Space Launch Doubleheader Possible on Jan. 29

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WASHINGTON — There could be orbital launches from both U.S. coasts on the same day for the first time in more than seven years Jan. 29, if all goes as NASA, NOAA and the U.S. Air Force now plan.

Around 9:20 a.m. that day, NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive mission is scheduled to lift off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California aboard one of the last remaining United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rockets.

Around nine hours later, a SpaceX Falcon 9 chartered by the Air Force would launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida carrying NOAA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) toward the sun.

DSCOVR mission patch

The last time orbital launches lifted off from California and Florida on the same day was June 8, 2007, when another Delta 2 boosted the first of four Italian civil-military imaging satellites, Cosmo-SkyMed 1, to a sun-synchronous near polar orbit from Vandenberg only hours before the Space Shuttle Atlantis launched to the International Space Station from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Of course, launch dates are notorious for changing, and the final “go” for flight is subject always to the fickleness of rockets and mother nature. Even on a day when the two strike a balance, wild cards such as a wayward boat can upset the equilibrium and force a scrub.

Around this time last year, NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive mission was scheduled to launch in November 2014. By October, launch had slipped to the current Jan. 29 target.

DSCOVR (overlooking a long and grinding history of delay associated with the radical change in the spacecraft’s mission since then-Vice President Al Gore proposed the project in the 1990s to provide a 24/7 view of the entire sunlit side of the Earth) was recently scheduled for launch Jan. 23. However, the delay of another SpaceX launch — a commercial cargo delivery to the international space station for NASA that slipped from Dec. 19 to Jan. 10 because of problems with the company’s Falcon 9 rocket — forced DSCOVR to postpone until Jan. 29.

Dara Entekhabi, SMAP science team lead, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, center, speaks during a briefing about the upcoming launch of the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission  Jan. 08, 2015, at NASA Headquarter.
SMAP science team lead Dara Entekhabi, center, and colleagues briefed reporters Jan. 8 at NASA Headquarters. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

SMAP science team lead Dara Entekhabi, center, and colleagues briefed reporters Jan. 8 at NASA Headquarters

So it’s possible the rare, cross-coast launch special may not happen Jan. 29 after all, depending on factors both within and beyond the control of the payload owners and launch vehicle operators.

But for now, preparations continue for a Jan. 29 double-header, NOAA and NASA spokesmen wrote in Jan. 13 emails.

Soil Moisture Active Passive and DSCOVR are “launching from the Western Range and the Eastern Range, respectively. As such, different assets are responsible for each launch, and one will not affect the other,” NASA spokesman Joshua Buck  said.

NOAA spokesman John Leslie confirmed the agency is working toward a Jan. 29 launch and added NOAA is “not at all” worried that a same-day NASA launch would affect DSCOVR, which  will operate at the gravitationally stable sun-Earth Lagrange point 1 as NOAA’s latest early-warning space weather buoy.

NASA spokesman Steve Cole likewise affirmed a Jan. 29 launch date for the Soil Moisture Active Passive mission. Once operational in its near-polar orbit, the Earth Science satellite will beam down the moisture content of the top five centimeters of soil around the globe every three days.

“The U.S. can launch two satellites on the same day,” Cole said.

Hat tip to spacelaunchreport.com for its extensive, archival box-score of worldwide space launches.