This morning, SpaceX launched another rocket from Florida, but this vehicle took a very different route than most of the East Coast flights. Instead of going east after the jump, as most missions in Florida do, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket was headed south after the launch, skirting the southeast coast of Florida and crossing Cuba.
This is because this mission was guided into what is called a polar orbit — a direction primarily running north to south around the poles of the Planet. This is a kind of project you usually do not see from Florida. Indeed, since 1969 it is the first time that a rocket from Florida is going south.
So far, most of the polar launches in the US have taken place from the southern coast of California. That way, rockets fly over the open ocean as they head south, not over the populated land. Rockets that launch from Florida head east to the equator, so that they also fly over mostly open oceans before they get to space.
But back in 2016, the Air Force started to discuss the idea of taking polar launches to Florida after wildfires got significantly close to Vandenberg Air Force Base, the US’s largest launch site for all polar launches in California. The fire caused damage to the surrounding infrastructure and delayed launch for up to two months, according to Florida Today. The 45th Space Wing, which oversees the launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida, crashed the numbers and found that polar launches could be done — with some caveats.
What’s special with this SpaceX rocket
As of today, because of how its Falcon 9 rockets are made, only SpaceX can fly the specific path from Florida. The company’s rocket has an automated flight safety feature, which ensures that if it strays off its course or something goes wrong, the spacecraft will self-destruct on its own-without input from the ground. This is essential for that polar route to travel. Since the rockets can fly over populated areas, any deviation from the flight must be treated quickly in order to keep people safe on the ground.
But it’s possible that the gas plumes coming from the engines of the rocket might interfere with any signals that are sent to self-destruct from the ground. Therefore the Falcon 9 must be able to blow itself up without human assistance.
It is expected that future vehicles will fly with these autonomous safety systems which would also allow them to fly south from Florida. But for now, SpaceX is the one that brings polar launches back to the coast of Florida. The Falcon 9 rocket was launched at 7:18 p.m. ET from the SpaceX launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The rocket then headed south, skimming the southeastern coast of Florida near Miami, and then flying over Cuba. The 45th Space Wing claims that Miami is not in any danger during this type of mission and that Cuba should be out of harm’s way as well.
Officials on the launch
Brig. Gen. Douglas Schiess, Commander of the 45th Space Wing claimed during a press call “This is going to overfly Cuba at an altitude we are secure, just as we are going north.” “Once we go up in the northern part of North America we still begin to overflow some islands, but at that stage, we are safer.”
Schiess says the Falcon 9 rocket is on the right track to ensure that people are safe. “I know that all of the safety criteria are being complied with at this point, and it really means being at the right altitude [and] pace at the same time — making sure any waste that might fall is small enough or not even affects any ground, making it safe.”
The main satellite for this launch was SAOCOM 1B, while two small satellites were hit for a ride. SAOCOM 1B is the second of two identical Earth observation satellites that SpaceX has contracted to launch for the Argentine Space Agency. Together, the two satellites will use radar to observe the planet in response to disasters that could disrupt industries such as agriculture, mining, fishing, and more. The satellite is on a polar orbit known as a sun-synchronous orbit. The path allows satellites to pass through the same patch of Earth at the same time each day, which is great for Earth observation satellites hoping to track changes in the locations over time.
SpaceX used a Falcon 9 rocket for this mission, which had flown to space three times before. After the launch, the rocket landed successfully on SpaceX ‘s ground landing pad near Florida’s launch site. SAOCOM 1B was deployed only 14 minutes after take-off, while the two small satellites were deployed approximately one hour after launch.