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Fate of Boeing’s new Starliner spacecraft a mystery following launch to orbit

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The vehicle took off at 6:36AM ET

Rocket taking off against a black sky
An Atlas V rocket carrying Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Friday, Dec. 20, 2019, just after 6:36 AM.
(NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Update December 20th, 7:45AM ET: Boeing’s Starliner capsule successfully took off on top of its Atlas V rocket this morning at 6:36AM ET, however it’s unclear what the status of the capsule is at the moment. The Starliner was supposed to ignite its own thrusters after separating from the rocket, in order to put itself into orbit. That ignition did not seem to occur as expected, and the Starliner had a bad insertion into orbit. Boeing is trying to figure out how to move forward, but the company says the spacecraft is stable and its batteries are charged. The broadcast of the launch ended without additional information.

Original Story: Tomorrow morning, December 20th, Boeing is poised to launch its brand-new passenger spacecraft, the CST-100 Starliner, from Florida, sending it to the International Space Station on top of an Atlas V rocket. The capsule won’t have any people inside, but it’ll be the first flight of the vehicle, meant to prove that future passengers will be safe when they do board the Starliner for the first time next year.

The Starliner will attempt to dock with the space station about a day after launch, a key maneuver it will have to perform to deliver future crews to the orbiting lab. It’ll then spend a week attached to the ISS before detaching and coming back home. That’s when it’ll have to survive the descent through Earth’s atmosphere and land in the western US, using a series of parachutes and airbags.

Takeoff of the Atlas V is scheduled for 6:36AM ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and it will take just 15 minutes to deploy the Starliner perched atop the rocket. The Atlas V won’t actually put the capsule in orbit; it’ll drop the vehicle off on a suborbital path. That means the Starliner wouldn’t be able to stay up indefinitely and continuously lap around the Earth. The Starliner team decided to deploy the capsule lower in altitude, in case there was ever an emergency and the flight had to be aborted; that way, the crews could get back to Earth more easily, while experiencing fewer G forces. Once the Atlas V deploys the Starliner tomorrow, the capsule will ignite its own engines and climb into orbit.

NASA’s live coverage of the launch will begin at 5:30AM ET on the space agency’s dedicated channel. So far, the weather seems like it will cooperate for the flight, with an 80 percent chance that conditions will be favorable, according to the 45th Space Wing that oversees missions at the Cape. If for some reason the Starliner cannot fly on Friday, Boeing has backup launch dates on December 21st, 23rd, and even Christmas Day on the 25th. Check back on Friday morning to see if Boeing can deliver an early Christmas present to the space station.