Last night (Sunday October 7), SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon capsule full of supplies on a mission to the International Space Station. The Dragon was deployed successfully (as were its solar panels to give it power) and it’s on its way to ISS.
However, not everything went as planned. One of the nine Merlin engines powering the Falcon 9 had a failure 90 seconds into the flight. It’s not clear what happened just yet, but there is pretty dramatic footage of the engine failure; in the slow motion video below you can see some sort of flash and puff of flame at the 30 second mark (I’ve set the video to start 22 seconds in):
You can see a bright spot glowing on the upper right engine, then what looks like shrapnel blowing back as well, so it appears something catastrophic happened to the engine. I can think of many things that could’ve caused this – a crack in the engine bell that failed when it got hot, a faulty valve, something in the pipes – but I’m just spitballing; hopefully the folks at SpaceX will be able to determine the cause from the engine telemetry.
[UPDATE: SpaceX issued the follow notice at 17:00 UTC today:
"Approximately one minute and 19 seconds into last night’s launch, the Falcon 9 rocket detected an anomaly on one first stage engine. Initial data suggests that one of the rocket’s nine Merlin engines, Engine 1, lost pressure suddenly and an engine shutdown command was issued immediately. We know the engine did not explode, because we continued to receive data from it. Our review indicates that the fairing that protects the engine from aerodynamic loads ruptured due to the engine pressure release, and that none of Falcon 9’s other eight engines were impacted by this event.
As designed, the flight computer then recomputed a new ascent profile in real time to ensure Dragon’s entry into orbit for subsequent rendezvous and berthing with the ISS. This was achieved, and there was no effect on Dragon or the cargo resupply mission.
Falcon 9 did exactly what it was designed to do. Like the Saturn V, which experienced engine loss on two flights, Falcon 9 is designed to handle an engine out situation and still complete its mission."]
Although this looks scary, the engine nozzles are coated with Kevlar to protect them specifically in case something like this occurs, so the other engines continued working. Also, the onboard computer immediately shut down the failed engine, and then on the fly – literally – recalculated all the needed changes to the thrust of the other engines to compensate. In the end, the first stage boost lasted an extra thirty seconds to cover for the failed engine. It’s important again to note that the Dragon capsule was delivered on orbit and will rendezvous with ISS on Wednesday.
Having said that, there may have been another problem as well: my friend Jonathan McDowell of Jonathan’s Space Report is reporting the upper stage didn’t make its second burn, so an Orbcomm satellite that was carried as a secondary payload didn’t make the correct orbit. I don’t have any more information about that, but I’ll update this post when I hear more.
[UPDATE: ORBCOMM has confirmed the satellite was placed into the wrong orbit due to the engine failure. They, along with aerospace company Sierra Nevada, are looking into using the satellite's onboard propulsion system to raise the orbit.]
Elon Musk at SpaceX is expected to have an announcement later today about the launch. Again, I’ll update this post as info comes in.
Tip o’ the nose cone to AstroEngine for the alert about the video.
[UPDATE: The Falcon 9 carrying the Dragon capsule successfully launched right on time, at 20:35 Eastern US time. 15 minutes later the Dragon was in orbit with its solar panels successfully deployed. Amazing. Next up: rendezvous with the ISS at 05:00 Eastern US time Wednesday morning.]
Tonight, Sunday, October 7, at 20:35 Eastern (US) time (or 00:35 UTC on the morning of October 8) the private company SpaceX is scheduled to launch a Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station (PDF). Sitting on the top of the rocket is a Dragon capsule loaded with half a ton of supplies for the astronauts on the ISS.
This is very exciting! They have accomplished this amazing feat once before, back in May, as part of a demonstration flight. Because of that, NASA gave them a contract for twelve more flights, and this is the first one of those dozen – it’s designated Commercial Resupply Services-1 or just CRS-1.
[Click to tsiolkovskenate.]
That’s this mission’s Falcon 9 rocket there, lying on its side. As you can see, it’s quite a beast. As with all rockets, most of the main body you see there is for carrying fuel, and the payload, the Dragon, is at the very top.
Once launched, the Dragon will detach, and is scheduled to rendezvous with ISS on Wednesday, October 10. It’ll dock with the station and remain berthed there for two weeks. It’s carrying supplies, including equipment, hardware, and even clothes for the astronauts on board. Once all that is offloaded, the astronauts will load it back up with 350 kilos of material to bring back to Earth, including results from experiments and now-unneeded hardware.
I have my suspicions there might be a stowaway on board though. Anyone seen Bernadette lately?
Anyway, on October 28, the Dragon is scheduled to undock, do a de-orbit burn, and splash down in the Pacific off the coast of southern California.
A complete overview of the mission is available as a press kit (PDF; same link as above). It’s pretty good reading, so if you plan to watch you should give it a once-over.
There’s also a nice collection of photos of the rocket on the SpaceX site, including this nice one of a test firing of the actual CRS-1 rocket sans Dragon:
Coooool. There’s also video of this short test burn:
This mission is really important. Well, they all are, of course, but it’s critical that SpaceX can show not only that they can do this, but that they can do it again. When I was in high school band, we’d rehearse the music, and if we played it perfectly the band instructor would say, "Let’s do it again to make sure that wasn’t by accident." The earlier Dragon mission was almost completely flawless, but it’s when you can do it again that you can really show you know your stuff.
My best wishes to the team st SpaceX. And I’ll be live-tweeting the event, so follow me on Twitter for that. I’ll update this blog post as I can and if needed, too.
- History is made as Dragon splashes down safely in the Pacific!
- Video: SpaceX Dragon mission highlights
- NASA chooses SpaceX to return US astronauts to space (though read the note at the top of that post)
- Rocky Mountain (very) high
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.
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.
The privately owned commercial rocket company SpaceX has just revealed the design for their next generation rocket: the Falcon Heavy. It will be able to lift a whopping 53 tons to low-Earth (200 km, 120 mile) orbit — for comparison, Hubble Space Telescope has a mass of 11 tons — or lighter payloads to higher orbit or escape velocity.
I am an unabashed fan of SpaceX, mostly because they’ve proven their worth. The Falcon 1 and 9 rockets have had successful launches, and the company itself has shown to be flexible and respond rapidly to problems during the launch sequence (after losing a Falcon 1, they successfully launched another one only two months later). They’re still young and only have a few launches under their belt, but I think they have a pretty good future ahead of them.
This heavy-lift vehicle is still in the planning stages (you can watch a fun animation of a launch on the SpaceX site), but is based on technology SpaceX has already shown to work (with the caveat that the engines are based on an upgrade to the flight-tested Merlin engines). If it goes as planned, it will be the highest-thrust rocket on Earth with twice the thrust of the Delta IV at only a third of the cost per payload: $1000/pound to orbit, which is very roughly 1/10th the cost of using the Space Shuttle. We’ll see if these numbers hold up, but the rocket looks very promising.
I’m a big fan of our government using private companies to launch payloads to orbit and beyond. We spend a lot of money on that right now, and SpaceX has a real shot at saving the government quite a bit of that money. It’s too early to tell here, but I’m very hopeful that the future of the space program here in America is actually pretty bright in the middle-near term.
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.
Just thought y’all would like this video of the spiral over Australia caused by the Falcon 9 second stage booster. This really shows you the motion of the spin, as well as the bulk motion of the object across the sky; it moves just as you’d expect something in orbit to move. Shocking, I know.
Apparently, a lot of people saw it; Aussies must be early risers. Man, I’d love to see something like this. So cool.
Tip o’ the tin foil beanie to The Plane Talking blog.
Yesterday, a lot of Australians reported seeing a bizarre UFO.
Just before 6:00 a.m. local time, numerous reports came in about a spiral of light in the sky with a bright central spot. The light was actually spinning around, like a pinwheel! One site has pretty cool video of it, and pictures are turning up on the web as well.
Sound familiar? Yeah, it should: these reports are almost exactly like a spiral shaped light seen over Norway last year. The Norway sighting — a picture of it is below, on the right — was positively identified as a Russian missile, so of course as soon as I heard of this new Aussie sighting the first thing I thought of was that it was a rocket booster.
So I leaned over my keyboard and was about to Google "rocket launch schedule" or something similar, when I suddenly stopped. I smiled, leaned back, and almost literally facepalmed myself. Gee, I thought to myself, what rocket would’ve launched yesterday morning?
Duh: the SpaceX Falcon 9! The private company successfully held its first test launch of the big rocket, blasting off from its Florida pad at 18:45 UT Friday — which is 04:45 Sydney, Australia time.
I don’t have ground tracks yet (maps of the path of the rocket over the Earth’s surface) Here’s the Falcon 9 ground track — the path of the rocket over the Earth’s surface — provided by jetforme (based on orbital parameters):
Note how the path goes right over eastern Australia! The timing is perfect, too: about an hour later, the second stage would’ve been halfway around the world, matching the position and time of the UFO sightings.
The spiral pattern seen in Norway is known to be from gas leaking out of the booster. As the booster spins and the gas shoots out, it makes a water-sprinkler spiral pattern in the sky. As it happens, the second stage of the Falcon 9 was rotating; this was not supposed to happen and the SpaceX engineers are looking into it (it didn’t affect the launch adversely; the payload achieved orbit).
So the timing was right, the booster was spinning, and we know that spirals like this are an outcome of rocket launches.
[UPDATE 19:30 UT): SUCCESS! SpaceX successfully launched the Falcon 9, and the Dragon capsule is now in orbit. We're awaiting the orbital numbers right now (velocity, height, ellipticity, etc). There was a tense time there for a while when they initially had an abort with just six seconds left. But they reset, and launched the bird. A huge CONGRATS to SpaceX for opening a new door on the space age.]
[Update (14:30 UT): The start of the launch window has been moved to 15:20.]
The private rocket company SpaceX plans to have its first test launch of the Falcon 9 rocket today! The launch window opens at 15:00 UT (11:00 a.m. Eastern time), and lasts for four hours. They will start a webcast of the launch at 14:40 UT. The ultimate goal is to get the bird into orbit, but they have a number of flight milestones to achieve.
On the rocket will be their qualification version of the Dragon payload capsule. This allows them to test both the rocket and the capsule simultaneously.
Weather looks pretty good for liftoff as I write this, though there’s a 40% chance of delays. They also have a launch window for the same times reserved for the next day, Saturday, June 5. Stay tuned, and check the SpaceX site for updates!
Image credit: Chris Thompson/SpaceX