A long-awaited trio of Canadian satellites worth a staggering $1 billion will head into orbit Wednesday aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base.
The Radarsat Constellation Mission payload is on track to launch at 7:17 a.m. Wednesday from Space Launch Complex 4-East. The launch got the go-ahead Saturday from SpaceX after a successful static fire of the Falcon’s rocket engine.
If skies are clear, Wednesday’s early morning launch should be easily seen for hundreds of miles. The launch signals a double delight for space enthusiasts – SpaceX also will try to return its first-stage booster to land at Vandenberg’s West Coast landing zone, which saw its inaugural landing last October.
If the marine layer cooperates, skywatchers should be able to see the Falcon 9’s first stage booster returning to the coastline, recognizable as it descends in the sky by multiple rocket engine burns. During the landing attempt, those on the Central Coast may hear one or more sonic booms, depending on weather and other factors.
Scores of Canadians are also expected to be at Vandenberg and the surrounding area to watch the oft-delayed mission go aloft, after waiting through five years of satellite construction and testing. With the morning launch time and summer season in gear, large crowds are expected for this mission.
A public launch viewing site will be open starting at 6 a.m. on launch day at the Hawk’s Nest, on Azalea Lane, off Highway 1. The site is about a half-mile south of Vandenberg’s main gate. There will also be roadblocks at Ocean and Floradale avenues west of downtown Lompoc, and law enforcement blockades at Floradale and Central avenues, where hundreds of launch-watchers are expected to gather.
Though the launch and the return to land of the booster are technologically exciting, scientists and government officials in Canada are most eagerly awaiting the deposit into orbit of the rocket’s payload – the Radarsat Constellation Mission, or RCM. The constellation is actually three Earth-observation satellites built by Maxar for the Canadian Space Agency. The constellation was created to provide the Canadian government with:
• Maritime surveillance, including of ice, surface wind, oil pollution and ship monitoring;
• Disaster management, including mitigation, warning, response and recovery;
• Ecosystem monitoring, including of agriculture, wetlands, forestry and coastal change monitoring.
“The RCM uses a trio of satellites to take daily scans of our country and its waters, collecting valuable information,” Canadian Space Agency officials said in a statement. “This important data helps captains safely navigate through Arctic waters, farmers maximize their crop yields, first responders save lives and more.”
As the constellation orbits the globe, it will give scientists daily access to about 90 percent of the world’s surface and the Arctic as many as four times a day.
The ability of the constellation to offer daily images of Canada’s vast land mass, oceans and coasts will allow for the creation of composite images “that highlight changes over time, which will be particularly useful for monitoring climate change, land use evolution and even human impacts on the environment,” according to the Canadian Space Agency.
RCM also has aboard an Automated Identification System, or AIS, for ships. The system will be used independently, or along with radar, to allow the government to have improved detection and tracking of “vessels of interest” and to help ships avoid collisions.
Once launched, the three spacecraft will be evenly spaced on the same orbital plane, and will be separated around the globe by about 32 minutes, or approximately 9,072 miles.
Each satellite weighs about 3,150 pounds and will provide about 250,000 images annually – about 50 times more images than the first generation of Radarsat.
The satellites are expected to last about seven years in orbit. The first Radarsat launched in 1995 from Vandenberg and, despite having a five-year lifespan, provided data about global climate change for 17 years, four months and 24 days before becoming non-operational.
Radarsat 2 launched in 2007 from Russia, and despite its seven year lifespan, also far exceeded expectations. The second-generation satellite sent back information from space for 11 years, five months and 22 days.
A livestream of the launch will be available at spacex.com.