SpaceX Mission Brings Success and Setbacks

by Lon Seidman | Oct 12, 2012 9:47pm
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Jay Patterson and Tony Land

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral, FL October 7, 2012

SpaceX successfully docked its Dragon cargo capsule with the International Space Station (ISS) Wednesday in its first official mission as a commercial cargo carrier for NASA, but a secondary goal of launching a communications satellite failed when an engine lost pressure and shut down during launch.

The satellite, owned by Orbcomm of Fort Lee, NJ was placed in the wrong orbit and burned up in the atmosphere several days after launch. The company says the satellite was a prototype for a constellation of similar satellites that will launch on SpaceX rockets beginning next year. Orbcomm said in a press release that a number of hardware components were successfully tested prior to the satellite’s demise.

The problem began when the Falcon 9’s computer shut down one of its nine engines after a sudden pressure loss one minute and 19 seconds into flight. Video of the event showed what looks like pieces of the rocket falling off. 

“Our review indicates that the fairing that protects the engine from aerodynamic loads ruptured due to the engine pressure release, and that none of Falcon 9’s other eight engines were impacted by this event,” SpaceX said in a statement.

Watch the launch:

The rocket’s flight computer automatically recalculated the rocket’s ascent plan and burned the remaining eight engines longer to make up for the loss of thrust from the dead engine. Following engine cutoff the Dragon, attached to the Falcon 9’s second stage, separated and continued its journey to the ISS.

SpaceX hoped to later reignite the first stage engines and carry the Orbcomm satellite to its desired orbit after the second stage was safely on its way. But NASA would only have allowed that maneuver if SpaceX could prove it had enough fuel to do so. This prearranged safety protocol was put in place to ensure the first stage would not find itself on a collision course with the station.  Because the launch burn consumed more fuel than anticipated due to the loss of the engine, those prearranged safety rules prevented the second burn from taking place and the satellite was deployed in a lower orbit.

Watch a time lapse of the rocket prepping for launch:

In a statement Friday, SpaceX announced it was forming a post-flight investigation board with NASA to determine the cause of the engine loss.

“SpaceX is committed to a comprehensive examination and analysis of all launch data, with the goal of understanding what happened and how to correct it prior to future flights,” the company said.

The October 7 launch was the first time SpaceX was able to get a rocket off the pad on a first attempt. The company’s first test flight to the station in May was scrubbed less than a second from launch after a pressure buildup in one of its engines. That problem was corrected and the mission successfully launched several days later.

Read more stories about SpaceX

Orbcomm announced in a press release that it will be filing an insurance claim for the lost satellite in the amount of $10 million. Orbcomm says the figure would “largely offset” the cost of the lost hardware and launch services. In a statement Orbcomm said that if their satellite had been the primary payload as future missions will be, they believe it would have been successfully deployed.

“We appreciate the complexity and work that SpaceX put into this launch,” said Marc Eisenberg, Orbcomm’s CEO, “SpaceX has been a supportive partner, and we are highly confident in their team and technology.”

SpaceX’s next launch will be in January for another station resupply flight.


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