The final frontier starts on the ground

To get to space, you need launch services and weather forecasting

Launches are exciting.

The countdown commences. The rockets power up. A cloud of exhaust covers the launchpad. The spacecraft lifts off. And millions watch from around the world, wondering what it must feel like to be one of the astronauts inside.

That’s the cool stuff. Behind the spectacle is a much quieter, much subtler, but equally important series of activities that make every launch possible – including NASA’s historic May 2020 test flight of a commercially built spacecraft. Raytheon Intelligence & Space, one of the four businesses that form Raytheon Technologies, played a critical role.

“Without launch services and good weather, you’re not going anywhere,” said Sandy Brown, president of Range Generation Next for Raytheon Intelligence & Space. “We maintain mission-critical systems to provide safe and effective testing, launching and tracking of military, civil, commercial and space vehicles.”

Range Generation Next, also called RGNext, is an RI&S-majority owned joint venture with General Dynamics Information Technology. It operates and maintains three of the largest ranges of the Major Range Test Facility Base for the United States under the Reagan Test Site Engineering and Technical Services, and Launch and Test Range System Integrated Support Contract, or LISC, contracts, the latter includes the John F. Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral in Florida.

RGNext supports more than 90 percent of all Department of Defense and commercial space launches. As of June 2020, RGNext has supported 151 launches through its Launch and Test Range System Integrated Support Contract program.

“Without realizing it, people rely on RGNext,” said Brown. “Our engineers support almost every U.S. satellite launch, including GPS.”

In addition to launch services, weather is also a critical factor in planning launches. Launch windows – the time frame a spacecraft must launch – are influenced by weather variables like lightning, high winds, cloud coverage and more. It all has to be just right.

The U.S. Space Force operating at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., and Cape Canaveral use systems like the RI&S-sustained Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System and Joint Environmental Toolkit to build daily forecasts and monitor weather. AWIPS is NOAA and the National Weather Service's weather forecasting data and display toolkit, while JET is an Air Force weather toolkit and meteorological dissemination system.

AWIPS simplifies the process of analyzing and understanding the massive amount of weather data available to forecasters, enabling fast, highly accurate, highly detailed weather predictions.

The data that AWIPS analyzes comes from a variety of sources like satellites, maritime buoys and weather balloons. The RI&S-developed Joint Polar Satellite System Common Ground System also feeds into AWIPS, and takes and processes data from satellite instruments like the company’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite. VIIRS is a polar orbiting system that covers the globe every 14 hours. Polar satellites give meteorologists detailed information on severe weather events that no other instrumentation can.

“Our end-to-end weather capabilities assist operators in determining optimal conditions for a safe and complete launch,” said David Appel, vice president of Defense and Civil Solutions for RI&S.