Rocket launches today are a pretty routine venture, whether it’s sending astronauts to the ISS or launching expensive satellites. And for the past 70 years, some of our most inspiring missions, from NASA’s Apollo program to SpaceX’s Demo-2, have launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
But what’s so special about this location? Cape Canaveral sits off the east coast of Florida, roughly 3,200 kilometers from the equator. This location is the perfect staging ground for rocket launches, as it provides a speed boost and energy savings for our launches.
You see, as the Earth rotates it naturally generates kinetic energy, rotating slowest at the poles and fastest near the equator. This means that during launch, a rocket gets a generous speed boost assisted by the natural rotation of the planet.
But one of the most consistent hurdles we face when sending rockets to space is actually reaching a high enough speed to enter orbit…over 40,000 kilometers per hour, specifically. We call this speed the escape velocity.
Basically, it takes a lot of energy to propel a rocket with enough force to overcome Earth’s gravitational pull. But what’s really interesting is that the energy required to achieve escape velocity changes based on where you are on Earth.
So depending on how close the launch is to the equator, the greater the speed boost it’ll get from Earth's natural rotation. Because it's located about 28.5 degrees north of the equator, achieving escape velocity from the Cape takes roughly 0.3% less energy compared to launch facilities at higher latitude locations.
And I get it, that doesn’t sound like much at all. But these small wins really do have big impacts on the mission planning process. The speed boost allows for the use of less on-board fuel, which converts to cost savings that can help us carry bigger mission payloads. So much so that the Saturn V, NASA’s heaviest rocket, launched from the Cape!
Another factor that makes the Cape ideal is its favorable Azimuth Limitations. Simply put, this is the direction the rocket travels along the horizontal plane after launch. Lying between roughly 35 and 120 degrees, the Cape’s Azimuth limits provide a clear path towards the Atlantic Ocean that does not loom overpopulated areas. This makes the launch safer in the case of rocket failure or falling debris.
But the East Coast isn’t the only place the U.S. launches rockets from. There are active launch facilities located along the West Coast such as Vandenberg in California and the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska. The disadvantage here is that as the Earth spins from West to East, any rocket launched in the westward direction would have to have extra fuel on board to overcome the natural spin of the Earth.
Missions that launch from the West Coast are ideal for Earth-observing satellites that need to monitor the same location at the same time each day. That’s because these satellites need to gather consistent data on things like the weather, animal migration, or even environmental disasters. One such satellite is the global ocean observing satellite JPSS that I helped fly with NOAA. But I believe it’s important to be conscious when making decisions for new locations, no matter where they are and how they may impact our home planet. And personally have high hopes that an effective solution will be found as we continue to explore our universe.
So we could only cover a few spaceports in the episode, but we wanted to know would you be interested in us covering other countries' spaceports? Let us know in the comments below.