Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Solar Observatory Set For Atlas V Launch

A NASA satellite designed to make important discoveries about the sun and space weather is counting down to a 10:26 a.m. launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop an Atlas V rocket.

Air Force meteorologists say there's a 40 percent chance gusty winds will drop below levels needed for the 19-story rocket to lift off with the Solar Dynamics Observatory during an hour-long launch window.

"It's going to be dicey," said Maj. Christopher Lovett of the 45th Space Wing. "Within an hour, there's a good chance we'll see some opportunities."

After rolling to its Launch Complex 41 pad Tuesday morning, the rocket was scheduled to be powered up at 3:30 a.m. today to begin tests of flight control and communications systems.

NASA and United Launch Alliance managers plan to take a poll of readiness to begin fueling the booster and Centaur upper stage with cryogenic propellants at 8 a.m.

We'll be following the countdown all morning here in the Flame Trench, and sending text message alerts. Sign up to receive them here.

And click here to open a video player showing live NASA TV coverage starting at 7:15 a.m.

The $850 million Solar Dynamics Observatory mission is the first mission of NASA's Living with a Star program, and considered its cornerstone. The program eventually plans to include a fleet of four spacecraft.

Over a period of at least five years, SDO's three instruments aim to study the sun's behavior in the greatest detail yet, taking pictures and other measurements with higher resolution and more colors than any predecessor.

From an orbit about 22,000 miles above Earth, SDO will beam back volumes of data equivalent to daily downloads of a half-million songs -- so much data that NASA built a special ground station in New Mexico with two 18-meter antennas to receive it.

The mission hopes to better explain the workings behind the sun's shifting magnetic fields and roiling surface, which generates violent space weather events like flares and "coronal mass ejections" that can knock out satellites and power grids on Earth.

Scientists hope to improve their forecasting of such events and of longer-term cycles of solar activity.

IMAGE NOTE: Top, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite rolled out to its Launch Complex-41 launch pad this morning, arriving at 8:30 a.m. Photo by Pat Corkery, United Launch Alliance. Below, The second half of an Atlas V payload fairing is moved into position around SDO. Photo credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann, Jan. 21, 2010

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