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Tomorrow, NASA will attempt to launch eight small satellites to space on board a Pegasus XL rocket, manufactured by private spaceflight company Orbital ATK. Called the CYGNSS mission, the probes are meant to study various aspects of tropical storms and hurricanes from orbit, in order to help scientists better understand how these cyclones form. But launching these satellites into orbit won’t look like your typical trip to space, where a rocket takes off vertically from a launch pad on the ground. Instead, this launch will take place in the air.
That’s because the Pegasus XL rocket launches after being dropped from the belly of an airplane. First, Orbital’s Stargazer L-1011 aircraft will take off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida and carry the rocket to a target drop zone over the Atlantic Ocean, an area that sits at an altitude of 39,000 feet. There, the Pegasus is released and ignites its main rocket motor about five seconds later. The vehicle will then ignite two additional motors over the course of the flight to get to the right altitude and orientation for the eight spacecraft to deploy properly into lower Earth orbit.