SpaceX tracking upper-level wind ahead of Thursday night launch

SpaceX is getting ready for a launch Thursday night, but space fans know those pesky upper level winds can cause a scrub at the last minute.

The Air Force 45th Weather Squadron monitors conditions before every launch.  The way they keep tabs on upper level winds? Lots and lots of weather balloons.

The balloons carry contraptions that are made from blocks of Styrofoam, and inside there is a GPS chip and a few weather instruments stuck onto the sides. As the balloon is moved by the winds, a team on the ground can see how fast that movement is occurring as they’re tracking it in real time. It’s a radiosonde -- an item only a little bit bigger than a wireless speaker, but it has a huge influence on all of the launches from Space Coast.

For example, last Wednesday, a SpaceX rocket was supposed to lift off carrying the company’s new satellites, but the launch was scrubbed due to upper level winds. 

“It’s certainly very important for the mission to be successful because it could wind up going through a wall...if the winds increases very strongly with altitude, it’s like hitting a brick wall for the rocket," explained Mike McAllenan, Launch Weather Officer at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. “And through the countdown, each customer will say ‘I need a balloon every 20 minutes or 30 minutes or whatever’ and run it through their algorithm to see if it meets the criteria or not, so some countdowns will have eight or nine or ten balloons. And to monitor it -- to use a balloon -- it’s 1,000 feet per minute, so if you want winds up to 60,000 feet, that’s an hour.”

Upper level winds are never incorporated into the weather favorability forecast before a launch. They are not like clouds, which you can see coming, and they are unpredictable.

“It could definitely have a change where you’re bad at the beginning of the window but you’re good by the end of the window,” McAllenan said.