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Glitches delay satellite launches

December 12, 2006|Frank D. Roylance | Baltimore Sun

WALLOPS ISLAND, VA. — Faulty software and a balky computer on a simulator in New Mexico delayed the scheduled launch of two satellites from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia's Eastern Shore Monday. Officials weren't sure when they would know enough about the problems to reschedule.

"At the very best, we would launch Thursday morning. But that's optimistic," said Col. Samuel McCraw, mission director for the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center. "There's a lot of analysis that's going on."

Liftoff had been scheduled for 7 a.m., with the two satellites riding atop a 69-foot Minotaur 1 rocket. One is TacSat-2, an 814-pound technology demonstration satellite designed to test battlefield communications for the Pentagon. The other is a NASA satellite called GeneSat 1, a 22-pound package containing biological experiments.

Hundreds of people had descended on nearby Chincoteague Island overnight, hoping to witness a spectacular dawn launch.

Instead, mission managers announced the postponement at a 5 a.m. news conference. They said engineers at the TacSat control center at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico were testing the satellite's software shortly after 1 a.m. when they noticed an "anomaly."

If TacSat-2 had launched, they said, the programming glitch would have prevented the satellite's attitude control system from turning the solar panels closer than 45 degrees from the sun's rays.

"We would not be receiving sufficient power to the spacecraft," said Peter Wegner of the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Monday afternoon, TacSat program manager Neal Peck said a second problem had arisen as engineers worked to fix the first one.

A computer on a simulator at the TacSat control center was "rebooting unexpectedly," he said. Because the simulator was designed to duplicate the TacSat2 satellite, officials worried that the satellite itself might have the same problem.

The weather at Wallops was cold and clear -- perfect for blast-off of one of the most powerful rockets ever lofted from the seaside pad. Engineers expected the Minotaur's fiery, early morning climb to be visible as far as 800 miles away.

When it does lift off, TacSat will be the first satellite launched at the site, which is a commercial launch pad on NASA property. Three more launches are set.

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