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Forecasters at Vandenberg AFB ensure the weather is just right for launch

Posted at 7:29 PM, Jun 10, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-10 22:49:56-04

You often hear talk about the many microclimates on the Central Coast, and understanding those microclimates is especially important for a team of forecasters at Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB).

Members of the 30th Space Wing prepare critical forecasts for launches. You can literally call this rocket science.

The Delta II rocket was launched from VAFB for the last time ever on September 15, 2018 at 6:02 a.m. On that day, neither the fog nor the marine layer could ground the historic flight.

But that’s not always the case.

The meteorologists at VAFB track all the facets of the base’s weather and play a huge role in whether a rocket or missile leaves the ground.

“So covering Vandenberg Air Force Base, we have over 270 weather sensors and systems and a lot of the information we get from those sensors are displayed on the screens in the Weather Operations Center,” explained Captain Kristina Williams, 30th Space Wing Weather Flight Commander

The technology is impressive and can be overwhelming at the same time.

One of the instruments is a ‘wind profiler’ that uses sound waves to detect wind speed and its direction at different elevations.

“This information actually gets put into a file that gets sent to our safety personnel and that’s to help them run their risk numbers to determine how significant the launch could affect the local area if there is an anomaly,” Capt. Williams said.

Meteorologists here are skilled at monitoring the several microclimates that span the nearly 100,000-acre base.

The Launch Weather Team releases weather balloons twice a day to collect data across the base.

“Some areas of the base you might be seeing blue skies and have no winds and other parts of the base could have high winds or fog so we do have to use all of our systems and sensors to help us forecast,” Williams said.

The team works for 60 days leading up to a scheduled lift-off to create a launch-day forecast.

Capt. Williams says its unlikely fog and visibility would prevent a launch, but other weather events and safety risks could.

“So you might have blue skies with the puffy cumulus clouds but if they are at a specific height in the atmosphere and a rocket launches through it, it could trigger lightning,” she explained.

While these meteorologists expect to get busier as more commercial launches get underway at the base, they love getting to be a part of the process.

“It is a very hard job but it can be rewarding when you’re sitting on console with the headset on and listening to all of the activity going on and the moment the rocket or missile lifts off is a great feeling knowing we were a part of something so incredible,” Williams said.

The next launch from the base is scheduled to take place on June 12, when SpaceX will send its Falcon 9 rocket into space.