OCEAN CITY — With another major hurricane pounding Bermuda on Thursday, a major rocket launch from NASA’s nearby Wallops Island Flight Facility originally set for Friday night has been pushed back to Sunday night.
NASA and its private sector partner Orbital ATK were originally scheduled to launch an upgraded Antares 230 rocket from the Wallops Island Flight Facility on Thursday, but that launch date was moved back to Friday earlier this week because of technical issues. However, with the powerful Hurricane Nicole swirling out in the Atlantic, the launch date was moved again to Sunday. If all goes as planned, the massive Antares is expected to launch shortly after 8 p.m. on Sunday.
Wallops officials announced on Thursday that NASA was closely monitoring Hurricane Nicole as it bore down on Bermuda because of the launch’s support systems on the island. The Antares rocket’s trajectory takes it from Wallops on Virginia’s Atlantic coast just south of Assateague and Ocean City across Bermuda on its flight into orbit. In addition, NASA and Orbital ATK maintain a tracking station on Bermuda that provides downrange tracking, telemetry and flight termination support if needed.
As of Thursday afternoon, the eye of Hurricane Nicole was passing over Bermuda as a category 3 hurricane with sustained winds of 120 miles per hour. Nicole had reached category 4 status on Wednesday night with sustained winds of 130 mph, but had weakened slightly on Thursday as it approached Bermuda.
At any rate, when the storm passes Bermuda and heads out to the middle of the Atlantic as expected, the protocols for the Antares launch from Wallops will be set in motion and the rocket is expected to go up shortly after 8 p.m. on Sunday. The Antares measures about 131 feet tall, or the equivalent of a 13-story building, and depending on a variety of factors, the launch will likely be seen across much of the eastern U.S. from Florida to Canada and as far west as Indiana and Michigan.
With the Wallops Island Flight Facility just about 30 miles south of Ocean City and Worcester County, residents and visitors in the resort area should have perhaps the best view of the spectacle. Because the Antares is scheduled for a night launch, the size and intensity of the viewing area is expected to be enhanced.
A major launch from Wallops is always met with anticipation for many in the resort area and across the Lower Shore, but next week’s Antares launch carries an added significance. In October 2014, NASA and its private-sector partner Orbital Sciences attempted to launch an Antares rocket carrying 5,000 pounds of cargo including food, instruments and other supplies to the International Space Station from Wallops, but the mission was aborted seconds after liftoff in a fiery explosion on the launch pad.
The Antares rocket carrying the Cygnus spacecraft to the ISS briefly went up as planned, but the mission was aborted just seconds after takeoff. The Antares was purposely blown up after problems were detected with the launch and the rocket fell back down to the launch pad causing a second explosion.
The Antares was unmanned and no casualties were reported, but the aborted mission did extensive damage to Wallops and set back an ambitious launch program from the flight facility just as it was gaining momentum. Nearly two years later, with the injection of roughly $20 million in federal funding and a ton of work from the private and public partners, Wallops has recovered and has become a significant partner for Worcester County.