Another day, another rocket launch out of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. This time it’s an Antares rocket carrying a Cygnus cargo ship up to the International Space Station. Orbital Sciences corp launched a Cygnus to ISS back in September as a demonstration flight, giving NASA and Orbital the experience to take on regular resupply flights to the station, beginning with this week’s launch.
Antares was rolled out to the launch pad last night and there’s a really nice photo set on Flickr you can check out. Launch is currently scheduled for 9:19 pm Eastern time on Thursday, Dec 19, and yours truly will be there to cover it because they gave me press credentials (does happy dance).
Now keep in mind that NASA are currently working a cooling pump problem aboard the space station. They’re not sure if they can limp along with a backup system or if they will need to do a spacewalk to make repairs. If they decide to go ahead with an EVA, this launch could be postponed again, so stay tuned.
Viewing the Launch
Orbital has a page set up with maps showing where and when viewers should expect to be able to spot Antares as it ascends. Here’s a map to give you an idea of when you’ll be able to spot the launch from your location:
Be sure to check out their page as they have several visualizations from New York, Philly, Baltimore, Washington DC, and Norfolk VA, among other places. They also have a Google Earth KMZ file which you can download and use to get an idea of what the launch trajectory will look like from your location. Here’s a few I created:
What you should expect to see, and when
Antares is a liquid-fuel rocket, which means it should produce a yellow-white colored exhaust arcing quickly across the southeastern sky like what you see in the images above (except at night).
The launch window is from
9:19 – 9:24 pm EST on Thursday (02:19 – 02:24 am GMT Dec. 20) . 1:32-1:37 pm EST on Wednesday (18:32-18:37 GMT). They’ll try to launch on time at 9:19 1:32 but keep in mind that the farther you are from the launch site, the longer it will take for the rocket to clear the horizon. The images I show above assume a flat horizon all the way to Wallops, and we know that’s not the case. Fortunately, Orbital created a first sighting map to give you some idea of when you should expect to see the rocket clear the horizon (keep in mind though that it would have already moved slightly eastward by the time you pick it up).
Antares is a two-stage rocket, so it will appear to dim and then light up again a little further to the east as the expended stage is jettisoned and the next stage ignites.
Monitor the launch on your smart phone, but watch the timing
If you have a smart phone and a good 3G or 4G signal, you can monitor the countdown on the NASA app for iPhone or on Wallops’ live stream. Android users might want to check out the What’s Up at Wallops app, which contains a compass showing the precise direction for launch viewing.
…keep in mind that everything coming down to your tablet or cell phone is probably going to be a minute or so after the fact. If you wait until you hear them say “liftoff” to go outside and look, the rocket may already have reached orbit. Instead, listen to / follow the countdown to make sure the launch time hasn’t changed, and then use your cell phone’s clock to make sure you’re really at L-0, *then* look toward Wallops!
Watch with friends to increase your chances of actually seeing it
Even at night, the rocket may be hard to spot, especially if this is your first time. Haze, aircraft, and all kinds of things can be in the field of view to confuse you even more. If you’re with a small group of people, chances are that one of you will be able to spot it and point it out for the rest. Watch with friends to increase your chances!
Watching and tracking rocket launches is challenging and fun, especially at night. Hopefully the weather from your location will cooperate and you get to see an amazing show. Good luck!