Space Exploration Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for spacecraft operators, scientists, engineers, and enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I noticed four(?) towers around the SpaceX launch pad during yesterday's aborted launch

enter image description here

img credit NBC News

What are the towers used for? Tracking? Radio communications?

share|improve this question
Some clearer photographs are available on the Wikipedia page on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 40. ;) – TildalWave Nov 29 '13 at 20:42
up vote 36 down vote accepted

They are used to redirect lightning in the immediate area. This essentially creates a faraday cage, shielding the rocket from being fried by lightning. You can see how high the towers reach, high enough to ensure there is no risk of lightning hitting the craft.

Update by @highonrope: The rectangle which the rocket launches through is huge...from the ground to the bottom of the "candle stick" is 250 feet tall. The candle stick is the big white thing at the top. It is about another 150 feet tall. They look a lot smaller in a picture, but it takes several minutes for an experienced tower climber to go from ground to the top. They say that inside the lightning suppression system there, you are 100% safe from lightning. The towers are all interconnected with stainless steel cables which form a rectangle through which the rockets are launched from the rectangle, the cables run to the ground and are fully grounded. @highonrope was part of a team of people who were tasked with cleaning and repainting the top of the tower and testing the "ground" of each cable where it attached at the top and at the ground, when SpaceX first started at Kennedy, before the first launch there. We got to see first hand how huge the SpaceX rocket was and what it does to the pavement in the "exhaust" tube, where the rocket exhaust is redirected at ground level. It's an awesome complex. It was designed for the Saturn rockets and is one of the oldest launch pads at Kennedy.

TL;DR: They're lightning rods.

share|improve this answer
There seems to be some confusion about SpaceX launch pads in the answer. SpaceX's first pad at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) is 39A. The only signed the lease for it in Apr 2014, and have not yet launched from it. 39A was originally designed for Saturn V rockets. Currently, they launch from SLC-40, which is in Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS). It's right next door to KSC, but you need special clearance to go to CCAFS, since it is an active military base. SLC-40 was used for launching Titan rockets before SpaceX took over. They were big, but not nearly as big as Saturn V's – Nickolai Mar 8 '15 at 3:57
@Nickolai: Feel free to edit the answer. – Mark Adler Mar 8 '15 at 6:55

The big top rods are insulators. Such cages are grounded through wires sloping out to ground points several tens of meters away. Also the ground points are connected to each other by a potential equalization loop. The metal lattices of the towers are grounded too, and also connected to the loop - but they are insulated from the tips, so in a strike they do not act as conductors. There was one such insulator on the top of the Shuttle launch tower. It was a spun fiber in polymer matrix structure, ad the time the biggest such cylinder in the world. The tip was connected to three ground points.

share|improve this answer
Welcome to Space Exploration Stack Exchange! It is clear from your answer that you are knowledgeable about the subject, but for the benefit of others we have a standard here that we try to include the source of our information in our posts. The source does not have to be physical text or a web link, but even if you are an expert in the field and this is from off the top of your head a little bit of an explanation helps the rest of us understand the context of your information and accurately judge its worth. Thanks! Feel free to join us in chat when you reach 20 reputation points for more help. – called2voyage Dec 2 '13 at 16:40
The user who posted the accepted answer (Mark Adler) is well known around here, and his qualification is publicly available (see Mark Adler on Wikipedia), so no further explanation was needed about his source of the information. – called2voyage Dec 2 '13 at 16:43
@called2voyage: I didn't realize that is the same Mark Adler from zip! In fact, it has been nagging me that the name seemed familiar. Thanks for mentioning that! – dotancohen Dec 6 '13 at 9:37
Saying they're insulators doesn't really answer what they're used for so I'm surprised this answer has so many upvotes. – NickG Feb 10 '15 at 10:29
@raptortech97 I'll talk with the other mods. I don't know if it would be appropriate to call out a specific user in the help pages, but in this case that would be helpful. – called2voyage Jun 5 '15 at 13:43

The fiberglass (FRP) tubes on the top of the launch platforms are a part of a lightning protection system and are insulators with cables that form a cone of protection for the launch tower. They were designed by my former company CH2M HILL, (Gainesville,FL)an engineering firm, and were manufactured by Starline Fabricators, Astatula, FL. I brought this design project in for the company from a contact I made with the fabricator during a business development trip to Lake County in the late 70s.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.