrays at 11 p.m. EDT and will now spend the weekend chasing down the ISS.

Image Credit: Northrop Grumman Corp.

It is scheduled to be captured by the station’s 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2 early Monday morning, under the control of Expedition 63 Commander Chris Cassidy and Flight Engineer Ivan Vagner. Ground controllers will then maneuver and berth it at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the Unity node, where it will remain until mid-December.

From her origins in India, dreaming of airplanes and becoming a flight engineer, Kalpana Chawla reached for the stars to become the first Indian-American woman to venture into space…and the first person of Indian descent to fly into space twice. Photo Credit: NASA/Ben Evans personal collection

Named in honor of STS-107 astronaut Kalpana “K.C.” Chawla, NG-14 is heading uphill with 7,758 pounds (3,519 kg) of equipment, payloads and supplies for the incumbent Expedition 63 and forthcoming Expedition 64 crews. This total includes 2,683 pounds (1,217 kg) of science investigations, 1,874 pounds (850 kg) of crew supplies, 2,712 pounds (1,230 kg) of vehicle hardware, 333 pounds (151 kg) of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) equipment and 156 pounds (71 kg) of computer resources.

Since December 2015, ten “enhanced” Cygnus missions (visibly characterized by the presence of their fan-like solar arrays) have flown to the International Space Station (ISS), most recently earlier this year. Photo Credit: NASA

With an on-time launch on Friday night, Cygnus should arrive in the vicinity of the ISS early Monday morning, with Expedition 63 Commander Chris Cassidy and Flight Engineer Ivan Vagner located in the station’s multi-windowed cupola. They will grapple the cargo ship with the 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2 robotic arm, after which ground controllers will oversee the maneuvering and physical berthing of the ship onto the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the Unity node. NG-14 will remain part of the ISS through mid-December, when it will be robotically detached for two weeks in autonomous free flight, prior to a destructive re-entry on 30 December.

NG-14 will arrive at the space station on Monday, 5 October. Photo Credit: NASA

With Antares successfully launched, the “spell” of misfortune, at last, seemed to be broken. Twenty-seven minutes later, the Cape was expected to rock to the sound of its first Falcon 9 launch in a month, when the brand-new B1062 core stood ready for a 9:43 p.m. EDT liftoff with the fourth Global Positioning System (GPS) Block III navigation and timing satellite. It would mark the 17th SpaceX mission of 2020 and only the third of the year to do so atop a previously-unflown core.

The GPS III-04 mission is flying atop a brand-new Falcon 9 booster. But from GPS III-05 next July, these U.S. Space Force missions will begin using previously-flown Falcon 9s. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Under initial contracts, it was expected that National Security Space Launch (NSSL) missions would fly atop “new” boosters, but last week SpaceX and the U.S. Space Force agreed a modification which will permit the use of previously-flown Falcon 9 cores, starting with the fifth GPS Block III satellite next year.

The GPS III-04 satellite arrives in Florida in July. Photo Credit: U.S. Space Force

This will actually be the fourth GPS Block III to be placed into orbit and the third to be lofted atop a Falcon 9, following previous flights in December 2018 and last June. (Another satellite flew on the Delta IV Medium’s last mission in August 2019.) GPS Block III is part of a new generation of global positioning, navigation and timing satellites, bound for Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) at an altitude of 12,550 miles (20,200 km).

The GPS and U.S. Space Force livery adorn the Falcon 9 payload fairing. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

Building upon a GPS Navstar heritage dating back to the 1970s, Block III got underway almost two decades ago and the Air Force awarded Lockheed Martin a $1.4 billion contract in May 2008 to develop the first two Block III satellites in what will eventually comprise a 32-satellite network, with the first launch initially targeted for 2014. However, payload difficulties would ultimately push the program’s maiden flight back by almost five years and it did not launch until December 2018.

The GPS III-04 mission will mark only the third flight of a brand-new Falcon 9 core stage in 2020. Out of 16 missions launched to date, 14 have done so atop previously-flown boosters. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

Following a Request for Proposals (RFP) issued by the Air Force in June 2017 for the fourth, fifth and sixth GPS Block III missions, SpaceX received the $290.5 million contract in March 2018. Although to date SpaceX has successfully delivered two Block IIIs to orbit, both of those missions were conducted under separate contracts.

A Global Positioning System (GPS) Block III satellite undergoes inspection and testing prior to launch. Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin

Weighing 8,500 pounds (3,900 kg) and capable of a 15-year operational lifetime, these powerful satellites are built by Lockheed Martin at its customized GPS Block III facility near Denver, Colo. They are based upon the tried-and-true A2100 “bus”, whose modular framework produces 15 kilowatts of electricity via high-efficiency solar cells, radiation-cooled traveling-wave tube assemblies and improved heat-pipe design. The 15-year operational lifetime of each Block III bird represents a 25-percent quantum leap over earlier GPS satellite capabilities, as well as 500 times greater transmitting power, improved navigational warfare abilities, three times better accuracy and an eightfold enhancement in anti-jamming functionality.

Conditions seemed calm in the vicinity of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Just Read the Instructions”, as SpaceX counted down to an ultimately fruitless launch attempt on Friday night. Photo Credit: SpaceX

All told, this enables GPS Block III to shut off service to limited geographical locations, whilst maintaining uninterrupted provision for U.S. and allied forces. It features a cross-linked command-and-control architecture, which permits the entire “constellation” to be updated from a singular ground station. Furthermore, the satellites showcase a “spot-beam” capability for enhanced military (“M-Code”) coverage and better resistance to hostile jamming. These enhancements are expected to lead to improved accuracy and assured availability for military and civilian GPS users worldwide.

Halted dramatically at T-2 seconds, the Falcon 9 bearing GPS III-04 must wait until at least 9:39 p.m. EDT Saturday before it can attempt to fly again. Photo Credit: SpaceX

However, not all went according to plan for SpaceX on Friday evening. The Falcon 9 commenced a wholly nominal fueling regime at T-35 minutes, as the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Just Read the Instructions”, stood by about 390 miles (630 km) offshore for its third East Coast “catch” of a returning booster core. Elsewhere, the fairing catchers “Ms. Chief” and “Ms. Tree” did likewise.

Image Credit: SpaceX

The sole issue of any concern seemed to the weather, as SpaceX reported shortly at 9:38 p.m. EDT—only five minutes before the targeted T-0—that no issues were being worked with the vehicle. And although the weather remained nominally “Green” (“Go”), conditions were marginal, particularly with regard to potentially violating the Thick Cloud Rule. At length, it came as a surprise when the launch attempt was dramatically aborted at just T-2 seconds. With characteristic briskness and lack of detail, SpaceX tweeted news of the scrub shortly thereafter: “Standing down from tonight’s launch attempt of GPS III-4”. The earliest next launch opportunity opens at 9:39 p.m. EDT Saturday.

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