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Europe’s spaceport, flagship launcher ready for historic Webb mission

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An Ariane 5 rocket reaches the ELA-3 launch zone Thursday at the Guiana Space Center, the final port of call for the James Webb Space Telescope before it ascends into orbit. Credit: ESA/S. Corvaja

Teams in French Guiana positioned a European Ariane 5 rocket into its starting blocks Thursday, ready for liftoff Christmas morning with the nearly $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope, the most expensive science instrument ever to leave planet Earth.

The 180-foot-tall (54.8-meter) rocket rolled out of its final assembly building at the Guiana Space Center, towed by a diesel-powered Titan truck along dual rail tracks to the ELA-3 launch pad at the jungle spaceport.

Once at the pad, the rocket and its mobile platform were hooked into the facility’s power, propellant, and data systems in preparation for an overnight countdown set to begin Friday evening.

Arianespace, the launch operator for the Ariane 5 rocket, will oversee the countdown from two control centers at the spaceport. The Ariane 5 will be loaded with cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants beginning shortly after 2:30 a.m. EST (0730 GMT) Saturday, culminating in final technical and weather checks before launch at 7:20 a.m. EST (1220 GMT).

Ariane 5 rockets have launched 111 times since 1996. After some early failures — the first Ariane 5 exploded less than a minute after liftoff — the European heavy-lifter has accomplished 96 successes in its last 97 missions.

Numerous commercial satellites have launched on Ariane 5 rockets. The European Space Agency’s BepiColombo mission on the way to Mercury, and the European Rosetta comet probe also left Earth on the top of Ariane 5 rockets.

Webb’s departure point at the Guiana Space Center is operated by CNES, French space agency. The spaceport — in use since 1968 — is carved from the edge of the Amazon rainforest in French Guiana, a French overseas territory the size of Ireland sandwiched between Suriname and Brazil.

The French government selected French Guiana for a spaceport location to replace the country’s first launch base in the Sahara Desert following Algerian independence.

The region is no stranger to spaceflight. More than 300 large rockets have launched from the Guiana Space Center.

“Webb is different because of the sheer size, because of the client,” said Charlotte Beskow, head of ESA’s operations at the Guiana Space Center, located on the tropical South American frontier. “Of course, it’s not every day that we have a major NASA-led product here at CSG,” she said, referring to the space center’s French acronym.

“It’s different in terms of the media attention we’re getting,” she said. “This is an important launch which has worldwide repercussions. It hopefully won’t effect the way we work. We always wors to the same high standard, but obviously there will be some emotional pressure on everybody.”

Crews a the spaceport are “putting their best efforts into this,” Beskow said. “We know it’s a unique observatory. It’s been 10 or 20 years in the making, thousands of people have worked on it, it’s hugely important, and we’re well aware of what’s at stake.”

The mission has a 32-minute launch window Saturday, and an opportunity to lift off at the same time Sunday, if problems keep the Ariane 5 on the ground Christmas morning.

The rocket’s core stage will light a hydrogen-fueled Vulcain 2 main engine seven seconds before liftoff. After a computer-controlled health check, the rocket will issue a command to light its twin solid rocket boosters, each with three segments of pre-packed powder propellant.

The launcher will race off the pad with 2.9 million pounds of thrust and head east over the Atlantic Ocean, surpassing the speed of sound 40 seconds. The boosters will burn out and jettison at Plus+2 minutes, 21 seconds, followed by separation of the Ariane 5’s Swiss-made payload shroud at Plus+3 minutes, 26 seconds, revealing Webb to space for the first time.

A 180-foot-tall (54.8-meter) Ariane 5 rocket stands on the launch pad in French Guiana with the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace/P. Baudon

The rocket’s French-made core stage will perform roll maneuvers to keep the observatory in thermal balance, ensuring parts of the telescope don’t get too hot or too cold. Webb’s control team at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, expects to receive the first signals from the spacecraft as soon as the fairing separates from the rocket.

The core stage will finish its burn at Plus+8 minutes, 41 seconds, followed moments later by stage separation and ignition of the HM7B engine on the Ariane 5’s upper stage, built in Germany.

The upper stage engine, consuming its own supply of cryogenic fuel, will burn for 16 minutes to accelerate the Webb observatory on a speedy course away from Earth. The target velocity at engine cutoff is 22,145 mph (9.9 kilometers per second).

The three-story-tall observatory will release from its attach fixture on the Ariane 5’s upper stage at Plus+27 minutes, 7 seconds.

A few minutes later, Webb will extend its power-generating solar panel to begin charging the spacecraft’s batteries. Webb will be running on internal battery power during its half-hour ride on the Ariane 5 rocket.

A steerable antenna will unfurl the day after launch, then a sunshield will open to the size of a tennis court to start cooling Webb’s infrared science instruments and mirrors to an operating temperature of minus 388 degrees Fahrenheit, just 40 Kelvin degrees above absolute zero.

Two articulating wings, each with three of the 18 mirror segments, will swing into place, allowing the primary mirror to reach its final shape. And a boom with the secondary mirror will deploy, lining up just right to bounce light collected by the primary mirror directly into Webb’s instrument module, which houses a suite of sophisticated infrared detectors.

Within a month, Webb will arrive in orbit around the L2 Lagrange point, a gravitationally-stable location nearly a million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth. Ground teams operating Webb using remote control will spend the next five months perfectly lining up the mirrors, bringing the telescope into focus as it settles to its final operating temperature.

In six months, Webb will take its first science images for public release.

The mission will see through clouds of dust to study star-forming regions opaque to telescopes like Hubble, which see in the visible part of the light spectrum. The light collecting power of Webb will also allow scientists to measure the chemical make-up of atmospheres on planets around other stars, revealing for the first time which alien worlds might be habitable for life.

And Webb will peer into the universe in search of the first light after the Big Bang some 13.8 billion years ago.

Artist’s illustration of the payload fairing jettisoning from an Ariane 5 rocket, revealing the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: ESA/D. Ducros

NASA is paying the bulk of Webb’s costs, totaling $8.8 billion, plus an annual budget of more than $170 million to operate the observatory for five years. ESA provided the launch on an Ariane 5 rocket and led development of two of Webb’s four instruments. The Canadian Space Agency is the third partner on the mission, supplying sensor hardware to help keep Webb stable when pointing toward astronomical targets.

The ESA and Canadian contributions totaled nearly $1 billion, passing the sum of Webb’s costs, including operations, to near $11 billion, making it the most expensive space science mission in history.

The Ariane 5 has the largest payload volume of any rocket flying today, with a nose shroud standing 56 feet (17 meters) tall and near 18 feet (5.4 meters) in diameter. Webb fills the volume. At some locations, there are just 8 inches (20 centimeters) of clearance between the spacecraft and the inner wall of the fairing .

ESA, Arianespace and RUAG, the fairing manufacturer, changed the design of vents on the Ariane 5’s payload shroud to address a concern that a depressurization event could damage the Webb observatory when the fairing jettisons after liftoff. Engineers were concerned residual air trapped in Webb’s folded sunshield membranes could cause them to suddenly bubble or expand at the time of fairing separation.

The vent modification will help sure there is no air caught between the sunshield membranes as the rocket climbs above the atmosphere. The fairing for Webb was also built to more exacting cleanliness standards to ensure the telescope’s optics remain free of contamination.

Webb’s ride to space has several other modifications from a typical Ariane 5 flight.

Cameras pointed forward on the upper stage will capture views of the nearly 6.8-ton (6.2-metric ton) observatory flying off the rocket 27 minutes after launch.

The upper stage carries an extra battery pack to perform an additional maneuver after deploying Webb. This “end of life” maneuver will involve releasing residual unburned propellant through the upper stage’s engine, imparting a propulsive force to move the rocket farther away from Webb.

The maneuver will eliminate the risk of a collision between the rocket and the observatory, both on similar trajectories heading into the solar system.

Illustration of the James Webb Space Telescope inside the payload fairing of its Ariane 5 rocket. Credit: ArianeGroup

When astronomers started working on the mission concept that would become Webb, the Ariane 5 hadn’t even launched for the first time. Now, the Ariane 5 program is nearing the end of its run. After Webb, just five more Ariane 5s are left to fly before retirement in favor of Europe’s new Ariane 6 rocket.

NASA engineers helped ESA and Arianespace assess the rocket’s readiness to launch Webb. The Launch Services Program at Kennedy Space Center, which provides oversight for launches carrying the agency’s science missions to space, took on a consulting role for the James Webb Space Space Telescope.

“I think that helps calm some folks’ feelings, or perhaps perceptions, of why in the world are we launching this on a foreign vehicle,” said Omar Baez, a launch director at Kennedy, in a recent interview with Spaceflight Now.

Baez said he took his first trip to the Ariane 5 launch base in Kourou, French Guiana, two decades ago to start evaluating facilities at the spaceport, which is managed by CNES, the French space agency.

“It’s touchy because you’re going up against Arianespace and CNES, and you’re a foreign agent, but we have worked well together,” Baez said.

He said NASA assigned experts in spacecraft processing, mission integration, and risk management as consultants to work with ESA and Arianespace ahead of Webb’s launch.

“Our risk manager has been following how the French and ESA folks bubble up any problems that Arianespace may have, and it’s very similar to the system we have here, with regard to insight and oversight by government agencies,” Baez said. “So we take credit for some of that insight by seeing that they have the same type of rigor that we show when we fly one of our precious payloads.”

Baez said NASA engineers based at Kennedy Space Center were “very instrumental” in discovering an issue with how the Ariane 5 fairing depressurizes during ascent.

“We were able to, in cooperation with our French partners, instrument the fairing on previous flights that captured that environment and make sure that we had accurate information,” Baez said. “And, in fact, we did find a problem. We had to work on a scheme to be able to vent that fairing properly on its ascent.”

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Weather delays set up SpaceX for two weekend launches from Cape Canaveral

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A Falcon 9 rocket stands on pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station Friday evening with Italy’s CSG 2 radar satellite. Credit: SpaceX

A blanket of thick clouds over Cape Canaveral Friday forced SpaceX to delay liftoff of a Falcon 9 rocket and an Italian radar remote sensing satellite until Saturday, setting up Florida’s Space Coast for launches on back to back days this weekend, with another SpaceX flight already booked on the range for Sunday.

SpaceX’s planned launch of Italy’s COSMO-SkyMed radar surveillance satellite was originally scheduled Thursday, but rain showers, low visibility, and thick clouds caused officials to call off the launch attempt before loading propellants into the Falcon 9 rocket.

Conditions at Cape Canaveral improved Friday, but a blanket of thick clouds remained in place over the spaceport. SpaceX scrubbed the launch with fewer than 10 minutes left in the countdown.

SpaceX will try again at 6:11 p.m. EST (2311 GMT) Saturday. The Falcon 9 rocket will fly south from Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch pad over the Atlantic Ocean, tracking parallel to Florida’s east coast, then over the Straits of Florida, Cuba, and the Caribbean Sea to place the Italian radar imaging satellite into a polar orbit.

The reusable first stage booster, flying for the third time, will return to Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral for a propulsive touchdown.

Meanwhile, SpaceX technicians a few miles to the north of pad 40 at Kennedy Space Center prepared late Friday to roll another Falcon 9 rocket out to pad 39A. That rocket is scheduled to take off at 2:39 p.m. EST (1939 GMT) Sunday with another batch of 49 satellites for SpaceX’s Starlink internet network.

A backup launch opportunity is available for the Starlink mission at 5:56 p.m. EST (2256 GMT) Sunday).

The target launch times are separated by 20 hours, 28 minutes, which would mark the shortest span between two orbital departures from Florida’s Space Coast since 1967.

As with all rocket launches, SpaceX will only pull off the feat if weather and technology cooperate.

There’s an 80% chance of good weather Saturday evening for SpaceX’s rescheduled launch of an Italian COSMO-SkyMed radar satellite, with a moderate risk of unfavorable winds aloft, according to the U.S. Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron.

For Sunday’s mission, forecasters expect a 90% chance of acceptable launch weather on the Space Coast. There’s a moderate risk of out-of-limits wind and sea conditions downrange at the booster’s offshore landing zone near the Bahamas.

The primary weather concern Saturday evening is ground winds, which are forecast to be gusting from the northwest to near 25 mph following the arrival of a strong cold front, causing temperatures to drop to around 45 degrees Fahrenheit by launch time.

On Sunday, the only slight weather issue is with cumulus clouds, which could contribute to a lightning risk as the Falcon 9 climbs through the atmosphere.

SpaceX is slated to follow the launches this weekend with another Falcon 9 flight from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on Wednesday, Feb. 2. The Falcon 9 rocket set for launch from California will carry a classified payload into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office, the U.S. government’s spy satellite agency.

SpaceX has already launched three Falcon 9 missions since the start of the year, and is on pace to complete six Falcon 9 launches in less than four weeks, assuming the next three flights occur as scheduled.

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Live coverage: SpaceX counting down to launch of Italian radar satellite

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Live coverage of the countdown and launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida. The mission will launch a radar remote sensing satellite for Italy’s COSMO-SkyMed Second Generation constellation. Follow us on Twitter.

SFN Live



SpaceX Webcast

SpaceX is set to launch an Italian radar remote sensing satellite aboard a Falcon 9 rocket Thursday from Cape Canaveral. The Falcon 9 is scheduled to launch at 6:11 p.m. EST (2311 GMT), weather permitting, and the first stage booster will return to Florida’s Space Coast eight minutes later for landing.

The mission will deploy a COSMO-SkyMed Second Generation, or CSG, radar surveillance satellite into a polar orbit for the Italian Space Agency and the Italian Ministry of Defense. There’s a 60% chance of good weather for launch at Cape Canaveral Thursday evening. The primary concerns are with ground winds and cumulus clouds.

The Falcon 9 rocket will be powered by a first stage booster modified from two previous missions as a side booster on SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. Both halves of the rocket’s payload shroud have flown to space three times on prior Falcon 9 missions.

Our live coverage will be available on this page beginning at 5 p.m. EST (2200 GMT).

The COSMO-SkyMed satellites provide regular day-and-night radar imaging of locations around the world for the civilian and military users. The Italian government oversees the radar constellation, which consists of four first-generation satellites now beyond their operating lifetimes, and the first in a new generation of COSMO-SkyMed spacecraft that launched in December 2019 on a Russian Soyuz rocket from French Guiana.

The radar imaging constellation gathers data for use by the Italian military, which employs the imagery to track maritime traffic in the Mediterranean Sea. Civilian applications include disaster response, agriculture monitoring, and climate change research.

This mission will mark the fifth launch from Cape Canaveral this year, following three SpaceX flights and a United Launch Alliance mission earlier this month.

Read our mission preview story for details.

ROCKET: Falcon 9 (B1052.3)

PAYLOAD: COSMO-SkyMed Second Generation FM2

LAUNCH SITE: SLC-40, Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida

LAUNCH DATE: Jan. 27, 2022

LAUNCH TIME: 6:11 p.m. EST (2311 GMT)

LAUNCH WINDOW: Instantaneous

WEATHER FORECAST: 60% probability of acceptable weather

BOOSTER RECOVERY: Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida

LAUNCH AZIMUTH: South-southeast, then south

TARGET ORBIT: Approximately 384 miles (619 kilometers), 97.9 degrees inclination

LAUNCH TIMELINE:

  • T+00:00: Liftoff
  • T+01:12: Maximum aerodynamic pressure (Max-Q)
  • T+02:15: First stage main engine cutoff (MECO)
  • T+02:19: Stage separation
  • T+02:27: Second stage engine ignition
  • T+02:32: Boost-back burn begins (three engines)
  • T+03:20: Boost-back burn ends
  • T+03:45: Fairing jettison
  • T+06:11: First stage entry burn begins (three engines)
  • T+06:32: First stage entry burn ends
  • T+07:22: First stage landing burn begins
  • T+07:26: First stage landing
  • T+08:44: Second stage engine cutoff (SECO 1)
  • T+56:01: Second stage engine restart
  • T+56:04: Second stage engine cutoff (SECO 2)
  • T+1:00:05: COSMO-SkyMed Second Generation FM2 separation

MISSION STATS:

  • 138th launch of a Falcon 9 rocket since 2010
  • 146th launch of Falcon rocket family since 2006
  • 3rd launch of Falcon 9 booster B1052
  • 122nd Falcon 9 launch from Florida’s Space Coast
  • 79th Falcon 9 launch from pad 40
  • 134th launch overall from pad 40
  • 82nd flight of a reused Falcon 9 booster
  • 80th Thales Alenia Space-built satellite launched by SpaceX
  • 1st SpaceX mission for Italian Space Agency
  • 4th Falcon 9 launch of 2022
  • 4th launch by SpaceX in 2022
  • 5th orbital launch based out of Cape Canaveral in 2022

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SpaceX gives converted Falcon Heavy side booster new life

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with a booster stage converted from two previous Falcon Heavy missions, rolls through NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Dec. 8 toward its launch pad. Credit: Michael Cain / Spaceflight Now / Coldlife Photography

A converted SpaceX side booster that flew on two Falcon Heavy missions in 2019 will launch again Thursday as the first stage of a single-stick Falcon 9 rocket set to lift off from Cape Canaveral with an Italian radar imaging satellite.

Liftoff is set for 6:11 p.m. EST (2311 GMT) Thursday from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida with a COSMO-SkyMed Second Generation radar surveillance satellite for the Italian government.

The first stage booster assigned to the Falcon 9 mission mission is designated B1052 in SpaceX’s fleet. Tracking booster assignments for SpaceX launches has become a pastime for space enthusiasts. But with SpaceX’s rocket reuse program becoming more routine, the first stage used on most Falcon flights has become an afterthought, unless it’s setting a new record.

But the booster awaiting launch Thursday is noteworthy. The 15-story-tall rocket stage was previously fitted with an aerodynamic nose cone and attachment fixtures when it flew as a side booster mounted to the side of a Falcon Heavy core stage on two missions in 2019.

SpaceX created the Falcon Heavy by connecting three modified Falcon 9 booster stages together, tripling the rocket’s total power at liftoff. Each Falcon booster generates 1.7 million pounds of thrust from its nine Merlin engines, giving the Falcon Heavy more than 5 million pounds of thrust, more than any other launch vehicle currently in operation.

A Falcon Heavy rocket, with B1052 as a side booster, launched April 12, 2019, with the Arabsat 6A communications satellite. Credit: Walter Scriptunas II / Spaceflight Now

The Falcon Heavy rocket has flown three times, most recently with the Arabsat 6A communications satellite in April 2019 and the U.S. military’s Space Test Program-2 rideshare mission in June 2019. Both missions flew with Booster No. 1052 as a strap-on rocket stage.

The STP-2 mission flew with the same pair of side boosters as Arabsat 6A. On both missions, the side boosters fired more than two minutes during the climb into space, then returned to SpaceX’s rocket recovery zones at Cape Canaveral for nearly simultaneous landings.

SpaceX attempted to recover the Falcon Heavy core stages on both missions aboard a downrange landing platform in the Atlantic Ocean. But both cores were lost, as was the center stage on the first Falcon Heavy demonstration launch in February 2018.

The first Falcon Heavy rocket launched with a pair of side boosters that previously flew as the first stages on Falcon 9 rockets. SpaceX modified the boosters for the Falcon Heavy mission, and they landed back at Cape Canaveral and never flew again.

SpaceX officials have said Falcon Heavy side boosters and Falcon 9 first stages are interchangeable, but Falcon Heavy core stages carry additional structural stiffeners to support the load of two side-mounted boosters. That makes each center core specifically built for the Falcon Heavy.

The launch Thursday with Italy’s COSMO-SkyMed radar satellite will be the first time SpaceX has flown a rocket converted in the other direction, from a Falcon Heavy to a Falcon 9. SpaceX’s ground team removed the former side booster’s nose cone and other unique hardware for its new role in the Falcon 9 fleet.

Two reusable rocket boosters, including B1052, land at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station after the successful launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket with the Arabsat 6A satellite April 12, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by James Rainier)

Photographers at the Kennedy Space Center’s press site first spotted the converted Falcon first stage Dec. 8 as it passed through the spaceport from SpaceX’s rocket processing hangar on the way to one of the company’s seaside launch pads.

The sighting of the booster’s serial number — the No. 52 is painted in small print on the side of the airframe — suggested SpaceX had modified the former Falcon Heavy side booster for use as a Falcon 9 first stage.

But it wasn’t clear which mission would use the booster until SpaceX confirmed the assignment of B1052 to the COSMO-SkyMed satellite’s launch in a posting to the company’s website Thursday, just hours before the scheduled liftoff time.

Like its previous two flights, the booster will fire for more than two minutes before shutting down its Merlin engines and flipping around to fly back to Cape Canaveral. Touchdown on Landing Zone 1, located about 6 miles (9 kilometers) south of the Complex 40 launch pad, is expected nearly eight minutes after liftoff.

The Falcon 9 rocket’s second stage — brand new as it is for all Falcon missions — will direct the COSMO-SkyMed satellite along a southerly trajectory parallel to Florida’s east coast, targeting an orbit that takes the spacecraft over Earth’s poles.

It will be SpaceX’s second launch into polar orbit from Cape Canaveral this month, following a corridor that was unused from 1969 until 2020. Most polar orbit launches from the United States take off from Vandenberg Space Force Base, which offers a clear range over the Pacific Ocean to the south, without requiring a rocket to perform a steering maneuver after liftoff to fly around land masses.

SpaceX Booster No. 1052 rolls through NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on the way to its launch pad Dec. 8. Credit: Michael Cain / Spaceflight Now / Coldlife Photography

The official launch weather forecast for Thursday evening calls for a 60% chance of favorable conditions for liftoff at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The primary weather concerns are with ground winds and cumulus clouds.

The COSMO-SkyMed continues a busy month at Cape Canaveral, which has already hosted four rocket launches since Jan. 6, including three by SpaceX. Another SpaceX launch is scheduled Saturday from pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, when a Falcon 9 rocket is set to deliver another batch of Starlink internet satellites into orbit.

SpaceX will continue its rapid-fire launch cadence Feb. 2 with a Falcon 9 mission from Vandenberg for the National Reconnaissance Office, the U.S. government’s spy satellite agency.

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