SMAP Launch: How to Watch

SMAP before shipment to Vandenberg AFB. (Source:

UPDATE 1/30/15, 2:50 PM PST


Launch managers have approved plans for another launch attempt Saturday for the Delta 2 rocket carrying NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive mission. The weather forecast calls for a 100 percent chance of acceptable conditions.

“High pressure will continue to build in for Saturday leading to continued drying throughout the atmosphere,” meteorologists wrote in a forecast summary. “Skies will be mostly clear with some scattered low stratus and slight upper level cirrus lingering over the range. Radiation fog will again develop over much of the low-lying areas of the range, dropping visibilities to 5-7 miles.”

The temperature at launch time is expected to be around 40 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit, with surface winds out of the north-northeast at 8 to 12 knots. Maximum forecasted upper level winds are 65 knots out of the north at 30,000 feet.


UPDATE 1/30/15
Today’s launch was scrubbed due to a debonding issue with the Delta II insulation. Next attempt is tomorrow (Saturday) at 6:20 am PST. Third time’s the charm?

UPDATE 1/29/15
Today’s launch was scrubbed due to high level winds. Next attempt is tomorrow at 6:20 am PST. The ground weather was perfect for viewing the launch. If the weather report for tomorrow is anything like today, you should get a great view from Lompoc/Vandenberg.

For the past six years, I’ve had the honor of working on the Soil Moisture Active Passive mission, or SMAP.  The job of SMAP is to measure the moisture content and freeze/thaw state of the top 5-10 cm of soil worldwide.  While this might not sound as sexy as what Curiosity is doing, it’s vitally important for drought monitoring, flood prediction, land use, small and moderate scale climate models, and disease vector tracking.

My job on SMAP has been to handle the mass properties for the entire vehicle.  SMAP is a partially spinning spacecraft.  Half of the vehicle spins at a rate of 14.6 RPM, and the other half remains pointed at the sun for power generation.  To put it simply, I was responsible for making sure the delivered vehicle spun straight.  This involved a tremendous amount of work to configure and track the vehicle dynamics thought the project, and apply balancing mass as required to null our projected wobble.  It has (hands down) been the most challenging problem I’ve ever worked on in my engineering career thus far.  Also, it was a departure from what I did on the Curiosity rover in that all my deliveries to the project were data (no hardware).  No wonky boxes this time…

At 6:20 am PST (9:20 EST) tomorrow, January 29 SMAP will launch on a Delta II from SLC-2 of Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, CA.  Unlike a Mars mission that takes ~9 months to get to Mars, SMAP will begin its checkouts within hours of launch.  It should be a very exciting day!  In the event of a scrub or delay, the next attempt is 6:20 am on Friday, followed by 6:20 am on Saturday.

There are several ways to check out the events tomorrow if you’re interested.

Online (worldwide)

By far, the easiest way to see the launch is to watch it live on NASA TV.  Streaming will run from 4 am to 8 am PST (7 am to 11 am EST).  You can tune in on the official NASA TV site or on the NASA UStream site.  This will get you a closer view of the pad than you’ll be able to see in person.  You should also be able to see any video being broadcast from the rocket this way.

From Northern/Southern California

Weather permitting, you should be able to see this launch from as far as Los Angeles or San Francisco.  I believe the last launch I tried to watch from LA was during the day, but even then I was able to see a bright spot screaming across the Southern California sky about 12 degrees above the horizon.

Delta II Launch Visibility Zone (from

OCO-2 Launch on a Delta II as seen from Santa Cruz. SMAP is also flying on a Delta II, so this is probably you’re best preview for a remote viewing. (From

The interesting thing about this launch is that it happens right before dawn.  The rocket will launch in darkness, but as its altitude grows, the exhaust and contrail should become illuminated by the still-set sun, possibly giving you visuals like those shown below.

Twilight Minotaur Launch (from

The problem you might face is visibility.  Low level clouds, fog, and haze will severely limit what you can see.  If skies are not clear, the best bet is to head to high ground.  Many of the local mountain areas should get you above the worst of the low level stuff.  Check out this site for many viewing locations in Northern and Southern California.  Ventura, for example, might give you a better view than LA without a trip to the central coast.

If you have a clear view, look to 289 degrees  in Los Angeles or 154 degrees in San Francisco (0 degrees is North, 90 degrees is East, etc.).  A more accurate bearing can be found by drawing a line from SLC-2 (our launch pad) to your viewing location on this map.

For timing, you can tune into the NASA TV feed on your phone to know when we launched.  After a few seconds, the rocket should become visible above the horizon.  Be warned though, there is sometimes a multi-minute delay in the video feed, meaning the rocket may have launched before you get wind of it.  If I remember correctly, the exact launch window is from 6:20:42 to 6:23:42 am PST.  Trust your watch, not the feed.  And keep watching the skies!

From Santa Ynez Peak

If you’re willing to venture a bit farther north, I’ve been told that Santa Ynez peak is a great mix of altitude (to beat out low level clouds/haze) and proximity to the launch pad.  If the weather looks bad in Lompoc, head here.  The directions below, like much of the information I’m posting, is from Space Archive’s amazing site.  Visit them for more details on Vandenberg launches.

Santa Ynez Peak
Latitude:     34° 31′ 36″ (34.52666°) N
Longitude:     119° 58′ 45″ (119.97916°) W
An Adventure Pass may be required.

Directions (be careful of steep drop-offs):

  1. Go to the intersection of U.S. highway 101 and Refugio Road (18 miles west of Santa Barbara).
  2. Take Refugio Road east (uphill) several miles to Refugio Pass.
  3. As you approach the top of the mountain range, you will see a sign for the La Sherpa Retreat.
  4. At the top of the mountain range, there is a T-intersection with a road on the east (right) side with a sign that says “This road not maintained by Santa Barbara County”. That is West Camino Cielo.
  5. Turn right (east) on West Camino Cielo and continue uphill for several miles.
  6. You will pass a small observatory. About one mile further east, you will see a mountain with numerous antennas. That is Santa Ynez Peak.
  7. Take the short road up to Santa Ynez Peak and park near the propane tank on the northwest side of the summit.

You should be looking West to see the launch, but a more accurate bearing can be determined by drawing a line from SLC-2 (our launch pad) to your location on this map.

From Lompoc/Vandenberg AFB

Every person I’ve spoken to has said that Vandenberg is either the best or the worst place to see a launch.  Weather is the big factor.  If things are clear on the ground and there are few low level clouds, you should be able to get a great view of the rocket taking off from many points in the area.  If it’s foggy/hazy, you might see a bright flash, hear a loud roar, and get nothing else.  Check the weather forecasts this afternoon/evening before deciding if you want to venture out (if I remember, I’ll try to update this post with what I hear).

OCO-2 launched in the fog. Fingers crossed for a clearer morning… (Source:

You won’t be able to get on base if you don’t have a pass already.  However, there are still some great spots on local roads to watch.  The official public site (with bleachers, loudspeakers, porta-potties, etc.) can be found near the intersection of Corral Rd. and Skyscreen Rd. in Lompoc, CA (here’s a map).  As you come up Corral Rd (off of Firefighter Rd.), bear left onto Cotar Rd (after Skyscreen intersection).  You should see a parking area.

While you’re up there, be sure to stop by the amazing Lompoc Wine Ghetto!


About morganhendry

I have been a musician and rocket scientist since 4th grade. I play drums/keyboards for the LA based instrumental rock band Beware of Safety (, write electronic music as The Laterite Road (, and just landed something on Mars ( More info can be found at my website ( Sign up here for updates on my many projects:
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to SMAP Launch: How to Watch

  1. Vita says:

    Morgan, Congratulations on the successful launch of SMAP( finally this morning) I am very proud of you. You must have been so happy that your long hours and hard work over the past 6 years paid off just seeing that rocket on the launch pad. Continued success with your NASA career.Sorry I wasn’t there to share the excitement with you. Love, Mom

  2. Pingback: Beware of Safety – 10 Years | morganhendry

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s