Ken Kremer — SpaceUpClose.com & RocketSTEM— 3 November 2018
FL – NASA’s new science mission to study the Earth’s ionosphere – the tenuous upper
atmospheric layer at the ‘frontier of space’ forming the dynamic boundary where
Earth’s weather meets space weather – known as ICON, is tentatively slated to launch as early as this Wednesday, Nov. 7 from Florida – – amidst a
data review of the air launched Pegasus XL rocket systems to confirm whether it’s
really ready to carry it to orbit.
The Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL
rocket has been afflicted with multiple anomalies forcing multiple launch
delays over the past weeks and months – as well as a complete change
in the launch site from Kwajalein Atoll in the
Marshall Islands to the Florida Space Coast.
NASA and Northrop Grumman officials will hold a Launch
Readiness Review (LRR) on Monday or Tuesday of this week to determine the Pegasus
rockets fitness for flight and whether the launch will proceed as planned this week, officials
told Space Up Close during a media tour of the rocket and L-1011 carrier
aircraft at the Skid Strip launch site on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Friday,
Enjoy our Space UpClose photo gallery of ICON, Pegasus XL rocket and L-1011 Stargazer, direct
at the Skid Strip.
inside the nose cone of the Pegasus XL rocket that’s cradled at the belly of the
Grumman L-1011 carrier jet named ‘Stargazer’
– the very last of its kind still flying in the world.
The ICON mission was originally planned to launch in 2017
but delayed due to mishandling of the rocket motors. Since than additional delays
were caused by anomalous data signatures with the Pegasus rocket that were detected
while the L-1011 was ferrying the probe in flight from Vandenberg Air Force
“We’ve had some Pegasus issues and are still working on
them,” Omar Baez, Sr. Launch Director, Launch Services Program, NASA Kennedy Space
Center, told Space UpClose in an interview at the Skid Strip.
“When we brought the plane over from Vandenberg it was
powered up and we saw some signatures on the Pegasus launch vehicle that did
not make us happy. So we have taken the
time to change out some components and try to exonerate the issues – and are
doing some analysis.”
Originally the root cause was traced to a
faulty sensor, which was replaced. But the off-nominal data reading recurred
forcing further data reviews and launch postponements.
“We are still working on the exact root cause and trying to
recreate the issues we saw in the operating environment at altitude,” Baez
The flight and rocket teams decided to conduct another test
flight of the combined L-1011/Pegasus XL/ICON last Sunday to collect and assess data
readings during a 4-hour, 45-minute flight that tested
the aircraft’s systems prior to launch.
“We did a test flight last Sunday We want to make sure it’s
safe to fly. We didn’t see the problem
again but we are still analyzing the data,” Baez elaborated.
“We did a lot of work and it passed the review. But there
is still a lot more work to be done. It takes time to analyze the data and
absord the whole picture and convince people its safe to fly.”
“The problem was with equipment in the control system – that
was very similar to what we saw earlier. It’s taken more time than expected. So
we are analyzing that.”
“We thought we had it licked but didn’t. So we are working
the issue further to make sure it doesn’t have us licked.”
The ICON spacecraft itself has been healthy throughout.
mission is expected to launch no earlier than Wednesday, Nov. 7 with a
90-minute launch window opening at 3 a.m. EST. Release from the Stargazer is
anticipated for 3:05 a.m. EST, said the team.
LRR review goes well, the L-1011 Stargazer will fly to a target box about 200
miles off the east coast of Daytona Beach Nov. 7.
drop point. That drop point is about 200 nautical miles east of Daytona,” said
at an altitude of about 39,000 feet (12,000 meters) over the open Atlantic Ocean on an easterly heading of 105.0 degrees at 27 degree inclination to the equator.
solid fueled propulsion Pegasus basically functions as a cruise missile for science
for deploying small, lightweight satellites to low Earth orbit (LEO) – in this instance for
orbit about 11 and a half minutes later at an altitude of 380 miles (575 kilometers).
ICON circles the Earth every 97 minutes.
is the flight profile?
system at 2.5 seconds,” Bryan Baldwin, Pegasus Program Manager, Northrup Grumman, told me
in a Skid Strip interview.
“First stage motor fires after about 5 seconds. It burns
for about 88 seconds. Then separate 1st stage motor and ignite 2nd
stage. It burns for about the same amount
of time – then coasts to proper altitude for ignition of the 3rd stage motor and finalizing
orbit. We separate the spacecraft at the designated time. The whole flight
takes eleven minutes to spacecraft insertion.”
being launched at night, the Pegasus rocket flames will not be visible from the
East Coast, because its so far out and over the horizon.
“You probably can’t see anything from the shore. It’s just
too far out. It’s over the horizon due to the curvature of the Earth,” noted
TV will broadcast the launch live starting at about 2:45 a.m. EST.
Watch : https://www.nasa.gov/live
back up launch opportunity exists on Nov 8 during the same 90-minute-long window.
After that the Eastern Range is not available for roughly a week for regular maintenance
work and the team will stand down.
measures 76 inches long and 42 inches wide.
“ICON orbits at an operational altitude of 575 km – and the
instruments are all looking down in a horizontal orientation all the time. Except the ion meter which makes measurements
at the orbiting altitude,” said Robert Lockwood, Program Director, Science & Environmental
Satellites, Northrop Grumman, in an interview with Space UpClose at the Skid
“There is no fuel onboard.”
“It uses regular reaction wheels for standard pointing at
ICON is encapsulated inside the Pegasus nose cone. The
rocket is 57 feet (17 meters) long, 4.2 meters wing diameter
and weighs 52,920 pounds (24,000 kg).
shaped spacecraft is about a meter in diameter. It is powered by a single 5 panel solar array that when deployed
extends to the length of a door – 8 1/3 feet long and 2 ¾ feet wide.
ICON will study the ionosphere
– “the mixed layer of charged and neutral particles extending from about 50 to
360 miles above Earth’s surface, through which radio communications and GPS
signals travel, and the processes there that can distort or even disrupt these
signals. Knowledge gleaned from this mission will aid in mitigating its effects
on satellites and communications technology worldwide.”
a baselined 2-year-long mission, ICON will explore the turbulent upper
atmospheric ionosphere zone at the interface between the Earth’s terrestrial weather
below and space weather above where giant winds whip up the particles – ionized
by solar radiation.
The ionosphere is a “dynamic zone high in
Earth’s atmosphere can be a source of great beauty such as the aurora, but can
also be disruptive to radio communications and satellites and astronaut health.
ICON will help determine the physical processes at play in this “frontier of
space,” thus paving the way for mitigating their effects on our technology,
communications systems and society.”
ICON was built by Northrop Grumman and is based on the LEOStar-2
The science operations team is led by the University of
California, Berkeley. The probe is equipped with a suite four science
instruments that will track changes physical and chemical properties of the neutral
and charged atmospheric particles; MIGHTI, EUV, FUV and IVM.
“The ICON mission is looking at the interaction of the ionosphere
and the charged layer of particles at the top of the atmosphere with space
weather,” Lockwood explained.
“It has 4 instruments altogether including two UV
instruments [EUV & FUV], an in situ ion velocity meter [IVM] to measure the
speed of charged particles, and MIGHTI to measure the speed and temperature of
particles in the neutral atmosphere.”
“We know there are effects and correlation with whats
happening in the atmosphere and weather. But we don’t really know why.”
“So the science we are doing with ICON is are making
measurements to understand how the
weather systems effect the profile in the ionosphere.”
Overall this mission marks the 44th launch of
Pegasus XL since the maiden flight in 1990.
last Pegasus launch took place in December for the launch of NASA’s $157
million hurricane forecasting mission. Space UpClose was on hand – my photos
Pegasus XL was the world’s first air-launched rocket
launching satellites to orbit. It utilizes the L-1011 carrier aircraft as an “air-breathing
reusable first stage” according to Northrop Grumman.
ICON is a NASA Explorer class
mission managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD.
Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite coverage of NASA, SpaceX, ULA,
Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and more space and mission reports direct
from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida and
Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science
and human spaceflight news: www.kenkremer.com –www.spaceupclose.com –
twitter @ken_kremer – email: ken at kenkremer.com
Dr. Kremer is a research
scientist and journalist based in the KSC area.
Ken’s photos are for sale and he is available for lectures and outreach events