Friday, August 30, 2013

Historic September on the Mid-Atlantic Space Coast

The Antares rocket on its test launch to orbit on April 21, 2013. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

September along the Mid-Atlantic shore usually means smaller crowds and lower lodging rates even as the air and water temperatures still hold on to summer warmth. This September, however, history will be made on the Delmarva Peninsula as two historic launches take place at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops Island, VA. Wallops Island is situated within easy driving distance of millions of residents of Washington, DC, Baltimore and other east coast cities. The spaceport is located close to popular vacation destinations including Chincoteague, VA, known for its wild pony population, and Ocean City, MD, the popular family beach resort.

The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) is scheduled to be launched on a Minotaur V rocket on Friday September 6 at 11:27 PM. The night launch will be visible for hundreds of miles from several states around the launch site (weather permitting).

LADEE will be the first spacecraft to be launched to the Moon (or anywhere else beyond Earth orbit) from Wallops Island. NASA describes LADEE as “a robotic mission that will orbit the moon to gather detailed information about the lunar atmosphere, conditions near the surface and environmental influences on lunar dust. A thorough understanding of these characteristics will address long-standing unknowns, and help scientists understand other planetary bodies as well.”

The LADEE liftoff may not be the last deep space launch from Wallops. A number of commercial ventures have plans to prospect and eventually mine resources of the Moon and the asteroids and might chose the Virginia launch site for some of their missions.

Around September 17, late morning, Orbital Sciences Corporation is scheduled to launch its first Cygnus spacecraft on its demonstration mission to carry cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). If this mission is successful, Orbital will proceed to launch at least eight cargo missions to the ISS over the next several years (joining SpaceX, another company that launches its ISS cargo runs from Florida). The Cygnus cargo ship will be launched on Orbital’s new Antares rocket, which was successfully launched on its test launch in April. NASA has been seeking American companies to launch cargo, and eventually crewmembers, to the ISS to fill the role provided by the Space Shuttle program, which was retired two years ago.

These missions being launched from Wallops Island in September may be a harbinger of more activity to come. The Cygnus cargo launches are part of NASA’s strategy of acting more as a customer for commercial launch services to Earth orbit while it focuses on exploring more distant destinations.

However, these launches to the ISS are by no means dull. Some of the cargo going to the ISS includes experiments that will test new technologies in communications, propulsion, in-space refueling and servicing, etc. that will allow more bold future activities in space. Other experiments will have benefits here on Earth including observation of the Earth and its environment and groundbreaking research for the biotechnology industry that could improve peoples’ health and well-being. Also, small satellites called “CubeSats” built by students, researchers and industry frequently piggyback on these launches for a much lower cost than that of launching traditional larger satellites.

No launches of people are currently planned for Wallops, but as commercial space activity grows, that could change. The spaceport’s launch pads and runways could someday see crewmembers, researchers and tourists departing for and returning from space.

In the mean time, the growing space activity will benefit the Delmarva coast and the whole Mid-Atlantic region. High tech industry and jobs are growing around the launch site and tourism at the spaceport converges with that at the traditional nearby beach resorts. The spaceport will also provide nearby access to space for the government, industry and academic research institutions in the DC/Baltimore area and the rest of the Mid-Atlantic region.

It is possible to participate in the excitement happening on the Mid-Atlantic Space Coast by including a visit to the Wallops spaceport as part of your shore vacation any time of year. Launches will be visible for hundreds of miles away under favorable conditions, but to really see, hear and feel the power of a launch into space, the best option is to come to the Mid-Atlantic Space Coast and witness it close up.

For more information on these upcoming launches, please check these links:

NASA Wallops Flight Facility

Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS)

Orbital Sciences Corporation

Lodging is available in Chincoteague, VA, Pocomoke, MD, Ocean City, MD and other nearby towns in Virginia and Maryland.