Aborted rocket to launch on Friday

  • Doug Voss, deputy chief of the Wallops Flight Facility, at the Nasa tracking facility on Cooper’s Island (Photograph by Fiona McWhirter)

An aborted US rocket launch expected to be visible from Bermuda last Sunday could lift off later this week, it was revealed yesterday.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration said the launch had been rescheduled to 4.43pm Bermuda time on Friday.

A spokesman said the new date was set to take advantage of an improved weather outlook and so that replaced equipment could be tested ahead of the mission from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

Chuck Grant, the mission engineer at the Nasa tracking station on Cooper’s Island, said last week that residents might see “a little speck with dust flying off it” a few minutes after the launch.

He explained that Bermuda was well placed to assist with “public safety” after teams in Virginia would no longer be able to monitor the spacecraft because of the curvature of the earth.

Mr Grant said: “Nasa needs to ensure that the spacecraft reaches orbit safely.

“The Bermuda site is situated such that we can track the vehicle all the way into space and we can destroy it if need be.”

He explained that could happen if the spacecraft went off course or if there was “some anomaly on board”.

Mr Grant added that tracking sites worked on “line of sight”.

He said: “After our facility in Virginia loses the line of sight, Bermuda picks it up.”

Doug Voss, the deputy chief of the Wallops range, highlighted the key role played by the tracking station in St George’s when he visited last week.

He said: “It’s important to note that Wallops Flight Facility and Nasa are really thrilled to be working with the Bermuda Government so well and to rebuild this relationship and to re-establish this tracking site for the benefit of the agency and for Bermudians; this is how we like to do business.”

Nasa built the station in St David’s in 1961 to help spacecraft launched from the Wallops range and the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

It supported the Gemini space programme that year as well as every manned space flight that Nasa flew, a total of 118 missions including the historic first Moon landing flight of Apollo 11.

The station was closed in 1997.

The revamped facility was opened in 2018 after a $5.3 million renovation project.

Mr Voss said: “We anticipate that the Bermuda station will become important for the Space Launch System which is Nasa’s newest, largest rocket that’s part of the Artemis programme to go to the Moon and beyond to Mars.”

Mr Voss said Nasa’s relationship with the Government meant that the space agency could help to deliver science, technology, engineering and maths educational programmes, assisted by the US Consulate.

He explained: “We’ve worked with the Bermuda Government to set up activities for Bermudian teachers here and we’ve sent our educators and technical experts out here to work with them and help teach them how to develop programmes to inspire their students to get involved in engineering, science and space research.”

Nasa was expected to launch Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft at 6.39pm last Sunday.

However, just after the scheduled take-off time, it was announced the attempt had been cancelled because of “off-nominal data from the ground support equipment”.

An update on the space agency’s website said yesterday: “Northrop Grumman and Nasa have set the next launch attempt for February 14 to take advantage of an improved weather forecast, to provide time for testing the replaced ground sensors, and to allow for refresh of critical late load science.

“The weather forecast calls for 80 per cent favourable weather conditions.”

The mission was set up to deliver about 8,000lb of research equipment, crew supplies and hardware to the International Space Station.

Northrop Grumman named the Cygnus spacecraft Robert H Lawrence in honour of the first African-American to be selected as an astronaut.

The US Air Force chose Major Lawrence in 1967 as one of the third group of aerospace research pilots for the manned orbiting laboratory programme.

However, Major Lawrence was killed in a training flight a few months later.

Nasa TV coverage of the launch will begin at 4.15pm Bermuda time on Friday.