With the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing on July 20th, and the latest shuttle flight, STS-127 Endeavor scheduled to lift off this week from Kennedy Space Center, why not find out what role the weather plays in a successful launch. Needless to say, weather is an integral part if lift off is a go or no go. All meteorological aspects including temperature, sky conditions, winds and location of precipitation or thunderstorms can be the deciding factor in a launch being scrubbed.
First and foremost, planning for when the shuttle takes off for space is determined many months, if not years in advance. The astronauts that are a part of a mission spend years preparing for their mission, which can vary from dropping off a few parts for the International Space Station, to making space walks to do repairs to satellites, to conducting various science experiences in the gravity free realm that is space.
Focusing back on the weather end of the mission, it is imperative that all involved with the lift off and landing of the shuttle know about the forecast and on the day of launch, the latest conditions. Let's start off with temperature which has to be above 41 degrees on average for a 24 hour period and not dip below 33 degrees (for the winter season) and not exceed 99 degrees for more than a half hour (for the summer months) on the day of lift off. In addition, winds have to stay below 48 mph while fueling is taking place and within 30 minutes before and after take off cannot be above 30 mph. Another big factor is if rain or thunderstorms are in the vicinity of the launch pad. There cannot be any rain falling at the time of lift off or along the flight path. More so, lightning from thunderstorms within 10 nautical miles of the lift off site restricts the ability for the shuttle to fly. If those parameters weren't enough to keep an eye on, the emergency landing sites spread across the world also have to be up to par with limited cloud cover and of course no precipitation falling.
That's the basic rundown on conditions leading up the the shuttle flying into space, but how often do they check the weather? The answer is a whole lot. At least 3 days prior to the scheduled launch, forecasters at the U.S. Air Force Range Weather Operations Facility provide formal weather briefings to all involved. As the time gets closer, the latest forecasts and conditions are relayed to the astronauts and mission control periodically, with the last update coming just 13 minutes before lift off. In regard to precipitation, NOAA Doppler Radar is used to track not only the location and movement of storms, but also how high the cloud tops are in relation to the wet weather. If the clouds are too high in nature, the cloud tops may be too cold, which is a deterrent to ideal flight conditions. They also have at their finger tips real time lightning detection maps, information from a weather reconnaissance jet flying close by, numerous electronic weather sensors and of course buoys off the coast for details on the ocean conditions, since the rocket boosters need to be retrieved following take off.
How does a meteorologist's job working for NASA different from that of those of us on TV? Well, you'll rarely see them on-air at home, but I would say they are in a very high pressure situation each and every time a shuttle launch happens. If they are wrong, it could be a catastrophe. Not only are lives on the line, but millions of dollars go into each space shuttle mission. If we miss a shower popping up near Wausau, it's not the end of the world. However if they spot a storm on radar around the launch pad near take off, then the flight is delayed for safety reasons. Weather has been a factor in some shuttle disasters in the past and the goal each and every time is to avoid those happening now and in the future.
To find out more about the shuttle mission and their weather checklist, here are a few links:
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