SpaceX returns two boosters, fires up a third for Static Fire test

by Chris Bergin

In what is another glimpse into what could become SpaceX’s regular launch cadence, another Falcon 9 is deep into preparations for launch. Aiming to be the third Falcon 9 to launch in nine days, SpaceX conducted a Static Fire test Thursday on the rocket set to loft the Intelsat 35e spacecraft into space on July 2.

Static Fire Test:

The test, a continued requirement in the SpaceX pre-launch flow, was scheduled to take place within a window that opened at 4 pm Eastern and ran through to midnight. The T-0 for the test was moved to 9 pm, but actually resulted in the engines firing up at 8:30 pm.

Effectively a dress rehearsal for launch day, the teams put the Falcon 9 through a full countdown, prior to firing up the nine Merlin 1D engines for 3.5 seconds, while the booster was held down in place on the 39A pad.

Notably, the former Saturn V and Shuttle pad has been coping admirably in its new role with Falcon 9 launches, with the quick turnaround from its previous launch allowed for via yet another issue-free “Pad Shakedown Report”, which is used to list items of Pad GSE (Ground Support Equipment) that require post-launch repair ahead of receiving the next rocket.

The previous launch from 39A was just last week, with the successful lofting of the BulgariaSat-1 spacecraft.

While the primary mission was completed without issue, the booster – making it second flight – completed a successful return to the Atlantic Ocean-based “Of Course I Still Love You” drone ship, despite warnings from Elon Musk that the chances of a successful landing were slim due to the most challenging return parameters to date for a recent booster.

OCISLY returned to Port Canaveral on Thursday, with a slightly leaning B1029.2 on deck – a sign of a rather sporty landing. However, the leaning rocket was upstaged by another first for SpaceX, as the under-publicized ASDS robot was spotted with a firm grip on the base of the rocket.

This marks the first real-life test of the ‘OctoGrabber’ robot. Although it has yet to be given an official name – and has been named as the ‘Roomba’, “OctoCrab’ and even ‘Optimus Prime’ – the robot will have departed its garage on deck to help secure the landed booster.

This procedure avoids the need to ‘weld’ the feet of the landing legs to the deck to keep it secure as the booster conducts its sea journey onboard the ASDS back to Port Canaveral.

This mission also included another test per SpaceX’s fairing recovery aspirations.

Classed as the best attempt to date, SpaceX has added steerable parachutes to guide the fairing halves to the ocean surface, before it deploys a “bouncy castle” that protects it while it awaits recovery. The technology is still being refined, but Elon Musk believes full recovery could be achieved later this year.

Meanwhile, as B1029.2 was returning to Florida, B1036 had already entered port on the opposite coast.

This Falcon 9 was responsible for the successful launch of 10 more Iridium NEXT satellites, lofted via a launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base’s SLC-4E.

Again, Elon Musk previewed the attempt with caution, noting that a landing was going to be hard, with the drone ship changing its position during the count to help avoid the worst of the bad weather out in the Pacific Ocean.

However, thanks in part to its new Grid Fins that were debuting on this rocket, the booster successfully touched down on the deck of “Just Read The Instructions” prior to sailing back to Los Angeles where it is undergoing processing.

While both boosters were sailing into their respective ports, B1037 was rolling up the 39A ramp for the Static Fire test, which was later confirmed as successful via a quick look data review, followed by the Launch Readiness Review (LRR). The Integrated Stack flow will be conducted, prior to the entire vehicle and payload making the trip back up the ramp on launch day.

Currently, following a successful Static Fire test, the launch is scheduled to take place within a window that opens at 19:35 Local and remains open for 59 minutes.

Should the Falcon 9 launch on Sunday, SpaceX will have conducted three launches in the space of just nine days.

However, there will be a small gap ahead of the following launch, in part due to the Eastern Range undergoing a maintenance period. The following mission will involve the CRS-12 Dragon in the second week of August.

For future launches, B1038 has undergone its test cycle at SpaceX’s McGregor test center in Texas. It was sighted (via L2 McGregor) on the test stand earlier this month, and has since been removed, pointing to a good test.

Despite the currently empty test stand, numerous tests are being conducted on Second Stages and it has also been revealed that “Block 5” Merlin engine hotfire development testing is in work.

Meanwhile, B1039 is understood to be preparing to depart SpaceX’s production facilities in Hawthorne, California for a road trip to McGregor. B1040 is also understood to be in the final stage of production on the factory, as it undergoes final engine installation into its Octoweb structure.

(Images: SpaceX, Brady Kennison, Julia Bergeron,  @PadresNoHitter and L2 McGregor Gary Blair)

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