In the wake of serious outage on the U.S. Air Force Eastern Range at Cape Canaveral, officials this morning released a few new details into the nature of the problem that took a tracking station out of commission. The loss of the station, due to a short circuit in a critical radar system, consequently forced indefinite delays to two important launches that were scheduled from Cape Canaveral this month.
During the final hours of the countdown for launch of the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket carring the classified NROL-67 satellite, a “range asset” went down. According to the Air Force, “an investigation revealed a tracking radar experienced an electrical short, overheating the unit and rendering it inoperable.”
The radar is necessary for the USAF 45th Space Wing to ensure safety of the public during launches. It is part of a system that tracks the rocket and predicts where the vehicle would impact the ground if something were to go wrong. In the event of an anomaly, the system is used to destroy an errant launch vehicle before it has a chance to endanger the public. Without this capability, the range could not support launch of the Atlas and so its scheduled March 25 launch was scrubbed.
Sources tell Zero-G News that the incident occurred at a tracking site on the mainland rather than a downrange station. This would indicate a radar site located on Kennedy Space Center property. Air Force representatives would neither confirm nor deny the specific radar in question.
Zero-G News sources also clarified that the event was not a structure fire, as some reports claimed, but rather a short and perhaps small electrical fire. While the Air Force would not confirm there was no actual fire, it may be noted that a structure fire at the KSC site would have been visible to thousands of KSC workers as well as local residents on Merritt Island and across the Indian River in Titusville.
As it turns out, the damage was not trivial and as a result repairs couldn’t be completed in time for what was supposed to be the next Cape launch, a SpaceX Falcon 9 delivering the Dragon CRS-3 spacecraft on a supply run to the International Space Station.
“Repair of the tracking radar will take approximately three weeks,” according to the Air Force, which is “evaluating the feasibility of returning an inactive radar to full mission capability to resume operations sooner.”
As it stands now, the 45th Space Wing will have to assess the impact to the launch schedule as well as which launch will occur next. NROL-67 has high priority on the range since it is a national security mission. However, NASA faces a challenge scheduling the launch of Dragon CRS-3 because of heavy traffic at ISS over the next month.
On April 9, a Russian Progress resupply craft is scheduled to launch and dock with the orbiting station. Hot on the heels of the Progress, an Orbital Sciences Cygnus spacecraft is targeted for launch on May 6. ISS rules restrict when spacecraft may approach the complex and require a couple days of separation between multiple vehicles arriving or leaving.
With the anticipated three-week downtime at Cape Canaveral, this means the earliest the Falcon 9 may launch is likely to be sometime after April 11. However, the 45th Space Wing requires a 48-hour turnaround between launches in order to reconfigure range assets and there is also the Atlas waiting its turn to launch.
Complicating matters further, United Launch Alliance requires one week between its launches. Another Atlas 5 launch is scheduled to take place on April 3 from the Western Range at Vandenberg, AFB in California. That Atlas will loft the DMSP-F19 weather satllite for the Department of Defense. ULA has already announced NROL-67 will wait for it and not lift off until April 10 at the earliest.
So it looks like there will be a bit of a ballet dance in the coming weeks as the Air Force, ULA, NASA, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation all work to get four missions off the ground in less than six weeks.
However, the downstream impact to the launch schedule should be minimal as long as the repair work can be completed by mid-April. The Air Force statement says that the Eastern Range is expected to be able to support all currently scheduled launches for the Fiscal Year which ends September 30.
(Written By: Zero-G News Staff)
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