SpaceX Static Fire spy sat rocket and prepare to test Falcon Heavy core

by Chris Bergin

SpaceX is Static Fire testing in two regions of the United States this week, both of which will advance the company’s profile in the launch industry. A Falcon 9 booster conducted a test firing at KSC’s 39A ahead of SpaceX’s first NROL mission, while the core booster for the first Falcon Heavy is sat on the test stand in McGregor, Texas.

Falcon 9 NROL-76:

Following on from the successful launch of the SES-10 satellite – which was the first time SpaceX had used a “flight proven” booster – the NROL-76 launch will mark the company’s entrance into national security missions.

Most NROL missions are launched by SpaceX competitor, United Launch Alliance, with a large amount of success. The most recent mission, with the NROL-79 spacecraft, was launched by an Atlas V from Vandenberg.

A successful launch of NROL-76 will effectively open the door for future lucrative national security launch services contracts.

Very little is known about the spacecraft, as is usual per the secretive nature of their mission. SpaceX employees will also be subject to the secrecy, which holds tighter regulations for flow elements such as the processing of the payload during fairing encapsulation.

For the Static Fire test, SpaceX, as is now the routine since the loss of the AMOS-6 satellite, rolled out the Falcon 9 without the payload on top of the rocket.

The booster, designated 1032.1, conducted a test firing on February 14 under the watchful eyes of the “Rocket Cows of McGregor” – named as such after they were seen rampaging during a Grasshopper test, before becoming so used to the testing they rarely shake a hoof during firings.

It was then transported by road to the Kennedy Space Center, allowing it to undergo preparations inside the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF).

Mated to the Transport/Erector/Launcher (TEL), the booster was then erected at the historic 39A pad that has coped admirably in its new role with SpaceX rockets. Very few repairs have been required between launches, which will continue to aid SpaceX’s increasing launch cadence.

A long six hour window was allocated for this particular Static Fire test, allowing engineers additional time to troubleshoot any issues during the countdown and complete the requirement of firing up the Merlin 1Ds. The window for the test opened at midday Eastern on Tuesday. The 3.5 second firing occurred at 3pm.

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. In effect, it provides a full dress rehearsal for the actual launch.

Following the test, the rocket was detanked and translated back to horizontal for its rollback to the HIF. No major issues with the quick look data review into the firing. The payload then made the journey to the HIF during the overnight hours after the test.

While the rocket is integrated with the payload inside the HIF, the SpaceX team will conduct a Launch Readiness Review (LRR), which will ultimately confirm all is go to proceed to launch day.

Currently, the mission is set to launch on April 30, within a two hour launch window that opens at 7 am Eastern.

The booster is targeting a return back to Earth, with LZ-1 its destination. SpaceX’s coverage of the mission will focus solely on this return during this part of the launch phase, given NROL missions do not allow for live ascent coverage once the payload fairing has separated from around the spacecraft.

Falcon Heavy Core:

While SpaceX prepares to launch NROL-76, the build up towards the first Falcon Heavy launch is moving towards its next milestone.

These milestones included the recent test firing of the 1023.2
booster – previously used to launch the Thaicom-8 mission last year – which is one of the side boosters for Falcon Heavy.

That test was soon followed by the center core taking its place on the test stage at the McGregor base.

Booster 1033.1 is a new First Stage with some slight differences to regular boosters.

With attach points and structural additions to help it mate and launch with its two side boosters, the core will be tasked with the majority of the powered first stage flight.

Preparations for its test firing included the installation of an orange “load cap” on to the top of the booster, pointing to a plan to conduct a full duration firing on the stage.

Following the Static Firing of this center booster, two-thirds of the of the Falcon Heavy first stage propulsive elements will have been tested at McGregor.

With the Upper Stage also set for a trip to the test facility, the final booster will also undergo a Static Fire test in Texas.

That too will be a flight proven booster, understood to be 1025.2 – which had previously launched with the CRS-9 Dragon mission, prior to landing at LZ-1. It is currently believed to be housed in the HIF at 39A, preparing for a return trip to McGregor for testing.

All of the Falcon Heavy elements will meet up at KSC for mating, prior to heading out to 39A later this year for a Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR), followed by a Static Fire test that will be the first time SpaceX will ignite all 27 Merlin 1D engines at the same time.

Providing the test goes to plan, the maiden flight of Falcon Heavy will be conducted, with what is understood to be a mass simulator as the payload for this test mission.

Just to add to the excitement of this maiden launch, SpaceX is preparing to return both of the side boosters back to LZ-1 – pending the completion of landing pad upgrades at the Cape – while the core booster may also target the deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) staged downrange in the Atlantic.

Full confirmation of the plan for the Falcon Heavy maiden flight’s return of the boosters is yet to be set in stone, with the focus firmly placed on the successful test launch of the new rocket.

(Images: SpaceX, L2 McGregor (Gary Blair), 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*))

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