The maiden launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 v.1, to be conducted out of Vandenberg AFB in California, has been pushed back from September 10th to the 14th, and if a recent tweet from company founder Elon Musk is any indication, further delays are possible, as the company attempts to cover every contingency for one of the most eagerly anticipated space launches in recent memory. While the Wet Dress Rehearsal has already been performed, there is no word yet regarding a test fire. Although neither SpaceX nor their primary customer, Canada’s MDA corporation are saying very much about the launch, which will boost the CASSIOPE spacecraft into a near polar orbit, the steady grind of government paperwork has revealed some fascinating details about the upcoming event. As has been widely speculated, SpaceX will attempt to perform a soft water landing of the vehicle’s first stage, in what will be a two-part process. After stage separation, the Falcon 9 v-1.1 will re-ignite three of its 9 Merlin 1d engines in an attempt to dramatically slow the stage before it re-enters the atmosphere and begins the violent tumbling recorded by sensors on previous flights of the original Falcon 9, Block I. If it is successful in this effort, then the rocket will conduct a second re-ignition and burn of the the single, center mounted Merlin engine in an effort to further slow the booster before it impacts the ocean. Obviously, there is quite a lot which could go wrong with this particular flight, and to cover contingencies, SpaceX applied for and received a waiver for certain FAA risk thresholds, specifically the risk of blast damage from an explosion due the anticipated development of a regional atmospheric inversion which would have the effect of increasing blast overpressure. The FAA regulation “prohibits the launch of an expendable launch vehicle if the total expected average number of casualties (Ec) for the launch exceeds 0.00003 for risk from far field blast overpressure.” Even if this initial powered recovery effort is a total flop, also contained in the FAA waiver is the hint of a possible silver lining. According to the waiver notice published in Federal Register, SpaceX plans to re-ignite the second stage and burn it to exhaustion. While this could take the form of a fuel intensive plane change maneuver, it could also indicate that the company is going to attempt to send the second stage out of Earth orbit altogether, and in doing so demonstrate not only the ability to perform a geostationary transfer orbit burn which will be needed for its upcoming SES launch out of Cape Canaveral, but also take a major step in marking out a future role for interplanetary missions. With the Osiris/Rex launch recently awarded to United Launch Alliance, it is a fair bet that SpaceX is more than eager to at least get the Falcon into serious contention for future high profile launch awards. (Not that many are coming anyway, due to SMD budget cuts) In the event SpaceX does go for broke, it should also be noted that with the same second stage intended for use in the Falcon Heavy, conducting an escape velocity burn, whenever it happens, will be a de facto demonstration of a a critical component required to deliver on the FH’s promise of significant throw-weight to both the Moon and Mars.
A busy, and unusually significant September launch schedule got underway Saturday at 4:05 p.m. EDT with the liftoff of a Land Launch Zenit-3SLB booster from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Carrying the 9,500 lb. AMOS-4 communications satellite, Israel’s largest Comsat so far, to a GTO, the successful launch marked a return to flight for the Zenit-3 booster, following the February 1st failure of a Zenit 3-SLB by sister company Sea Launch. While the Land Launch manifest has been pretty thin since its debut in 2008, the trouble free flight could mark the beginning of a new era for both companies. Of particular note, all versions of the Zenit booster employ the four chambered RD-171 main engine, which is built by Russia’s NPO Energomash, and any uptick in orders for either booster stand to provide Russia with more work for the company should the Vladimir Putin’s government choose to follow through on reports that it was considering terminating the export of two chambered RD-180 engine to the United States.
Looking ahead, September is scheduled to include the launch of no less than four separate American boosters, including the maiden flight for the Falcon 9 v1.1, as well as the return to flight for the Russian Proton following its spectacular failure on July 1st, as well as the re-scheduled first flight for Japan’s Epsilon launch vehicle.
As of now the schedule is as follows:
September 6th : LADEE aboard a Minotaur V at 11:27 PM out of NASA Wallops
September 10th: CASSIOPE aboard SpaceX Falcon 9 V1.1 out of Vandenberg AFB, CA. during a window 9-11 a.m. PDT
September 15th: International Launch Services Astra 2E Comsat aboard a Proton out of Baikonur, TBD
September 17th : Orbital Sciences Antares/Cygnus 1 launch to ISS out of MARS/Wallops at 11:23 a.m. EDT
September 18th : AEHF satellite aboard a ULA Atlas V in the 531 configuration out of Cape Canaveral at 3:04 a.m. EDT
And just maybe, if everything goes as planned and on schedule with the CASSIOPE flight, the first Falcon 9 v1.1 out of Cape Canaveral, carrying the SES-8 Comsat
Finally, just about no month would be complete without some version of the Soyuz blasting into orbit, and even if some of the other scheduled missions don’t make it off on time, it’s a pretty good bet that the two Soyuz launches scheduled for this month, a crewed mission to ISS on September 25th, and a commercial launch out of French Guiana on the 30th , will continue extending that vehicle’s remarkable record.
From the SpaceX Channel:
“On August 13th, the Falcon 9 test rig (code name Grasshopper) completed a divert test, flying to a 250m altitude with a 100m lateral maneuver before returning to the center of the pad. The test demonstrated the vehicle’s ability to perform more aggressive steering maneuvers than have been attempted in previous flights.
Grasshopper is taller than a ten story building, which makes the control problem particularly challenging. Diverts like this are an important part of the trajectory in order to land the rocket precisely back at the launch site after reentering from space at hypersonic velocity.”
SpaceX has completed a full length mission test burn of the Falcon 9 V1.1 first stage at its rocket development facility in McGregor, Tx. This most recent test, which according to the Waco Trib took place at approximately 7:41 p.m. Sunday evening, was confirmed by twitter post from Elon Musk, who congratulated his team for overcoming a number of difficulties.
The first flight launch for the new and improved Falcon 9 v1.1 is currently scheduled for September 5th out of Vandenberg, Ca. It will carry MDA Corporation’s CASSIOPE satellite, a comparatively small satellite which is intended as a test bed for several different applications including ePOP, (enhanced polar outflow probe) designed to study the ionosphere, with a suite of instrument, as well as Cascade, a point to point space based digital file transfer capability.
SpaceX tweeted this picture of an Amercan flag flying on top of its new transporter / erector at Vandenberg, Ca. Note the substantial structure designed to support the Falcon Heavy’s triple core configuration.
After a difficult two-year span which had seen a surprising number of failures in the Russian launch industry, things appeared to be getting back on track in 2013. Until today. Within a few seconds of liftoff at 8:38 a.m. local time, (10:38 p.m. EDT Monday July 1) a Russian Proton-M booster carrying 3 Glonass (GPS) satellites began oscillating, exhibiting a loss of control which resulted in a wild, arching flight which came to a fiery conclusion near an alternate launch pad 17 seconds after ignition.
With the booster’s highly toxic unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide fuel residue blanketing the immediate area around the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Rianovosti is reporting that the upcoming launch of the Progress resupply ship to the International Space Station will almost certainly be delayed.
The dramatic failure of the trouble plagued rocket is going to have numerous repercussions, and is a blow to International Launch Services of Reston, Va. which markets a slightly different version of the Proton for commercial satellite launches. ILS had been planning a launch of the SES Astra 2E comsat later this month, but that is clearly not going to happen. With Sea-Launch attempting to recover from its most recent and similarly dramatic failure, and SpaceX yet to qualify the Falcon 9 V1.1, Arianespace is likely to begin looking for places on a crowded manifest as it cements its position as the world’s most reliable commercial launch provider. The Proton accident may also open a rare window for United Launch Alliance, which has reportedly been attempting to re-entry the commercial market with the Atlas-V booster.
In addition to the commercial implications, this latest example of what seems to be a teetering Russian space infrastructure raises additional concerns about ongoing American reliance on the Russian launch industry which includes ISS crew transportation as well as the RD-180 main engine for the Atlas-V.
Anatoly Zak has in depth coverage of the accident at Russianspaceweb.com
Rianovosti has a useful infographic detailing the cost of recent Russian launch failures.
Wacotrib.com reports via its Joe Science blog, the following notification from SpaceX received Thursday evening.
“SpaceX completed first-stage development testing on June 19 with a test fire. This test achieved all verifications needed following earlier stage testing, and with this test we have achieved the equivalent of nearly two full mission duty cycles on the integrated stage. We are now moving into the stage acceptance tests and final preparations for flight.”
A further update by the company also noted that a launch date for MDA Corporation’s Cassiope mission out of Vandenberg has been set, but has yet to be published.
Two week ending notes for SpaceX. In a report in Space News, SpaceX has received orders for two launches, one of which dates back to the last time the Falcon 1(e) was on the manifest. As observers may recall, the company had listed a Falcon 1E launch for Astrium for some period of time, only to see it disappear. Somewhat surprisingly, Astrium has exercised options which allow the orders for German radar satellites to be transferred to the Falcon 9.
If you were thinking that SpaceX really may need more capacity to handle all those launches, a story in the Brownsville Herald details several more acquisitions of small parcels of land related to the proposed commercial launch site at Boca Chica beach.
Finally, if there was one bright note coming out of the chaotic Congressional sub committee hearings on the NASA Authorization Act this week, it seems that the House of Representatives is more inclined to fully fund the Commercial Crew Program this year. One exception, Alabama Representative Mo Brooks, who indicated that if SLS doesn’t get $1.8 instead of $1.4 billion in funding, he may take his ball and go home.
Although there has been no official word from SpaceX, nor even a tweet from Elon Musk, according to Wacotrib.com Space X apparently conducted another moderately long duration test of the Falcon 9-R Wednesday evening. It is unclear just how long the test lasted with witnesses saying it was “about a minute.” NASAspaceflight.com has a very informative article “Testing Times” detailing difficulties with the previous test which cut off unexpectedly at 118 seconds, well shy of the full burn time for the first stage.
An entirely different sort of noise is coming out of the Paris Air Show, where Arianespace is touting the advantages of the Ariane V ME for taking on both SpaceX and the ILS Proton in a single launch. According to report in Space News, Arianespace claims the planned upgrade to the upper stage will allow the company to continue its practice of dual manifesting, placing a large satellite capable of matching anything Proton can loft in the upper slot, and a slightly smaller satellite in the lower position, where it would compete effectively against the Falcon 9 v1.1. In another measure of the looming competition, Arianespace is also promoting its capacity to deliver one of the new series of all-electric propulsion satellites to a higher initial drop-off point than SpaceX, thereby reducing the time required for the slow climb to its final orbital slot.
Arianespace describes the increased capability of the Ariane V ME as a “SpaceX defense,” which shows just seriously the European launch consortium has come in its estimation of the competition since the days its previous president Jean-Yves Le Gall, now head of the French Space Agency would virtually refuse to call the American company by name.
In the end however, the defense may prove to be little more than another Maginot line. What Arianespace is not saying, because it has no answer, it how it would compete with a dual manifested Falcon Heavy, an indication of just how important the triple core booster is to the Hawthorne based company. And as for the Falcon 9-R, better keep that white flag handy.