This evening, SpaceX launched another rocket from Florida, but this vehicle took a very different kind of path than most flights from the East Coast. Rather than head eastward after launch as most Florida missions do, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket headed south after liftoff, skirting over Florida’s southeast coast and heading over Cuba.
That’s because this mission was headed to what is known as a polar orbit — a path that runs mostly north-to-south over the Earth’s poles. It’s a type of mission you don’t normally see taking place from Florida. In fact, this will be the first time since 1969 that a rocket taking off from Florida heads southward.
Up until now, most polar launches in the US have taken place from the southern coast of California. That way, the rockets fly over open ocean when they head southward and not over populated land. Rockets that launch from Florida head eastward toward the equator, so that they also fly over mostly open ocean before getting to space.
But back in 2016, the Air Force began studying the possibility of bringing polar launches to Florida after wildfires got significantly close to Vandenberg Air Force Base, the US’s main California launch site for all polar launches. The fire caused damage to surrounding infrastructure and delayed one launch for up to two months, according to Florida Today. The 45th Space Wing, which oversees launches out of Cape Canaveral, Florida, crunched the numbers and found that polar launches could be done — with some caveats.
As of today, only SpaceX can fly this unique path from Florida because of how its Falcon 9 rockets are designed. The company’s rocket has an automatic flight safety system, which means the vehicle can self-destruct on its own — without input from the ground — if it strays off its path or something goes wrong. That’s important for flying this polar route. Since the rockets will be flying close to populated areas, any deviation from flight must be handled swiftly to keep people safe on the ground. But it’s possible that the plumes of gas coming from the rocket’s engines could interfere with any signals that are sent from the ground to self-destruct. So the Falcon 9 has to be able to blow itself up without human help.
Future vehicles are expected to fly with these autonomous safety systems, which would allow them to fly southward from Florida, too. But for now, SpaceX is the one bringing polar launches back to the Florida coast. The company’s Falcon 9 rocket lifted off at 7:18PM ET out of SpaceX’s launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The rocket then headed south, skimming the southeastern Florida coast near Miami and then flying over Cuba. The 45th Space Wing claims that Miami is not in any danger during these types of missions, and that Cuba should be out of harm’s way, as well. “It will overfly Cuba, but it’ll be at an altitude that we’re safe, just like when we’re going north,” Brig. Gen. Douglas Schiess, commander of the 45th Space Wing, said during a press call. “As we get up into the northern part of North America, we start to overfly some islands as well, but we’re at a safer altitude at that point.”
Schiess said that the Falcon 9 rocket followed the right path that will make sure people will be safe. “I know that we’re meeting all the safety requirements now, and it really comes down to being at the right altitude [and] speed at that time — to make sure that any debris that were to fall would be small enough, or not even impact any land, which makes this ability to launch that from a safe perspective.”
The main satellite on this launch was SAOCOM 1B, while two small satellites hitched along for a ride. SAOCOM 1B is the second of two identical Earth-observing satellites that SpaceX has contracted to launch for Argentina’s space agency. Together, the two satellites will use radar to observe the planet to hunt for disasters that could disrupt industries like agriculture, mining, fishing, and more. The satellite is going to a polar orbit known as sun-synchronous orbit. The path allows satellites to pass over the same patch of Earth at the same time each day, which is great for Earth observation satellites hoping to track changes to locations on the planet over time.
For this mission, SpaceX used a Falcon 9 rocket that’s flown to space three times before. After liftoff, the rocket successfully landed back on SpaceX’s ground landing pad near the launch site in Florida. SAOCOM 1B deployed just 14 minutes after takeoff, while the two small satellites will deploy about an hour after launch.
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