Technical Problems Postpone Falcon 9 Launch of DSCOVR

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Updated 11:55 a.m. EST Feb. 9.

WASHINGTON — A pair of technical problems, one with the launch vehicle and the other with the range, postponed the scheduled Feb. 8 launch of a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a space and Earth sciences satellite until at least Feb. 10.

Launch controllers halted the countdown for the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) spacecraft with about two and half minutes remaining before liftoff. Controllers said an issue with a tracking radar operated by the U.S. Air Force at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida forced them to scrub the launch.

Earlier in the countdown, controllers also reported an issue with a telemetry transmitter on the Falcon 9 first stage. It was not clear if that transmitter was required for launch, however. In a tweet immediately after the launch was postponed, SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk said the transmitter was “not needed for launch, but nice to have.”

NASA announced shortly after the scrub that the launch has been tentatively rescheduled for 6:07 p.m. EST Feb. 9, pending work on both the rocket and the tracking radar. However, officials announced early Feb. 9 that due to poor weather, the next launch attempt will be Feb. 10 at 6:05 p.m. EST.

An additional launch attempt is available on Feb. 11, according to NASA. Should the launch not take place by then, the next launch opportunity would not be until Feb. 20. All the launch windows are considered “instantaneous,” lasting one second, so any issues that halt the countdown prevent the launch from taking place that day.

DSCOVR is a joint mission of NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Air Force. The spacecraft will operate from the Earth-sun Lagrange point 1, about 1.5 million kilometers from the Earth in the direction of the sun. It will provide early warnings of solar storms, a mission similar to NASA’s existing Advanced Composition Explorer spacecraft there.

The mission has attracted attention in part because DSCOVR had its origins in a NASA Earth observation mission called Triana that the space agency started in the late 1990s at the instigation of then Vice President Al Gore. NASA cancelled Triana in 2001 and put the completed spacecraft in storage until resurrected in 2009 with a new focus on solar observations.

 

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, right, and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) talk with reporters covering the DSCOVR launch. Credit: NASA/Kim Shift
Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, right, and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) talk with reporters covering the DSCOVR launch. Credit: NASA/Kim Shift

SpaceX also plans to use the launch to attempt to recover the Falcon 9 first stage on a ship located about 600 kilometers downrange of the launch site. On the previous Falcon 9 launch Jan. 10, SpaceX attempted to land the stage, but it crashed on the ship’s deck when it ran out of hydraulic fluid used by four fins that help steer the stage.

At a pre-launch press conference Feb. 7, SpaceX vice president of mission assurance Hans Koenigsmann said that while this first stage has additional hydraulic fluid, the different trajectory of this launch means the stage will be reentering at a higher velocity and twice the dynamic pressure. “That makes it a little less likely to succeed,” he said.

Musk also set expectations in a tweet a few hours prior to the attempted launch, warning landing the stage would be “much tougher” on this mission.