Cape Canaveral prepares for Hurricane Irma
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — While Hurricane Irma continues to aim at Florida, it is not expected to have any significant impact on the Sept. 7, 2017, launch attempt of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the U.S. military’s reusable X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle. However, it will eventually affect operations on the Space Coast regardless of whether the OTV-5 mission gets underway on time.
The most significant weather risk for the OTV-5 Thursday launch window will be a stalled boundary in the region and not Irma, which will be nearly 900 miles to the southeast during the 5 hours, 5-minute window scheduled to open at 9:50 a.m. EDT (13:50 GMT). If the launch is delayed, however, the potential for the hurricane to impact launch operations will increase.
Hurricane Irma became a Category 5 storm during the day on Sept. 5, 2017, with measured sustained winds of 185 mph (227 km/h), making it one of the most powerful storms to hit the Atlantic basin. As of 5 a.m. EDT (09:00 GMT) Sept. 7, the latest NOAA forecast is projecting a Florida landfall around the southern tip of the peninsula. However, over the last several days the cone of uncertainty has been shifting toward the Atlantic coast of Florida.
While landfall is still likely for Florida, tropical cyclones that run along the coast can still impact operations at Cape Canaveral Air For Station and Kennedy Space Center. The forecast as of Sept. 7 is calling for Irma to be at a Category 4 or Category 3 strength late Sunday, Sept. 10, into early Monday, Sept. 11, as it approaches the Space Coast with sustained winds between 120 and 145 mph (193–233 km/h).
The 45th Weather Squadron, which is stationed at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, produces launch weather forecasts for both military and civilian space activities on the Cape. Its forecasts help the U.S. Air Force, NASA, and its contractors to understand prevailing and expected weather conditions in both the near and long term.
On Sept. 5, the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station entered Hurricane Condition (HURCON) 5 to begin taking actions to secure property in the event Irma nears Space Coast facilities. It was declared early in order to begin preparing for the arrival of the storm while supporting a launch operation. Normally HURCON 5 indicates surface winds in excess of 58 mph (93 km/h) could arrive within 96 hours.
The following is the HURCON alert scale used by the U.S. military to indicate the state of preparedness for an approaching hurricane:
Hurricane Condition 5 is declared by the 45th Space Wing commander when the forecast calls for the arrival of 58 m.p.h. sustained winds or greater within 96 hours. Monitor storm reports on local radio and television stations.
Hurricane Condition 4 is declared by the 45th Space Wing commander when the forecast calls for the arrival of 58 m.p.h. sustained winds or greater within 72 hours. Stock up emergency supplies. Copy important papers and phone numbers; store in storm-proof place. Individuals evacuating should decide now where to go in preparation for an evacuation order. Monitor storm reports on local radio and television stations. Review the emergency evacuation instructions. Contact your unit for further instructions.
Hurricane Condition 3 is declared by the 45th Space Wing commander when the forecast calls for the arrival of 58 m.p.h. sustained winds or greater within 48 hours. Individuals planning to evacuate should know the route they will take. Contact your unit for further instructions.
Hurricane Condition 2 is declared by the 45th Space Wing commander when the forecast calls for the arrival of 58 m.p.h. sustained winds or greater within 24 hours. Bring in lawn furniture, trash cans, potted plants and other loose objects. Individuals planning to evacuate should know the route they will take. Contact your unit for further instructions.
Hurricane Condition 1 is declared by the 45th Space Wing commander when the forecast calls for the arrival of 58 m.p.h. sustained winds or greater possible within 12 hours. If in effect, evacuation orders should be followed. Once the storm is within 12 hours, turn refrigerator and freezer to their highest setting; freeze water in jugs. Fill sinks and tubs with water for bathing and sanitary purposes. Residents on high ground away from beaches may consider riding out the storm. All preparations should be complete. Remain indoors if riding out the storm. Listen constantly to storm reports and board windows and glass doors.
Indicates surface winds in excess of 58 m.p.h. are occurring and other dangerous condition associated with the storm are present. All outside activity is strictly prohibited.
Indicates life-threatening storm hazards have passed but damage may persist and only emergency responders and damage assessment personnel are released to move about.
Should Irma impact the Space Coast as Hurricane Matthew did last year, NASA has procedures it can implement that will reduce the risk to employees as well as rockets and spacecraft. Additionally, many of the buildings at Kennedy Space Center have been designed to withstand winds of 105 to 125 mph (170–200 km/h) and have historically only received minor damage when facing the worst of previous storms.
However, no storm of Category 3 or greater has ever hit Cape Canaveral. The closest was Hurricane Matthew last year, but its strongest winds stayed just off the coast of Florida.
Depending on the severity of the storm, only essential employees would remain on-site – similar to how NASA staffed mission control operations for the International Space Station during Hurricane Harvey.
For her part, Irma is already impacting other space-related events. On Thursday, Sept. 7, the AIAA Space Forum, which had been scheduled to take place from Sept. 12-14, was cancelled. It was also announced on this date that the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex would close between Sept. 8 and Sept. 12.
Video courtesy of NOAA Satellites
This article was updated at 12:54 a.m. EDT (16:54 GMT) to reflect the changes to scheduled events and hours of operation for certain events and facilities.
Paul is currently a graduate student in Space and Planetary Sciences at the University of Akransas in Fayetteville. He grew up in the Kansas City area and developed an interest in space at a young age at the start of the twin Mars Exploration Rover missions in 2003. He began his studies in aerospace engineering before switching over to geology at Wichita State University where he earned a Bachelor of Science in 2013. After working as an environmental geologist for a civil engineering firm, he began his graduate studies in 2016 and is actively working towards a PhD that will focus on the surficial processes of Mars. He also participated in a 2-week simluation at The Mars Society's Mars Desert Research Station in 2014 and remains involved in analogue mission studies today. Paul has been interested in science outreach and communication over the years which in the past included maintaining a personal blog on space exploration from high school through his undergraduate career and in recent years he has given talks at schools and other organizations over the topics of geology and space. He is excited to bring his experience as a geologist and scientist to the Spaceflight Insider team writing primarily on space science topics.