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Orbital ATK Rocket to launch eight NASA satellites into orbit

Tomorrow, NASA will attempt to launch eight small satellites to space on board a Pegasus XL rocket, manufactured by private spaceflight company Orbital ATK. Called the CYGNSS mission, the probes are meant to study various aspects of tropical storms and hurricanes from orbit, in order to help scientists better understand how these cyclones form. But launching these satellites into orbit won’t look like your typical trip to space, where a rocket takes off vertically from a launch pad on the ground. Instead, this launch will take place in the air.

That’s because the Pegasus XL rocket launches after being dropped from the belly of an airplane. First, Orbital’s Stargazer L-1011 aircraft will take off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida and carry the rocket to a target drop zone over the Atlantic Ocean, an area that sits at an altitude of 39,000 feet. There, the Pegasus is released and ignites its main rocket motor about five seconds later. The vehicle will then ignite two additional motors over the course of the flight to get to the right altitude and orientation for the eight spacecraft to deploy properly into lower Earth orbit.

ASA will then make contact with the satellites about three hours after they’ve deployed, and that’s when the science work begins. From orbit, the CYGNSS satellites will be studying the ocean surface winds within the inner cores of hurricanes — important indicators of how intense a storm can get. To do this, the probes will receive reflected signals from GPS satellites, which will allow the CYGNSS team to “see” through the parts of hurricanes where it’s raining and measure the surface winds in those areas. It’s something that most Earth science missions aren’t able to do, according to NASA. These measurements will help scientists better predict how strong a hurricane or storm is going to be when it makes landfall.

Tomorrow’s mission gets underway at 7:11AM ET, when Orbital’s Stargazer airplane taxis onto the runway before taking off at 7:26AM ET. The launch window for the Pegasus rocket then opens about an hour later at 8:19AM ET, with release of the vehicle slated for 8:24AM ET. Up until now, weather hasn’t looked too great for the mission. There was a 40 percent chance of favorable conditions, thanks to a cold front that just moved through southern Florida. As the front moves out of the area, there’s a chance that the region could see some rain, and Orbital ATK doesn’t want to launch the Pegasus through any precipitation or heavy clouds. It seems that the weather forecast has improved somewhat though, as there’s now a 60 percent chance of good conditions. But if the launch doesn’t happen tomorrow, there is always backup option on Tuesday.

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