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May 19, 2009

Virginia rocket launch "GO" for tonight

The U.S. Air Force will try again this evening to launch its TacSat-3 satellite from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia's Eastern Shore. Weather conditions are expected to be favorable, with only a 10 percent chance that bad weather would stop the countdown.

UPDATE 4 p.m.: Weather is now 100 percent GO for launch.

Two attempts to launch the satellite earlier this month were stopped by bad weather. A third attempt ended 2 minutes before liftoff because of a technical problem. The only "issue" controllers were watching was a potential conflict in the use of the launch range. Not clear whether that's still an issue this morning. 

NASA/WallopsThis week's clear weather will make this a terrific opportunity for Marylanders to see the launch from wherever they are. The high-pressure system that moved in late yesterday has cleared the skies, providing ideal conditions for long-distance observation of the launch. It could be visible for hundreds of miles, from the Carolinas to southern New England, and as far west as eastern Kentucky.

The launch window at Wallops opens at 7:35 p.m. and lasts until 11:30 p.m. All we will need here in Baltimore is an unobstructed view toward the southeast. If the launch comes early enough in the launch window - even well after sunset - the sun should illuminate the rocket's smoke trail quite nicely. Later on, we may only get a view of the 69-foot Minotaur's fiery plume as it rises toward orbit.

Here's a delightful YouTube video of a Minotaur launch in California in 2006. It gives you a pretty good idea of what to expect. And here's Joe Rao's blog from the Hayden Planetarium on the first attempt on May 5. It includes a picture of a previous Minotaur launch that also gives you an idea of what to look for.

If successful, this launch will be only the third satellite to be sent into orbit from Wallops - both atop Minotaurs. The first was in December 2006, in a launch that was clearly visible from Baltimore. The second was in April 2007, but clouds obscured the view from here. An earlier attempt, in October 1995, ended in a spectacular failure as the Conestoga rocket went awry and had to be destroyed high over the Virginia beaches.

The Minotaur rocket was assembled by Orbital Science Corp. The lower two stages come from a decommissioned Minuteman ballistic missile. The upper two stages include motors from Orbital's Taurus and Pegasus rockets.

The $60 million TacSat-3 satellite is an Air Force technology package designed to demonstrate new systems for providing combat forces with battlefield information. The Minotaur will also carry a NASA/Wallopssmall NASA biological research satellite called PharmaSat, and three two-pound "picosatellites" built by private and university researchers.

One of the picosatellites is HawkSat-1, by the Hawk Institute for Space Sciences, in Pocomoke City, Md. It would be the first Earth satellite to be designed, built and launched from the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia.

To track the countdown via NASA Webcast, go to:

For Twitter updates:

For phone updates: 757 824-2050

If you're in the Wallops area, tune your car radio to 760 AM.  

Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:42 AM | | Comments (14)
Categories: Sky Watching


Frank if see it will report. Also saw the ISS on May 10 here in Glen Burnie, thanks to your alert.

FR: By all means, anyone who sees the launch is urged to report back here. Let us know where you were and what you saw. I will be out of pocket tonight, but will post your comments ASAP.

Can the launch be seen from down here in Charlotte, NC? What direction should I look to see it (probably the northeast, I guess)?

FR: If the skies are clear, you have a shot at seeing it. Look northeast from your location.

We saw it quite easily from Owings Mills. It was well above the horizon, probably 45 deg, due east when we saw it. Long white cylinder with an equally long light grey plume. My kids loved it; they claimed they could see the staging but I could not tell. Unfortunately the camera stayed in the house (stupid!). Thanks for the info and links.

Hey Frank, tweeted you as well, launch was very visible from my location, came up just off of due south, towards the west. Flare from engines was dim but visible for a short time in low altitude, exhaust trail very visible. Had visual on Minotaur to a higher point then expected.

Winchester VA: Watched the launch on my PC and then jumped outside to see if it was visible (at 7:55, still lots of daylight). No obvious signs, but after a minute or two, noticed a faint smoke plume to the SSE, going from the horizon straight up, so it definitely wasn't a jet.

Hey Frank,

I am a Meteorology/Oceanography intern down at Wallops for the summer. I was at the launch tonight and it was awesome in everyway. I was just across on of the back bays from Wallops Island and the launch pad. I hope everyone was able to see it back in Baltimore.

My daughter just called me from Fall River Massachusetts and said they saw it pretty well, especially when it got in front of the sun.

I was able to view the launch from my backyard in Ellicott City. I didn't have a clear view of the horizon, but I finally picked up the trail of smoke.

Sorry to post your comments so late, but I was out hosting a birthday dinner. I did manage to watch the launch with my daughter from the foot of Bond Street in Fells Point. She picked it up first, rising above Tide Point on a thin trail of smoke. A bit hard to pick out against the haze near the horizon. But through binoculars it was quite visible, rising - as several here have said - much higher than I expected. I, too, thought I saw some staging, or at least puffs of smoke, as it climbed. Cool.

My 5 year old daughter and I watched from Westminster. Of course, she spotted it before I did. Was much more visible and went much higher than I anticipated.

FR: Ditto. My daughter spotted it before I did, too. I got it in my binoculars and followed it quite high. But I still had trouble seeing it through the haze over Baltimore Harbor.,

From Winston-Salem, NC: I saw a previous launch while driving without knowing about it, so I was surprised to see nothing this time. Also had friend near Raleigh who saw nothing despite excellent conditions and clear horizon. Did this vehicle have different trajectory than previous?

FR: They all launch almost due east. Maybe the light angle was bad for you. Folks in Maryland seem to have had better luck.

I missed the actual launch (forgot to realize that the streaming web video lags behind realtime) but saw the contrail clearly from Eldersburg. My parents who live in Ocean Pines told me that it was spectacular from their vantage point.

I am 7 years old and live in Millsboro, DE. It was awesome to see!!


We saw a bright light shining straight down around 7:45pm, had no idea what it was, finding out now it was the rocket, we live in central PA, my kids thought it was so cool!!

FR: Sorry I lost track of this launch. Distracted Friday by the water main break. It's good to hear some folks saw it anyway. Well Done!

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About Frank Roylance
This site is the Maryland Weather archive. The current Maryland Weather blog can be found here.
Frank Roylance is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun. He came to Baltimore from New Bedford, Mass. in 1980 to join the old Evening Sun. He moved to the morning Sun when the papers merged in 1992, and has spent most of his time since covering science, including astronomy and the weather. One of The Baltimore Sun's first online Web logs, the Weather Blog debuted in October 2004. In June 2006 Frank also began writing comments on local weather and stargazing for The Baltimore Sun's print Weather Page. Frank also answers readers’ weather queries for the newspaper and the blog. Frank Roylance retired in October 2011. Maryland Weather is now being updated by members of The Baltimore Sun staff

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