The only thing holding back the launch of NASA's Ares 1-X rocket is the need for a hole in the clouds.
Mission managers say they are dealing with no technical problems related to prelaunch preparations themselves. And the tests they conducted on the Ares 1-X's electronics after some nearby lightning strikes during a thunderstorm last night have turned up nothing of concern.
Those tests have contributed to the delay in today's launch. Initially set for 8:00 a.m., mission managers are now looking at 11:00 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time as lift-off time. Launch forecaster Kathy Winter says the weather is expected to be acceptable from 11:00 through the end of the launch window at noon. She expects only a 20 percent chance that weather will be unacceptable.
The mission's deputy director, Jon Cowart, noted earlier this morning that if a hole in the upper-level clouds appears earlier, the launch team is set to pick up the countdown at T minus 4 minutes at any moment.
The issue with clouds centers on the effect the rocket's collisions with water droplets or ice can have on communications. The collisions build up a static charge, giving the rocket a corona. This can interfere with radio telemetry from the test rocket's 700 sensors. And it can interfere with any destruct command from the ground, if that becomes necessary.
When the launch occurs, this will be a short mission. When the Ares 1-X hits 130,000 feet the solid-fuel motor -- the first stage -- will separate from a dummy second stage. Momentum will carry the second stage up another 20,000 feet before it tumbles back into the ocean. Parachutes will ease the solid-fuel motor's descent; it will be recovered, just as the space shuttle's solid-fuel motors are. The dummy second stage will fall into the ocean, break up and sink.
The data the rocket collects will help refine the design of the final product, the Ares 1. This is NASA's new taxi to space for astronauts headed into low-Earth orbit.