People along the east coast of the United States should have a great opportunity to see a rocket launch from their backyard tonight.
Weather permitting, observers from Massachusetts to Carolina were able to see a International Space StationCygnus spacecraft arriving tonight on a two-stage Antares rocket tonight (October 1), taking off from NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia.
NASA commercial cargo provider Northrop Grumman is launching the mission, which will deliver nearly 8,000 lbs. (3,600 kilograms) of supplies, marking the company’s 14th refueling mission to the International Space Station for NASA.
The take-off is scheduled for 21
In the pictures: Watch the Cygnus NG-13 launch of the Antares rocket on the space station
What to expect
If you are in close proximity, viewing spots on Chincoteague Island include Robert Reed Park on Main Street or Beach Road which crisscross the area between Chincoteague and Assateague Islands. Assateague Island National Seashore / Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge beach will not be open during launch.
NASA provided a visibility forecast map, but the views of the rocket launch differ depending on where you live along the east coast. The farther you are from the launch site, the closer to the horizon the rocket will be.
For reference, your closed fist held at arm’s length is approximately 10 degrees wide. If a sky watcher is trying to pinpoint the launch from New York City, for example, the highest point Antares will reach is about 9 degrees above the horizon.
It is unlikely that you will be able to see the launch when it is less than 5 degrees above the horizon, because buildings, vegetation, and other elements of the terrain will likely get in the way. Antares it will reach 5 degrees above the horizon approximately 150 seconds after launch.
The Antares launch will be visible along the east coast by virtue of the light emitted by its two stadiums. The first stage uses kerosene and liquid oxygen as propellants, powering two Russian-made RD-181 engines, producing more than 860,000 lbs. thrust.
The rocket should look like a bright, moving star. Observers using binoculars may be able to see a tiny V-shaped contrail, which breaks harmlessly into the atmosphere and falls into the Atlantic Ocean.
Arching over the Atlantic Ocean, the rocket will exceed the speed of sound and shut down its liquid-powered main engines approximately 210 seconds after takeoff. After throwing overboard its first stage, payload fairing and interstage link adapter, Antares’ second stage Castor 30XL solid fuel motor will fire up to inject the 16,928 lbs. (7,678 kilograms) Cygnus spacecraft in orbit.
The second stage will appear lower and at a lower altitude than where the first stage shutdown appeared. The trajectory will appear to go back to Earth as the rocket moves away from the observer and disappears beyond the horizon. But the rocket, of course, is not returning to Earth: it is continuing its ascent, accelerating faster and faster towards space.
Where to focus your gaze
- Eastern Half South Carolina / North Carolina / Coastal Virginia: Take off until phase 1 is switched off, mainly to the north-east. Phase 2 ignition, for Carolina, east; Coastal Virginia, southeast.
- Inner Virginia / Eastern Mid-West Virginia: Take off until phase 1 closes, mainly to the east. Phase 2 ignition, southeast.
- Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania: Take off for phase 1 stopping, mainly south-south-east. Phase 2 ignition, southeast.
- New Jersey / Southeast New York: Take off for phase 1 stop, south. Phase 2 ignition, southeast.
- Southern New England and Long Island: Take-off for phase 1 stop, south-south-west. Phase 2 power-up, for western Massachusetts, Connecticut and Long Island, southeast; for eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, south-southeast.
On the mission
If tonight’s launch is canceled, takeoff time will decrease by approximately 23 minutes per day. For example, a rescheduled launch attempt for Friday (October 2) would happen around 9.15pm. EDT (0115 GMT).
If the rocket is launched tonight, the Cygnus probe, nicknamed S.S. Kalpana Chawla, will arrive at the space station on Sunday 4 October. NASA expedition commander Chris Cassidy will face Cygnus and flight engineer Ivan Vagnerof Roscosmos will act as backup. After Cygnus is captured, Mission Control in Houston will send commands to the ground for the station’s robotic arm to rotate and install it on the bottom of the station’s Unity module. The mission will provide a new toilet, a radish crop, cancer research and virtual reality technology along with 8,000 lbs. (3,600 kg) of supplies for the crew and hardware.
Cygnus is expected to remain on the space station until mid-December. After the start, the capsule will conduct the next episode of a ongoing experiment studying fire in space, then dispose of several tons of waste during a fiery re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere about two weeks later.
Editor’s Note: If you take a photo of tonight’s launch and would like to share it with Space.com readers for a potential story or gallery, please send your photos, comments, your name and location to email@example.com.
Joe Rao is an instructor and guest lecturer at Hayden Planetarium in New York. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmers’ Almanac and other publications. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.