In what looks to become another busy day for SpaceX the Dragon cargo vehicle that spent a month at the station following its successful launch last month was released by the station this morning and completed a successful splashdown in the Pacific Ocean at 8:12 EDT.
This was the second mission for this vehicle and clearly shows that SpaceX’s goals of creating reusable rockets and spacecraft have moved another important step forward.
The spacecraft returned 4,100+ lbs of research and other cargo from the station which will now be returned to port before being transported directly to NASA to be offloaded.
Good splashdown of Dragon confirmed—completing first re-flight of a commercial spacecraft to and from the @Space_Station.
At present SpaceX has not said when another flight-proven Dragon will be used however there have been indications that this is under consideration as well as the possibility of using flight-proven Falcon 9 to launch them.
In 2010 Senator Richard Shelby made the following statement
“This request represents nothing more than a commercially-led, faith-based space program. Today, the commercial providers that NASA has contracted with cannot even carry the trash back from the space station much less carry humans to or from space safely.
“These providers have yet to live up to the promises they have already made to the taxpayer. Not a single rocket or ounce of cargo has been launched since we met last year. Instead of requiring accountability from these companies, the President’s budget proposes to reward these failed commercial providers with an additional bailout.
Full text here
While it was true at the time that no cargo had been launched by any of the competitors in the program, to say that SpaceX was a “failed provider that needed an additional bailout” seemed a little harsh. As we will see in the article things have changed quite a bit since then for SpaceX and for comparison in the same time frame we will see the lack of progress for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).
Started in 2002 by Elon Musk, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation known as SpaceX was created to lower the cost of access to space. The first rocket that was developed was the Falcon 1 which had a single Merlin engine, SpaceX attempted five launches of the Falcon 1 the first three of which failed. All their future hopes rested on the fourth launch which was successful and delivered their first payload to orbit, also making Falcon the first privately funded liquid fueled rocket to do so.
In 2006 SpaceX was awarded a NASA Commercial Orbital Transporation Service (COTS) contract which allowed them to develop the Falcon 9 rocket which is the vehicle they current use for all launches. Four years later SpaceX launched their first Falcon 9 rocket which carried the new Dragon cargo capsule to orbit for a brief mission that splashed down in the Pacific Ocean two orbits later, making SpaceX the first commercial company to successfully launch, orbit and return a cargo vehicle. Two years later they followed that launch with their first COTS demo mission to the International Space Station and soon after became the first and at present only commercial company capable of delivering cargo to and returning cargo from the station.
SpaceX didn’t stop with just NASA contracts, they so far launched XX commercial missions for various companies and has many more orders in their manifest.
Since that initial launch in 2010 SpaceX has upgraded the Falcon 9 rocket three times to what is currently in use today the Falcon 9 (v1.2) or Full Thrust version which is capable of carrying 22,800kg to Low Earth Orbit or 8,300kg to Geo-Transfer Orbit. SpaceX has also pursued a goal of making the Falcon 9 (and any future rockets) re-usable a goal which was achieved for the first time in March 2017. There are two more upgrades planned for the Falcon 9 both of which are due in 2017, the changes should allow faster turn-around times for the reusability of the rocket and also address issues found with cracking in the Merlin engines.
In August 2012 SpaceX was awarded a second NASA contract this time to develop a crewed version of their Dragon capsule to allow NASA astronauts to be transported to/from the ISS. They are still developing the crew version with a demonstration mission planned for late 2017.
Things haven’t been smooth sailing however in 2015 they suffer the first failure of their Falcon 9 vehicle when a strut broke during launch which caused the second stage to be destroyed, this resulted in the loss of a Dragon capsule carrying cargo to the ISS. In 2016 during a static fire test, the rocket exploded on the launch pad resulting in the loss of the vehicle, its payload and significant damage to the launch pad.
Elon said after the successful SES-10 launch in March that so far SpaceX had spent about $1 billion dollars in the development of Falcon 9. Some of that money came from NASA, some from the commercial launches and some from SpaceX themselves.
To put what SpaceX has achieved into perspective I thought it would be useful to compare what NASA has achieved in the same seven years since Senator Shelby made that statement.
The Space Launch System (SLS) started life as the Constellation program in 2005, the program was to consist of two launch vehicles Ares 1 and 5 as well as a crew capsule Orion. This program launched a single Ares 1 rocket in October 2009 before it was canceled. In 2010 under the direction of President Obama, the SLS program was launched utilizing the Orion capsule and a successor to the Ares 5 design.
Rather than develop a completely new system SLS was to be designed to utilize the RS-25 engines that flew on the Space Shuttle (STS) and upgraded versions of the Solid Rocket Booster that also launched STS. Unlike STS neither the engines or SRB’s are to be recovered after launch making SLS a completely expendable rocket.
Since 2010 NASA has spent approximately $18 billion dollars developing SLS and Orion and so far has only launched Orion once using a United Launch Alliance Delta Heavy rocket. In addition, estimates show that each individual launch could cost anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion.
The current plan is for NASA to launch the first SLS rocket in 2018 on an uncrewed test, this schedule could be impacted however due to damage at NASA Michoud facility following a tornado.
While the first launch will prove the design of the SLS SRB’s, main stage and Orion capsule it will not allow a test of the complete system as it will use the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) 2nd stage which is only going to be flown once. The Exploration Upper Stage which will be used for subsequent launches is bigger than the ICPS, this will require that NASA makes changes to the mobile launch platform after one launch.
Recently NASA started an investigation into the possibility of adding a crew to the first mission, the results of this have not yet been published but could add additional delays.
In summary, since Senator Shelby made that statement SpaceX has launched 32 times include ten missions to the ISS, they have a large manifest of missions and have upgrades and new vehicles in development. Included in those missions is a plan to send the new Dragon spacecraft to orbit the Moon and also to land on Mars.
In contrast, NASA’s SLS system has cost approximately 18 times as much and so far only the Orion capsule has been launched. The first actual launch is still at least a year away and even then will not be the complete SLS system. Until this year it could have been argued that SLS had different destinations in mind, however with SpaceX’s announcements of Red Dragon and more recently their Crew Dragon mission around the Moon this isn’t even a valid argument.
This morning SpaceX suffered the first failure of their Falcon 9 rocket as it explode two minutes into the CRS-7 mission. Initial data from Elon Musk indicates that an over-pressure event happened on the second stage.
There was an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank. Data suggests counterintuitive cause.
This was the first time since the third flight of Falcon 1 that SpaceX has suffered a mission ending failure, they have had minor issues during launch including loss of engine (this caused a secondary payload to be lost but primary mission was successful) and an issue with Dragon after deployment (which was later resolved).
Since that Falcon 1 failure in August 2008 SpaceX have launched 20 rockets include 18 Falcon 9 vehicles all reaching orbit successfully, quite an achievement for a new launch provider.
The true test of what SpaceX are made of happens now as they review the data from the failure today, what changes they need to make to address the issue, how open they are about the failure and how quickly they turn this around and start launching rockets again. One advantage that SpaceX have over other people as stated by COO Gwynne Shotwell is the fact that they make most of the parts of the rockets so don’t have to seek data from other parties.
While it is sad that this happened on a NASA International Space Station (ISS) launch it is also a blessing in some respects as we are more likely to hear more information about the failure than if it had been for a commercial customer’s launch.
Over the coming days SpaceX will review thousands of pieces of data and any debris that the teams were able to recover to fully determine what happened.
Initial indications show that the Dragon capsule actually survived the initial explosion of the rocket and continued to transmit data afterwards, most likely stopping when it impacted the ocean. One change that we hope for future flights of Cargo Dragon (just in case) is a way for Mission Control to be able to deploy the chutes during an non-nominal event, this potentially could have allowed Dragon to splashdown safely in the ocean just as a Crewed Vehicle is designed to.
UPDATE – Elon this morning tweeted an update on the investigation
Cause still unknown after several thousand engineering-hours of review. Now parsing data with a hex editor to recover final milliseconds.
This morning SpaceX launched their latest mission to the International Space Station, unfortunately during the first stage flight the rocket exploded causing lost of Falcon, Dragon and the cargo it was carrying
Among the cargo that Dragon was carrying was the first of two International Docking Adapters for the station which will be used by Boeing and SpaceX to dock their crewed vehicles in the future. They were also flying the Meteor experiment which was originally launched on the fated Orb-3 mission last year but lost when the rocket exploded. For further details of the cargo manifest check out this pdf file.
Below are screen grabs of the launch captured from the Webcast
Following Saturday’s beautiful launch of the Falcon 9 and two days of rendezvous maneuvers the SpaceX Dragon vehicle arrived at the ISS early this morning. This is the sixth time that Dragon has visited the station, once under the COTS development program and five times under the cargo resupply contract (CRS) awarded to SpaceX.
The spacecraft was grappled by Astronaut Butch Wilmore at 5:54am EST using the station arm, mission control then maneuvered the spacecraft into position to allow the berthing process to be completed, the sixteen bolts were then fastened to create a hard link between the two. The hatches may be opened later today and the spacecraft it due to stay at the station for the next 29 days before being leave to return critical items back to Earth on 2/10.
Among the 5000+ pounds of cargo delivered by Dragon are Christmas presents and fresh groceries for the crew to enjoy.
The images below were captured from the NASA TV broadcast of the events
Following a smooth countdown this morning the Falcon 9’s engines roared to live to carry the Dragon spacecraft to orbit, Follow successful separation from the second stage the solar array’s deploy and the spacecraft is now heading to the International Space Station to deliver 1.8 metric tonnes of supplies.
Elon Musk tweeted two updates on the landing attempt.
Rocket made it to drone spaceport ship, but landed hard. Close, but no cigar this time. Bodes well for the future tho.
This week Russia fire back against US sanctions in two key areas, the first was to spurn NASA’s proposal to extend the life of the ISS through 2024. The second by announcing plans to block the export of Russia engines for U.S. Military launches.
Given the continued aggression in Ukraine is doesn’t seem likely that these issues will be resolved quickly. The impact of the station extension won’t be felt for a number of years yet and could well change before then anyway. The impact on launches could hit home much sooner depending on how many engines ULA have already available. Although there could be an alternate solution very soon as SpaceX are close to finalizing the EELV certification process which would enable them to compete for military launches.
As for the Space Station it looks like it might be time to start looking for a long term alternative and Bigelow Aerospace’s BA-330 solution could be a good option. If planning started soon there is no reason why a fully operational station couldn’t be in orbit and have crew members living on board well before the ISS concludes it’s operations in orbit.
While Russia hasn’t impacted the crewed launches to ISS yet, if the sanctions continue it could result in the US not being able to access the station, while some believe this is unlikely because NASA are paying for the seats to orbit it isn’t beyond believe that it could happen.
SpaceX Dragon returns this weekend
The Dragon spacecraft currently docked to ISS is expected to depart on Sunday to being it’s return to earth. Assuming all goes to plan Dragon will be unberthed from the station on Sunday at approximately 9:30am EDT and is expected to splash down in the Pacific Ocean about 6 hours later.
Dragon is the only cargo vehicle currently that has the ability to return to earth allowing critical experiments to be returned for scientists around the world to continue there investigations. All the other cargo vehicles that visit the station burn up in the atmosphere at the end of there mission.
Shuttle Engines selected for first SLS Launch
This week NASA announced the selection of four veteran Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME) known as the RS-25’s to be used on the first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) in 2017.
The SSME’s had been used throughout the 30 year history of the Shuttle Program and with the exception of one flight where a safe Abort to Orbit was needed performed flawlessly during that time.
Unlike the Space Shuttle the engine’s will not be returned after the launch and will be destroyed during re-entry of the first core SLS stage.
SpaceIL one of the competitors in the Google Lunar XPRIZE have launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise $240,000 towards the cost of landing on the moon. The $1 = 1 mile campaign runs until June 17th and as of today has raised 20% of it’s target.
Exkpress AM-4R satellite launch failure
On Thursday a Proton rocket lifted off at 5:21 pm EDT, however 540 seconds into the flight the third stage engine’s terminated resulting in the lose of the rocket and satellite. The Exkpress AM-4R communication satellite was a replacement for one that failed to reach it’s intended orbit in 2011.
All future Proton-M launches are on hold pending a launch failure investigation.
New GPS satellite to launched today
Originally scheduled to launch yesterday but delayed by uncooperative weather the launch of a ULA Delta 4 from Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral carrying a new Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite is now scheduled for 8:08 pm tonight.
Expedition 40 Crew head to Baikonur for launch
This week the crew of the TMA-13M due to lift off on May 28 left Star City, Russia for Baikonur Cosmodrome to being final preparations for the launch.
Astronomers announced this week they had detected what they believe to be the first sibling of the Sun. This star HD 162826 is believed to have been created from the same gas cloud that the Sun is believed to have been created from. The star is 100 light-years away in the constellation Hercules and isn’t visible to the naked eye, the star is approximately 15% more massive than our Sun. They have been observing the star for 15 years and have yet to detect any planets orbiting it.
To detect the sibling the Astronomers looked for two identifying features, the first a simliar chemical composition to our Solar System and secondly similar orbit’s around the cetner of the Milky Way galaxy.
Astronomers have detected an exoplanet that is roughly 2,000 times the Earth-Sun distance from it’s star. Based on the distance from the star it would take approximately 80,000 earth years to complete a single orbit. The planet located around GU Psc, located in the constellation Pisces has been observed directly by combining observations for various telescopes.
One of the most prominent features of Jupiter is slowly shrinking, the Great Red Spot – a swirling storm bigger than earth – is now smaller than ever measured before. Observations going back to the 1800s estimated the spot to be 25,500 miles on it’s long axis. When NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 flew by in 1979 they measured it to be 14,500. In 2009 Hubble measured it at 11,130 and since 2012 amateur observations have noticed it shrinking by as much as 580 miles per year.
We are back with our weekly blog, and what an interesting week it has been.
SpaceX announce suit against ULA Block Buy
On Friday 4/25, SpaceX’s CEO Elon Musk announced that SpaceX had filed a suit protesting the bulk buy of Rocket Core’s from ULA. SpaceX made several arguments against the block buy, including the fact that each launch was four times more expensive than then equivalent SpaceX rocket, the fact that ULA’s main engine’s were sourced from Russia.
“In light of international events, this seems like the wrong time to send hundreds of millions of dollars to the Kremlin,” said Elon Musk. “Yet, this is what the Air Force’s arrangement with ULA does, despite the fact that there are domestic alternatives available that do not rely on components from countries that pose a national security risk.”
Elon stated also that they just want the chance to compete in a fair competition, at the end of the day if they compete and lose then they would except this decision.
SpaceX confirm successful soft landing of CRS-3 first Stage
During the above Press Conference Elon Musk also announced that they had confirmed successful soft landing of the first stage from the CRS-3 launch. However due to the rough seas in the area the rocket didn’t survive long in the water.
On Tuesday this week 4/29 SpaceX posted video from the first stage, unfortunately it is badly damaged and they are asking for assistance in cleaning it up further. Several images have been posted that show the stage as it approaches the water.
This week SpaceX also completed another test of there F9R test rocket to 1000m, these tests bring closer the day when re-usable rockets will be viable.
ATK & Orbital announce merger
This week Orbital Sciences Corporation and ATK announced that they were merging to form Orbital ATK Inc. As part of the process ATK will split off the Outdoor Sports business into a separate entity and the Aerospace & Defense business will be merged with Orbital.
Classed as a merger of equal’s the new company valued at approximately $5 billion will be lead by current Orbital President and CEO Mr. David W. Thompson, with ATK’s President Mr. Blake E. Larson will become COO.
The transaction is expected to be completed by the end of this year.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister suggests US Astronauts use Trampoline to get to ISS
Due to the sanctions that been placed on several key members of the Russian government following the events in the Ukraine, Russian Deputy Prime Minister proposed an alternate solution to America’s dependency on Soyuz to get to ISS.
“I propose that the United States delivers its astronauts to the ISS with the help of a trampoline,” he said.
In response to this SpaceX’s Elon Musk tweeted the following
Unfortunately he then followed up with another tweet.
So we will have to wait until the end of this month to see the Crewed version of Dragon.
Length of ExoPlanet Day measured for the first time
Astronmers using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) have determined the rotation rate of an exoplanet. Beta Pictoris b has been found to have a day that lasts only eight hours, much faster than any planet in our solar system. The equator is travelling at almost 100,000 kph.
Morpheus Lander completes another Free Flight Test
This week the Morpheus Lander completed it’s 12th free flight test as KSC, for the first time the test vehicle used the Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology (ALHAT) to divert to a safe landing spot instead of the previously programmed landing spot..
High Definition Earth Viewing (HDEV) experiment attached to ISS
Once of the science experiments that was transported in the trunk of the Dragon last week was removed on Wednesday and attached to the space station. The HDEV experiment will beam back live pictures from the station, and contains four HD camera’s which are housed in a enclosed, pressurized, temperate controlled housing. While on station the effect of the space environment on these camera’s will be monitored.
This week Boeing released several new images showcasing the interior of there CST-100 Commercial Crew vehicle. The CST-100 is competing with Dragon, and DreamChaser to become the vehicle of choice for crewed missions to the ISS.
Bigelow Aerospace reveals full scale model of BA330
As part of the CST-100 unveil Bigelow Aerospace also unveiled a full scale model of their BA-330 inflatable module which they aim to launch by 2016. Because the module is inflatable four of these modules would provide more space than currently available on the International Space Station and would require significantly less launches to complete.
NASA Selects new Flight Directors
This week NASA announced the selection of three new Flight Directors to lead Mission Control. The directors will manage the International Space Station (ISS) operations and are Amit Kshatriya, Jeffery Radigan and Zebulon Scoville.
British Astronaut Tim Peake launches meal competition
British Astronaut Tim Peake who will be launching to the International Space Station next year has launched a competition in the UK for school children to create a meal that will fly with him to the station.
The winner will work with Celebrity Chef Heston Blumenthal to develop the idea further.
Well after a four month break I am pleased to say the blog is back and will be updated regularly. The reason for the long hiatus was due to a busy Christmas session quickly followed by the birth of my third daughter Annabella in January.
Today’s post will focus on last weeks launch, capture and berthing of the SpaceX Dragon capsule on it’s CRS-3 mission, but first a little history on why this is important.
As most of you will probably remember on 21st July 2011 Shuttle Atlantis touched down for the final flight of the Shuttle program leaving the USA with no domestic ability to launch cargo or crew to the International Space Station. Today the picture has changed but the USA still has no domestic ability to reach the station with crew, however following the successful completion of the demonstration missions by SpaceX and Orbital under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program the USA does now have cargo capacity to and from the station. Before this week’s flight SpaceX has previously completed two missions under the Commercial Resupply Service Contract (CRS) known as SpX-1 and SpX-2, and Orbital have so far completed one known as Orbital-1.
With the introduction of the Dragon spacecraft the USA again has the ability to return significant amounts of cargo from the station, an ability unique to Dragon as the only other vehicle that can return to earth the Soyuz has limited cargo capacity being design primarily as a crew transport..
So why was this mission important? Since the last mission SpX-2 SpaceX have made a number of significant changes both to the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon spacecraft and despite several delays the launch this week was very successful.
Falcon 9 Upgrade
The Falcon 9 rocket for the first time flew with landing legs, these have been added to allow SpaceX to move a step closer to it’s goal of having a fully re-usable spacecraft in the future. The landing legs not only allow the craft to land they also provide stabilization during the decent. SpaceX has previously returned a first stage however during the final step the engines cut out before the roll rate was too high to allow the fuel to flow to the engines. As Elon Musk CEO and CTO of SpaceX states to the right they will continue to perform ocean landings with the first stage until they can proof full control of the first stage, at which point return to launch pad is the goal.
This is the fifth Dragon mission so far, the first two under the COTS program and the rest under the CRS program. From the outside this spacecraft looks similar to the previously launched spacecraft however it has undergone a number of significant upgrades including upgraded avionics, redesigned cargo racks to supply more power to cargo, additional freezers to carry more critical science payloads and the ability to provide power to un-pressurized cargo carried in the trunk section.
Originally scheduled for December 2013 the SpX-3 mission has been delayed a number of times due to various conflicts and changes. Once all of these conflicts and changes were resolved a new launch date was planned for April 14th, however that was aborted approximately one hour before liftoff due to a Helium leak on the Falcon 9. SpaceX resolved this and the launch was re-scheduled to Friday April 18th.
The weather forecast for the launch was only showing a 40% chance that they would be able to launch however SpaceX continued ahead with the countdown and were able to liftoff on time as the weather improved throughout the afternoon. Following the final pole of the mission team the spacecraft entered the final minutes of the count down and lifted off at precisely 19:25:22 UTC as expected.
The nine Merlin 1D engines roared to live lifting the rocket from the pad towards it’s LEO destination. Three minutes after liftoff the first stage had completed it’s initial task and separated to allow the second stage Merlin 1D Vacuum engine to take over and propel Dragon the rest of the way to orbit. Unlike all the other rockets in use today the first stage still had tasks to perform including a deceleration burn that slow it down enough to perform a controlled re-entry, after this the landing legs deploy and the spacecraft again fires it’s engines to allow a controlled decent.
Initial reports from Elon Musk indicate that the spacecraft successfully returned to the Atlantic ocean with almost 0 role rate.
Due to high sea’s in the landing area we are not currently sure how much if any of the first stage was actually recovered by the ships that were waiting nearby however this is a promising step towards lowering the cost of launching spacecraft.
Meanwhile in space the second stage completed it’s mission and nine minutes after launch the Dragon spacecraft was successfully deployed in orbit. Several minutes later we watched as the Solar Array’s successfully deployed and the spacecraft began it’s journey towards the International Space Station. During the press conference after the launch Elon Musk did state that they had an issue with one of the Dragon thrust chambers but that had since been resolved.
Eighteen hours after launch the spacecraft approached the ISS and was successfully captured and berthed to the station.
Below are a number of images I capture from the live stream provided by SpaceX during the launch, capture and berth of the Dragon.