A Rocket on the Edge of Forever

Showtime! Credit : Elon Musk

Credit : Elon Musk

It is after all, just a test launch.  But what a test launch it is. Whenever the Falcon 9 v1.1 finally lifts off from Vandenberg, Ca. it will carry much more than a 700 lb. satellite, (as well as a couple of cubesats) which got a bargain basement price for accepting an elevated level of risk.

In the immediate term, the matter seems rather clear. SpaceX has an enormous backlog of launches on its manifest, all of which depend on this booster having a good day.  Still, a test launch is in the end, exactly that, and barring some unforeseen flaw in the overall system, say the bending motion in what is now a very long, narrow,  booster,  any  difficulties will no doubt be ironed out, and the company will learn and move on, as it has throughout its decade long history.

What is more important however, are a particular subset of launches which are not yet on the manifest, but could become ever so closer with an immediate, and undeniable success, the potential launch awards under the Commercial Crew program.  As with many aspects of the Falcon 9 v1.1’s maiden flight, it’s not so much that an early stumble could severely harm its prospects, as much as it is that a strong start could substantially improve them. And it should be noted, that there are some potential issues, such as separation difficulties with the new 5.2 meter fairing, which could endanger this mission’s outcome without having any significant bearing on the Commercial Crew prospects.

And then there is ongoing struggle to fully break in to the EELV market.  Recent weeks have seen multiple stories in trade publications detailing the difficult choices the Air Force is facing in maintaining or improving various space related defense programs such as GPS III, or the Space Fence, in the face of ever tighter budgets.  There is no getting around the uncomfortable fact that wildly escalating costs in the EELV program, and the price of simply getting assets to orbit, is having a deleterious and limiting effect on just what assets will be deployed in the future. It is, quite simply, harming national security. While the Air Force does at last have a plan in place, and a schedule of sorts, for allowing new entrants to its launch program, a successful maiden flight for the new Falcon 9 would not only build on the 5 for 5 record established with the original version of the booster, if followed by equally successful outcomes in the flurry of scheduled launches leading up to the its next NASA mission, CRS-3, provide compelling evidence that it time to re-evaluate the EELV contract sooner rather than later.

For all the interest in the launch itself, it is perhaps not what is going to space, but what is coming back down, which is the biggest story line of all.  SpaceX has justifiably cautioned that the odds of achieving its effort to conduct a controlled atmospheric re-entry and subsequent near sea level soft landing of the Falcon 9 first stage are very low.  It is doubtful they are sandbagging. After failed past efforts to recover both Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 first stage boosters  by parachute, the company probably has a better understanding than just about anyone on just how difficult a task that is, in part because they have been the only ones actually trying. Nevertheless, SpaceX has clearly seen something in the data from those previous efforts which says it can be done, and is worth the expense, which can be measured not in just this launch, but the entire Grasshopper effort, to keep at it.    With few details released about the effort, it is difficult to gauge what the benchmarks for progress are, but it seems reasonable to assume that a successful engine re-start, and measurable controlled reduction in velocity prior to hitting the atmosphere would mark a substantial accomplishment, and likely spark a near panic in Evry,  France.  With SpaceX clearly repeatedly demonstrating the ability to conduct controlled landing in McGregor, and soon to expand the envelope in higher and faster testing in New Mexico, ultimate success may just reside at whatever altitude ever higher Grasshopper and ever lower returning Falcon 9 first stages happen to meet. As the first act in what could be a very long, or surprisingly short play, it’s almost showtime, and rest assured, the rest of the world’s launch providers will be watching, even as some may be frantically sticking pins in a Falcon 9 voodoo doll even now.

Finally, there is this.   Just this week, a series of papers summarizing findings from the Curiosity rover have confirmed that Mars is wetter than most of us ever thought, or perhaps even dared dream. With estimates of 2 pints of water in every cubic foot of soil, recoverable and releasable through centuries old technology, it is time to be going and SpaceX was formed for the sole purpose of doing just that. Most significantly, the tall, white booster scheduled to lift off from Vandenberg tomorrow (or soon thereafter) is the vital core component of the long awaited Falcon Heavy, and a successful launch, whenever, it comes, sets the stage for its debut by clearing away the largest piece of development risk.

So, at whatever point our attention turns back to Vandenberg and the maiden launch of the Falcon Heavy,  notably from the same transporter/erector upon which the Falcon 9 v1.1 currently sits, we will be witnessing not just another space first, but the opening of a new era in which Mars is within reach.

Falcon 9 v1,1 is scheduled for liftoff with the CASSIOPE satellite in a window opening at 9:00 AM PT, 12:00  PM EDT, on Sunday, September 29th.  A backup date is available for Monday.

Good luck, and Godspeed.

SpaceX Launch Begins on Sunday

Time to Fly

Time to Fly

According to a twitter update from Elon Musk, SpaceX is aiming for a two day launch window for the new Falcon 9 V1.1,  beginning this Sunday, contingent on good weather at the Vandenberg, Ca. launch site.  At the moment, the  weather forecast appears to be quite favorable for the launch, , with clear skies and a 9 mph  wind expected on Sunday, the 29th.

A Six Pack from SpaceX

Six Pack Anyone?

Six Pack Anyone?

SpaceX has released a new update, dated September 25th, which highlights the increased pace of production for both Dragon capsules,  as well as Falcon 9 cores. In the above collage of Dragon craft, four are for CRS missions, and two are for  Commercial Crew testing.

Interestingly, the company highlights its Hawthorne factory’s capacity to produce 40 cores per year, which oddly enough is the exact number Boeing advertised when it built the Delta IV facility in Decatur, Al.

SpaceX Conducts 2nd Static Fire, Launch Window Opens in 10 Days

According to a tweet from Elon Musk Thursday evening,  after a  fully successful second static fire of the Falcon 9 v1.1,  SpaceX is ready to begin launch preparations for a window at Vandenberg which opens “in 10 days.” If that holds, the launch could occur as early as Sunday, September 29th. Space.com reported earlier this week that according to an email from  SpaceX,  after the first static fire “we saw some anomalies stemming from how the pad interfaces with the vehicle,” and  “These are the kinds of things you can only find out when you static fire. We’re making the necessary adjustments and will static fire again for good measure before launch.”

SpaceX Launch Update

Falcon 9 v.1.1 at Vandenberg Credit : Elon Musk

Falcon 9 v.1.1 at Vandenberg
Credit : Elon Musk

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.

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.