NOTAMs or How to Find Hidden Launches

by | Jul 29, 2021 | Daily Space, Rocket Lab, Rockets, Space Policy, Spacecraft | 0 comments

IMAGE: NOTAM B3895/21, issued July 26, 2021.

You may have noticed that there were no rocket launches this week. It’s not for lack of trying. We were tracking three different launches this week: one in New Zealand, one in Russia, and one in China. There are outlines of stories all written up and almost ready to go. We literally just needed a rocket, any rocket, to launch.

Some space agencies aren’t shy about telling you what is going to launch when. For example, NASA announces launches at Kennedy Space Center months in advance, and there’s an entire industry in the Space Coast to help tourists see a rocket launch during their vacation.

However, not all launches are publicly broadcasted like that. Astra was so secretive that their job postings didn’t list the company name and instead listed themselves as “Stealth Space Company”. As a team, we usually struggle with Chinese launches (they take us by surprise!). Many weeks, we look at our launch schedule sources to pick stories and struggle to find any, until a Chinese launch pops up with hours of notice.

So, how exactly do we know about upcoming rocket launches? The short answer is that, in addition to the news releases from the various organizations that launch rockets that we subscribe to, we use sites like rocketlaunch.live, where collected information is presented in an easy-to-read format that includes the launch date and time, type of rocket, the company, and, usually, the payload.

And this week, the listing that taunted Annie the most was an unnamed Electron launch by Rocket Lab.

Rocket Lab isn’t generally shy about its launches. Each mission has a somewhat fanciful but memorable name like “Running out of Fingers” or “Another One Leaves the Crust” that deviates from the norm of insert-payload-name-here mission names. Usually, both the payload and mission name are revealed well in advance of a launch.

That wasn’t the case this time.

Rocket Lab released a statement on July 19 where they announced that: Electron will be back on the pad for the next mission from Launch Complex 1 later this month. There were twelve whole days left in July at the time of that announcement. That doesn’t mean we don’t have any info. For example, we can tell you it looks like Rocket Lab is going to launch an Electron on July 29 between 05:30 and 08:30 UTC, but that date has changed at least once during the course of writing the script for this show.

While we don’t have an inside source at Rocket Lab, we do know how to find a NOTAM. A NOTAM, also called a Notice to Airmen, is literally a plain text notice to tell pilots to, among other things, stay out of a certain area bounded by given coordinates and altitudes. This is information that is available to the public at large but used mostly by pilots. They aren’t just issued for rocket launches; they are also issued for things like space debris re-entry or restricted airspace, such as when the President or another important official is travelling. A similar thing called a NOTMAR, or Notice To Mariners, exists for boat captains.

While they don’t tell you what’s going to be on the rocket, NOTAMs can give you an idea of the orbit by the size, shape, and location of the no-go zones.

Finding out the time and date of the launch is the easy part. The hard part is figuring out exactly what payload is going to be put up.

CREDIT: Annie Wilson/Google Earth

What we do first is to map the coordinates given in the NOTAMs. This launch, for example, had two NOTAMs: one for the launch site and one for a drop zone. The launch site NOTAM turned out to be a very long skinny rectangle stretching out away from the coast of New Zealand. The drop zone NOTAM was another long skinny rectangle further to the east.  Based on the shape of the NOTAM no-go zones alone, we can rule out a launch to a polar orbit because those launches have no-go zones aligned to the south.

So, we’re left with a process of elimination. Thanks to Gunter’s Space Page, we know that there are thirteen future Electron launches. After eliminating the ones that don’t take place this year, we’re down to nine. Next, we eliminate the ones that are planned to launch from LC-2 in the U.S., which leaves us with seven possibilities: three BlackSky launches, two Planet Labs launches, one McNair, and one called OTB 3.

Of that list, information about the orbits is available for BlackSky, Planet Labs, and McNair. BlackSky and McNair use orbits with an inclination of 97 degrees, as do the more recent Planet Labs satellites. A 97-degree inclination is a slightly retrograde polar orbit, which has a no-go zone aligned north-south from the Māhia Peninsula rather than the east-west aligned areas described in the NOTAMs.

This leaves us with OTB-3. It’s built by General Atomics, which does a lot of work in the defense sector, and they will also operate it. They’ve also previously announced that OTB-3 wouldn’t launch until late 2021 or early 2022. And although launches tend to slip to later dates rather than be launched earlier than planned, it is still quite possible that the upcoming Rocket Lab launch is OTB-3.

We’ll just have to wait to find out if we’re right.

Minutes before we went live to record this episode Rocket Lab finally confirmed the next mission, STP-27RM for the United States Space Force, aka “It’s A Little Chile Up Here”, launching July 29 at 0600 UTC.

More Information

From the pandemic to going public: Space startups face hiring challenges (SpaceNews)

Rocket Lab Completes Anomaly Review, Next Mission on the Pad in July (Rocket Lab)

General Atomics Partners with Rocket Lab to Launch Argos-4 Advanced Data Collection System (General Atomics)

Electron info page (Gunter’s Space Page)

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