The Air Force has opened a “polar corridor” that would allow certain rockets to launch spacecraft from Cape Canaveral into north-south orbits circling the poles, a development that could bring more launches to Florida.
Polar launches historically have been flown from Vandenberg Air Force Base on California’s Central Coast, where a small number of missions each year fly south over the Pacific Ocean toward Antarctica.
Cape launches most often head east to send satellites on their way around the equator. Polar trajectories have been avoided since a 1960 Navy launch inadvertently dropped a Thor rocket stage on Cuba, reportedly killing a cow.
But now, says Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, commander of the 45th Space Wing, “We can shoot south.”
No near-term missions plan to use the new polar corridor, but over time it could lead to more Cape launches and consolidation of the nation’s launch infrastructure.
Both the military and commercial launchers could save money by no longer having to maintain and staff infrastructure sites on both coasts.
“Adding polar missions to the Cape’s manifest might be very attractive to the Air Force, especially as they consider a new round of base closures in the near future,” said Edward Ellegood, an analyst at Saalex Solutions, a range operations contractor at Kennedy Space Center.
“This would also be a boon for the commercial launch industry in Florida,” said Ellegood. “United Launch Alliance, SpaceX, Orbital ATK and Blue Origin could reduce the costs associated with operating facilities and deploying personnel to the West Coast for only a few missions per year.”
The Eastern Range began analyzing options for polar launches as a wild fire raged near Vandenberg in September 2016. The fire damaged power and communications lines and delayed a commercial mission by two months.
How could the 45th Space Wing support national security missions if fires closed Vandenberg for 12, 18 or 24 months, Monteith asked his safety and flight analysts?
First, they looked north, but Newfoundland proved too difficult an obstacle. Turning their attention south, a path materialized.
“They crunched numbers for about eight months, and I am confident we can go south,” said Monteith.
Monteith did not detail the precise trajectory, but said it involved “a little jog shortly off the pad” to turn south once offshore, “and then we’d skirt Miami.”
The rocket’s first stage would drop safely before reaching Cuba, he said. The second stage would be so high up by the time it flew over the island that no special permissions would be required.
There is one condition: southbound rockets must be equipped with automated flight termination systems, in which onboard computers command rockets to self-destruct if they should veer off course.
Otherwise, exhaust plumes could disturb the destruct signals sent by traditional systems, requiring down range tracking equipment that the Air Force has eliminated over the years.
Today, only SpaceX’s single-stick Falcon 9 rocket could fly the polar corridor, and the company has no stated plans to use it, even as it is midway through an eight-launch campaign from Vandenberg for Iridium Communications.
But every big rocket is expected to be equipped with automated destruct systems within a decade. United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan, Blue Origin’s New Glenn — both still in development — and SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy might be cleared to fly south within a few years.
Blue Origin, which has a contract to launch OneWeb satellites into polar orbits in the 2020s, does not yet have a Vandenberg launch site and says those missions could launch from the Cape.
“New Glenn has the capability and performance to launch customers into polar orbit from Florida,” the company said in a statement. “We are working diligently to finish our launch site at Launch Complex 36 so we can meet the market demands of commercial, civil, and national security customers from the Space Coast.”
Brian Holz, CEO of OneWeb Satellites, which next year will start building satellites at KSC, said a polar launch option from Florida would benefit rocket and satellite providers.
“From a OneWeb Satellites perspective, having the satellite manufacturing located next door to a launch facility that has such flexibility would be a huge benefit,” he said.
Beyond satellite launches, the corridor could open opportunities to rendezvous with the International Space Station as it flew to the north or south.
KSC’s Launch Services Program, which launches NASA’s planetary probes and science missions, said it was not involved in the trajectory analysis and that it was up to rocket companies to select launch sites.
The Cape’s southern corridor may be about more than geography.
Though Vandenberg typically hosts just a few orbital rocket launches a year (but eight in 2017), getting on its schedule can be a challenge. The base must prioritize test flights of Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles and Missile Defense Agency interceptors, and is not as accustomed to quick turnarounds between launches.
In addition, Monteith said his counterpart leading the 30th Space Wing does not enjoy the same level of support found on the Space Coast.
“He was talking about things that I have no experience with whatsoever, and that is almost an adversarial relationship with the local community and state on bringing in new business and fostering commercial growth,” Monteith said at a Dec. 12 transportation conference at Port Canaveral. “They are at a crossroads.”
Monteith, on the other hand, is touting improvements that would enable up to 48 Cape launches annually within five years, up from 19 this year.
Of course, the Cape also is vulnerable to natural disasters. The 45th Space Wing is still cleaning up damage from a second hurricane in as many years.
Whatever operational challenges exist at Vandenberg, Matt Desch, CEO of Iridium Communications, which just completed its fourth launch of the year from Vandenberg with SpaceX and preparing for four more next year, said he’s happy with the site.
He praised Monteith’s can-do, customer-focused attitude, but said he’s not looking for alternatives. Plus, he joked, the Vandenberg area offers some post-launch advantages.
“I’m not a complainer about California,” he said. “And I’ve got to tell you, they’ve got awesome vineyards. The celebrations afterwards are fantastic.”
Contact Dean at 321-242-3668 or firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow on Twitter at @flatoday_jdean and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/FlameTrench.
Article by James Dean, Florida Today, Complete Article [ HERE ]