BERLIN – After several delays over the last two weeks for a variety of reasons including the weather, a major launch event at the Wallops Flight Facility took place as planned Tuesday night, creating a rare fireworks display throughout the mid-Atlantic area as the Air Force Minotaur I rocket arched its way across the twilight sky trailing a plume of white smoke in its wake.
The launch of the Minotaur I rocket, one of the largest launched at the Wallops Flight Facility in nearby coastal Virginia, was originally set for Tuesday, May 5, but persistent bad weather forced NASA officials to scrub the mission. It was rescheduled for last Thursday and again on Friday, but bad weather and other technical issues with the mission kept the rocket grounded.
Finally, on Tuesday afternoon, a few last minute technical issues were resolved, the waters off the coast of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) launch pad were cleared of vessels and the countdown began anew against the backdrop of a picture-perfect mid-May evening. Shortly after 6 p.m., a problem arose with the radar used for surveillance, but an alternative source for the radar surveillance was identified on the Coast Guard ships in the area supporting the mission.
At 7 p.m., all systems were go for a 7:35 p.m. launch, but another problem arose just 15 minutes before the launch when a ship was discovered in the range off the coast of the Wallops facility and had to be cleared by the Coast Guard before the Minotaur I could be sent into space. Clearing the vessel took longer than anticipated and a new launch time was set for 7:55 p.m.
Shortly before 8 p.m., the four-stage Minotaur I rocket, 69-feet tall and five feet wide, was launched from the facility and quickly climbed across the southern sky with a tail of white smoke trailing behind it just as the sun set in the west. With the near perfect conditions, the launch could clearly be seen throughout the resort area including West Ocean City and Berlin. Another source reported seeing the launch in Salisbury and a Baltimore Sun writer reported watching the launch with his daughter from Fells Point.
The Minotaur I rocket carried an Air Force Research Laboratory Tactical Satellite 3, or Tac-Sat 3, and two secondary payloads into space for deployment. The Tac-Sat 3 is used to deploy into orbit a variety of strategic defense components designed to deliver battle imagery to U.S. troop commanders with much greater speed and detail. The other hitchhikers on the mission, including a NASA PharmaSat satellite used for other defense experiments, were successfully launched and put into orbit.
“It was a really successful launch despite the delays,” said Wallops Flight Facility spokesman Keith Koehler. “The Tac-Sat 3 is in orbit and linked up with its satellite just as the other payloads have done. Overall, it was a very successful mission.”