Glitches postpone launch at Wallops

New liftoff date for 2 satellites uncertain

December 12, 2006|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun reporter

WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. -- Faulty software and a balky computer on a simulator in New Mexico delayed the launch of two satellites from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia's Eastern Shore yesterday. Officials weren't sure when they would know enough about the problems to reschedule.

"At the very best, we would launch Thursday morning. But that's optimistic," said Col. Samuel McCraw, mission director for the U.S. Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center. "There's a lot of analysis that's going on."

Liftoff had been scheduled for 7 a.m. yesterday, with the two satellites riding atop a 69-foot Minotaur 1 rocket. One is TacSat-2, an 814-pound technology demonstration satellite designed to test battlefield communications systems for the Pentagon. The other is a NASA satellite called GeneSat 1, a 22-pound package containing biological experiments.

Hundreds of people had descended on nearby Chincoteague Island overnight, hoping to witness a spectacular dawn launch.

Instead, at a 5 a.m. news conference, mission managers announced the postponement. They said engineers at the TacSat control center at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico were testing the satellite's software shortly after 1 a.m. when they noticed an anomaly. He compared the problem to misplacing a minus sign in an algebra problem.

If TacSat-2 had launched, they said, the programming glitch would have prevented the satellite's attitude control system from turning the solar panels closer than 45 degrees to the sun's rays.

"We would not be receiving sufficient power to the spacecraft," said Peter Wegner of the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Yesterday afternoon, TacSat program manager Neal Peck said a second problem had arisen as engineers worked to fix the first. A computer on a simulator at the TacSat control center was "rebooting unexpectedly," he said. And because the simulator was designed to duplicate the TacSat-2 satellite, officials worried that the satellite might have the same problem.

"If we can convince ourselves the problems with the simulator are unique to the simulator and don't affect the spacecraft, then the fix for the spacecraft is very simple and we can be ready to go in a few days," he said.

"If we find that the problem with the simulator is also a potential problem with the spacecraft, then this issue becomes much larger and we start looking at more drastic measures to fix this problem."

When the delay was announced, Wegner said that he was of two minds about it. On one hand, he was unhappy to postpone the mission. "On the other hand," he said, "I'm actually kind of thrilled, because we found the problem before launch."

The weather at Wallops was cold and clear - perfect for blastoff of one of the more powerful rockets ever lofted from the seaside pad. Engineers expected the Minotaur's fiery, early morning climb to be visible up to 800 miles away.

Maryland and Virginia officials consider a successful launch of TacSat-2 to be a key economic development milestone. The states have collaborated in the development of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) - a commercial launchpad built on the south end of NASA's Wallops Island property for orbital missions.

When it does lift off, TacSat will be the first satellite launched at the site after 10 difficult years of promotion. But business appears to be picking up, and MARS Director Billie Reed said three more launches are planned.

frank.roylance@baltsun.com

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