In preparation for a December return to launch operations, SpaceX has delivered one Falcon 9 rocket to its Vandenberg launch site, while another undergoes testing at the company’s McGregor test center in Texas. Pending the conclusion of the Amos-6 failure investigation, SpaceX will be primed to return to action in December.
Return To Flight:
SpaceX’s ongoing investigation into the September 1 failure of its Falcon 9 during a routine Static Fire test has resulted in the company remaining coy on its near-term manifest plans.
This is expected to remain the case until the investigation has drawn to a conclusion.
That may come soon, with SpaceX revealing it believes it has a good understanding of the conditions that resulted in the explosion.
Destructive testing of hardware – as seen in this photo (left) – associated with Composite Overwrapped Pressure Vessels (COPVs) at the McGregor test site has aided the investigation process – which has focused on the unique conditions associated with the interaction between the helium pressurization bottles, carbon composites and solidification of the LOX propellant.
A recent test, which resulted in locals hearing a loud boom come from the McGregor site, was one such pressurization test associated with the investigation.
The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), NASA, the US Air Force, and other industry experts are involved with creating the final report into the failure, at which point SpaceX will be able to return to launch operations.
The return is expected to take place on the West Coast, involving the launch of the Iridium NEXT mission.
Although SpaceX is yet to confirm the path to this mission’s launch, Iridium CEO Matt Desch has provided photos of both the second stage and the first stage elements of the Falcon 9 arriving at the Vandenberg launch site.
“A beautiful sight. Stage 1 arriving in California for our launch. Soon, very soon,” Mr. Desch tweeted.
The booster and second stage will undergo processing inside SpaceX’s Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) ahead of a Static Fire test that will have far more attention than usual, due to the Amos-6 incident.
It is understood the test will occur early in the path towards the launch date, to allow for additional data collection and pad system checks. The rocket will then be rolled back for payload mating ahead of a launch that is targeting mid-December – currently believed to be December 16 – from Space Launch Complex -4E (SLC-4E).
The mission involves lofting the opening salvo of 10 satellites for the Iridium constellation.
Providing all goes to plan with the launch, SpaceX will be looking towards another launch, this time from the East Coast, debuting the use of the historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).
SpaceX has been preparing to launch from 39A since taking control of the former Shuttle pad on what is a 20 year lease. However, with the company’s Cape pad at SLC-40 out of action until next year, LC-39A will be SpaceX’s prime East Coast launch site for several months.
The mission involved with the maiden launch of a Falcon 9 from 39A has not yet been confirmed by the company, although the current favorite is the mission to loft the Echostar-23 communications satellite into a Geostationary Transfer Orbit.
Following the recent shipping of the Falcon 9 booster for the launch from Vandenberg, the latest First Stage to take the test stand at McGregor – as observed over recent days – is likely to be the booster involved with the historic launch from 39A.
With a second stage also observed on the test stand at McGregor, both stages are expected to complete their testing and begin the road trip to Florida not long after the Thanksgiving holiday.
This places SpaceX in a good position to conduct two launches before the end of the year.
Cape sources note planning documentation points to a NET (No Earlier Than) target of December 30 for the first SpaceX mission from 39A. However, this is at the mercy of the Eastern Range approving a launch date around what is traditionally a holiday period that allows for Range maintenance to take place.
However, according to FCC documentation, this mission now has a NET of January 8.
39A will also host the next CRS Dragon mission, which is officially tracking a mid-January launch – although NASA officials have noted they will be watching the performance of the next two SpaceX missions to gain confidence in the Falcon 9 system. An alternative placeholder of the “Spring”, was also cited during those recent comments.
Providing SpaceX’s return is as successful as the previous Return To Flight period following the loss of the CRS-7 Dragon mission, an extremely busy 2017 is expected for the company, not least with the prospect of three launch pads – once SLC-40 has been repaired – becoming available for launch opportunities.
An increased launch cadence will challenge SpaceX’s growing legion of fans that follow booster stages through transportation, testing and launch – and indeed landing. However, this may be aided by suggestions the boosters will sport their own identity number painted to a location near the landing legs.
Demand for Falcon 9 missions is well known, with a packed order book and numerous launch contracts being negotiated year-on-year. The manifest is expected to include the use of returned flight boosters – in what will be another historic milestone for SpaceX – in 2017.
Notably, yet another mission was added to the manifest on Tuesday, with the confirmation NASA has booked a 2021 mission on a Falcon 9 for its Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) mission.
The total cost for NASA to launch SWOT is approximately $112 million, which includes the launch service; spacecraft processing; payload integration; and tracking, data and telemetry support. The total cost is relatively cheap compared to similar NASA missions, pointing to the value of using the competitive Falcon 9 rocket.
This mission is set to launch from Vandenberg, although NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) in Florida will manage the SpaceX launch service.
(Images: SpaceX, Iridium and L2 – including NSF L2 member Gary Blair (McGregor Testing) and L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*)
(To join L2, click here: //www.nasaspaceflight.com/l2/)