Tag Archives: Falcon 9

SpaceX successfully completes Falcon 9 static fire test

SpaceX on Sunday successfully completed the launch dress rehearsal countdown and static fire test for its next Falcon 9 launch, which will loft a Dragon capsule to ISS and is set now for February 18.

The article at the link as well as a lot of other news organizations are making a big deal about the fact that this launch is taking place at the LC-39A launchpad, used during the Apollo program as well as by the shuttle. While the historic background is interesting, of more significance to me is that this test brings SpaceX closer to having two operational pads in Florida, one of which (LC-39A) is configured for Falcon Heavy launches.


Congressional report worries over Falcon 9 engine cracks

A forthcoming congressional report, reported by the Wall Street Journal, reveals that NASA is concerned about cracks that occur in the turbopumps of SpaceX’s Merlin engines.

The newspaper says the report has found a “pattern of problems” with the turbine blades within the turbopumps, which deliver rocket fuel into the combustion chamber of the Merlin rocket engine. Some of the components used in the turbopumps are prone to cracks, the government investigators say, and may require a redesign before NASA allows the Falcon 9 booster to be used for crewed flights. NASA has been briefed on the report’s findings, and the agency’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, told the newspaper that he thinks “we know how to fix them.”

A spokesman for SpaceX, John Taylor, said the company already has a plan in place to fix the potential cracking issue. “We have qualified our engines to be robust to turbine wheel cracks,” Taylor said. “However, we are modifying the design to avoid them altogether. This will be part of the final design iteration on Falcon 9.” This final variant of the Falcon 9 booster, named Block 5, is being designed for optimal safety and easier return for potential reuse. According to company founder Elon Musk, it could fly by the end of this year.

Here’s the real scoop: SpaceX initially built the engines to fly once, just as every single rocket company has done in the entire history of space, excluding the space shuttle. Under these conditions, the cracks could be considered an acceptable issue, which is what they mean when they say “We have qualified our engines to be robust to turbine wheel cracks.” My guess is that they tested the engines, found that the cracks were not a significant problem for a single flight, especially because the Falcon 9 rocket uses nine Merlin engines on the first stage and thus has some redundancy should one fail. And based on SpaceX’s flight record — no launch failures due to failed engines — that conclusion seems reasonable.

SpaceX is now redesigning to eliminate the cracks, however, because such cracks are not acceptable for engines that will fly multiple times on reused first stages.

Thus, this story, as leaked, appears to me to be a hit job by powers in Congress who dislike the competition that SpaceX poses to big government rockets like SLS. SLS will use salvaged shuttle engines, designed initially for many reuses, and thus are superior in this manner to SpaceX’s Merlin engines. The shuttle engines however were also built by the government, which didn’t care very much about the cost of development, or making any profits. The comparison thus is somewhat bogus. Moreover, I suspect these cracks were only discovered after SpaceX successfully landed and recovered some first stages. To put them on trial in the press now for doing good engineering research and redevelopment seems somewhat inappropriate.

The report itself has not yet been released, though it does also note lingering issues with the parachutes being developed for Boeing’s Starliner capsule.

Overall, both companies are struggling to start their operational flights by 2019. For Congress or NASA to try to put more roadblocks up in that development seems most counterproductive.


SpaceX gets an eighth Iridium launch

The competition heats up: SpaceX has won a new launch contract, this time by launching both Iridium’s five satellites as well as the NASA/German Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) mission.

Both NASA and Iridium will save money by sharing the ride, while SpaceX gets more business.


Recovered Falcon 9 first stage prepped for launch

The competition heats up: SpaceX on Tuesday revealed that last week it has completed the standard static fire testing of the recovered Falcon 9 first stage that it plans to relaunch in March.

A March launch would mean an 11-month turnaround, which is far from optimal, but understandable for the first time. SpaceX’s founder and chief executive, Elon Musk, has acknowledged the company must do better in the future if resuable flight is to become economically viable. He says the next—and likely final—iteration of the Falcon 9 rocket will be optimized for reuse. “Block 5 is the final upgrade of the Falcon architecture,” he tweeted earlier this year. “Significantly improves performance & ease of reusability. Flies end of year.”

It now seems likely that SpaceX will fly the landed boosters it currently has, at most once or twice, before retiring them, instead of multiple times. Although the company hasn’t elaborated on the problems with the engines, booster structure, or composite materials that have shown wear and tear after their orbital launches and returns, Musk is confident that changes to the Block 5 version of the rocket will solve the problem. “I think the F9 boosters could be used almost indefinitely, so long as there is scheduled maintenance and careful inspections,” he has said.

In other words, SpaceX has had — for the first time in history — the opportunity to inspect a number of used first stage rockets, and that precious knowledge is making it possible for them to upgrade the stage design to make future stages more hardy. In fact, those future stages won’t be stages, but reusable vessels that SpaceX could even name if it wished.


SpaceX to double leased space at Los Angeles port

The competition heats up: SpaceX has requested a doubling of its leased space the port of Los Angeles in order to facilitate the return of first stages launched from Vandenberg.

The Board of Harbor Commissioners will vote at its Thursday morning meeting on a deal to enlarge Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s footprint at San Pedro’s outer harbor. The company hopes to lease 4.6 acres of land and water area along Berths 51 to 53 for $23,735 a month, plus insurance and any incidental costs.

In addition to extra space, the lease agreement allows the company to have berthing rights, install a chain-link fence around the property, build a concrete rocket-support pedestal, and add an office trailer, guard shack and portable restrooms, according to a staff report prepared for the commission.

According to the article, the increased space is needed because of the company’s plans to launch every two weeks from its pads at Kennedy and Vandenberg.


Next Falcon 9 launch delayed as SpaceX rearranges manifest

Because the launchpad at Kennedy is not quite ready for the planned February 3 launch of a commercial satellite, SpaceX has rearranged its launch manifest to switch that launch with the next Dragon mission to ISS, essentially delaying their next launch by two weeks.

With [launchpad] 39A still not ready to debut in its new role with SpaceX, the first mission set to launch from this pad – the Falcon 9 launch with EchoStar 23 – was pushed to the right a number of times. Although 39A is very close to being ready to conduct launches, EchoStar 23’s launch date was deemed to be too close to the mid-February target for the CRS-10 Dragon mission.

SpaceX and NASA discussed the situation on Friday night, before deciding it would be prudent to place EchoStar 23’s launch after CRS-10, allowing engineers to finalize modification and checkout work on the famous pad and simultaneously avoid a potential delay to the important Dragon mission to the Station.

The real problem here is that SpaceX had planned to have two working launchpads by this time, but doesn’t because their first pad was damaged in the September 1 Falcon 9 launchpad explosion. The consequences is that, for at least the next month, they will not be able to set a pace of a launch every two weeks.


SpaceX prepares used 1st stage for February launch

The competition heats up: Even as SpaceX moves forward on an intense launch schedule, with launches planned for January 26 and February 8, it has begun preparations for a late February commercial launch that will be the first to reuse a first stage.

The first stage assigned to SES 10’s launch first flew April 8, 2016, with a Dragon supply ship on a logistics launch to the International Space Station. After detaching from the Falcon 9’s second stage, which continued into orbit, the 15-story first stage booster descended to a vertical landing on SpaceX’s offshore platform a few minutes after liftoff, making the first time the company recovered a rocket intact at sea.

The landing on SpaceX’s barge, or drone ship, last April came four months after the first-ever touchdown of a Falcon 9 first stage on land at Cape Canaveral. That vehicle is now on display outside SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

This pace is calling for a launch every two weeks. It will spectacular if SpaceX can keep that up, but such a pace is not really unprecedented. The Soviets at their height managed it at times quite successfully.


SpaceX is flying again

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has successfully launched 10 Iridium satellites, and its first stage has also successfully landed on the barge.

The live view of the first stage landing was especially thrilling, using a camera on the stage, looking down to the Pacific Ocean. While there were a few dropouts, the picture stayed live for the entire descent.


SpaceX to land both Falcon Heavy first stages and Dragon at Cape Canaveral

An environmental report, prepared by SpaceX, describes in detail their plans to build landing facilities for their Dragon capsule as well as two more landing pads to facilitate the vertical landing of all three Falcon Heavy first stages at Launch Complex 13 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

It is not clear when this work will go forward, though I suspect it will not be too far in the future.


FAA okays SpaceX launch on Monday

As I expected, after several days of hemming and hawing, the FAA has granted SpaceX a launch license for its planned Monday launch.

The FAA license approved Friday covers all seven Falcon 9 launches planned for the Iridium Next constellation, along with landings of the Falcon 9 first stage on a barge positioned downrange in the Pacific Ocean. The $3 billion Iridium Next program aims to replace all of the company’s existing satellites, which were launched in the late 1990s and early 2000s and are now operating well beyond their design lives.

What SpaceX clearly did here was to move ahead, daring the FAA to challenge their desire to launch quickly. Government bureaucrats don’t like that, but to call SpaceX’s bluff and block the launch would have caused these bureaucrats even more problems. SpaceX knew this, and gambled that the FAA would back down. It did, and thus the launch license was issued.


SpaceX launch delayed until Monday

One local news source now reports that SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch has been delayed one day until Monday.

While officials announced at the start of week their plans to aim for a 10:28 a.m. Sunday departure, notices warning boaters and pilots of an upcoming launch now say the mission is targeting Monday, Jan. 9. The one-day delay means the launch time is expected to be a few minutes earlier to ensure the satellites are placed where needed in space.

This news has not yet been confirmed. The delay is now official.


SpaceX plans Jan 8 launch

SpaceX today released its final investigation results on the September 1 Falcon 9 launchpad explosion, and announced that they have now scheduled their next launch for January 8 out of Vandenberg Air Force Base.

As expected, the cause is the accumulation of solid oxygen in the wrappings of the helium bottle tank (COPV) inside the oxygen tank of the first stage. The following is their announced solution:

The corrective actions address all credible causes and focus on changes which avoid the conditions that led to these credible causes. In the short term, this entails changing the COPV configuration to allow warmer temperature helium to be loaded, as well as returning helium loading operations to a prior flight proven configuration based on operations used in over 700 successful COPV loads. In the long term, SpaceX will implement design changes to the COPVs to prevent buckles altogether, which will allow for faster loading operations.​

Their vagueness in describing the “prior flight proven configuration” is likely to protect proprietary information, but the overall solution suggests that their fuel loading operations will take longer.

The January 8 launch date was simultaneously announced on twitter.


SpaceX preps for next launch

SpaceX has begun placing the ten Iridium satellites inside their Falcon 9 housing in preparation for its next launch, now planned for no earlier than January 7.

The first 10 satellites for Iridium’s next-generation mobile voice and data relay network have been fueled, joined with their deployment module and encapsulated inside the clamshell-like nose cone of a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster for launch as soon as next week from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. SpaceX and Iridium have not announced a target launch date, but engineers are aiming to have the mission ready for liftoff by Jan. 7. That schedule is still very preliminary.

An official target launch date is pending the Federal Aviation Administration’s approval of the SpaceX-led investigation into the explosion of a Falcon 9 rocket on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral on Sept. 1, which destroyed the Israeli-owned Amos 6 communications satellite awaiting liftoff a few days later.

The article also has this interesting tidbit:

After the Falcon 9 rocket completes its pre-flight “static fire” test on the launch pad — the same test that resulted in the explosion in Florida on Sept. 1 — the 10 Iridium Next satellites will be mated with the booster for liftoff.

This suggests that SpaceX is changing its launch procedures, whereby before it would do the static fire dress rehearsal with the payload already loaded on the rocket. For this launch at least they are going to do that dress rehearsal before installing the payload on the rocket.


What happened at SpaceX the first time they landed a first stage

Cool image time! The National Geographic Mars series is combining fiction with high quality documentary footage of real events. The clip below shows the first ever vertical landing of a used rocket first stage in December 2015, and includes footage taken of SpaceX engineers and Elon Musk during that launch and landing. The landing ranks as one of the most important events in space history. And it still gives me goosebumps. Seeing that it also caused goosebumps to those who made it happen only emphasizes the significance of the moment.


Back from Vandenberg

In my trip to Vandenberg Air Force Base yesterday to give a lecture to their local AIAA chapter, I got a quick drive around the southern parts of the base where the Atlas 5, Delta, and SpaceX launchpads are located. This is the same area I toured when I last visited the base back in March 2015.

I had been curious to see the fire damage from the fall wildfires. Unfortunately, a fog bank had rolled in and made it impossible to see the hills behind the launchpads where the fires had raged. I did see some fire damage within several hundred feet of a liquid nitrogen storage facility, but otherwise the clouds prevented me from seeing any of the wildfire damage.

The one item of interest that I did see was at the SpaceX launchpad. While we could not enter the facility, we could see in plain sight the first stage of the next planned Falcon 9 launch. They had hoped to lift off this week, but delayed the launch last week until January to complete the investigation into the September 1 launchpad explosion. Nonetheless, the first stage was there, lying horizontal out in the open air. Several nozzles were removed from the engine array at the stage’s base. Whether they were removed as part of the investigation, or as part of standard maintenance, I do not know.


SpaceX’s loses launch contract due to scheduling delays

Because of SpaceX’s decision to delay its next launch into early January, Inmarsat today decided to switch launch companies for a mid-2017 satellite, dropping SpaceX and signing a contract with Arianespace.

Inmarsat is not abandoning SpaceX, only switching to Arianespace for one satellite. Nonetheless, this decision, coming only one day after SpaceX confirmed the delay, explains to me why SpaceX has been saying for months it intended to resume launches before the end of 2017. Inmarsat had probably told the company that if they delayed into January, they would lose this launch. When SpaceX finally admitted they couldn’t meet the 2016 launch deadline, Inmarsat made the switch.


SpaceX confirms its next launch will be in early January

In an update today on SpaceX’s September 1 Falcon 9 launchpad explosion investigation webpage, the company announced that its next launch will take place in early January, not mid-December as indicated in recent weeks.

We are finalizing the investigation into our September 1 anomaly and are working to complete the final steps necessary to safely and reliably return to flight, now in early January with the launch of Iridium-1. This allows for additional time to close-out vehicle preparations and complete extended testing to help ensure the highest possible level of mission assurance prior to launch.

Apparently they wish to do more testing to make sure they understand exactly what they need to do to avoid the conditions that caused the September 1 explosion. At the same time, they also think that an extra few weeks will be sufficient.


SpaceX to delay December 16 launch

I have absolutely no details at this moment, but I have found out through sources at Vandenberg Air Force Base, where I have been scheduled to give a lecture next Wednesday, December 14, that the December 16 SpaceX launch there has been delayed.

If the launch was still on they wanted to delay my talk because too many people would miss it, working instead on the launch. My lecture is now on, as the launch has been cancelled.

This is not in the news yet. Stay tuned for more details.


SpaceX to launch EchoStar satellite in early January

It appears that SpaceX has definitely scheduled a launch of an EchoStar communications satellite for either January 8 or 9, and that this launch will follow the launch of 10 Iridium satellites in December.

If this schedule happens has now indicated, SpaceX will launch a lot of rockets over the next two months.


Explosion at SpaceX test site part of launchpad investigation

An explosion yesterday at SpaceX’s Texas test facility appears to have been planned and is part of the company’s investigation into the September 1 Falcon 9 launchpad explosion.

“The sound heard by residents was actually the result of a pressurization test at the McGregor Rocket R&D facility. These tests take place periodically at the site, and this particular test was part of the ongoing testing being conducted by our Accident Investigation Team,” SpaceX spokesman Phil Larson said in an email response to questions. “The volunteer fire department responded as a matter of procedure, but there was no damage to the site or injuries to any personnel.”

I would guess that they are trying to see if they can precisely duplicate the conditions that produced the September 1st explosion, including triggering new explosions in a reliable manner. If so, they would then know precisely what to avoid doing to trigger future tank failures.

Meanwhile, this story notes the successful first pressure tests of the carbon fiber tank that SpaceX is developing for its interplanetary spaceship. Not much information, though SpaceX has released some cool images of the tank being prepped for the test.


Musk predicts mid-December return to flight

In a cable news interview today, Elon Musk reiterated recent reports that SpaceX expects to resume launches by the middle of December.

That the head of Inmarsat, one of SpaceX’s satellite customers, has confirmed this plan and appears to have no problem with it, suggests to me that SpaceX is on solid ground and that they have pinpointed a solution to the launchpad explosion that will not require any major re-engineering.


SpaceX may lose a customer payload

Because of the launch delays at SpaceX, Inmarsat is considering finding another rocket company to launch its fourth Global Xpress satellite.

Inmarsat is worried that even after SpaceX resumes launches with the Falcon booster, it may not be able to make up lost time to assure its satellite is placed on orbit as scheduled. Alternatives the London-based company is considering include flying the spacecraft on the European Ariane 5 rocket, Lockheed Martin Corp.’s Atlas V, or the Russian Proton booster. Mr. Pearce said Inmarsat could stick with SpaceX if it can get an earlier launch slot.

This is all part of the competitive game. Inmarsat needs to get its satellite in orbit in order to better compete in the communications market, and the delays at SpaceX because of the September 1 launchpad explosion are not helping. This announcement puts pressure on SpaceX to move them to the front of the line or else lose the launch. It also increases their chances of finding an alternative should SpaceX not be able to do that.


SpaceX update on Sept 1Falcon 9 launchpad explosion

SpaceX today released an update on its investigation of the September 1 Falcon 9 launchpad explosion.

Previously, we announced the investigation was focusing on a breach in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank. The root cause of the breach has not yet been confirmed, but attention has continued to narrow to one of the three composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) inside the LOX tank. Through extensive testing in Texas, SpaceX has shown that it can re-create a COPV failure entirely through helium loading conditions. These conditions are mainly affected by the temperature and pressure of the helium being loaded.

SpaceX’s efforts are now focused on two areas – finding the exact root cause, and developing improved helium loading conditions that allow SpaceX to reliably load Falcon 9. With the advanced state of the investigation, we also plan to resume stage testing in Texas in the coming days, while continuing to focus on completion of the investigation.

The report suggests that they are starting to pin down the very specific temperature and pressure conditions during loading of the helium tank that cause the problem, which also suggests they will soon also be able to adjust their procedures to avoid those conditions. This also suggests that they repeated assurances that they will be able to fly before the end of the year are not unreasonable.


SES financial report

In releasing its year-to-date and third quarter financial report (which showed significant growth), the satellite company SES also revealed that the launch of its SES-10 satellite will use a recovered Falcon 9 first stage, and that right now it is expected to occur in the first quarter of 2017.


Musk answers questions on reddit

In a reddit Q&A session yesterday, Elon Musk answered a host of questions about his Mars mission plans.

Key takeaway: They are far away from actually flying this rocket. The engine needs tests, its giant tanks need a great deal of development, and they are only beginning the concept work for the ship itself.

His comments on Falcon 9 re-usability, however, were somewhat more interesting, and far more grounded in present reality.

Musk did not answer any questions submitted about the status of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket, grounded since a Sept. 1 explosion during preparations for a static-fire test destroyed a Falcon 9 and its Amos-6 satellite payload. He did, though, briefly address an upcoming, and “final,” version of the rocket, which he called Block 5, that is designed for frequent reusability. “Falcon 9 Block 5 — the final version in the series — is the one that has the most performance and is designed for easy reuse, so it just makes sense to focus on that long term and retire the earlier versions,” he wrote. That version includes many “minor refinements” but also increased thrust and improved landing legs, he said.

The first of the Block 5 Falcon 9 vehicles will begin production in three months, with an initial flight in six to eight months. With its entry into service, he said he doesn’t expect recovered first stages from the older Block 3 and Block 4 versions of the rocket to be reused more than a few times.

In a speech earlier this month, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said she believed the updated version of the Falcon 9 could be reused up to 10 times. Musk, though, was more optimistic. “I think the F9 boosters could be used almost indefinitely, so long as there is scheduled maintenance and careful inspections,” he said.


Did fueling procedures cause Falcon 9 launchpad explosion?

This Wall Street Journal article today speculates that “problematic fueling procedures” might have caused the September 1 Falcon 9 launchpad explosion.

Company officials have said it is too early to arrive at definitive answers, though one person familiar with the investigation said initial concerns about potentially substandard welds have been relegated to a low priority. If testing bears out early findings focusing on problematic fueling practices instead of hardware flaws, SpaceX likely will avoid a major redesign effort or extensive quality-control checks that could drag on for months.

Caution must be exercised here. The article depends on unnamed sources, and does not provide any details describing how fueling procedures could have caused the explosion.

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