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Ready, set, launch

NASA is scheduled to launch a satellite as part of its Soil Moisture Active Passive mission, or “SMAP”, from here, Jan. 29. With an aim to measure moisture in the top two inches of the Earth’s soil, the SMAP satellite will be put into orbit on the back of a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket. (courtesy graphic)

NASA is scheduled to launch a satellite as part of its Soil Moisture Active Passive mission, or “SMAP”, from here, Jan. 29. With an aim to measure moisture in the top two inches of the Earth’s soil, the SMAP satellite will be put into orbit on the back of a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket. (courtesy graphic)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- NASA is scheduled to launch a satellite as part of its Soil Moisture Active Passive mission, or "SMAP", from here, Jan. 29.

With an aim to measure moisture in the top two inches of the Earth's soil, the SMAP satellite will be put into orbit on the back of a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket.

"The mission is important to all of us, especially the science community, as it will provide global measurements of soil moisture and its freeze and thaw state," said Michael Woltman, Launch Services Program vehicle systems engineer. "The measurements will be used to enhance our understanding of the processes that link the water, energy and carbon cycles. In conjunction with other missions, like Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) which was launched in July 2014, it will expand the capabilities of weather and climate predictions. The data collected by SMAP will be made available for use by the community through a NASA-designated data center."

A successful launch from VAFB requires a cohesive working relationship between the Air Force and various civilian agencies.

"It's important to make sure we're in lockstep with each partner, so in this case NASA and ULA," explained Lt. Col. Brande Walton, 2nd Range Operations Squadron commander. "The wing's mission is assured access to and from space but there's also a very important public safety mission."

Those involved, agree interagency cooperation is paramount to effectively propelling anything into polar orbit from VAFB.

"The relationship between NASA and the Air Force is very important to make sure all aspects of the launch are successful," said Woltman. "Both organizations work closely together to make sure all support systems, weather and range assets are fully mission-capable to support a launch attempt. Each mission is important and it takes a team effort to accomplish mission success."

For Walton and the Air Force, a primary objective is continuously ensuring the public's safety leading up to, and during, the launch.

"I do command and control of the entire range, which is all the air, land and sea on the western coast," said Walton. "We want to make sure that prior to launch and during the launch it is as safe as possible. We make sure any trains coming through hold prior to launch, we make sure no aircraft are flying through the corridors and we make sure there are no boats in the protected areas."

Also hitching a ride into space with the SMAP satellite are four small research satellites known as CubeSats. Designed, built and operated by university students, teachers and faculty to obtain hands-on flight hardware development experience, the miniature satellites will fly as an auxiliary payload.

"This mission is very exciting for NASA because not only are we launching the SMAP mission to help extend the capabilities of weather and climate predictions, but we are also launching an Educational Launch of Nanosatellites, or ELaNa-X mission," said Woltman. "The ELaNa-X mission consists of three Poly-Picosatellite Orbital Deployers containing four CubeSats. This is exciting because the project was created to provide flight opportunities for educational CubeSats in support of NASA's CubeSat Launch Initiative. This provides great educational opportunities for schools to learn from developing and following a small satellite in orbit."

The launch window is slated for 6:20 a.m. through 6:23 a.m.