Predicting weather for space missions is tough enough. But when
forecasts cover part of Florida's lightning alley, where a rocket
blasting off could spur strikes, the demands of the job can
“Launches can trigger lightning strikes even when
you don't have lightning in the area,” said Kathy Winters, a launch
weather officer with the 45th Weather Squadron, which tracks the
climate around Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
electrical field, Winters explains, may already be present in the
clouds. So when a rocket blasts off, it can induce a lightning
strike with its trail of exhaust -- a conductive path to the ground.
If a strike happens to hit a rocket, there's a chance it could
damage the self-destruct system, the only way to destroy an errant
February 24, 2016 - USAF Staff Sgts. Brad Owens and Stephanie Cole,
and Senior Airman Henry Lero, all range weather forecasters with the
45th Weather Squadron, collect data ahead of an upcoming space
launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The squadron
uses more than $80 million worth of equipment to analyze weather
patterns in the 500-square-mile area. (U.S. Air Force photo by Sean Kimmons)
“It's all about safety and that's a big reason why we do
what we do on launch day,” said Tech Sgt. Matthew Mong, a
range weather forecaster with the squadron.
basically sending up a giant conventional explosive,” he
added. “And if you can't control when and how it goes, then
there are potentially millions of people at risk.”
Windows of Opportunity
Space mission experts aim for specific times when they
can launch rockets into orbit. Some launch windows are
merely seconds, while others can be a few hours long.
“It's all about the orbit you're trying to get into,”
Winters said. “Or if it's a rendezvous [with another
spacecraft] it's going to be an even shorter launch window.”
Much of the squadron's efforts are focused on these
windows. If a launch has to be scrubbed due to weather, the
delay could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Forecasters attempt to avoid these costly delays, without
being ruled by them.
“You can't be worried about how
much it's going to cost,” Winters said of delays. “You have
to be focused on the weather rules and procedures. Everybody
wants to see the rocket go, but only when it's the right
Armed with $80 million-plus worth of
equipment, from towers, sensors and radars, the squadron's
forecasters strive to be as accurate as possible. After all,
with 30 launches scheduled this year, a lot is riding on
Even when one team member is a no go for launch
due to weather observations, especially wind speed and
direction, the whole squadron is a no go.
that to the range. It's then up to them if they want to
launch,” said Winters, noting she's never seen a weather
rule waived since 2000 when she first started.
half of scrubbed missions are weather related, she added.
Located between the Banana River and Atlantic Ocean, the
spaceport gets wind gusts from opposing sides that can spawn
erratic weather. There's also the rare chance of a tornado
or hurricane stalling missions.
“The weather is never
boring, never redundant,” Winters said. “It's very
Space launches, she noted, can handle
strong winds anywhere from 20 to 50 mph, depending on the
Forecasters try to glean reliable estimates
from studying weather patterns in several 5-mile rings that
dot the 500-square-mile area they cover. The tailored
forecasts help thousands of Airmen and mission partners stay
at work on critical missions when severe weather looms.
“It lets us keep things rolling,” Mong said of the radar
system. “If we just did a blanket forecast we could stop
work for hours for everyone and we wouldn't get a whole lot
Besides radar, simple but effective
weather balloons mine the sky for upper-air conditions
throughout the day, with more balloons used on launch days.
“That pretty much drives all model forecasting,” Mong
said of data collected by balloons that go as high as
115,000 feet. “Without it, we couldn't really do much.”
When lightning is present, he added, forecasters
remotely roll out a “weatherbot” to release a balloon while
its operator stays indoors.
Without accurate data,
the odds of a rocket going up on its launch day are greatly
impacted. Even with all the squadron's gadgets, the stormy
nature of Central Florida still tests forecasters.
“It's a great location with not so great weather for what
we're trying to do,” Mong said. “But it's an ideal place
because of the ocean and the large area here that gives us
more launch options.”
By U.S. Air Force Sean Kimmons
Air Force News Service
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