SpaceX conducts tanking test on In-Flight Abort Falcon 9

by Chris Bergin

As preparations continue for next week’s Falcon 9 launch of the CRS-6 Dragon spacecraft from Cape Canaveral, SpaceX’s Vandenberg team has put the In-Flight abort booster through a tanking test.  The unique Falcon 9 – sporting just three engines – will be tasked with lofting a Dragon 2 test vehicle into the Max-Drag region of ascent, before conducting an abort scenario.


The next Falcon 9 is set to launch on Monday, providing the CRS-6 Dragon with her ride uphill. This latest Dragon is destined for another resupply run to the International Space Station (ISS).

Preparations for this launch have proceeded relatively smoothly, as the flow milestones press toward the Static Fire Test – which occurred on Saturday within a four hour window that opened at 14:00 local time.

Numerous requirements have to be successfully proven via such a test, such as engine ignition and shut down commands, all of which have to operate as designed.

The test involved a full propellant loading sequence, launch countdown operations, engine ignition operations and testing of the pad’s high volume water deluge system – providing a full dress rehearsal for the actual launch.

Following a short burst of the Merlin 1Ds, controllers then gathered the required engine and vehicle data, before they detanked the rocket and lowered the vehicle on to the Transporter Erector ahead of rolling back to the hanger.

While recycle opportunities were available within the Static Fire test window, the launch day countdown will be targeting an instantaneous T-0 to allow Dragon to begin her pursuit of the ISS in a timely fashion.

Should the Static Fire test data prove to be acceptable, the launch date target will be confirmed at the Launch Readiness Review (LRR) over the weekend. The current target is 16:33 local time on Monday, with a backup slot of 16:10 local time available on Tuesday.

2015-04-10-125238The CRS-6 Falcon 9 is sporting landing legs and grid fins in expectation of the latest attempt to land the first stage on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) that will be stationed off the Florida coastline.

SpaceX will then push towards the next mission, involving the launch of the TurkmenSat 1 spacecraft, which is currently scheduled to take place on April 24 – pending the successful launch of the CRS-6 Dragon on Monday or Tuesday.

This will be followed by the Pad Abort test of the Dragon 2 test vehicle, a major milestone in SpaceX’s Commercial Crew aspirations.

In-Flight Abort Booster:

SpaceX is currently working through its busiest year to date, packed with launches of commercial satellites, Dragon missions to the ISS and new vehicle testing.

2015-03-05 21_22_17-index.php (4314×2327)While its goals reach as far as landing humans on Mars, launching people on SpaceX vehicles is a major near-term ambition for Elon Musk and his team.

That historic event of a crew riding on a Dragon 2 may come as early as April 2017, on a mission called “SpX-DM2” – the second flight of the Dragon 2 spacecraft to the orbital outpost, following on from the December 2016 “SpX-DM1” uncrewed demonstration mission.

In order to realize that goal, SpaceX is working with NASA through the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract milestones.

Two of these milestones involve abort tests with the Dragon 2 test vehicle – the first with the upcoming pad abort that is provisionally scheduled for May 2, followed by the In-Flight Abort test later this year.

2015-04-10-142222Thursday saw the Falcon 9 booster that will be involved with the test rolled out and put through its paces during a tanking test at its SLC-4E launch site at Vandenberg.

The erection of the rocket was a milestone in itself, as it became the first rocket to grace SpaceX’s West Coast pad since the debut launch of the Falcon 9 v1.1 that successfully launched the CASSIOPE mission in September 2013.

However, this Falcon 9 is a different beast, one that won’t involve the launching of a payload into orbit.

2015-04-10-142435Based on new photos and updates (L2), the In-Flight Abort test rocket that arrived at the launch pad only has three Merlin 1D engines, mirroring the configuration of the F-9R Dev-1 test vehicle that was housed the SpaceX’s McGregor test center.

It is possible this new test vehicle is the F9-Dev-2 that has since been re-purposed for this abort test.

The F9 Dev-2 was set to be tested at Spaceport America before SpaceX pushed forward its plans to utilize the New Mexico base for the testing of what will be the first recovered boosters.

2015-04-10-142628Thursday’s testing involved a full tanking test on the vehicle and pad plumbing.

The rocket currently consists only of a first stage booster and is without an interstage or adaptor for the Dragon 2 that will be put through an ascent abort scenario during the test.

The events will provide a real life test of an abort scenario occurring at “Max Drag” in the transonic region.

There have been suggestions the booster will be recovered. However, the photos show it is currently without landing legs.

Notably, the Jason-3 mission is provisionally set to provide the first “return to land” opportunity during its mission out of Vandenberg.

No firm date has been set for the In-Flight Abort test, although a placeholder of NET (No Earlier Than) July has been noted in schedule information. That date is likely to naturally move to the right as SpaceX moves through its very busy schedule.

(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)

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