Rocket-watchers could see three takeoffs from Cape Canaveral this weekend, the first time the Florida spaceport has seen many launches in the same week in nearly 20 years.
On Saturday at 2:04am ET, United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy will take a National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) satellite into geosynchronous orbit more than 22,000 miles above Earth.
Then, on Sunday, SpaceX will launch two Falcon 9 rockets – one bringing 60 more Starlink internet satellites into low-Earth orbit and another carrying a SAOCOMB 1B satellite for Argentina’s space program.
The last time three rockets took off from Cape Canaveral in the same week was in August 2001.
The last time this many crafts launched in a single weekend was when a Titan 4 rocket, a Delta 2 launcher and a NASA Space Shuttle all took off from different pads, Space.com reports.
General Doug Schiess, commander of the 45th Space Wing, said this could be a ‘historic week’ at the spaceport.
The Delta IV Heavy is the largest launcher in United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) fleet, consisting of three rocket cores strapped together.
The mission was originally set for Wednesday, but was delayed it for a day ‘due to customer request,’ according to ULA
A new launch was set for Thursday morning at 2:12am but ULA delayed it so engineers could fix a problem with the rocket’s nose cone heater.
That issue was addressed but a separate problem was detected with a ‘critical’ ground pneumatics control system that could not be resolved during the four-hour launch window.
‘Additional time is needed for the team to validate the appropriate path forward with the ground pneumatics control system,’ ULA said in a statement.
After initially considering an attempt on Friday, ULA said it was delaying blastoff until Saturday due to US Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron predicting an 80 percent chance of good weather.
Its cargo, the NROL-44 satellite, is believed to be another in a series of Advanced Orion listening stations that intercept telephone calls and other communications, Spaceflight Now reported.
The NRO wouldn’t confirm, only saying it supports the agency’s overall mission ‘to provide intelligence data to the United States’ senior policy makers, the Intelligence Community and Department of Defense.’
ULA has already completed more than two dozen missions for the government’s spy satellite agency.
The last time the Delta IV Heavy went into space was January 2019. Saturday’s launch will mark its 12th mission overall.
The Delta IV Heavy is expected to be phased out in favor of the Vulcan Centaur rocket, which will make its maiden voyage some time in 2020.
You can watch a livestream of the Delta IV Heavy launch on the ULA website, starting about 20 minutes before takeoff.
ULA geared up for the big day with a 3-D video projection on the exterior of the rocket, now parked at Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 37.
The video celebrated ULA’s 140 successful missions and recounted how the satellite industry has benefited humanity, from more accurate weather predictions to better national security and an improved understanding of the solar system and beyond.
The first SpaceX Falcon 9 launch on Sunday is slated for 10:12 am, from Kennedy Space Center’s pad 39.
The SAOCOM 1B mission is scheduled for 7:18 p.m. that evening from Cape Canaveral Space Launch Complex 40, although the threat of thunderstorms could delay it further.
It was originally scheduled for March but technical issues and pandemic restrictions caused numerous delays.
A Thursday launch was scrubbed when delays with the Delta IV Heavy caused a ‘ripple effect’ in scheduling.
Should all go as planned, it will take off and fly on a trajectory toward the South Pole, the first time that path has been used in 50 years.