Will A Tropical Weather System Delay Historic SpaceX Astronaut Launch This Week?


I am a NASA guy. I spent twelve years of my career as a research meteorologist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. In that role, I conducted research and was involved in mission management for satellite missions in NASA’s broader Earth Science program. However, it was always amusing when people asked me if made forecasts for space shuttle lunches. I always answered “no” then used it as an opportunity to explain NASA’s diverse, broader mission. Occasionally, I would also get asked if I worked at Kennedy Space Center. I am assuming this is the NASA center most people are familiar with because historically launch activity is the most publicly visible (unfortunately) NASA activity. The agency has several space centers around the nation that do different things. This week all eyes are on Kennedy Space Center because astronauts are expected to head to space again from U.S. soil for the first time in almost a decade. Will weather be a problem?

TITUSVILLE, UNITED STATES - 2020/03/15: People watch from Playalinda Beach at Canaveral National ... [+] Seashore as a cloud of smoke forms when a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying 60 Starlink satellites fails to launch from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The launch was aborted at the last second due to a technical problem. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Before I answer that question, it is useful to introduce the U.S. Air Force’s 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base. According to their website, their mission is to “Exploit the weather to assure safe access to air and space.” They collect weather information, analyze models, and advise on conditions suitable for launches in the Cape Canaveral/Kennedy Space Center complex. Digital journalist Emilee Speck wrote an excellent “101” on this squadron in February. She notes, “Launch forecasting is also changing to accommodate the evolving space industry.” Their mission supports activities of NASA, United Launch Alliance, and Boieng. SpaceX, which is launching the astronauts to space this week, needs weather criteria to support launches, booster landings and recovery.

Radar image showing an unnamed tropical system impacting south Florida on May 25th, 2020Brian McNoldy, University of Miami

With that context, let’s circle back to my original question. Will the weather cooperate for the Wednesday, May 27th launch? One thing that I am watching as a meteorologist right now is a tropical weather system in Florida. University of Miami-based meteorologist Brian McNoldy posted the radar image above on social media Monday morning and said, “Well this should make for an interesting day....” It appears that remnant moisture from this unnamed wave and a developing low pressure system could be a problem in the launch region. NOAA’s Weather Prediction Center (WPC) has a low pressure system and front draped across the region (below), which likely means clouds and rainfall conditions.

Expected weather conditions on May 27th, 2020NOAA WPC

At the time of writing (on the morning of May 25th), the 45th Weather Squadron Launch Mission Execution Forecast (below) for the SpaceX Falcon 9 Dragon Crew Demo-2 had a 60% Probability of Violating (POV) Weather Constraints. The primary concerns are flight through precipitation, thick cloud layer rule, and cumulus cloud rule. Meteorologists supporting spaceflight operations have several rules of operations.

Wednesday is a historic moment for the United States space program. This mission has been in motion for several years. It marks the return of astronauts launching from U.S. soil and an even greater role (they have always been involved) for a private company in U.S. human spaceflight operations. If the launch has to be scrubbed Wednesday, the next window is Saturday.

Launch Mission Execution Forecast as of Monday morning (May 25th)45th Weather Squadron website