Falcon 9 launches Dragon; promising news from reusability experiment [Updated]

CRS-3 launch

A SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 carrying a Dragon cargo spacecraft lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Friday, April 18. It successfully placed a Dragon cargo spacecraft into orbit. (credit: NASA/KSC)

Despite a foreboding weather forecast, conditions were good enough at the right time Friday afternoon for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket to lift off successfully from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The rocket lifted off in its instantaneous launch window at 3:25:22 pm EDT (1925:22 GMT) and placed the Dragon spacecraft into orbit about ten minutes later. The Dragon separated, deployed its solar panels, and is on track to arrive at the International Space Station early on Easter Sunday, with grappling scheduled for 7:14 am EDT (1114 GMT).

“Everything looks great as far as the ascent phase of the mission,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in a post-launch news conference late Friday afternoon. “The rocket flight was perfect, as far as we could tell.”

Musk did indicate there was a minor glitch with the Dragon itself noticed shortly after being released from the Falcon’s upper stage. “We had some slight initial challenges with Dragon, with respect to enabling some of the thruster quads, but those have been resolved, so it looks like everything’s good on the Dragon front,” he said. Later, he said the issue was with an isolation valve that feeds two of the spacecraft’s four thruster valves, but a backup valve resolved the problem. He said he wasn’t sure if this was related to the valve issues that caused problems for the previous Dragon mission, in March 2013.

Some people watching the launch noticed that, as soon as the Falcon 9′s nine first-stage engines ignited, there was a dark plume that rose up the sides of the vehicle, falling back down a few seconds later as the vehicle lifted off the pad. Musk said he believed that was linked to dousing the pad with water shortly before launch. “Essentially, what happened is we splashed dirty water on ourselves,” he said. “A little embarrassing, but no harm done.”

Besides launching the Dragon on the third of twelve contracted cargo missions to the ISS, many were interested in SpaceX’s effort to try and “land” the first stage in the ocean by performing engines burns that would be needed if the stage was going to land, as SpaceX eventually desires to do. As of the Friday afternoon press conference, there was only limited data available, Musk said, because the stage went over the horizon from the Cape; additional data collected by aircraft was expected back later this evening.

What data they did collect was promising. “We have good data down to a pretty low level, roughly around Mach 1.1. Everything looks fine, and we’re awaiting additional data to see how the potential landing burn went,” he said. One key aspect of the data they did have on hand, he said, was that they were able to stop the stage from rolling; it was that roll that caused the engines to shut down prematurely on the previous recovery effort last September when the spin pushed propellants to the sides of their tanks.

The weather conditions hampered efforts to support the recovery test: Musk said high seas kept recovery boats away from the landing zone, while NASA grounded a plane it planned to fly to observe the reentry because of icing conditions, NASA associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier said at the post-launch press conference. Musk, participating in the press conference by phone, left early in order to get updates on data collected during recovery operations.

SpaceX vice president Hans Koenigsmann, also at the press conference, added that the data he saw from the recovery test looked “great” but that he hadn’t seen all of the data yet. He added that regardless of the outcome of this test, including any effort to try and recover the first stage after splashdown, they would likely do another, similar test on their next mission, carrying several ORBCOMM satellites, planned now for mid-May.

Update 8:30 pm: From a couple of updates from Elon Musk, it appears that the first stage of the Falcon 9 did successfully “land” in the ocean, although it has yet to be recovered:

SpaceX launch to be watched from the air—and perhaps also from the sea

Falcon 9 for CRS-3

The Falcon 9 rocket that will launch the next Dragon spacecraft is shown in its hangar in a photo released by SpaceX last month. This is the first Falcon 9 to feature landing legs on its first stage. (credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX is set to make another attempt to launch its Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket on an ISS cargo resupply mission. Launch is scheduled for 3:25 pm EDT (1925 GMT) and while the rocket is ready, weather remains the key issue. Forecasts continue to call for only a 40-percent chance of acceptable weather, and as of the publication of this post, the range was still “no go” because of weather. However, NASA officials said earlier Friday that they would be able to find a “hole in the weather” allowing the launch to go ahead.

When the launch does take place—be it today, tomorrow, or next week—it will be closely watched, and not just by spectators at Cape Canaveral and the usual radars and other tracking assets used for any launch. That’s because of SpaceX’s efforts to attempt to recover the vehicle’s first stage, testing maneuvers to slow down and “land” the stage, albeit over the open ocean and not on land.

“When they do those braking maneuvers to come back and land on the surface of the ocean, those braking maneuvers will be supersonic thruster firings, which will be very similar to what we’ll have to do for braking for a large mass going into Mars,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, in a presentation to a committee of the NASA Advisory Council on Monday, before that afternoon’s SpaceX launch attempt was scrubbed.

He said NASA’s Langley Research Center would be flying three aircraft to observe those maneuvers, collecting data to incorporate into their Mars technology developments. “So we’re actually getting data tonight to help us inform and get us ready for the entry, descent, and landing challenge of going to Mars,” he said. It wasn’t clear if the aircraft would also be on station for the launch today, given the weather conditions.

While NASA watches from the air, the Russians may be watching from the sea. The Russian vessel Nikolay Chiker has been lurking in the waters off the coast from Cape Canaveral, the blog The Aviationist reported Thursday, appearing in March for earlier launch attempts and returning in time for the latest attempts. Some speculate the ship is there to monitor the Falcon 9 launch and stage recovery attempt, although it could be coincidental with other efforts, such as monitoring naval bases.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk knows the Russian vessel is there, and whimsically asks if they pitch in:

SpaceX resets for Friday, but further delays could mean losing its place in line

As expected, SpaceX and NASA announced Wednesday that they have rescheduled Monday’s scrubbed launch of a Falcon 9 v1.1 carrying a Dragon cargo spacecraft to Friday, with the launch scheduled for 3:25 pm EDT (1925 GMT). A backup launch date is Saturday at 3:02 pm EDT (1902 GMT). As of Wednesday, forecasts still called for only a 40% chance of acceptable weather on Friday, increasing to 70% on Saturday.

SpaceX also shared some additional details about the scrub, which was announced more than an hour before the scheduled liftoff time Monday afternoon. “During Monday’s launch attempt, preflight checks detected that a helium valve in the stage separation pneumatic system was not holding the right pressure. This meant that the stage separation pistons would be reliant on a backup check valve,” the company said in a statement. “No issue was detected with the backup valve and a flight would likely have been successful, but SpaceX policy is not to launch with any known anomalies.” Space X added they are replacing the faulty valve and performing other checks on the vehicle.

If the launch slips past Saturday, though, it’s possible this particular mission could face an even longer delay. Speaking at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) in Washington on Wednesday, Bill Gersetenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, indicated that further delays might see NASA instead press ahead with a May 6 launch of an Orbital Sciences Corporation Cygnus cargo spacecraft on an Antares rocket from Virginia.

“We have a flight we’re trying to get off this Friday,” Gerstenmaier said of the upcoming Dragon launch. “If that doesn’t occur, we’re going to use the Cygnus vehicle on May 6. So I’m kind of double booking two launches at once for a little while until we see what actually occurs, because we’re getting low enough on supplies on board station that we’ve got to get something to station in the next couple of months.”

He added that if the Dragon launch does go off as scheduled this Friday or Saturday, NASA would delay the Cygnus launch until June 9.

Houston finds a potential user of its proposed spaceport

Dream Chaser landing at Ellington

Illustration of a Dream Chaser vehicle landing at Ellington Airport in Houston. Sierra Nevada Corporation and the Houston Airport System agreed April 10 to study the feasibility of using Ellington as a landing site for the vehicle. (credit: SNC)

Ellington Airport in Houston is a former military base best known as being the airfield used by NASA astronauts at the nearby Johnson Space Center (JSC) for training flights on their T-38 jets. In the last couple of years, the Houston Airport System (HAS), the agency that operates Ellington as well as the city’s two major commercial airports, has expressed an interest in using Ellington as a spaceport, an interest that extends to doing the groundwork for a spaceport license application to the FAA. But who would be interested in using a facility limited to horizontal takeoffs and/or landings that hasn’t already made arrangements with other facilities, like Virgin Galactic and Spaceport America, or XCOR Aerospace and Midland Airport in west Texas?

Late last week, HAS announced it had found someone who at least showed an initial interest in the site. At a press conference Thursday afternoon at the Rice University Space Institute, HAS and Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) signed a letter of intent to study using Ellington as a landing site for SNC’s Dream Chaser orbital crew vehicle. While Dream Chaser will still launch from Cape Canaveral, HAS and SNC will look at the feasibility of having Dream Chaser land at Ellington.

The letter doesn’t commit SNC to using Ellington, but instead will allow the company and the airport authority to study having Dream Chaser use Ellington. At the briefing, SNC corporate vice president Mark Sirangelo, who heads the company’s space systems unit, said the study would cover three areas: a review of the logistics needed to handle Dream Chaser at Ellington, based on actual Dream Chaser data; support for HAS’s spaceport license application; and to “begin a really good dialogue here in Houston about what is the future of space.”

From a basic technical standpoint, it appears that Ellington can support Dream Chaser: the vehicle requires the same runway as a Boeing 737 jetliner, something that Ellington, with runways currently as long as about 2,750 meters (9,000 feet) can handle. The Kennedy Space Center would remain the primary landing site for Dream Chaser, Sirangelo said, but Ellington could be a secondary site, and also allow opportunities to do things like return experiments directly to researchers at JSC or in Houston’s large medical research community.

“The experiments we bring back from the space station, instead of splashing down in an ocean half a world away, land at Ellington and move over to Rice or the Houston Medical Center, and do that within hours of coming off the space station,” he said. “We want to bring that home as benignly as possible and get it to where it needs to go as quickly as possible.”

HAS is currently working on its spaceport license application with the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, and has the support of the Houston City Council. “We expect to file the application in June or July of this year,” said HAS aviation director Mario Diaz. “We’re confident that, in January or February of 2015, we’ll be issued the ninth spaceport license in the United States.”

Actually, by the time HAS gets its license early next year, it might not be the ninth site with a license. Eight sites currently have spaceport licenses (“launch site operator licenses,” as they’re officially known), but others, particularly Midland Airport, are working on theirs. Midland has already completed its draft environmental assessment, a document that’s usually the pacing element of a license application.

Whether they’re ninth, tenth, or in some other position, HAS officials indicated SNC’s interest helped bolster their case for turning Ellington into a spaceport. “From our perspective, we can say that being able to have Sierra Nevada land at Ellington Spaceport makes our project a reality,” said Arturo Machuca, HAS business development manager. Many people, he said, had dismissed the spaceport plans as a fantasy or something in the far future. “This project is a reality. It is happening.”

Helium leak postpones Falcon 9 launch

F9 on pad 2014 Apr 14

A Falcon 9 v1.1 stands on the pad earlier Monday. The launch of the Dragon spacecraft on the third Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission has been postponed until at least Friday due to a helium leak in the rocket’s first stage. (credit: SpaceX)

A failed computer on the ISS didn’t delay SpaceX, but a helium leak did. NASA announced at about 3:45 pm EDT (1945 GMT), more than an hour before the scheduled liftoff time of 4:58 pm EDT (2058 GMT), that the launch had been scrubbed for the day for what, at the time, was an unspecified technical issue. NASA and SpaceX later confirmed that there was a leak in the helium pressurization system on the rocket’s first stage.

“A fix will be implemented by the next launch opportunity on Friday April 18, though weather on that date isn’t ideal,” SpaceX said in a brief statement on a page set up to webcast the launch. That’s a reference to the weather forecast issued yesterday, which estimated only a 40 percent chance of acceptable weather for launch on Friday, versus 80 percent today. The launch, if weather permits, would take place Friday at 3:25 pm EDT (1925 GMT).

Neither SpaceX nor NASA have disclosed plans should Friday’s attempt be scrubbed by weather or other technical problems. Should there be a significant delay, it’s possible SpaceX might be pushed back until after the launch of the next Orbital Cygnus mission, slated for May 6. If SpaceX does launch Friday or soon thereafter, that Orbital mission will likely be delayed to early June.

ISS glitch won’t delay SpaceX launch

Falcon 9 CRS 3 before launch

A SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 carrying a Dragon spacecraft on the pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Sunday. NASA cleared the launch of the Dragon spacecraft, scheduled for Monday afternoon, despite the failure of a backup computer on the ISS. (credit: NASA)

The failure of a backup computer on the International Space Station (ISS) won’t further delay SpaceX’s next cargo mission to the station, which is still scheduled for launch Monday afternoon, officials said Sunday.

The potential for another delay for SpaceX’s third Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission to the station, designated SpaceX-3 or SpX-3 by NASA and CRS-3 by SpaceX, arose Friday evening when a backup Multiplexer-Demultiplexer (MDM) computer on the exterior of the station malfunctioned. The MDM backs up other computers used to control exterior systems on the station, including the solar arrays and a mobile transporter on the truss. NASA officials feared another failure could prevent the crew from berthing the Dragon to the station when it arrived there after launch.

At a briefing midday Sunday, NASA officials said they had worked out ways to ensure sufficient redundancy to proceed. “The team concluded the MMT [Mission Management Team meeting] with a go for SpaceX-3,” said Michael Suffredini, ISS program manager. The steps NASA will take will be to move the mobile transporter cart to a new position later today, and to put the solar arrays into a different configuration immediately after the launch to ensure they generate enough power but don’t interfere with the arrival and berthing of the spacecraft, in the event there was another computer failure between launch and Dragon arrival.

Suffredini said that the failed MDM will have to be replaced in a spacewalk, which would take place no earlier than April 22 should Dragon launch on time. The replacement of the MDM with a spare already on the station is a relatively straightforward repair, he said, taking no more than two and a half hours, and would be the only activity during the contingency spacewalk.

Launch is scheduled for Monday in an instantaneous launch window at 4:58:44 pm EDT (2058:44 GMT) Monday, with an 80-percent chance of acceptable weather at launch. Should the launch be delayed, the next opportunity is not until Friday because of orbital mechanics issues; the forecast then is only for a 40-percent chance of good weather.

One aspect of Monday’s launch beyond the delivery of the Dragon cargo spacecraft into orbit will be the test of the recovery of the Falcon 9 v1.1′s first stage. Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of mission assurance for SpaceX and the launch director for the mission, emphasized that the attempt to softly splash down the stage into the Atlantic Ocean is “completely experimental” with the odds of success of only 30 to 40 percent. “This is a really difficult maneuver,” he said of the recovery effort, which involves reentry and landing burns by the first stage after separating, with the water simulating a landing pad. If it works, he said, “we would be super thrilled.”

GLXP news: SpaceIL donation, Discovery Channel film

SpaceIL Sparrow

An illustration of SpaceIL’s Sparrow lander on the surface of the Moon. The team’s bid to win the Google Lunar X PRIZE gained traction this month with a $16-million donation. (credit: SpaceIL)

There’s now less than 21 months for teams competing for the Google Lunar X PRIZE to win the competition’s $20-million grand prize for landing a spacecraft on the lunar surface, move at least 500 meters, and return HD video and images. Speculation has focused on two US companies, Astrobotic and Moon Express, as the likely front-runners for the competition among the 18 remaining active teams. However, another team made a major step this past week to move towards the front of the pack.

Israeli team SpaceIL announced Wednesday that it has received a $16.4-million donation from the Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Family Foundation. That amount is nearly half of SpaceIL’s estimated budget of $36 million to build and launch their mission. The team’s website states that they have $20 million in “cash and in-kind support” already raised; it’s not clear if this includes the donation.

The Adelson Family Foundation is funded by Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire who made his money with casinos, but is best known today for funding conservative political causes and candidates in the US. “As an entrepreneur, nothing is as thrilling as supporting a group of people who have been told that their dreams cannot be realized,” he said in the announcement of the donation. “We are proud to support Israel and SpaceIL [as they] prove that dreams do come true and that hard work, vision, and dedication are rewarded.”

SpaceIL’s spacecraft, Sparrow, is a small lander based on smallsat technology developed in Israel. The spacecraft doesn’t include a rover but instead will “hop” from one site to another to meet the competition’s 500-meter travel requirement. The team hasn’t secured a launch yet, but the team’s website says that a launch deal “be finalized in the first part of 2014.”

As SpaceIL and other GLXP teams try to get their vehicles ready by the competition deadline, the X PRIZE Foundation itself has worked out a television deal to cover it. Discovery Channel and Science Channel will be the “television homes” for the competition, according to a deal announced April 2. The networks will air a “miniseries event” about the competition, as well as live coverage of winning landing—assuming, of course, a team is able to land on the Moon by the end-2015 deadline.

“When the winning craft touches down on the moon’s surface, it’s going to trigger buzz and inspiration all over the world,” said Discovery Channel group vice president Eileen O’Neill in a statement announcing the deal. “Our intention is to provide a live, front-row seat to history being made,” she added, likening it to other adventure reality programming by the network.

Terms of the deal, including the fee Discovery Channel paid for the rights, weren’t announced. Ownership of media rights for the competition had been a sticking point for some teams in earlier debates about the competition’s Master Team Agreement.

Google reportedly interested in acquiring Skybox

skysat-1 perth image

An image of the Crown Perth entertainment complex in Perth, Australia, taken by the SkySat-1 spacecraft shortly after its launch last year. Google is reportedly interested in buying the company. (credit: Skybox Imaging)

Skybox Imaging has blazed a number of paths in the commercial space industry, announcing plans a few years ago for a constellation of small commercial remote sensing satellites to provide high-resolution imagery, then going out and raising more than $90 million in venture capital. Now the company has attracted the interest of one of the most powerful companies in the world.

The Silicon Valley trade publication The Information [subscription required] reported Monday that Google was in “early talks” to acquire Skybox Imaging for an disclosed sum. Google would be interested in the company to access the high-resolution images the company’s fleet of satellites will provide. While Google currently relies companies like DigitalGlobe for imagery that goes into Google Maps and Google Earth, an in-house source may be less expensive in the long run for Google. Moreover, Skybox’s plans to be able to refresh its imagery quickly—daily or even multiple times a day, depending on the configuration of the satellite fleet—would allow Google to ensure its imagery is up to date.

While it’s too soon to know if Google will go through on the acquisition, it seems likely that Skybox will need additional funds to deploy its satellite constellation. Earlier this year the company announced a contract with Space Systems/Loral to manufacture its next 12 satellites, and a separate contract with Orbital Sciences to launch the first six of them on a Minotaur-C rocket. Since Skybox probably is not generating much revenue from its one satellite currently in orbit, the $91 million it’s raised to date is unlikely to cover the costs of fulfilling those contracts even if it hadn’t spent any of it yet.

The question for Skybox, then, is whether current or new investors are willing to put more money into the company to fund the development and launch of its satellites, or if those investors instead are looking for an exit—and a return on what they’ve invested to date—and letting Google or another company fund Skybox’s satellite system.

SpaceX preps Falcon 9R for flight

Late last week, SpaceX released video of a static fire test of its Falcon 9R (F9R) test vehicle, the successor to its Grasshopper vehicle used to test technologies for reusable launch vehicles. The static fire lasted about five second seconds, with the vehicle remaining on the pad at the company’s McGregor, Texas, test site.

“The F9R testing program is the next step towards reusability following completion of the Grasshopper program last year. Future testing, including that in New Mexico, will be conducted using the first stage of a Falcon 9 Reusable (F9R) as shown here, which is essentially a Falcon 9 v1.1 first stage with legs,” the company said in the video’s description. “F9R test flights in New Mexico will allow us to test at higher altitudes than we are permitted for at our test site in Texas, to do more with unpowered guidance and to prove out landing cases that are more-flight like.”

The mention of New Mexico above is a reference to SpaceX’s deal last year to conduct test flights from Spaceport America there. In October, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said those flights would begin by late December, but have yet to start. In comments Tuesday during a launch services panel at the Space Tech Expo conference in Long Beach, California, she said free flights of the F9R would begin soon, first in Texas and later from Spaceport America.

“We’re going to do some jumps with that in central Texas, and then once we finalize the pad in New Mexico, which I think we’re about a month away from that, then we’ll do as many flights as we can in New Mexico,” she said.

The F9R is one part (one leg?) of SpaceX’s reusability effort, with another being attempts to recover first stages of Falcon 9 rockets on missions like the upcoming launch of SpaceX’s third cargo mission to the ISS. Shotwell reiterated comments she made in a March radio interview that the company hopes to bring a Falcon 9 rocket stage back to a landing pad near the launch site before the end of this year, and reuse a stage on a launch in 2015.

Shotwell said she hopes they need as few as “one or two” recovery tests of Falcon 9 stages, but acknowledged the difficulty in attempting to bring back a rocket stage intact. “This is hard. This is actually really hard,” she said at Space Tech Expo. “We keep chipping away at it, though.”

Music publications get rolled and spun by one musician’s satellite claims

CPM TV launch

Interorbital System’s Common Propulsion Module Test Vehicle (CPM TV) lifts off from the Mojave Desert on March 29. The rocket’s payload included one for musician John Frusciante, but that satellite is not in orbit today. (credit: IOS)

If you read music publications, you might be forgiven in believing there’s been a major milestone in space commercialization. “On Saturday, March 29th, at a ‘remote High Desert location in California,’ the album was loaded onto the ‘experimental Cube Satellite’ Sat-JF14 and blasted into the great beyond onboard Interorbital Systems’ NEPTUNE Modular Rocket,” reported Rolling Stone on Monday, referring to a new album by John Frusciante, a former member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. “John Frusciante’s ‘Enclosure’ Album Is Streaming From Space,” proclaimed the headline of an article by SPIN on Monday.

Both publications got their news from a statement by Frusciante posted on his website which said that the satellite in question was “launched into space aboard an Interorbital Systems’ NEPTUNE Modular Rocket” on March 29. It also advertised an app that claims to track the satellite. “When Sat-JF14 hovers over a users’ geographic region, ENCLOSURE will be unlocked, allowing users to listen to the album for free on any iOS or Android mobile device,” his statement claims.

So, is there really a Sat-JF14 orbiting the Earth, broadcasting a rock musician’s latest album? Well, there was a launch on March 29 from the Mojave Desert by Interorbital Systems, the company announced. The company’s Common Propulsion Module Test Vehicle (CPM TV), powered by a 7,500-pound-force engine, lifted off from the Friends of Amateur Rocketry test site in the Mojave. Included in the rocket’s payloads was one for Frusicante.

The catch? Experimental Cube Satellite Sat-JF14, or whatever Frusicante’s payload was on that rocket, is not in orbit, nor was it even intended to be in orbit. “Due to a center of pressure anomaly, the rocket reached 10,000 feet, which was half of its calculated altitude,” the Interorbital statement notes. “The rocket’s health and recovery system adapted to the problem and returned the rocket and its payloads safely to the ground.” In other words, anyone listening to his album using that smartphone app while on a commercial airliner are several times higher above the ground than the “satellite” ever reached. (For those thinking this was an April Fools’ Day prank, note that this was announced, and the articles published, on March 31, not April 1.)

Setting Frusicante’s satellite claims aside, the launch was a major step forward for Interorbital, which in the last couple of years had limited its testing to static engine tests. The company is still planning to develop the NEPTUNE orbital launch system, although it didn’t indicate a schedule in its release for future tests, suborbital or orbital, for that rocket. As recently as last August, the company said it was planning to launch nearly 60 small satellites into orbit on a NEPTUNE in 2014, so it needs to keep making progress if it has any shot of achieving that goal.