Go or No Go —
“At this time, we do not expect an impact to the launch of AEHF-6.”
– Mar 16, 2020 5:04 pm UTC
Enlarge / United Launch Alliance hoists its Atlas V booster onto the mobile launch platform adjacent to Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The rocket will launch the AEHF-6 communications satellite.As the coronavirus pandemic continues to sweep the country, it is beginning to affect the global launch industry. As with pretty much every other aspect of life in this age of uncertainty and COVID-19, conditions can change on a day-by-day, if not hourly, basis.
But as of early afternoon on Monday, here’s the state of play at major spaceports around the world.
Cape Canaveral, Florida
The Florida-based launch pads operated by NASA and the US Space Force in Florida remain open for business, for now. On Sunday morning, at T-0 in the countdown of a Falcon 9 rocket launch, an automatic abort triggered due to an engine power issue. The mission from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center has been reset to launch no earlier than Wednesday.
The next launch scheduled from Florida after this is United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket, on March 26. This mission, to loft the sixth Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite for the US Space Force, has a two-hour launch window that opens at 2:57pm ET (18:57 UTC).
While United Launch Alliance has scaled back some aspects of its outreach for this mission—for example, a social media event has already been canceled—the company is following protocols outlined in its internal Pandemic Plan and pressing ahead with essential activities.
“We are continuing to share information with and from health authorities, customers, contractors, suppliers and local authorities to make sure our protocols align with, and at times exceed, best practices,” Heather McFarland, a spokeswoman for the company, said. “At this time, we do not expect an impact to the launch of AEHF-6 for the US Space Force.”
The world’s most populous country, and source of the pandemic, appears to be emerging from the COVID-19 crisis. China actually attempted a rocket launch on Monday. However, the inaugural launch of the Long March 7A rocket from Wenchang, China, was not successful. According to a statement from state media, the launch was “abnormal” and will now be investigated.
Depending on its cause, the implications of this failure could be far more impactful to the Chinese launch plans this year than the virus. This is because the Long March 7A shares common engines with other new, cryogenic Long March vehicles.
In some respects, the Chinese launch industry proceeded somewhat normally even during the height of the coronavirus crisis during the last three months. Before Monday’s failure, the country had launched five rockets this year, and there were scattered reports that its commercial launch sector was mostly unaffected by the outbreak.
Europe’s main spaceport is located in French Guiana, and on Monday Arianespace announced that it was suspending operations from the South America-based facility.
“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the need to fully implement the measures decided by the French government, launch campaigns underway at the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana have been suspended,” the French launch company said. “These launch preparations will resume as soon as allowed by health conditions. This exceptional measure is designed to protect the health of employees and the local population, while also maintaining the security needed to prepare for scheduled launches.”
France and Italy are the lead manufacturers for European rockets launched from French Guiana, and both have been among the European countries hardest hit by the virus. An Italian-made Vega rocket was due to launch from the facility on March 23.
Russia has a busy month planned for launch, both from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome within the country and the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Within the next three weeks, the Baikonur facility has both a Soyuz launch of OneWeb satellites planned as well as a crewed mission to the International Space Station that includes NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy.
According to Biorports reporter Jonathan Amos, Baikonur remains operational for the time being. However, the Russian space corporation Roscosmos announced Monday that mass-media activities surrounding the planned April 9 crewed launch from Baikonur have been canceled.
As we learn about activities at other spaceports around the world, including in New Zealand and India, we will update this report.