If skies are clear and all goes well Tuesday evening, observers throughout Maryland and much of the Mid-Atlantic region should be able to watch a big rocket launch from Virginia's Wallops Island.
The Air Force will attempt to launch a battlefield imaging satellite into orbit from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. The ORS-1 satellite will ride atop a four-stage, solid-fuel Minotaur 1 rocket, the largest ever launched from the Delmarva peninsula.
Previous Minotaur launches have been seen from as far away as southern New England, eastern North Carolina and the eastern half of West Virginia. But visitors to the Maryland, Delaware and Virginia beaches will have a front-row seat.
"The weather looks generally good through the opening of the launch window Tuesday night," said Ron Walsh, NASA's project manager at Wallops. "We're very optimistic at this point … although thunderstorms can always arise, especially in the late afternoon and evening hours."
The launch window opens at 8:28 p.m. and closes at 11:28 p.m. If the launch is scrubbed, subsequent attempts will follow nightly through July 10, except for a three-day window around the planned launch of the space shuttle Atlantis from Cape Canaveral, Fla., set for July 8.
The ORS-1 is the first operational version of the Air Force's Operationally Responsive Space satellite series. The satellites are designed to provide battlefield commanders with space-based observational capabilities within time frames of days or weeks.
This satellite was conceived, designed, built and readied for launch in just 30 months.
"This is incredibly fast for a military space capability acquisition," said Peter Wegner, director of the Pentagon's Operationally Responsive Space Office. "I've seen many take in excess of 12 years."
The satellite's "bus" — the structure, power, communications, control and guidance systems — was developed and built by ATK Aerospace Systems Group's Beltsville facility and tested at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab near Laurel.
Brendan Regan, an ATK vice president, said the work took just 17 months and employed the equivalent of 80 full-time workers. "We'd like to sell many, many more to the Air Force and to our partners," he said.
The 70-foot-tall Minotaur 1 rocket is a hybrid developed by Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp. The first two stages come from decommissioned Minuteman ballistic missiles. The top two were developed by OSC and integrated with the Minuteman.
The Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport was built on NASA property at Wallops in 1998 by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority. Maryland joined the venture in 2004 to help spur growth of the aerospace and launch-service industries.
Other partners include NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and Old Dominion University.
MARS was a slow starter, but business seems to be picking up. The first Minotaur launch from the spaceport, in December 2006, was the facility's first successful commercial launch. It carried two satellites: an 814-pound TacSat-2 satellite, a prototype for the ORS-1, intended to test the Air Force's ability to design, build and launch a satellite in 15 months; and a NASA biological experiment called GeneSat1.
The rocket's flame and contrail were visible in daylight from Baltimore.
Two more Minotaur launches followed. An April 2007 launch of the Pentagon's experimental NFIRE satellite was obscured by clouds.
The third, in May 2009, carried a TacSat-3 satellite, a NASA biomedical experiment called PharmaSat, and three, 2-pound "pico-satellites" built by university and private customers. Its contrail was visible from Fells Point, in the southeastern sky.
Recent reconstruction of Pad O-A will allow the launch of bigger, liquid-fueled Taurus rockets designated to carry cargo to the International Space Station now that the shuttle program is ending.
"A hot-fire test is scheduled for the autumn, and they've added an interim, demonstration launch … for mid-December," said spaceport spokeswoman Laurie Naismith.
The December launch will carry a supply craft close to the space station to show that it can make the flight safely. Taurus 2 cargo flights from Wallops would begin in 2013, with two each year through 2015. The craft are to take supplies up, pick up space station refuse and incinerate it as the craft falls through the atmosphere.
The Virginia spaceport is also under contract with NASA to launch the port's first spacecraft to the moon — the Lunar Atmospheric Dust Explorer, or LADE (pronounced "Laddie"), atop a Minotaur 4 or 5 rocket. That is scheduled for May 2013.
"We're all thrilled and excited," Naismith said. "We see a good, solid future for MARS."
Upgrades to Pad O-A, including construction of the largest (200,000 gallons) water tank of its kind in the world, brought at least 700 workers to the spaceport for a minimum of 60 days, she said. They included electricians, cement workers, steamfitters, welders and others.
Wallops Island is near Chincoteague, Va., 47 miles south of http://www.baltimoresun.com/travel/beaches/, and 115 miles south-southeast of Baltimore.
Tuesday's launch would come after sunset, making it easier to see, provided skies are clear and the view unobstructed.
Spectators can go to the NASA Wallops visitor's center or to the Assateague Island beaches. They can follow the countdown via Twitter, Facebook, launch status telephone lines and local radio.
Launch status information
NASA Wallops: 757 824-2050
NASA Wallops Radio: 760 AM
Launch webcast (1:30 p.m.):