SpaceX has realigned its next Falcon 9 v1.1 launch to NET (No Earlier Than) June 11. The rocket, tasked with lofting six ORBCOMM satellites into orbit, was scheduled to launch this month from Cape Canaveral’s SLC-40. However, a helium leak during the latter stages of preparations for her Static Fire test required the rocket to be rolled back for repairs.
Falcon 9v1.1/ORBCOMM OG2:
SpaceX is currently working through a very busy 2014 manifest, with Falcon 9 stages departing their Californian nursery at the company’s Hawthorne base for testing in McGregor, Texas – prior to shipping to SpaceX’s coastal launch sites at Vandenberg and Cape Canaveral.
The most recent launch saw the successful lofting of the CRS-3/SpX-3 Dragon to the International Space Station (ISS), with a nominal performance of the Falcon 9 v1.1 during ascent resulting in what is now a completed mission for the spacecraft, following her splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on Sunday.
While Dragon was enjoying her stay on the orbital outpost, SpaceX was already deep into preparations for the next launch, this time tasking their Falcon 9 v1.1 with lofting the first six ORBCOMM OG2 satellites into orbit.
As per usual, the Falcon 9’s successful testing at McGregor was to be followed by a Static Fire test at the Cape’s SLC-40 launch pad.
Also known as a Hot Fire test, this effort relates to ensuring that the pad’s fueling systems – and the launch vehicle – function properly in a fully operational environment, with numerous requirements to be successfully proven via such a test, such as the engine ignition and shut down commands, which have to operate as designed, and that the Merlin 1D engines perform properly during start-up.
Tasks also include a full propellant loading sequence, launch countdown operations, engine ignition operations and testing of the pad’s high volume water deluge system.
The May 8 test was proceeding to plan, with the loading of Falcon 9’s RP-1 propellant with liquid oxygen oxidizer two hours and thirty five minutes before T-0.
However, controllers noticed a problem during this fueling process, via indications of a helium leak inside the first stage.
Thanks to the quick actions of controllers, along with the inbuilt relief systems on the stage, the rocket came to no harm on the pad. However, the problem resulted in a scrub of the Static Fire attempt.
The vehicle was detanked and lowered on its strongback, before being rolled back into the nearby hanger where SpaceX rockets are processed ahead of launch.
Specifics about the leak will likely involve SpaceX hardware that is proprietary by nature. However, the company did confirm it was a helium leak that put pay to the test, a leak that had not been previously observed on the hardware during its early life via testing – such as its validation test at the McGregor test site.
“(SpaceX can) confirm the issue was a helium leak in a different location that wasn’t present during earlier tests,” noted SpaceX spokesperson Emily Shanklin to NASASpaceFlight.com on Wednesday.
The location of the leak would have likely been in or around one of the helium tanks known as Composite Overwrap Pressure Vessels (COPV) – a vital element for the pressurization needs of the vehicle.
Shuttle followers will recall the hardware being mentioned often in pre-launch Flight Readiness Review (FRR) documentation, given the orbiters had 24 of these tanks – which are kevlar-wrapped storage tanks for helium (He) and nitrogen (N2) gas – in various sizes and used at various pressures.
While it is not clear as to what stage of repair SpaceX engineers are involved with at this time, the company appears to be heading back into a launch stance – with evaluations into the launch readiness with the vehicle currently taking place.
SpaceX has also picked a new launch date for the mission that will soon result in the first six ORBCOMM OG2’s enjoying a ride uphill.
“We are thoroughly reviewing the stage before clearing it for flight, as we want to make sure that no further such issues occur,” added Ms. Shanklin. “We are now targeting June 11th with June 12th as a backup.”
A launch on June 11 would result in a window that ranges from between 21:30 and 22:24 local time, per L2 Cape launch schedule notes. The exact T-0 target may be refined closer to the launch date.
SpaceX is also expected to return the rocket to the pad to complete the Static Fire test, which will provide additional assurances that the previous issue has been resolved ahead of launch.
(Images: SpaceX, NASA, Jacques van Oene/Spacepatches.nl and via L2’s Special Sections. L2 SpaceX section now includes thousands of unreleased images from all Dragon ISS missions – including CRS-3)
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