Tag Archives: Falcon 9

Update on the Falcon 9 launchpad explosion investigation

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article today describing the investigation into last week’s Falcon 9 launchpad explosion, noting especially how — despite participation by the FAA, NASA, and the Air Force — SpaceX will be entirely in charge of the investigation, in accordance with present law.

The article is clearly lobbying for a change, whereby the government would have more power in these investigations. I personally think a change would be a mistake, that the law as it is now is how it should be. It was their rocket that exploded. Their business model depends on their rockets not exploding. Thus, they have the greatest self-interest in fixing the problem. The other outside players might be helpful, but their presence can only in the long run make things more difficult and slow things down, without making anything better.

Update on Falcon 9 explosion

NASA and SpaceX have released detailed statements about Thursday’s Falcon 9 launchpad explosion, summarizing what is known at the moment as well as the state of the investigation.

Not surprisingly, the failure will cause delays in SpaceX’s upcoming plans as well as force the company to shift launches to a different launchpad that will not be ready until November.

Budget constraints and technical challenges delay commercial crew

A NASA inspector general report released today cites both budget constraints imposed by Congress as well as technical challenges that will delay the first commercial manned mission to ISS until 2018.

When the commercial crew program began, NASA hoped to have routine flights by 2015, but that slipped in large part due to congressional underfunding in the early years. OIG noted today that its 2013 report found that adequate funding was the major challenge for the program. Congress has warmed up to the program, however, and now is approving the full President’s request so funding is not the issue it once was. Technical challenges now are the major hurdle according to today’s report.

The companies’ systems must be certified by NASA before beginning routine flights to ISS. Boeing anticipates receiving certification in January 2018 with its first certified flight in spring 2018, and SpaceX is working toward late 2017 for its first certified mission, the OIG report says. But it is skeptical: “Notwithstanding the contractors’ optimism, based on the information we gathered during our audit, we believe it unlikely that either Boeing or SpaceX will achieve certified, crewed flight to the ISS until late 2018.”

The report has been written prior to yesterday’s Falcon 9 launchpad failure, which will certainly impact the schedule negatively.

Essentially, the report claims that the program was delayed initially by about two to three years because of the refusal of Congress to fund it fully. The delays to come will be instead because of the technical challenges. While I tend to agree with this assessment, I also note that government reports like this are often designed to generate more funds for the agencies involved, not find a better way to do things. If we are not diligent and hard-nosed about how we fund this program I worry that with time commercial crew will become corrupted by the government’s sloppy and inefficient way of doing things, and become as bloated as Orion and SLS. This is one of the reasons I never complained when Congress short funded the program previously, as it forced the companies involved to keep their costs down.

Falcon 9 explodes on launchpad

During a standard prelaunch static test firing today a Falcon 9 rocket exploded on the launchpad.

Obviously, this will put a hold on all of SpaceX’s upcoming efforts.

  • Falcon Heavy: Since the explosion was almost certainly caused by a failure in the first stage, they will have to hold off that first Falcon Heavy demo launch scheduled for this fall, since it uses three first stages strapped together.
  • Reused Falcon 9: Similarly, the first launch of a recovered Falcon 9 first stage, also set for the fall, will likely have to be delayed until they determine what went wrong today.
  • Reused Dragon: NASA had indicated that one of the cargo missions to ISS next year would reuse a previously flown Dragon. Though this explosion has nothing to do specifically with Dragon, the capsule is launched with a Falcon 9, and thus cannot fly until this investigation is over.
  • Falcon 9: SpaceX had been attempting this year to up its launch rate to more than one per month. That will now not happen.
  • Red Dragon: SpaceX has said it plans to fly a test Dragon to Mars in 2018, the next launch window. While this explosion will delay the company’s plans over the next year, I expect SpaceX will not cancel that 2018 launch. They have enough time to investigate this failure and fix the cause without missing that window.
  • Elon Musk’s Mars speech: Finally, Musk is scheduled to make a major speech on September 26 at the International Aeronautical Congress (IAC) in Guadalajara, Mexico, outlining his company’s future plans to fly to Mars. He almost certainly will have to rewrite that speech.

This launchpad explosion is bad news for SpaceX but it is also very puzzling. I cannot remember the last time a rocket exploded on the launchpad during a static fire test. Failures have in recent years always occurred during the actual launch, when the rocket is flying and is thus exposed to large dynamic forces which can cause the engineering to go screwy. For a rocket to explode at the moment it ignites its engines suggests a very fundamental design fault, which seems unlikely considering the number of launches and static fires SpaceX has completed with the Falcon 9, including numerous prelaunch tests of the rocket’s first stage, both on the launchpad and at the company’s test facility in Texas prior to shipment to the launchpad.

Update: SpaceX has now said that the problem occurred near the rocket’s upper stage during fueling, prior to the actual ignition of the engines.

This news is both good and bad. The good news: It means that the failure had nothing to do with the much tested Merlin engines, which would have suggested a fundamental design flaw previously unseen. That is now clearly not the case. The bad news: The update suggests that the problem might be related to SpaceX’s high density, high pressure fueling, which by lowering the temperature of the tanks allows them to load more fuel and oxidizer. This novel approach, only introduced last year in order to give the rocket greater fuel capacity, might have a design problem that they had not anticipated.

First relaunch of Falcon 9 1st stage announced

The competition heats up: SpaceX and the Luxembourg satellite company SES today announced that the of SES 10 this fall will use one of the Falcon 9 first stages that has flown previously and been recovered. From the SES press release:

“Having been the first commercial satellite operator to launch with SpaceX back in 2013, we are excited to once again be the first customer to launch on SpaceX’s first ever mission using a flight-proven rocket. We believe reusable rockets will open up a new era of spaceflight, and make access to space more efficient in terms of cost and manifest management,” said Martin Halliwell, Chief Technology Officer at SES. “This new agreement reached with SpaceX once again illustrates the faith we have in their technical and operational expertise. The due diligence the SpaceX team has demonstrated throughout the design and testing of the SES-10 mission launch vehicle gives us full confidence that SpaceX is capable of launching our first SES satellite dedicated to Latin America into space.”

I also like how they call the used first stage “flight-proven.” This story notes that the insurance cost for the launch weren’t raised either.

The exact date has not yet been set, but it will be in the fourth quarter of 2016.

SpaceX to up its purchase of carbon fiber?

The competition heats up: A Japanese supplier of carbon fiber materials has announced that it and SpaceX are negotiating a multi-year deal worth possibly as much as $3 billion.

The multiyear deal with Tesla founder Elon Musk’s 14-year-old venture is estimated to be worth 200 billion yen to 300 billion yen ($1.99 billion to $2.98 billion) in total. The two sides are aiming to finalize the agreement this fall after hammering out prices, time frames and other terms. SpaceX aims to hold down expenses by re-using rockets and spacecraft. Originally, the company made rockets mostly out of aluminum to keep costs low, using carbon fiber only for a few parts, such as connecting joints.

The U.S. company said in a statement, “Toray is one of a number of suppliers we work with to meet our carbon fiber needs for Falcon rocket and Dragon spacecraft production, and we haven’t announced any new agreements at this time. As our business continues to grow, the amount of carbon fiber we use may continue to grow.”[emphasis mine]

The deal is not yet final, but the highlighted language above suggests to me that, based on SpaceX’s engineering tests of its recovered first stages, it has decided it is worthwhile replacing aluminum with carbon fiber for many more of its rocket parts. The fiber might cost more, but if the first stage is going to be reused, the cost can be distributed over several launches. And because carbon fiber is lighter than aluminum, it will allow their rockets to launch a larger payload.

SpaceX launches another satellite and recovers another Falcon 9 first stage

The competition heats up: SpaceX this morning successfully put another satellite in orbit while also recovering another Falcon 9 first stage.

Posted from the south rim of the Grand Canyon, after hiking out today. More on that later, when I am not so beat and have the energy to write.

ULA and SpaceX to compete for GPS launch

The competition heats up: ULA and SpaceX will likely face-off for the right to launch the Air Force’s next GPS satellite.

SpaceX won the last GPS launch with an unopposed bid of $83 million. ULA has said that their average price for an Air Force launch under the EELV program has been $225 million. I suspect that their bid here will be significantly less than that.

SpaceX test fires one of its recovered first stages

The competition heats up: SpaceX has completed a full duration test firing of one of its recovered first stages.

The JCSAT-14 stage [which was the third recovered stage and the second to land on a barge] isn’t expected to fly again due to the initial evaluations into damage received via its high-velocity return. However, it will still provide useful test data. “Most recent rocket took max damage, due to very high entry velocity,” noted Elon Musk. “Will be our life leader for ground tests to confirm others are good.”

That testing on the JCSAT-14 booster began on Thursday, with the stage placed on the test stand at McGregor – ironically after the stand was vacated by the JCSAT-16 first stage – which recently completed testing and has since been shipped to Florida for its launch next month. The returned stage is also sported a new cap, which may be providing some simulated weight to aid the required data gathering during the test firing.

The booster conducted a long firing of 2 minutes 30 seconds (the duration of first stage flight), that began around 7pm local time on Thursday (per L2 McGregor), which will provide vital data on the returned stage as SpaceX continue preparations for validating one of its recovered booster for a re-launch later this year.

It is once again important to point out that SpaceX’s engineers here have an enormous advantage over every other rocket engineer who has ever lived. They have in hand a recovered first stage that was actually used to launch a satellite into orbit, giving them the ability to test it and find out precisely how such equipment fares during launch. This will give them the ability, unavailable to others, to make engineering improvements that will make future first stages even more reliable and reusable.

Reused Dragon cargo capsule to ISS within a year

The competition heats up: SpaceX hopes to launch a previously flown Dragon capsule to ISS sometime with the next year.

This fall, SpaceX plans to refly one of its landed Falcon 9 rockets for the first time — and a Dragon capsule should make history by launching on a repeat ISS resupply mission shortly thereafter, a NASA official and a SpaceX representative said during a postlaunch news conference Monday. “I think we’re looking at SpaceX-11,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA’s deputy manager of ISS utilization, referring to the 11th resupply mission the company will fly with Dragon and the Falcon 9. (Monday’s launch kicked off SpaceX-9.)

I had been wondering when SpaceX would try to reuse a Dragon, and had assumed the reason it hadn’t happened yet was partly because of NASA reluctance combined with the delays connected with the launch failure last year. Either way, it appears that NASA is now on board and that the company is beginning to gear up for that first reflight.

SpaceX seeks two more pads for returning 1st stages

The competition heats up: SpaceX is asking for permission to establish two more landing pads so that it will have the capability of landing three first stages all within minutes of each other.

“SpaceX expects to fly Falcon Heavy for the first time later this year,” the company said in a statement responding to questions. “We are also seeking regulatory approval to build two additional landing pads at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. We hope to recover all three Falcon Heavy rockets, though initially we may attempt drone ship landings” at sea.

This news suggests two things: 1. The first Falcon Heavy launch is definitely coming soon. 2. They are going to try to return all three 1st stages during that first launch.

Another successful Falcon 9 launch

The competition heats up: SpaceX has successfully launched a Dragon freighter to ISS.

As importantly, they have also landed the first stage successfully in Florida. At this point, they are demonstrating that they have the basics of this task down pat, and can now reliably return that first stage on practically every mission.

Next step: Reuse a first stage, coming later this year.

SpaceX chooses recovered first stage to reuse

The competition heats up: SpaceX has chosen as the first Falcon 9 first stage to reuse the one that was the first to land successfully on a barge on April 8.

Though they have not announced the mission it will fly, I strongly suspect it will be one of the two SES communications satellites scheduled to launch in the fall. SES has already said they want to buy a launch using a re-used first stage, and the two SES satellites scheduled for the fall have some redundancy between them.

Iridium’s next generation constellation of satellites

The competition heats up: Iridium prepares the first 10 of a total of 81 new satellites for launch on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 in September.

The Iridium Next program is a $3 billion investment by Iridium, according to Matt Desch, Iridium’s chief executive officer. Iridium’s purchase of 81 satellites represents approximately $2.2 billion of that cost, Desch said, and the company’s launch contract with SpaceX for seven Falcon 9 flights was valued at $492 million when the parties signed it in 2010. That was the largest commercial launch contract in history until last year’s 21-launch order by satellite Internet provider OneWeb with Arianespace.

The first 10 Iridium Next satellites will fly on a Falcon 9 rocket in September, followed by a second launch as soon as December with the next batch. Iridium managers will give the go-ahead for the second launch once the first 10 satellites finish initial in-orbit tests, Desch said. The other five launches should occur about once every two months next year to fill out the Iridium Next fleet 485 miles (780 kilometers) above Earth. Iridium’s contract with SpaceX calls for all the missions to fly on newly-built Falcon 9s, a situation unlikely to change any time soon since insurance arrangements for the initial launches have been finalized.

But Desch said he is open to purchasing reused Falcon 9 boosters in the future “if they’re the right price.”

To meet this schedule SpaceX’s launch schedule will have to ramp up considerably from its present rate of one launch about every three weeks.

Airbus Safran merger completed

The competition heats up: The expected merger of Airbus and Safran to create a rocket company called Airbus Safran Launchers is expected to be finalized today, allowing the new company to move forward in its construction of Ariane 6, designed to compete with SpaceX’s lower cost rockets.

SpaceX’s first stage teaches them how to land on Mars

The competition heats up: This update on the status of SpaceX’s manned Dragon capsule also provides this interesting detail about the engineering knowledge gained from the company’s effort to vertically land its Falcon 9 first stages:

The company is also using the propulsive landings as a way to practically and physically test landing systems in a near-Mars atmospheric environment. “Earth’s upper atmosphere is also a really good analogue for Mars’ atmosphere,” noted [Garrett Reisman, Director of Space Operations]. “When you get up high enough, the density and consistency of the atmosphere is very similar to what you face during Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) on Mars. So every time we land, we take one of these rockets and we perform hypersonic retrograde propulsion, the data from which we’re sharing with JPL because it’s the first time this has ever been demonstrated on a major scale.”

To this end, Reisman pointed out that the Falcon 9 first stage landings are really serving as test beds for the EDL systems of eventual Mars missions. “Every time you see one of those rockets coming back, not only is it enabling a whole new paradigm for launching things into space, but it’s also bringing us one step closer to Mars.

As for Dragon, it now appears the company wants to do a full unmanned demo flight to and from ISS before it performs its launch abort test. They will then follow this with a manned demo mission to ISS. All three flights are planned for 2017.

Damaged Falcon 9 first stage returns to port

The remains of the damaged Falcon 9 first stage that tipped over during its barge landing last week returned to port this past weekend.

Video and images of it can be seen at the link, all of which suggest that there is a slight chance the engines might be salvageable. Regardless, SpaceX once again has valuable used space hardware that no one else has ever had which it can study to improve its future rocket designs.

Florida demands $15K port fee from SpaceX

Nice first stage you got there, be a shame if something happened to it: The Florida port where SpaceX has been offloading its recovered first stages from its barge has announced that it wants to charge the company $15,000 each time.

“We view their cargo passing over our dock just like any other cargo passing our dock,” Port Canaveral Chief Executive Officer John Murray said. “We’re not looking at this as an adversarial relationship. It’s no different than anything else coming across the dock. You have to pay for use of port facilities. That’s how a port makes its money.”

“The proposed wharfage fee is 14 times higher than what any other business is being charged for using port facilities,” SpaceX spokesman John Taylor said in an email to FLORIDA TODAY. “Port Canaveral is an important partner in our recovery operations. But we expect fees to be fair and reflect our actual use of the port. We’re looking forward to participating in the meeting later this week.”

The port notes that the size and the weight of the first stages cause significant wear and tear to the port, and thus should pay more. They have a point, but this still looks like they have noticed they have a customer with deep pockets that they now are trying to pick.

Posted from Linthicum, Maryland.

Another successful Falcon 9 launch

The competition heats up: SpaceX has successfully put two commecial satellites in orbit. The first stage hit the barge, but the landing was unsuccessful. More details to come.

The full video of the entire launch is embedded below the fold. One interesting part includes a view from inside the first stage looking back at the second stage at separate, followed with images from the first stage on its way back to Earth..

» Read more

SpaceX to launch again on Wednesday

The competition heats up: SpaceX will attempt another commercial launch on Wednesday morning, this time putting two satellites into orbit.

They will once again try to land the first stage in what they say are difficult circumstances. They are also picking up the launch pace, with this the second commercial launch in less than three weeks. It will also be their sixth launch of the year, matching what they did in each of the last two years, with more than half the year to go.

Musk hints details of SpaceX Mars project

The competition heats up: In an interview with the Washington Post this week, Elon Musk gave some more hints at his company’s future plans to send its Dragon capsules to Mars.

“Essentially what we’re saying is we’re establishing a cargo route to Mars,” [Musk] said. “It’s a regular cargo route. You can count on it. It’s going happen every 26 months. Like a train leaving the station. And if scientists around the world know that they can count on that, and it’s going to be inexpensive, relatively speaking compared to anything in the past, then they will plan accordingly and come up with a lot of great experiments.”

The key to Musk’s effort is that he plans on doing it. He isn’t sitting around waiting for others, or trying to convince others to join him in a partnership before proceeding. He is simply doing it, and is welcoming others to take advantage of the opportunity he is offering.

Elon Musk sends a tweet and the world listens

The competition heats up: Yesterday Elon Musk sent out a tweet that simply repeated something his company has been saying now for several months — but with one slight additional detail — and the press went gaga.

What Musk said was that SpaceX hopes to reuse one of its used Falcon 9 first stages by September or October. Previously they had merely said they were aiming to do it before the end of the year. Since SES has offered one of its satellites for the job, and since it has had for months two such satellites scheduled for launch by SpaceX in September and October, this announcement by Musk is not really much of a surprise. Yet, the tweet was enough for all of the following mainstream news sources to gin up news-breaking headlines:

I am not really complaining. What I am really noting is how serious the world now takes what Musk and SpaceX are doing. They say they plan to do something new and revolutionary, and people sit up and take notice. And the reasons are twofold. First, everything they have said they were going to do, they have done. Musk’s announcement has to be taken seriously. Second, Musk owns SpaceX, and does not really need anyone’s permission to do this. He isn’t in a negotiation with numerous other players, as has been the case with NASA and its projects for the past half century. We know that if he wants to try something, the only things that could stop him are lack of capital and lack of good engineering, neither of which are an obstacle in this case.

So, be prepared for the first relaunch of a rocket’s first stage sometime this fall. And don’t be surprised if that isn’t the only new thing SpaceX accomplishes at the time.

Falcon 9 first stage returns to port, with a noticable list

The competition heats up: The first stage from SpaceX’s most recent Falcon 9 launch returned to port today, showing a visible lean.

Musk said that the stage was probably OK, but there was some risk of tipping. This was due to the fact that the contingency “crush core” was used up. He described on Twitter that the crush core was an aluminum honeycomb for energy absorption in the telescoping actuator. Once the stage was within sight of land, it became clear that the booster had a noticeable lean to it, due to the aforementioned contingency crush core being used up. The ramifications of this are still unclear, but Musk’s tweet implied that the crush core is easily replaceable.

High speed Falcon 9 first stage camera view

SpaceX has released a high speed version of the camera view taken from the camera mounted on the Falcon 9 first stage that successfully landed on a barge on Friday.

I have embedded that video below the fold. Quite entertaining, though it emphasizes how much the flight resembles a high speed roller coaster ride.
» Read more

SpaceX does it again!

SpaceX is beginning to make the landings of its Falcon 9 first stage routine. They just successfully landed another first stage on their drone ship, even though this was once again a difficult geosynchronous satellite launch with high speeds and limited available fuel.

It also appears that they will also successfully place the commercial satellite in orbit.

Status of the third recovered Falcon 9 first stage

The recovered first stage from SpaceX’s last Falcon 9 launch experienced significant wear and tear during its high speed descent and landing.

They do not think they will be able to use the stage again, but will instead test it to determine the engineering tolerances that need to be met to make recovery and reuse in these situations more likely. The data will also help them increae the likelihood of reusability on launches that are less stressful.

Posted from Belize.

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