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Potential Hurricane Nicole could threaten Artemis I rocket on launch pad

The sun sets over Artemis I, NASA’s heavy-lift lunar rocket system, after the scrub of the second launch attempt on Sept. 3, 2022, at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

NASA made the decision to roll out its Artemis I rocket to the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center aiming for a liftoff as early as next Monday, but what is now Subtropical Storm Nicole is predicted to transform and grow into Hurricane Nicole by Wednesday, and that could affect launch plans.

While currently subtropical, meaning it’s getting its energy not from warm tropical waters, but from the difference in pressure and temperature from an approaching high pressure system to the north of Florida, the National Hurricane Center predicts it will transition to a tropical system and become a Category 1 hurricane by Wednesday as it approaches Florida’s coast.

The NHC issued a hurricane watch Monday morning from the Brevard-Volusia county line south to Hallandale Beach with a tropical storm watch north of the county line into Georgia. The threat was not as pronounced, but still not ignored by NASA officials last week, who considered it worth the risk for rollout.

In a news conference ahead of the rollout that sent the 5.75 million-pound, 322-foot-tall combination of the Space Launch System, Orion capsule and mobile launcher from the safety of Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building to Pad 39-B on Friday morning, Space Launch Delta 45′s Weather Squadron Launch Officer Mark Burger said that the system at the time was projected to only bring sustained winds of 25 to 30 mph with gusts approaching 45 mph.

“Those were well within our constraints of riding out, so we’ll have impacts from that in terms of the wind, but again, we’re not looking at any likelihood at this point of being a strong system emerge out of this,” he said.

NASA officials have previously stated the rocket and capsule can withstand 85 mph sustained winds on the launch pad.

The latest forecast, though, shows Nicole could make landfall along Florida’s east coast by Thursday morning, or move up the coast, potentially with sustained 75 mph winds and 90 mph gusts.

“There are still several scenarios that could play out with the track of this system. It could move inland across portions of the Florida peninsula,” said Michael Brennan, the NHC’s acting deputy director as the system was still forming on Sunday. “It could turn northward near or along the east coast of Florida, or it could remain just offshore and move more toward the Georgia and Carolina coasts. As we get through the next several days, that will come into better focus, but again as this system is still developing, the uncertainty and the exact details of how it’s going to move and evolve are going to be relatively high.”

SLD 45, which commands both Patrick Space Force Base, Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and the eastern range over which rockets launch, changed its status to HURCON V, meaning surface winds higher than 58 mph could arrive within 96 hours.

The width of the storm, with tropical-storm-force winds extending out 275 miles, could mean the rocket on the pad will still face winds and KSC could endure some damage that will need to be assessed before moving forward with any of the three launch opportunities on the calendar.

The first opportunity comes Monday, Nov. 14, with a 69-minute window that opens at 12:07 a.m. Eastern time. Two two-hour backup windows are available on Wednesday, Nov. 16, starting at 1:04 a.m. and Saturday, Nov. 19, starting at 1:45 a.m.

The Artemis I hardware had actually been in the VAB because NASA made the choice to roll it back from the launch pad in September to keep it safe from the approach of Hurricane Ian. That decision to protect the $4.1 billion rocket and capsule proved the right one as the center of Ian actually moved right in between launch pads 39-A and 39-B.

SpaceX meanwhile is keeping its Falcon 9 rocket and payload of the Intelsat G-31/G-32 satellites safe, pushing any launch attempt until at least Saturday from Cape Canaveral SFS.

“The vehicle and payload are secure in the hangar and will remain there through the duration of the storm,” SpaceX posted to social media.


© 2022 Orlando Sentinel

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