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NASA aborted SpaceX mission because launch itself could have triggered lightning

NASA chief Jim Bridenstine has said that it had no choice to abort the SpaceX launch in Florida on Wednesday, May 27, as the launch itself could have triggered lightning, endangering the safety of the Falcon 9 rocket and two crew members as it headed toward space.

The highly anticipated mission, which, when it happens, will be the first time for astronauts to travel in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft as well as the first astronaut launch from U.S. soil since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011, was called off just minutes before launch after unsettled weather in the rocket’s flight path failed to clear.

Despite the obvious frustration at having to delay the launch, which is now set for Saturday, May 30, the NASA boss remained upbeat, praising those involved.

“I know there’s a lot of disappointment today, the weather got us, but I also want to say this was really a great day for NASA, it was a great day for SpaceX,” Bridenstine said in an interview shortly after Mission Control halted the countdown clock. “I think our teams worked together in a really impressive way, making good decisions all along.”

He added: “Here in this particular case we had just simply too much electricity in the atmosphere. There wasn’t really a lightning storm or anything like that, but there was a concern that if we did launch, it could actually trigger lightning, and so we made the right decision.”

One of the astronauts on board the Crew Dragon, Doug Hurley, later tweeted that NASA and SpaceX had “absolutely made the right call in a dynamic situation.”

In a piece on NASA’s website, the space agency talks about how a launch itself could potentially cause lightning when weather conditions are poor.

“Even when there’s no thunder, rain, or lightning present, the risk of lightning still exists, but it’s a different type of lightning than meteorologists worry about.

“A launch vehicle and its plume ascending through clouds can trigger lightning at lower electrical fields than required for natural lightning. That’s because the vehicle and the plume act as conductors and decrease the electrical field strength necessary to create a lightning flash.”

The phenomenon is known as “triggered lightning.”

NASA notes that triggered lightning occurred when Apollo 12 launched through clouds in 1969. “The spacecraft triggered two lightning strikes, even though no natural lightning was present. Adequate backup systems allowed the flight to proceed without disaster, but that mission brought increased attention to the problems of natural and triggered lightning.”

In 1987, an Atlas-Centaur rocket and its payload were destroyed when the launch of the vehicle triggered lightning. “The electrical discharge scrambled the electronic brain of the unmanned rocket, causing it to veer out of control and blow up 51 seconds after blastoff,” a report said at the time.

Everyone is now hoping for better conditions on Saturday, though the Weather Channel has already noted that the current forecast at the launch site is “not looking ideal.” If Saturday’s 3:22 p.m. E.T. launch is a no-go, another window is available on Sunday.

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Trevor Mogg
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