The private rocket company SpaceX successfully launched the first of the Falcon 9 rockets. The rocket contained a dummy Dragon capsule, which can be used for cargo or human transport, but the next one is set to have a fully operational Dragon. SpaceX has a working and tested range of smaller Falcon 1 rockets and also intends to also produce a range of Falcon 9 Heavy lifters as part of its bid to take cargo and astronauts into space, acting as a taxi service for both the ISS and the Genesis inflatable habitats of the Bigelow Aerospace company, two prototypes (Genesis 1 and Genesis 2) of which have been in orbit for quite a while, having been brought through development faster than anticipated relative to the capacity to get people onboard them. Bigelow now intend to use SpaceX to launch Sundancer, the first operational outpost fit for habitation, in 2014. SpaceX now offers commercial launches through the Falcon 1e program and also has a series of test runs for the Dragon capsule to perform. These will include a Dragon in space to prove it can separate from Falcon 9, receive commands, send telemetry, perform tasks in space for five hours and then be recovered safely. A Dragon in space will then follow for a five day mission to fly within 10km of the International Space Station and then prove it has the same abilities to liaise with that as it does to deal with mission control on the ground, before returning to Earth and being safely recovered. The third Dragon in space is intended as a full ISS resupply mission, including docking to the station. All are pencilled in for this year.
But back to the launch of the first Falcon 9.
The launch window was set at anytime between 11am and 3pm EDT (4pm and 8pm BST). Weather was assessed as 40% likely to be good enough to launch with a thunderstorm threatening to undo that if time dragged on too long. The initial attempt at launch was called off as those working at the pad weren’t happy with the signal between mission control and the flight termination system (the thing that would destroy the rocket if it veered out of control). SpaceX were obliged to find a better antenna, which they did. Unfortunately, they were unable to find a second one to allow their webcast to come through cleanly. Just before the count resumed, an alert came through that a sailboat had strayed into the restricted area downrange of the launch. Air Force helicopters headed over to provide some incentive for the daytrippers to head elsewhere. In NASA offices, technicians had flashbacks to the test launch of the Ares rocket, which had a tanker stray into its range. Weather fronts that had threatened the range seemed to be dissipating as they approached. Once the Air Force had disposed of the sailboat, the countdown resumed. It went all the way down to the final second and then – aborted. An automatic abort triggered by a slightly out of kilter engine. This issue was resolved and the countdown again resumed. Finally, the Falcon 9 rocket flew, blasting off into orbit without too many further problems. There was a minor hitch as the rocket rolled a bit before shutdown. News came that orbital insertion had been achieved as planned. The first stage of the rocket collapsed when falling to the sea, which didn’t help plans to make it a reusable stage. Following the launch, it was revealed that an adjustment was made to the burning of the second stage, which altered the final orbit slightly. It was also confirmed that an unexpected rocking motion had happened when the second stage was alight. The next Falcon 9 rocket is ready for launch when required and its operational Dragon capsule is 99% ready.
A picture of the launch is here, SpaceX webcast and liveblogged it here and SpaceFlight Now did their own webcast along with live chat and launch blog here. Video, as seen by NASA and put on their Youtube Channel, is below:
Also set to launch by the end of the year, the Hylas telecommunications satellite aims to provide broadband internet and thirty standard television channels (or 15 high definition ones) to areas where traditional broadband doesn’t reach. The satellite has passed the latest round of prelaunch tests.