SpaceX CRS-10 launches

This morning SpaceX made history once again as it made its first launch from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center. The pad that had previously been used by NASA for Apollo and Space Shuttle launches has been refurbished by SpaceX over the last couple of years.

Designed to support the launch of Falcon Heavy, National Security Payloads and Crewed Missions 39A was called into duty following the September, 1st 2016 accident that resulted in the loss of LC-40 at neighboring Cape Canaveral.

The launch was originally scheduled to lift off yesterday but during to a 2nd Stage Thrust Vector issue they decided to scrub to allow time to investigate further.  The issue was resolved overnight and the countdown proceeded this morning to a 9:38 am EST launch when the nine merlin engines roared to life to propel the rocket to orbit.  Following completion of the first stage burn, the booster returned to Landing Zone 1 (LZ1) and landed making this the third time SpaceX has returned to LZ1.

SpaceX ready for resumption of Falcon 9 launches

Following a four month investigation into the September 1st anomaly that resulted in the lose of a Falcon 9 rocket with it’s payload the Spacecom Amos 6 satellite and significant damage to Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral, Florida. SpaceX announced this week that they have completed the investigate (see report here) and are ready to return to flight operations started on Sunday 8th January with the first of seven launches for Iridium.

SpaceX are able to resume flight operations without having to make design changes to the rocket by changing their propellant loading operation to avoid the scenario that most likely caused the anomaly.  They have indicated that longer term they will make design changes to the COPV tanks to resolve the issue which will allow them to resume faster loading operations.

The flight of the Falcon 9 with ten Iridium Next satellites is currently scheduled for 10:28:97 PST on Sunday 8th January from Space Launch Complex 4E in Vandenberg, CA.  However this is still subject to the results of the Static Fire test scheduled for Tuesday 3rd and flight readiness review.

 

SpaceX achieve another important milestone

While driving to work this morning I heard how SpaceX suffered another setback yesterday due to the destruction of the first stage after it landed.

It seems to me that people are focusing on the wrong thing here, yes the end result of the EXPERIMENTAL LANDING was a failure because they were not able to recover the first stage.

First Stage approaching Drone Ship
First Stage approaching Drone Ship

However SpaceX did achieve an important milestone yesterday, they were able to land the first stage on the Drone Ship which was floating in the pacific ocean, this in itself is an amazing achievement and further proves that they are moving in the right direction.

The reason the first stage was lost was due to the failure of one of the landing legs to log into place correct, as explained by Elon Musk himself.

I have no doubt that SpaceX will determine what changes are needed to the landing leg system to ensure that that the failure can’t happen again.

So in summary yes another destroyed first stage but also further progress in recovering them.

When will Falcon 9 Return to Flight

It has been 9 weeks since the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch failure, and with the exception of one update from Elon Musk on 20th July we have not heard anything further on the return to flight of the Falcon 9.

The initial investigation found that a strut in the second stage oxygen tank failed at 1/5 the load it was designed to withstand resulting in the helium bottle used to pressurize the tank dislodging and catastrophically damaging the tank, this lead to the explosion and failure of the mission.  During the announcement into the failure it became clear that this part had not been tested internally by SpaceX before the accident, subsequent tests showed that other samples of the strut also failed below their designed limits.

It became clear very quickly after the accident that Dragon had survived the initial explosion and was seen flying away from the exploding rocket.  This was confirmed by Elon and they continued to receive telemetry from Dragon until if dropped beyond the horizon.  Unfortunately the vehicle was lost when it crashed into the ocean.

During the initial report Elon announced several changes that would be coming for future flights which are expected to resume in September.

  1. SpaceX will no longer use these particular structs within the vehicle – It is our understanding that this part is useful throughout the vehicle so this change itself will be quite significant, as they already have cores built we also don’t know how much work it will be to modify those.
  2. SpaceX will implement additional hardware quality audits throughout the vehicle – This will add additional time to the build process and therefore additional cost, some of which may be passed on to customers, although Elon indicated that may not be the case.
  3. SpaceX will update the Dragon software to allow deployment on chutes in case of future failures – Elon indicated that this this was just a software change, if so that would be a relatively easy change as deployment is already build in for return.

So the question now is when will the flights resume and what will be the first payload to be flown?

Update: We have seen several comments that indicate that RTF could be November or even end of year.  With no news from SpaceX it is hard to dispute or verify these statements.  For now we are sticking with a September RTF pending further official information from SpaceX.

Update 8/31: It would appear from comments by SpaceX’s Gwynne Shotwell that RTF is still a couple of months away (see tweets below)

Shotwell also announced that RTF will also be the first flight of the more powerful Merlin engines

Update 9/1: Further news today regarding SpaceX missions later this year, the CRS-8 mission to ISS is now scheduled to fly 9/15 according to the post below. The mission will still carry the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module in the trunk.

SpaceX releases preliminary data on 6/28 Falcon 9 failure

More than three weeks ago during the launch of the Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station the Falcon 9 second stage suffered an anomaly that resulted in the lost of the spacecraft and its payloads.

Today Elon Musk announced that the preliminary investigation into the accident indicates that a strut inside the Liquid Oxygen (LOX) tank on the 2nd stage failed causing the liquid helium bottle to dislodge and hit the top of the LOX tank causing the explosion.  Elon stressed multiple times during the call that this is a preliminary result so far.

 

SpaceX have tested 1000s of the struts since the accident and have found a number of failures below rated value, including one that failed below 2,000 lbs.

During the call Elon admitted that SpaceX did not perform Quality Control on the strut that failed and instead relied in the part meeting the specification as provided by the supplier.  They will be revising their processes to ensure all parts of the rocket are fully QCed for future flights.  While this will increase SpaceX costs during construction of the rocket they didn’t expect it to have much if any of an impact on the cost of the rocket.

Elon also announced that Dragon V1 didn’t have the ability to deploy the chutes in case of an emergency during ascent, the next flight will have the ability should it be needed which would have most likely have resulted in pressurized cargo being saved. They expect to delay flights until September but at present don’t know who will be the first flight manifest will most likely change.  Again because this is preliminary so may change should another cause become obvious.

Elon also announced that due to the investigation the flight of Falcon Heavy will most likely be delayed until April 2016.  

Elon also admitted that most of the people who now work for SpaceX have never seen a failure due to all the successful launches in the last seven years.  This had caused most of them to become complacent about the difficulty of launching rockets.  They have now learned the hard way just what is involved. 

Leading theories for SpaceX CRS-7 mishap

2015-06-28_102410It has been two days since the Falcon 9 carrying the CRS-7 Dragon exploded and there are currently two leading THEORIES on what happened.

As we have yet to hear an official reason from SpaceX these are just PURE SPECULATION at this point.

1) The International Docking Adapter or a part of it came lose during the flight and impacted with the top of the 2nd Stage. This caused damage to the 2nd stage that resulted in the explosion.

2) The Liquid Oxygen tank ruptured causing the explosion, either due to a manufacturing issue or because of a leak in the Helium Pressure system which caused too much pressure to build in the tank.

At this point it is impossible to say if these are even close to the truth and until we hear officially from SpaceX the speculation will continue to grow.

Now comes SpaceX’s true test

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.

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

SpaceX loses CRS-7 mission to ISS

CRS7-logoThis 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

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SpaceX Landing Attempt

For the second time SpaceX attempted to land a Falcon 9 first stage on the Autonomous spaceport drone ship (ASDS) named “Just Read the Instructions”.

For this attempt the rocket got very close but didn’t survive the attempt, the first time the rocket tipped over just before landing causing it to fall over the side. According to early information from Elon Musk today the second attempt was closer, it is believed the rocket did actually land but then tipped over. We will know more once the ASDS arrives back in port.

Today I wanted to look closer at what SpaceX has already achieved with these attempts and previous soft landings and what this means for the future attempts back to land.

Lets consider what the first stage was doing just minutes before it attempted to land. From liftoff the 141 foot tall stage accelerated to 3.4 kilometers per second before detaching from the second stage. It then turned around, and fired its engines to return back to the ASDS, after the boost back it then had to turn around again for re-entry through the atmosphere. During the re-entry the engines are fired again to control the speed of descent to minimize heating. The legs and fins were then deployed and the engines fired again to bring it down towards the ASDS.

Precision Landing – While the rockets didn’t survive either attempt, the fact that they were that close to the ASDS in itself is a big achievement.

Learning lessons – With each attempt they are getting more and more data to help them perfect the process. They will analyze the data from this attempt and from that see what changes are needed before trying again.

Moving closer to Dragon 2 landings – The initial version of Dragon 2 will be using parachute landings on water the long term goal is to use propulsive landings. While the Dragon 2 will have different engines and is a smaller vehicle SpaceX will learn the right amount of fuel etc to be able to safely land.

As the vine below shows SpaceX were very close yesterday and it looks very possible that they will have at least one successful landing this year if not more.  The more flights they have the more attempts they can make.

Will ULA’s Vulcan bring down SpaceX

Almost as soon as United Launch Alliance’s Tory Bruno announced the new Vulcan rocket system did articles start to appear stating that it “would bring down SpaceX”.   One from CNN also incorrectly stated that SpaceX aborted the landing of the first stage yesterday.

While that may be the goal of ULA it is way too soon to be making such bold statements.

First as stated yesterday the upgrades will be rolled out in multiple steps starting in 2019 assuming that everything goes as planned with Blue Origin’s development of the BE-4 engine.  Even then ULA will have to demonstrate that the rocket is as reliable as there current Atlas V or Delta IV before they can move the government launches to the platform, in previous statements Tory himself said certification could take several years.  That doesn’t take into account any re-certification that may be needed when the new upper stage is rolled out.

Second their re-usability plan is for the engines only which will be captured in mid-air and then lowered to a barge and returned to base.  While this has been done before it still relies on the weather co-operating and the time needed to return the engines to the factory/hanger for inspection, re-firing and re-integration with another first stage core.   At present SpaceX have the same challenges with the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) system, but longer term returning to the launch site looks to be more beneficial, only time will tell on that.

Third four-six years is a long time and SpaceX will have plenty of time to improve their offerings, both in relation to payload capacity with Falcon Heavy and on-time launch something they have struggled with so far.

So will Vulcan bring down SpaceX?  It seems very unlikely that on its own the new rocket system will bring them down, it will all depend on how SpaceX performed before Vulcan comes online and how they adapt to the competition that it will bring.