The next Falcon 9 v1.1 set to launch out of Florida’s Cape Canaveral has been rescheduled for January 6. The original plan was to launch the rocket on Friday, before an issue with the Static Fire test earlier in the week resulted in a technical and schedule discussion, with numerous considerations – such as the ISS’ high beta angle constraint – ultimately moving the launch date to the first week of the new year.
The CRS-5 mission was to conclude SpaceX’s launch operations for 2014, yet another breakout year for Elon Musk’s forward thinking company.
This latest mission – a key Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) flight for NASA – had entered the business end of the launch flow, with the Static Fire test an important requirement to allow SpaceX management to approve the launch.
Numerous requirements have 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.
The Static Fire also provides a dress rehearsal for the actual launch, with controllers first conducting a poll to allow for the loading of Falcon 9’s RP-1 propellant with liquid oxygen oxidizer two hours and thirty five minutes before T-0. From that point, the test is near-identical to a real launch day countdown.
Ensuring Falcon 9’s SLC-40 pad systems are in good shape during a Static Fire – also known as a hot fire – flow mitigates the potential for issues during the countdown on launch day.
Only a short burst of the Merlin 1D engines on the core stage of the F9 is required to allow for the validation data to be gained on the health of the vehicle and pad systems.
Attempts during the four hour test window on Tuesday did not result in a successfully conducted – or fully completed – Static Fire.
Although the company, which usually confirms a successful Static Fire shortly after it has been completed, did not immediately respond to inquires into the status of the flow, numerous sources began to note a slip was under consideration.
January 6 was a date provided to NASASpaceFlight.com on Wednesday afternoon, although this remained unofficial throughout the day.
However, the company did promise to provide more information to this site when “they have something to share.”
On Thursday morning, SpaceX followed through on that promise, confirming the slip and explaining the issue surrounding the Static Fire came after the ignition of the Merlin 1D engines – which explains why at least one outlet believed the test had been successful – but not for their full test duration, pointing to an early shutdown/abort.
“While the recent static fire test accomplished nearly all of our goals, the test did not run the full duration,” noted SpaceX spokeman John Talyor to NASASpaceFlight.com.
“The data suggests we could push forward without a second attempt, but out of an abundance of caution, we are opting to execute a second static fire test prior to launch.”
During Wednesday, information noted the potential to conduct a second Static Fire on Thursday, before the conversations moved towards a slip to the New Year.
January 6 was a date provided to the site, given numerous factors – such as ISS constraints – come into play over the end of year period.
(Animation created by Artyom Zharov, via L2′s huge collection of Dragon arrival hi res images)
The slip to the new year has now been confirmed by SpaceX.
“Given the extra time needed for data review and testing, coupled with the limited launch date availability due to the holidays and other restrictions, our earliest launch opportunity is now Jan. 6 with Jan. 7 as a backup,” added Mr. Talyor.
“The ISS orbits through a high beta angle period a few times a year. This is where the angle between the ISS orbital plane and the sun is high, resulting in the ISS being in almost constant sunlight for a 10 day period.
“During this time, there are thermal and operational constraints that prohibit Dragon from being allowed to berth with the ISS. This high beta period runs from 12/28/14-1/7/15. Note that for a launch on 1/6, Dragon berths on 1/8.”
UPDATE: The Falcon 9 v1.1 returned to her SLC-40 pad on Thursday for another Static Fire attempt before the end of the week. This test – which was successfully conducted on Friday – will allow for the collation of additional data to aid troubleshooting efforts.
The CRS-5/SpX-5 Dragon will be lofting her usual compliment of cargo and supplies to the ISS, along with a number of specific payloads.
The specific payloads include CATS (Cloud-Aerosol Transport System), Microbial Observatory-1, the Flatworm Regeneration payload, the “Wearable Monitoring” ASI payload, the Free-Space PADLES (Passive Dosimeter for Life-Science Experiment in Space) payload for JAXA and the Fruit Fly Lab-01.
As had been predicted, some of the Dragon’s payload manifest has been refined to reflect the near term needs of the ISS, based on what was lost during the recent failure of the Antares rocket during the launch of the CRS-3/OrB-3 Cygnus.
This, along with a few internal Falcon 9 issues, was the reason the launch slipped slightly from its previous target date.
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It is also understood that two Planet Labs cubesats are also onboard this latest Dragon, equipped with replacements for the experimental hardware that was lost on the Cygnus.
While the primary focus will be to safely send the CRS-5 Dragon on her way to the orbital outpost, there will be great interest in the return of the core stage.
SpaceX has been testing its propulsive return capabilities for the first stage of the Falcon 9 during previous missions – with a large amount of success. Up until now, the upgraded first stages have returned for a landing on the ocean surface.
However, for CRS-5, an attempt will be made to return the stage on to a specialised platform located in the downrange area of the Atlantic Ocean.
Known as the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “X” literally marks the spot as the target for the Falcon 9 core – as much as SpaceX has been downplaying the chances of hitting the target first time around.
Per L2 CRS-5 flow information, SpaceX engineers have been busily working through the software requirements and challenges – right up to the last minute – in order to give the stage the best chance of making what would be another historic milestone in the company’s attempts to create a fully reusable launch system.
The ASDS is much more than just a floating platform.
It has been outfitted with thrusters, repurposed from deep sea oil rigs, allowing for the platform to hold position to within three meters, even in a storm.
It is also understood that the ASDS will have the ability to refuel returned stages, allowing them to make the hop back to land for future reuse.
This system will also play a major role with SpaceX’s new rocket – the Falcon Heavy and her three cores – when she comes online in the middle of 2015.
For now, SpaceX are concentrating on returning to launch stance with the Falcon 9 v1.1 and Dragon.
“Both Falcon 9 and Dragon remain in good health, and our teams are looking forward to launch just after the New Year,” added Mr. Taylor.
(Images: via L2’s SpaceX Section, including renderings created by L2 Artist Nathan Koga – Click here for full resolution F9, F9-R, FH and BFR renderings and more – these are not official SpaceX images. Other images from SpaceX and NASA)
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