Falcon 9 countdown halted by faulty radar tracker

Updated: 10:30 p.m. EST on Feb. 8

A problem with a U.S. Air Force tracking radar kept a Falcon 9 rocket crowned with a NOAA space weather observatory grounded Sunday, forcing a long-delayed mission to stay on Earth at least one more day.

The countdown at Cape Canaveral smoothly ticked toward a target launch time of 6:10 p.m. EST (2310 GMT), with no sign of trouble until the last few minutes before liftoff.

An Air Force safety official called a hold in the countdown about two-and-half minutes prior to launch, triggering an automatic scrub because the mission only had one second to blast off and deliver NOAA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR, on the correct path toward an observation post a million miles from Earth.

SpaceX engineers immediately began putting the Falcon 9 rocket into a safe configuration, draining propellants, and resetting systems for another try for launch Monday.

But NOAA tweeted late Sunday the launch would be put off until Tuesday at 6:05 p.m. EST (2305 GMT) due to a poor weather outlook Monday, when thick clouds and rain showers are forecast to spread across Florida’s Space Coast.

Weather conditions on Florida’s Space Coast were ideal for a rocket launch Sunday.

The mission should have another chance to launch Wednesday before it will have to stand down until around Feb. 20, according to Mike Curie, a NASA spokesperson.

SpaceX’s rocket recovery team is stationed nearly 400 miles off Florida’s East Coast, where the Falcon 9’s first stage booster will descend and try to land on an ocean-going barge in an experiment to move toward a future reusable launch system.

The launch team discussed another issue with a telemetry system on the rocket’s first stage in the final minutes of the countdown. Elon Musk, SpaceX’s chief executive, tweeted the glitch was with a transmitter from the rocket’s on-board video system.

The delay will give SpaceX time to replace the transmitter, Musk said, adding it was “not needed for launch, but nice to have.”

The $340 million DSCOVR mission will launch toward the gravitationally-stable L1 Lagrange point nearly one million miles from Earth in line with the sun, where its instruments will detect the intensity of the solar wind, measurements to help forecasters predict geomagnetic storms that could disrupt communications, air traffic, satellite navigation and electrical grids.

DSCOVR is a joint project managed by NOAA, with major contributions from NASA and the Air Force. NASA will operate a pair of Earth-viewing instruments aboard the 1,250-pound spacecraft, and the Air Force is paying $97 million to SpaceX for launch services.

The refrigerator-sized spacecraft’s journey to the launch pad was fraught with stops and starts after the mission was proposed by former Vice President Al Gore in 1998.

NASA mothballed the completed satellite and its science instruments in 2001 after the mission gained heated opposition from Republican lawmakers.

Facing a potential gap in solar wind measurements critical to space weather forecasts, NOAA identified the spacecraft as a cost-effective way to pick up observations at the L1 location from NASA’s aging Advanced Composition Explorer.

Gore was at the Kennedy Space Center for Sunday’s launch attempt, and tweeted about the delay. He kept the scrub in perspective, tweeting: “DSCOVR launch delayed due to AF radar malfunction. May launch later this week. After 17 years, that’s nothing.”

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.