At least three missions, each flown by different rockets, are scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station during a 10-day period next month that could close out the 2016 launch manifest.

Here’s what’s coming:

  • Dec. 7: United Launch Alliance plans to launch its fourth Delta IV rocket and 11th mission overall this year, sending the Air Force’s eighth Wideband Global Satcom communications satellite into orbit. The night launch window opens before 7 p.m. The WGS-8 spacecraft was lifted atop the rocket last Monday.
  • Dec. 12: Orbital ATK brings its air-launched Pegasus rocket to Cape Canaveral for a rare flight. A carrier aircraft will take off first thing in the morning to deploy a rocket carrying eight small satellites forming NASA’s CYGNSS science mission, which will study hurricanes.
  • Dec. 16: ULA’s final mission of the year will see an Atlas V launch the EchoStar-19 commercial communications satellite in the early afternoon. 

The lineup doesn’t yet include a return to flight by SpaceX, which has said it hopes to launch a Falcon 9 rocket before the end of the year, pending completion of its investigation into a Falcon 9 rocket’s Sept. 1 launch pad explosion.

GOES-R will aid launch forecasts, too

Launch managers are among those eager to tap the improved capabilities offered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s GOES-R satellite, launched Nov. 19 by an Atlas V rocket.

“Precise weather predictions are critical for our launch campaigns,” said Scott Messer, program manager for NASA Missions at United Launch Alliance. “Fifty percent of all launch scrubs are caused as a result of weather, so it’s a big boost to us as well.”

Clay Flynn of the Air Force’s 45th Weather Squadron, the weather officer for GOES-R launch, said the satellite’s more rapid refreshing of images would help during countdowns.

“Sometimes during the count, I’m sitting there waiting for the next image to come in,” said Flynn. “Even though we have a great radar that gets updates every two-and-a-half minutes, I want to see the bigger picture on the satellite as well. And I’m waiting 15 minutes to see that.”

GOES-R (which will be renamed GOES-16) should provide that picture within five minutes, and updates on severe local systems in as little as 30 seconds.

How quickly that improvement arrives depends on whether NOAA positions GOES-R over the East or West Coast, a decision expected in six months.

If the satellite goes west, Cape countdowns won’t benefit until after the next spacecraft in the series, GOES-S, launches in early 2018.

Pioneering programmer honored

Margaret Hamilton, a mathematician and computer scientist who played an important role in NASA’s Apollo moon landings, was among 21 recipients of the Medal of Freedom — the nation’s highest civilian award — from President Obama in a White House ceremony last Tuesday.

Then working for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Instrumentation Laboratory (now Draper Labs), Hamilton, now 80, led a team that developed on-board flight software for the Apollo spacecraft.

“Keep in mind that at this time software engineering wasn’t even a field yet,” said Obama. “There were no textbooks to follow.”

“Her software architecture echoes in countless technologies today,” Obama continued, “and her example speaks of the American spirit of discovery that exists in every little girl and little boy who know that somehow to look beyond the heavens is to look deep within ourselves and to figure out just what is possible.”

According to the White House’s award citation, “Hamilton contributed to concepts of asynchronous software, priority scheduling and priority displays, and human-in-the-loop decision capability, which set the foundation for modern, ultra-reliable software design and engineering.”

Burn, Cygnus burn

An Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo craft was scheduled to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere Sunday, nearly a week after scientists purposefully lit a fire inside the spacecraft.