Coronavirus concerns force postponement of SpaceX launch with Argentine satellite

Ground crews fold the SAOCOM 1B’s radar antenna before shipment from the satellite’s manufacturing and test facility in Argentina to Cape Canaveral. Credit: CONAE

Concerns about the coronavirus pandemic have prompted officials to postpone the planned March 30 launch of Argentina’s SAOCOM 1B radar observation satellite from Cape Canaveral aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, officials said Tuesday.

Travel restrictions imposed by coronavirus to slow the spread of the COVID-19 viral disease, and restrictions on non-essential work, have hindered space activity around the world. CONAE, Argentina’s space agency, said the launch of the country’s SAOCOM 1B Earth-imaging spacecraft will be postponed.

CONAE did not announce a new target launch date for the SAOCOM 1B mission.

“This decision (to postpone the launch) has been made considering the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and that could affect the availability of own resources and foreign third-party resources, necessary not only for a safe insertion into orbit, but also for further operation of the satellite,” CONAE said in a statement.

CONAE said the decision to postpone the launch, which was made in consultation with SpaceX, is the “best decision in these moments of uncertainty … that the whole world suffers because of COVID-19.”

Argentina has halted all flights to and from the United States, impacting the ability of Argentine personnel needed to support the planned launch to travel to the Florida spaceport.

CONAE said the SAOCOM 1B spacecraft will be secured for storage at a SpaceX facility at Cape Canaveral until launch preparations can resume. The satellite was flown from Argentina to Florida in February to begin the launch campaign.

SAOCOM 1B is the second of two identical radar observation satellites developed by CONAE, following the SAOCOM 1A satellite launched in October 2018 on a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The satellite’s purpose is to scan the Earth with an L-band steerable synthetic aperture radar, enabling all-weather imagery of the planet day and night. Radar imagers can see through clouds and are effective 24 hours a day, but optical cameras are hindered by clouds and darkness.

When it launches with SAOCOM 1B, the Falcon 9 rocket head south from Cape Canaveral to deploy the spacecraft into a polar orbit 385 miles (620 kilometers) above Earth. The flight will be the first rocket launch from Florida’s Space Coast since 1960 to target a polar orbit.

SAOCOM 1B was originally supposed to launch from Vandenberg on the West Coast, the primary U.S. launch base for polar orbit missions. SpaceX moved the launch to Cape Canaveral because the company’s launch schedule at Vandenberg is relatively quiet this year, with no Falcon 9 launches planned from there until November.

The move allowed SpaceX to temporarily reduce its staff at Vandenberg, Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, said in December.

File photo of a Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch pad. Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

Two secondary payloads are slated to ride into space with the 6,600-pound (3,000-kilogram) SAOCOM 1B spacecraft.

Capella Space’s Sequoia commercial radar observation satellite and PlanetiQ’s GNOMES radio occultation microsatellite will accompany SAOCOM 1B into orbit as rideshare payloads on the Falcon 9.

The Sequoia satellite is the first of seven small radar imaging spacecraft, each with a launch weight of about 220 pounds (100 kilograms), to be launched this year by Capella Space, a San Francisco-based company. Capella says the satellites can be tasked in real-time by customers and collect imagery day and night with a resolution of about 1.6 feet (50 centimeters).

The GNOMES microsatellite is the first of a planned fleet of around 20 small spacecraft being developed by PlanetiQ to collect radio occultation data by measuring the effects of the atmosphere on signals broadcast by GPS, Glonass, Galileo and Beidou navigation satellites. The information can yield data on atmospheric conditions useful in weather forecasts.

The SAOCOM 1B mission is the first U.S. launch to be postponed by the coronavirus pandemic, but it may not be the last.

Brig. Gen. Doug Schiess, commander of the 45th Space Wing which oversees range operations at Cape Canaveral, said Tuesday that the military is committed to keeping the spaceport open for launches.

But production delays in global rocket and satellite factories, or a wave of illness impacting workers, could impact those plans.

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