20. Rocket launch sites

Suppose you are planning to build an orbital rocket launching facility. Where are you going to put it? There are several issues to consider.

  • You want the site to be on politically friendly and stable territory. This strongly biases you to building it in your own country, or a dependent territory. Placing it close to an existing military facility is also useful for logistical reasons, especially if any of the space missions are military in nature.
  • You want to build it far enough away from population centres that if something goes catastrophically wrong there will be minimal damage and casualties, but not so far away that it is logistically difficult to move equipment and personnel there.
  • You want to place the site to take advantage of the fact that the rocket begins its journey with the momentum it has from standing on the ground as the Earth rotates. This is essentially a free boost to its launch speed. Since the Earth rotates west to east, the rocket stationary on the pad relative to the Earth actually begins with a significant momentum in an easterly direction. Rocket engineers would be crazy to ignore this.

One consequence of the rocket’s initial momentum is that it’s much easier to launch a rocket towards the east than towards the west. Launching towards the east, you start with some bonus velocity in the same direction, and so your rocket can get away with being less powerful than otherwise. This represents a serious saving in cost and construction difficulty. If you were to launch a rocket towards the west, you’d have to engineer it to be much more powerful, since it first has to overcome its initial eastward velocity, and then generate the entirety of the westward velocity from scratch. So virtually no rockets are ever launched towards the west. Rockets are occasionally launched to the north or south to put their payloads into polar orbits, but most are placed into so-called near-equatorial orbits that travel substantially west-to-east.

In turn, this means that when selecting a launch site, you want to choose a place where the territory to the eastern side of the site is free of population centres, again to avoid disaster if something goes wrong during a launch. The easiest way to achieve this is to place your launch site on the eastern coast of a landmass, so the rockets launch out over the ocean, though you can also do it if you can find a large unpopulated region and place your launch site near the western side.

When we look at the major rocket launch facilities around the world, they generally follow these principles. The Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral is acceptably near Orlando, Florida, but far enough away to avoid disasters, and adjacent to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for military logistics. It launches east over the Atlantic Ocean.

Kennedy Space Center

Kennedy Space Center launch pads A (foreground) and B (background). The Atlantic Ocean is to the right. (Public domain image by NASA.)

A NASA historical report has this to say about the choice of a launch site for Saturn series rockets that would later take humans to the moon[1]:

The short-lived plan to transport the Saturn by air was prompted by ABMA’s interest in launching a rocket into equatorial orbit from a site near the Equator; Christmas Island in the Central Pacific was a likely choice. Equatorial launch sites offered certain advantages over facilities within the continental United States. A launching due east from a site on the Equator could take advantage of the earth’s maximum rotational velocity (460 meters per second) to achieve orbital speed. The more frequent overhead passage of the orbiting vehicle above an equatorial base would facilitate tracking and communications. Most important, an equatorial launch site would avoid the costly dogleg technique, a prerequisite for placing rockets into equatorial orbit from sites such as Cape Canaveral, Florida (28 degrees north latitude). The necessary correction in the space vehicle’s trajectory could be very expensive – engineers estimated that doglegging a Saturn vehicle into a low-altitude equatorial orbit from Cape Canaveral used enough extra propellant to reduce the payload by as much as 80%. In higher orbits, the penalty was less severe but still involved at least a 20% loss of payload. There were also significant disadvantages to an equatorial launch base: higher construction costs (about 100% greater), logistics problems, and the hazards of setting up an American base on foreign soil.

Russia’s main launch facility, Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan (former USSR territory), launches east over the largely uninhabited Betpak-Dala desert region. China’s Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre launches east over the uninhabited Altyn-Tagh mountains. The Guiana Space Centre, the major launch facility of the European Space Agency, is located on the coast of French Guiana, an overseas department of France on the north-east coast of South America, where it launches east over the Atlantic Ocean.

Guiana Space Centre

Guiana Space Centre, French Guiana. The Atlantic Ocean is in the background. (Photo: ESA-Stephane Corvaja, released under ESA Standard Licence.)

Another consideration when choosing your rocket launching site is that the initial momentum boost provided by the Earth’s rotation is greatest at the equator, where the rotational speed of the Earth’s surface is greatest. At the equator, the surface is moving 40,000 km (the circumference of the Earth) per day, or 1670 km/h. Compare this to latitude 41° (roughly New York City, or Madrid), where the speed is 1260 km/h, and you see that our rockets get a free 400 km/h boost by being launched from the equator compared to these locations. So you want to place your launch facility as close to the equator as is practical, given the other considerations.

Rotation of Earth

Because the Earth is a rotating globe, the equatorial regions are moving faster than anywhere else, and provide more of a boost to rocket launch velocities.

The European Space Agency, in particular, has problems with launching rockets from Europe, because of its dense population, unavailability of an eastern coastline, and distance from the equator. This makes French Guiana much more attractive, even though it’s so far away. The USA has placed its major launch facility in just about the best location possible in the continental US. Anywhere closer to the equator on the east coast is taken up by Miami’s urban sprawl. The former USSR went for southern Kazakhstan as a compromise between getting as far south as possible, and being close enough to Moscow. China’s more southern and coastal regions are much more heavily populated, so they went with a remote inland area (possibly also to help keep it hidden for military reasons).

All of these facilities so far are in the northern hemisphere. There are no major rocket launch facilities in the southern hemisphere, and in fact only two sites from where orbital flight has been achieved: Australia’s Woomera Range Complex, which is a remote air force base chosen historically for military logistical reasons (including nuclear weapons testing as well as rocketry in the wake of World War II), and New Zealand’s Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1, a new private facility for launching small satellites, whose location was governed by the ability to privately acquire and develop land.

But if you were to build a major launch facility in the southern hemisphere, where would you put it?

A major space facility was first proposed for Australia in 1986, with plans for it to be the world’s first commercial spaceport. The proposed site? Near Weipa, on the Cape York Peninsula, essentially as close to the equator as it’s possible to get in Australia.

Site of Weipa in Australia

Site of Weipa in Australia. Apart from Darwin which is at almost exactly the same latitude, there is no larger town further north in Australia. (Adapted from a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International image by John Tann, from Wikimedia Commons.)

The proposal eventually floundered due to lack of money and protests from indigenous land owners, but there is now a current State Government inquiry into constructing a satellite launching facility in Queensland, again in the far north. As a news story points out, “From a very simple perspective, we’ve got potential launch capacity, being closer to the equator in a place like Queensland,” and “the best place to launch satellites from Australia is the coast of Queensland. The closer you are to the equator, the more kick you get from the Earth’s spin.”[2]

So rocket engineers in the southern hemisphere definitely want to build their launch facilities as close to the equator as practically possible too. Repeating what I said earlier, you’d be crazy not to. And this is a consequence of the fact that the Earth is a rotating globe.

On the other hand, if the Earth were flat and non-rotating (as is the case in the most popular flat Earth models), there would be no such incentive to build your launch facility anywhere compared to anywhere else, and equatorial locations would not be so coveted. And if the Earth were flat and rotating around the north pole, then you’d get your best bang for buck not near the equator, but near the rim of the rotating disc, where the linear speed of rotation is highest. If that were the case, then everyone would be clamouring to build their launch sites as close to Antarctica as possible, which is clearly not the case in the real (globular) world.

[1] Benson, C. D., Faherty, W. B. Moonport: A History of Apollo Launch Facilities and Operations. Chapter 1.2, NASA Special Publication-4204 in the NASA History Series, 1978. https://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/SP-4204/contents.html (accessed 2019-07-15).

[2] “Rocket launches touted for Queensland as State Government launches space industry inquiry”. ABC News, 6 September 2018. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-09-06/queensland-shoots-for-the-stars-to-become-space-hub/10205686 (accessed 2019-07-15).

18. Polar motion

The Earth rotates around an axis, an imaginary straight line that all points not on the line move around in circles. The axis passes through the Earth’s North Pole and the South Pole. So the positions of the two Poles are defined by the position of the rotation axis.

Earth rotation and poles

The Earth’s North and South Poles are defined as the points where the axis of rotation passes through the surface of the planet. (Earth photo is a public domain image from NASA.)

Interestingly, the Earth’s rotation axis is not fixed – it moves slightly. This means that the Earth’s poles move.

The positions of the Earth’s poles can be determined by looking at the motions of the stars. As we’ve already seen, if you observe the positions of stars throughout a night, you will see that they rotate in the sky about a central point. The point on the Earth’s surface directly underneath the centre of rotation of the stars is one of the poles of the Earth.

Star trails in the northern hemisphere

Star trails above Little Hawk Lake in Canada. The northern hemisphere stars rotate around the North Celestial Pole (the point directly above the Earth’s North Pole). The bright spot in the centre is Polaris, the pole star. The circles are somewhat distorted in the upper corners of the photo because of the wide angle lens used. (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 image by Dave Doe.)

Through the 19th century, astronomers were improving the precision of astronomical observations to the point where the movement of the Earth’s rotational poles needed to be accounted for in the positions of celestial objects. The motion of the poles was also beginning to affect navigation, because as the poles move, so does the grid system of latitude and longitude that ships rely on to reach their destinations and avoid navigational hazards. In 1899 the International Geodetic Association established a branch known as the International Latitude Service.

The fledgling International Latitude Service established a network of six observatories, all located close to latitude 39° 08’ north, spread around the world. The initial observatories were located in Gaithersburg, Maryland, USA; Cincinatti, Ohio, USA; Ukiah, California, USA; Mizusawa, Japan; Charjui, Turkestan; and Carloforte, Italy. The station in Charjui closed due to economic problems caused by war, but a new station opened in Kitab, Uzbekistan after World War I. Each observatory engaged in a program of observing the positions of 144 selected reference stars, and the data from each station were cross referenced to provide accurate measurements of the location of the North Pole.

International Latitude Service station in Ukiah

International Latitude Service station in Ukiah, California. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

In 1962, the International Time Bureau founded the International Polar Motion Service, which incorporated the International Latitude Service observations and additional astronomical observations to provide a reference of higher accuracy, suitable for both navigation and defining time relative to Earth’s rotation. Finally in 1987, the the International Astronomical Union and the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics established the International Earth Rotation Service (IERS), which took over from the International Polar Motion Service. The IERS is the current authority responsible for timekeeping and Earth-based coordinate systems, including the definitions of time units, the introduction of leap seconds to keep clocks in synch with the Earth’s rotation, and definitions of latitude and longitude, as well as measurements of the motion of the Earth’s poles, which are necessary for accurate use of navigation systems such as GPS and Galileo.

The motion of Earth’s poles can be broken down into three components:

1. An annual elliptical wobble. Over the period of a year, the Earth’s poles move around in an ellipse, with the long axis of the ellipse about 6 metres in length. In March, the North Pole is about 6 metres from where it is in September (though see below). This motion is generally agreed by scientists to be caused by the annual shift in air pressure between winter and summer over the northern and southern hemispheres. In particular there is an imbalance between the Northern Atlantic ocean and Asia, with higher air pressure over the ocean in the northern winter, but higher air pressure over the Asian continent in summer. This change in the mass distribution of the atmosphere is enough to cause the observed wobble.

Annual wobble of North Pole

Annual elliptical wobble of the Earth’s North Pole. Deviation is given in milliarcseconds of axial tilt; 100 milliarcseconds corresponds to a bit over 3 metres at ground level. (Figure adapted from [1].)

2. Superimposed on the annual elliptical wobble is another, circular, wobble, with a period of around 433 days. This is called the Chandler wobble, named after its discoverer, American astronomer Seth Carlo Chandler, who found it in 1891. The Chandler wobble occurs because the Earth is not a perfect sphere. The Earth is slightly elliptical, with the radius at the equator about 20 kilometres larger than the polar radius. When elliptical objects spin, they experience a slight wobble in the rotation known as free nutation. This is the sort of wobble seen in a spinning rugby ball or American football in flight (where the effect is exaggerated by the ball’s exaggerated elliptical shape). This wobble would die away over time, but is driven by changes in the mass distribution of cold and warm water in the oceans and high and low pressure systems in the atmosphere. The Chandler wobble has a diameter of about 9 metres at the poles.

The combined effect of the annual wobble and the Chandler wobble is that the North and South Poles move in a spiralling pattern, sometimes circling with a diameter up to 15 metres, then reducing down to about 3 metres, before increasing again. This beat pattern occurs over a period of about 7 years.

Annual _ Chandler wobble of North Pole

Graph showing the movement of the North Pole over a period of 4500 days (12.3 years), with time on the vertical axis and the spiralling motion mapped in the x and y axes. The motion tickmarks are 0.1 arcsecond in rotation angle of the axis apart, corresponding to about 3 metres of motion along the ground at the Pole. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

3. The third and final motion of the Earth’s poles is a systematic drift, of about 200 millimetres per year. Since 1900, the central point of the spiral wobbles of the North Pole has drifted by about 20 metres. This drift is caused by changes in the mass distribution of Earth due to shifts in its structure: movement of molten rock in the mantle, isostatic rebound of crust following the last glacial period, and more recently the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. The melting of the Greenland ice sheet in the last few decades has shifted the direction of polar drift dramatically; one of the serious indications of secondary changes to the Earth caused by human-induced climate change. Changes in Earth’s mass distribution alter its rotational moment of inertia, and the rotational axis adjusts to conserve angular momentum.

Motion of North Pole since 1900

Plot of motion of the North Pole since 1900. The actual position of the Pole from 2008 to 2014 is shown with blue crosses, showing the annual and Chandler wobbles. The mean position (i.e. the centre of the wobbles) is shown for 1900 to 2014 as the green line. The pole has mostly drifted towards the 80° west meridian, but has changed direction dramatically since 2000. (Figure reproduced from [2].)

Each of the three components of Earth’s polar motion are: (a) observable with 19th century technology, (b) accurately measurable using current technology, and (c) understandable and quantitatively explainable using the fact that the Earth is a rotating spheroid and our knowledge of its structure.

If the Earth were flat, it would not be possible to reconcile the changes in position of the North and South Poles with the known shifts in mass distribution of the Earth. The Chandler wobble would not even have any reason to exist at close to its observed period unless the Earth was an almost spherical ellipsoid.


[1] Höpfner, J. “Polar motion at seasonal frequencies”. Journal of Geodynamics, 22, p. 51-61, 1996. https://doi.org/10.1016/0264-3707(96)00012-9

[2] Dick, W., Thaller, D. IERS Annual Report 2013. International Earth Rotation Service, 2014. https://www.iers.org/IERS/EN/Publications/AnnualReports/AnnualReport2013.html