Just a quick update: a new series of pictures of the Dragon capsule as seen by astronauts aboard the International Space Station has just been released, and they’re way cool. Here’s one:
[Click to embiggen.]
Earlier today, Dragon passed just 2.4 kilometers (1.5 miles) from the station, performing a series of tasks to make sure it was ready to dock with ISS tomorrow. I’m sure the folks at SpaceX are poring over these images to make sure their capsule’s OK. And of course, tomorrow we’ll get even more dramatic images and video!
Image credit: NASA
Early this morning, the SpaceX Dragon capsule passed just 2.4 kilometers below the International Space Station, completing another critical step in its mission profile that’ll lead to it docking with the orbiting station Friday morning.
From the station, astronauts captured video as the capsule cruised by:
[You may need to refresh this page to see the video load.]
Very, very cool. You can see the Dragon capsule in this video frame grab: it’s in the lower left corner, silhouetted against the Earth. The extended solar panels are obvious, and you can just make out the shape of the capsule itself.
This flyby was an important milestone, since it showed that the capsule could approach the station and also abort the approach if needed. Other key elements it demonstrated were that it could float freely (as it will have to when it docks with ISS), that its proximity sensors worked, and that its GPS was operational as well. Astronauts on the ISS were also able to command a strobe light remotely, confirming they could link to the capsule.
All this leads up to the big show on Friday: docking. At about 09:00 UTC (05:00 Eastern US time), NASA will decide if the capsule is ready to approach. If so, over the course of an hour or two it will come with 250 meters of the station. It will then perform some last maneuvers to prove it’s ready to go, and then it will make its final approach.
Then, around 13:00 UTC, it will come within just a few meters of ISS, and astronauts on board will grab it with the robotic arm, bringing it in to mate. After that, there will be quite a few checks done which will take some time, leading up to the hatch being opened Saturday morning, scheduled to happen around 11:00 UTC.
All the fun stuff so far has been happening in the middle of the night for me in Boulder, but the approach tomorrow morning isn’t too bad. I’ll get up a little early to watch it live (06:00? We’ll see). I’ll live-tweet the events as they happen.
This is all very exciting! The capsule has been performing essentially flawlessly since launch, so I have high hopes for the next few days.
Image credit: NASA
At 07:44 UTC, May 22, 2012, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket thundered into space, carrying the Dragon capsule into orbit.
So first, holy wow, and yay! That’s fantastic news! This was the second attempt, after a glitchy valve caused a launch abort a few days ago.
This morning’s launch went very smoothly. After achieving orbit, the uncrewed Dragon craft decoupled from the rocket and successfully deployed its solar panels, a key milestone in the mission. When that happened, the cheering from the SpaceX team could be heard in the webcast background, which was delightful. A lot of people on Twitter commented on how NASA’s narration of the event was very stoic and calm, but the SpaceX webcast was very emotional and involved*. I think both of those are as they should be!
Here’s a short video of the launch:
The entire SpaceX webcast is also online. The key moments are the launch at 44:30 into the video, main engine cutoff and start of the second stage at 47:30, the rocket achieving orbit and Dragon capsule separation at 54:00, and then the solar arrays deploying at 56:20.
Seriously, watch that video at the 56:20 mark. When the arrays deploy, you can hear a huge cheer from the SpaceX employees watching. That was awesome. The SpaceX announcer at deployment made me smile. You can really hear the wonder and excitement in her voice.
So why was this launch important? SpaceX is the first entirely private company to attempt to dock a capsule with the International Space Station. If this mission is a success, it’s a big step toward private companies being able to do resupply missions to ISS, including bringing astronauts to and from orbit (which SpaceX plans to be able to do by 2015). And perhaps most importantly, in the long run it means lowering the cost of putting materials in orbit, and that is absolutely critical in creating a permanent human presence in space.
This launch today is just the start of the mission. On Friday, May 25, the Dragon will undergo a series of maneuvers near and around ISS to show that it can be controlled well enough to dock. If that shakes out, then it will approach the station and an astronaut on board ISS will grab it with the robotic arm, bringing it in to mate. There are supplies on the capsule, including a dozen or so student science experiments to be performed. Finally, after over a week in space, it will undock and return to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific ocean off the coast of California.
We’ve all been waiting a long, long time for this, so my honest and hearty congratulations to the crew at SpaceX and at NASA!
We live in the future, folks.
Image credit: SpaceX
* I also couldn’t help but notice they use the metric system! Hey NASA, ahem.
- SpaceX launch aborted; next attempt Tuesday
- Space X set to launch on Saturday May 19
- Will ATK beat everyone into space?
- Breaking: Private company does indeed plan to mine asteroids… and I think they can do it
The launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 this morning was aborted at literally the last second — the sensors detected too high a pressure in a combustion chamber in one of the engines. Apparently this didn’t put the rocket in any danger, but it was outside the limits for an allowable launch so the computer shut things down.
[UPDATE: SpaceX is reporting a faulty valve caused the issue, and it's being replaced. They should be ready for the Tuesday launch window.]
Here’s video of the last few seconds of the countdown.
Ouch. My thoughts on this are pretty clear: it’s a bummer, but then again that’s all it is. Not a disaster, not a failure, just a setback. These are complicated, complex machines, and delays are inevitable.
The good news is there’s a backup launch date of Tuesday, May 22, at 07:44 UTC (03:44 Eastern US time), and another the next day, May 23, at 07:22 UTC. Hopefully, this glitch can be fixed and the rocket launched on one of those dates.
Space X is looking good to launch its Falcon 9 + Dragon capsule on Saturday morning at 08:55 UTC (04:55 Eastern US time). NASA tweeted about it, saying there’s a 70% chance of good weather at that time. It’s Florida, so that can change in an instant. Check with NASA and Space X for updates.
The private company Space X is set to launch its Falcon 9 rocket with the Dragon space capsule to the International Space Station on Saturday, May 19, with a backup launch date of May 22.
The launch is set for 04:55 a.m. Eastern time, which is
09:55 08:55 UTC — there’ll be a live webcast at Space X’s site and no doubt NASA TV will carry it as well. They have what’s called an "instantaneous launch window", which means if they don’t launch right on time they can’t just wait a few minutes and try again; they’ll have to go to their backup date. The reason for this is the vagaries of orbital dynamics. The space station is circling the Earth, the planet is rotating underneath it, and the rocket itself has a certain amount of thrust to get Dragon into orbit so it can catch up to ISS. All this adds up to a single Go/No Go decision at the appointed time.
If all goes well, it’ll launch on Saturday, and then the Dragon will take a day to match orbits with ISS. It will undergo a series of tests, including a pass only 2 or so kilometers from the station, to make sure all the controls are OK. If it checks out, it’ll approach close enough for the astronauts on ISS to grab it with the robotic arm, and they’ll pull it in for docking. The Dragon has some cargo for them (supplies and scientific experiments) which they’ll offload, and then the capsule will remain docked for a week and a half, during which time it will be loaded with cargo to bring back to Earth. After that, it undocks, pulls away, does a de-orbit burn, and then comes back to Earth in the Pacific, where it will be retrieved.
This launch will be the second demonstration flight for Space X, proving to NASA they can do this. NASA has money for private venture to do various task — in the case of Space X, there’s about $400M waiting for them if the flight’s successful. And as I’ve said before, whether it’s Space X or a different company, I love the idea that re-supply flights and such are done by commercial ventures. NASA should be in the business of innovating, and let private companies deal with the more routine stuff.
As far as Space X’s statements about all this go, I have to say, I rather liked this part of the press kit:
Pushing the Envelope, Success is Not Guaranteed
Demonstration launches are conducted to determine potential issues so that they might be addressed and – by their very nature – carry a significant risk. All spaceflight is incredibly complicated, and this flight introduces a series of new challenges – it is only the third flight of the Falcon 9 rocket, the second of the Dragon capsule, and the first for a number of all-new components necessary to berth with the International Space Station. If any aspect of the mission is not successful, SpaceX will learn from the experience and try again.
I think this statement is pretty forthright — imagine NASA saying that before a Shuttle launch! — so I give them credit for that. I imagine it could also be interpreted as trying to make an excuse for a problem before the launch… which honestly, it is. But I think it’s a good idea to get this out in the open now, before the launch. I hear a lot of grumbling about delays; this flight has been postponed many times. But remember, the Shuttle launches suffered constant delays, and this is the first time Space X is trying to do such a complicated mission. I figure, let them take their time. Better to do it right. Pushing schedules too hard blows up rockets.
Right now, the future of US human space exploration is a little unsettled. NASA is still talking about building a new rocket system to replace the Shuttle, but it’s unclear how long it will take and how much it will cost. Space X is a private company that has already launched rockets into orbit, and is working to make their vehicles rated to carry humans (there are strict rules about that, which I’ll get to in a sec). They’re planning an uncrewed launch of the Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon space capsule to the space station for May 19, which is a massive step in their plans to be the go-to company for launches.
Other companies are working on this as well. Jeff Bezos — billionaire creator of Amazon.com — has Blue Origin, a secretive group that is looking to launch sub-orbital and eventually orbital vehicles. Sierra Nevada is working on the Dream Chaser, another orbital vehicle (and they’re pretty far along with it, too). Orbital Sciences plans two test launches this year, including a pass of the space station as well.
And now ATK steps up. I’ve heard about their Liberty rocket, but I haven’t been sure where they stand with it. Well, now we know: ATK has announced it will be ready to put humans into orbit by 2015, potentially ahead of Space X.
[Note: image above is artwork; the rocket is not yet built. Click to liftoffenate. Credit: ATK.]
ATK — a company with a complicated history of mergers and name changes, but with solid rocket experience — has the wherewithal to come through on this claim. The tech they use for Liberty is based on the now-canceled NASA Ares rocket as well as the European Ariane V vehicle. They’ve built rockets before (part of the company’s legacy is Morton Thiokol, which built the solid rocket boosters for the Shuttle) so this isn’t out of the blue.
[UPDATE (December 8, 9:00 MT): The rocket launched! It was a perfect throw to space, and the Dragon space capsule was successfully deployed in orbit.]
[NOTE: SpaceX is webcasting their static engine firing of the Falcon 9 at about 12: 45 ET today! These are very exciting and worth watching.]
[Update: The static firing went pretty well, looks like. However, the Shuttle's not as healthy: NASA has announced the launch of Discovery has been delayed to around February 3, to give them time to investigate the cracks in the external fuel tank more carefully.]
NASA has announced that the private company SpaceX will launch their second Falcon 9 rocket on December 7. This time, the Dragon space capsule will be on top of the stack! The plan is to get it into space, and then de-orbit it. If this works, it will be the first time a commercial company will have ever done this. The launch window runs from 09:03 to 12:22 EST, and if the launch is delayed the same time window exists for December 8 and 9.
The launch will be broadcast live on NASA TV.
This will be the first launch in NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation System, where NASA partners with private companies to transport crew and supplies to space. Personally, I love this idea. As I’ve said before (scroll down to #2 of My opinion on the new space policy), let private companies do the routine deliveries, and let NASA always keep looking ahead to what’s next.
Sometimes, it’s easy to read our own feelings into a simple picture.
That’s the flame from a Soyuz TMA-01M rocket which launched on Friday with a crew of three men headed to the International Space Station. As a picture, it’s very engaging; I love imagery which possesses a geometric symmetry but is still off-center and a bit unbalanced.
As a metaphor, it’s also engaging: once the Shuttle retires, we’ll have to rely on the Russians for a few years to get supplies and crew to and from the ISS; the image of the flames but not the rocket give a definite "Elvis has left the building" vibe.
But we’ll see. The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon capsule is scheduled for a test flight as early as next month, and the new NASA authorization bill provides a tidy sum of money for commercial flights (don’t believe the rhetoric some in Congress are using about Obama killing manned spaceflight; it’s baloney). And there’s also funding for a new rocket system as well. It will take NASA several years to get their own big human-rated rockets flying again, but it will happen. I’m angry and frustrated about the current situation, and I’ll be a lot happier when it’s resolved. But I’m also hopeful that the path is being laid out for not only a return to space, but one that is sustainable and permanent.
The private company SpaceX performed a successful "drop test" of their Dragon capsule on August 12.
The Dragon capsule is what will ferry supplies and astronauts into space and to the International Space Station — and bring them back home to Earth. The drop test was done to make sure that the parachutes would deploy correctly and to measure the forces incurred on the capsule.
A helicopter lifted the capsule to 14,000 feet and dropped it over the Pacific Ocean. As you can see in the picture, all three ‘chutes deployed well. The smaller object you can see on the left with two smaller parachutes is a device that opens up drogue ‘chutes first, designed to slow and stabilize the capsule while it is still at high altitude. Once it’s stable, the larger parachutes deploy. This is similar to how other capsules historically have come back home.
There’s a pretty nifty video of all this on the SpaceX site, too. NASA has contracted with SpaceX to use their Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule, so I’m pleased with the progress being made.