Zenit Return to Flight Via Land Launch Launch Kicks Off a September to Remember

Zenit Returns to Flight Credit : RIA Novosti

Zenit Returns to Flight
Credit : RIA Novosti

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.

Latest Grasshopper Test

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 Completes Full Length Test

Big Falcon Test Stand Credit : SpaceX

Big Falcon Test Stand
Credit : SpaceX

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.

Proton Disaster

Proton Failure Credit:  News 24

Proton Failure
Credit: News 24

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.

SpaceX Completes First Development for Falcon V 1.1

Development Complete Credit : SpaceX

Development Complete
Credit : SpaceX

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.

Roundup: SpaceX Adds Launch Orders, Lots in Texas

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.

SpaceX Conducts New Test

Testing Again Credit SpaceX

Testing Again
Credit SpaceX

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.

SpaceX Takes Another Step into EELV Market

Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski and Elon Musk sign CRADA Credit : Space Missile Center

Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski and Elon Musk sign CRADA
Credit : Space Missile Center

The U.S. Air  Force Space and Missile  Systems Center announced yesterday that it has signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with Space Exploration Technologies Corp., paving the way for the company to take the next steps along the pathway to entering the EELV business as outlined in the New Entrants Certification Guide which was introduced in October 2011.  According to the press release the CRADA 

  “enables the Air Force to evaluate the Falcon 9 v1.1 launch system according to the Air Force’s New Entrant Certification Guide (NECG). As part of the evaluation, SMC and SpaceX will look at the Falcon 9 v1.1′s flight history, vehicle design, reliability, process maturity, safety systems, manufacturing and operations, systems engineering, risk management and launch facilities. SMC will monitor at least three certification flights to meet the flight history requirements outlined in the NECG. Once the evaluation process is complete, the SMC commander will make the final determination whether SpaceX has the capability to successfully launch NSS missions using the Falcon 9 v1.1.”

As the announcement indicates,  it will still be some time before SpaceX will be in a position to compete for EELV launches,  and there  is no word on when the Air Force evaluations will begin.  Presumably however,  SpaceX would want to wait until after the new booster has successfully completed the first few flights on its manifest, and in particular delivered its first commercial communications satellite to GTO,  which should come with flight number and the launch of  SES-8 out of Cape Canaveral.  

SpaceX will enter into a separate certification agreement with the Air Force to enable the Falcon Heavy to compete for EELV class launches, a process which will probably quite a bit longer, as the company currently lists three launches on its manifest for the triple core booster; a demo flight which will likely take place in 2014, followed by two flights the following year, one of which is a demonstration flight for the Air Force,  labelled Space Test Program -2, contracted under the  Orbital/Suborbital-3  (OSP-3) program.  The remaining Falcon Heavy flight currently on the manifest is for Intelsat, but that may not be the case for long. 

A sucessful introductory campaign for the Falcon 9 v1.1, the core of the Falcon Heavy, beginning with the launch of Cassiope out of Vandenberg, and followed by the SES launch,  is likely to open the door heavy and super heavy class comsat launches in short order. 

In a related note, SpaceX has notified the Waco Tribune that another “loud” test similar to 112 second run on Friday evening is imminent.

SpaceX Conducts First Firing for Falcon 9-R

Start Your Engines  Credit :  Elon Musk

Start Your Engines
Credit : Elon Musk

Based on a tweet from company founder Elon Musk, it appears that SpaceX has begun full-scale testing of all 9 engines for the Falcon 9-R  at the company’s McGregor, Texas development facility.  Musk tweeted  ” 1st firing of Falcon -R advanced prototype rocket. Over 1M lbs thrust,  enough to lift a skyscraper,”  accompanied by the image above.  Musk later clarified the comparison by saying “Vac thrust of 700 tons means avg of 14 tons/floor of structural steel for a 50 story building.”

Presumably, this was the first “test of unusual loudness” which Joseph Abbot has been keeping up to date on at Wacotrib.com, although there has yet to be any confirmation as to the duration or further specifics about the test.  If SpaceX follows the same routine as it has for both Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 development programs, it will conduct a full, mission length burn of all 9 engines prior to beginning the launch campaign for its next mission, the maiden flight for the Falcon 9 V1.1,  scheduled to launch out of Vandenberg, California.  

The designation as being a test of the Falcon 9-R  “advanced prototype rocket” as opposed to Falcon 9 v1.1 first stage is interesting,   particularly given `company’s intention to use each of its upcoming launches to progressively test first stage recovery after  second stage separation.  At that moment, each operational  Falcon 9 literally splits into two different rockets,  the first a conventional, expendable second stage on the way to space, and the second, a prototype test vehicle for first stage return.  As such SpaceX’s customers can take particular pride in the fact that they are materially contributing to the advancement of space exploration and commerce in a meaningful way.

The flight test program is also going to make every upcoming launch a fascinating experience far removed from tightly controlled, extremely conservative commercial space launches.  After separation, and with the payload hopefully safely on its way to orbit,  literally nobody knows what is going to happen next,  and how much of the mystery surrounding the most critical aspect of powered return will be peeled back on any given flight.   In so many aspects, this promises to take us back to  the early years of space flight testing, making it perhaps the summer’s most exciting reality drama.