Messenger launch reset for today

Threat of lightning delays start of Mercury mission for Hopkins spacecraft

August 03, 2004|By FRANK D. ROYLANCE | FRANK D. ROYLANCE,SUN STAFF

Engineers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab were preparing for a second attempt by NASA to launch APL's Messenger spacecraft early today toward the planet Mercury.

Yesterday's planned launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida was canceled at 2:09 a.m. when encroaching clouds from Tropical Storm Alex raised a danger of lightning.

Messenger's team at APL was told to stand down 7 minutes before their spacecraft had been scheduled to rocket into space.

APL's test director, Michael Paul, relayed the news from Florida to the approximately 30 members of his team, who were crowded into the APL mission control center near Laurel.

"We are a scrub," he said. "It's over."

Everyone seemed to take the delay in stride. "It's not that disappointing," said Dipak Srinivasan, a radio frequency Engineer at APL. "You just lose a little sleep."

The next attempt to get the $426 million mission off the ground was set for 2:16 a.m. today.

The launch window reopens for 12 seconds each night through Aug. 14, although NASA is expected to rest the launch team at the Cape a day if the first three attempts are unsuccessful.

team monitors the spacecraft's health throughout the countdown, tracking its internal temperatures, battery charge and other issues.

After the spacecraft separates from its Delta II rocket, the team will take control for the rest of the 7 1/2 year mission, a circuitous journey of 4.9 billion miles.

The APL engineers knew throughout the first countdown that the weather in Florida was a threat. As they worked, fueled by popcorn and cookies, they watched looped satellite and radar images of the storm as it crept toward Cape Canaveral.

With the scrub, their hard work became another of the 50 or 60 launch drills they had run. "Well, we had a good rehearsal, everybody," Srinivasan said in a kind of benediction.

Once launched, Messenger will be hurled into orbit around the sun. It will fly past Earth in August 2005, and Venus in 2006 and 2007.

After three Mercury flybys in 2008 and 2009, it will settle into orbit around Mercury in March 2011. There it will begin a one-year study of the planet's geology, magnetic field, atmosphere and space environment.

It's the first mission targeted at Mercury since the Mariner 10 spacecraft flew by three times in 1974 and 1975.

For an updated story on the Messenger launch, go to www.baltimoresun.com/messenger

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