/ 8 July 2011

Atlantis space shuttle launch threatened by storms

Atlantis Space Shuttle Launch Threatened By Storms

Tropical downpours and thunderstorms around Cape Canaveral in Florida are reducing the likelihood of Nasa’s final space shuttle launching on schedule on Friday.

Mission STS-135 is due to launch at 11:26am (EDT), bound for the International Space Station. But meteorologists at Nasa have warned that storm fronts will continue to hit the launch pad throughout the weekend. At a briefing on Thursday, as lightning hit the launch pad, the shuttle launch weather officer, Kathy Winters, said there was a 30% chance of favourable weather for the scheduled launch time.

Winters told Spaceflight Now the weather “is not looking good for launch. As you can see outside, the clouds have rolled in, we’re starting to see some showers, we even had a thunderstorm show up this morning along Cocoa beach. We are expecting more of this the next couple of days.”

And on Thursday afternoon, Nasa announced it was investigating the effects of a possible lightning strike that occurred a third of a mile from the launch pad. Engineers would review data, the agency said, and inspect the rotating service structure, which provides access to the orbiter on the launch pad and has to be rolled back before liftoff.

If Atlantis misses its launch window, there are additional opportunities to launch early on Saturday and on Sunday morning, when the chances for favourable weather increase to about 40% and 60% respectively. If the delay continues after that, the next window for launch is likely to be on 16 July.

A launch opportunity could also be opened up between 8 and 10 July if Nasa officials can negotiate a delay in the planned Delta IV rocket liftoff from Cape Canaveral next week. This rocket is scheduled to launch a GPS satellite.

Ten hours before the scheduled launch, Nasa officials will gather to assess the latest weather forecasts before making the decision to fill Atlantis‘s external fuel tanks. Technically, the team could count down to T-9 minutes before aborting, if required.

Despite the potential hiccups, the STS-135 mission is technically sound and the four-person crew of Atlantis and associated ground staff are preparing to launch on time until a formal decision is made to postpone.

At the weather briefing, Nasa’s test director, Jeff Spaulding, said: “Our teams here and really all around the world have been working extremely hard for quite awhile on this particular mission to make sure the vehicle and the payload are ready for hopefully a magnificent launch on Friday.” — guardian.co.uk Guardian News and Media 2011