SpaceX looks to launch space weather satellite, land rocket

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – SpaceX aimed for both a launch and landing within minutes of each other Sunday.

A little after 6 p.m. EST, however, the rocket company led by billionaire Elon Musk called off the planned launch of a deep-space observatory for the U.S. government.

Before that, SpaceX stood ready to launch its first deep space mission at sunset, an observatory that will shoot to a spot 1 million miles from Earth to monitor solar outbursts. It also was going to attempt its second landing of a leftover booster on an ocean platform, in a revolutionary demonstration of rocket reusability.

The Deep Space Climate Observatory is refashioned from the Earth-observing satellite conceived in the late 1990s by then Vice President Al Gore. It was canceled before ever flying and packed away until several years ago, when NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Air Force decided to resurrect it as a space weather sentinel.

Gore arrived at Cape Canaveral well in advance of the planned 6:10 p.m. liftoff, eager to see his brainchild finally soar. He told reporters he was grateful to the scientists and others who kept his dream alive. The measurements will help measure global warming, he noted, and the steady stream of pictures of Earth may help mobilize the public to put pressure on the world’s government leaders “to take action to save the future of human civilization.”

“The constant ability to see the Earth whole, fully sunlit, every single day, the opportunity for every man, woman and child who lives on the Earth to see, if they wish, their own home in the context of the whole, can add to our way of thinking about our relationship to the Earth,” said Gore. He was accompanied by Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, who flew on the space shuttle as a congressman in 1986.

After the scrapping of the launch, Gore tweeted “DSCOVR launch delayed due to AF radar malfunction. May launch later this week. After 17 years, that’s nothing.”

The $340 million mission is meant to provide a heads-up on intense solar activity that can disrupt communications, power and air travel. That’s why the spacecraft is to be stationed 1 million miles from Earth and 92 million miles from the sun, the so-called Lagrange point where the gravity fields are neutralized.

NOAA’s director of the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado, Tom Berger, likens it to a “tsunami buoy.”

The observatory originally was called Triana, after the sailor who first spotted land on Christopher Columbus’ historic voyage. Now it’s dubbed DSCOVR, short for Deep Space Climate Observatory.

Gore’s presence added to the excitement at the launch site.

Also contributing to the buzz, though, was the experimental landing planned by SpaceX. Musk wants to eventually reuse his rockets to cut down costs and speed up flights.

Once the main booster completed its lifting job, it was going to attempt to fly to a platform floating nearly 400 miles off the Florida coast. It will be the second such landing test for SpaceX. Last month’s effort ended in flames.

SpaceX loaded more hydraulic fluid into the booster this time for the guidance fins; the fluid ran out too soon on Jan. 10. But the path of the unmanned Falcon 9 rocket this time will see the first-stage booster descending faster than before, making it harder to nail the vertical landing, said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of mission assurance for the California-based SpaceX.

On the eve of the launch, he put the odds of success at about 50-50, the same as before.

SpaceX officials repeatedly have stressed that the landing test is a secondary objective, and that the main job is to make sure the observatory gets a good ride to space.

“Launching our 1st deep space mission today,” Musk wrote via Twitter. He noted that the observatory will end up “4X further than moon.”

“Rocket reentry will be much tougher this time around due to deep space mission,” he added. “Almost 2X force and 4X heat. Plenty of hydraulic fluid tho.”

The modified barge that will serve as the landing zone is almost as big as a football field, but that’s small against the backdrop of the Atlantic. The 14-story booster will descend from an altitude of about 80 miles, with touchdown expected nine to 10 minutes after liftoff.

Last month’s effort resulted in minor damage to the platform.

SpaceX not only patched everything up, but added a name to the platform, painted in large white letters on deck: “Just Read the Instructions.” That’s the name of a ship from the Culture science fiction series written by the late Scottish author Iain M. Banks.

Musk, a Banks fan, already has his company delivering cargo to the International Space Station for NASA and working on a capsule to fly American astronauts there.

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