SpaceX has postponed the launch of a NASA water monitoring satellite to Friday (Dec. 16) to allow more time to investigate a problem with its Falcon 9 rocket.
The SWOT (Surface Water and Ocean Topography) satellite was scheduled to lift off atop a Falcon 9 at 6:46 a.m. EST (1146 GMT) Thursday (Dec. 15). But SpaceX is now targeting a Friday launch, at that same early hour.
“After SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket went vertical on the platform of Space Launch Complex 4 East (SLC-4E) at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, teams identified moisture in two Merlin engines on the booster of the first stage of the rocket,” NASA officials wrote in a brief update
(opens in new tab) on Wednesday evening (December 14).
“Teams completed inspections of the rocket’s motors today, but will use the additional time to conduct data assessments and analysis ahead of a launch attempt,” they added.
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It is possible that the moisture detected in the two engines is water, given that a storm swept through the Vandenberg area a few days ago. If so, Friday is a realistic launch target.
If it’s something else, say propellant, there will probably be a longer delay.
“Probably, if it’s anything other than water, we’d have to stop launching and remove and replace those motors to make sure we can launch reliably,” Julianna Scheiman, director of civilian satellite missions at SpaceX, said at a prelaunch press conference. on Wednesday afternoon.
The Falcon 9 is powered by nine Merlin engines in the first stage (hence the rocket’s name). The upper stage of the two-stage rocket has a single Merlin, which is optimized for use in space.
An animation of the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite collecting data from space. (Image credit: NASA)
SWOT is a joint effort between NASA and the French space agency CNES, with contributions from the Canadian and British space agencies. Once airborne, the satellite will measure the water levels of lakes, rivers and oceans around the world with unprecedented precision.
The data from the mission will give scientists a better understanding of our world’s waterways and how they are affected by climate change, among other uses, mission team members have said.
Friday promises to be a very busy day in spaceflight. SpaceX is expected to launch two missions in addition to SWOT that day. Both others will take off from Florida’s Space Coast. One will lift a batch of the company’s Starlink Internet satellites, and the other will ship two satellites for telecom company SES.
Rocket Lab is also targeting Friday for its first ever launch from US soil. During that mission, an Electron booster carrying three HawkEye 360 radio surveillance satellites will launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
Mike Wall is the author of “ Outside (opens in new tab) (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in new tab) . follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab) .