September 30, 2013
SpaceX Demonstrates Capabilities With New Falcon Rocket Launch
Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
After a two-week delay, SpaceX’s latest Falcon 9 rocket blasted off Sunday morning September 29 at 9:00 a.m. The launch, streamed on the company's Webcast, was originally scheduled for September 15 but was postponed due to issues that surfaced during a hot-fire engine test on September 12.
During a subsequent test, which the Falcon 9 passed, a green light was given for launch from the spaceflight company’s launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The launch was a success, with company founder Elon Musk tweeting on Sunday: “All satellites deployed at the targeted orbit insertion vectors.”
The new Falcon 9 rocket, which boasts a number of upgrades, including engines that are 50 to 60 percent more powerful than any previous design, carried Canada’s CASSIOPE research satellite into space, reaching orbit nine minutes later. The new option should now open new doors for SpaceX and its powerful suite of rockets to begin carrying more satellites into space for the private sector.
Along with Orbital Sciences Corp, which demonstrated its success with the launch and docking of its Cygnus resupply spacecraft with the International Space Station just five hours earlier, SpaceX is relying on the prospects of the privatization of the US space program.
"It shows private industry is motivated to succeed in space, when they get paid for results," said James Muncy, an industry consultant and former House staffer who is an advocate of privatizing many of NASA's core tasks, as cited by The Wall Street Journal. "The agency no longer can afford to do it the old way" and directly run all major initiatives.
NASA, under the direction of President Barack Obama, moved from a reliance on government dollars to the private sector some years ago, looking for large corporations to design, build and operate the next generation of space vehicles to reach low-earth orbit and beyond. But now that these companies -- mainly SpaceX and Orbital -- have demonstrated their capabilities, some challenges remain: such as building enough spacecraft and launching them quickly and reliably. NASA has already committed more than $3.5 billion on Orbital and SpaceX for cargo missions for the next several years.
Apart from NASA, SpaceX has also looked to the commercial sector, and now has a long list of customers waiting for Falcon to deliver their spacecraft to orbit.
With the new Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket a smart success, SpaceX aims to take away a large chunk of another space company’s business. Europe’s Arianespace has demonstrated its prowess in recent years in delivering spacecraft to low-earth orbit for the foreign market, a market SpaceX may delve into.
Sunday’s launch was a first for a number of areas. It was the first time the rocket had flown with a new payload fairing. The 42-foot-tall and 16-foot-wide clamshell covering is necessary to protect the payload from the aerodynamic forces that the rocket encounters during its ascent into space. It was also the first time SpaceX launched a rocket from VAFB. Prior to this launch, all Falcon rockets were launched at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
SpaceX said launching from the West Coast facility allows for a greater range of missions and also allows for its rockets to fly south over the ocean and away from land. This trajectory allows for the rocket to put satellites and other spacecraft into orbits favored by ground-based observation facilities.
"It was a great day and we accomplished all of our primary mission objectives,” Musk said about Sunday’s launch, as cited by the BBC. "We demonstrated a lot of new technologies successfully, including the Merlin 1D engine, the new stage-separation system, the much taller rocket which structurally performed very well, [and] the 17-ft diameter fairing, which separated successfully. Overall - really great."
As part of Sunday’s launch, SpaceX had also planned to demonstrate the ability to bring its Falcon rocket back down to earth in one piece. Three first-stage engines were commanded to reignite after initial orbit was reached. As the rocket segment descended back through the atmosphere, a fourth engine was ignited to slow the rocket down even more before hitting the water.
Musk told the BBC that the test went well, despite the segment losing stability moments before impact and nailing the water much harder than they had anticipated. He said the engine’s behavior was understood by engineers and they are sure it can be corrected in later launches.
"We've recovered portions of the stage. But the most important thing is we now believe we have all the pieces of the puzzle," said Musk
Musk added that his company plans an even more ambitious landing next year, bringing the rocket segment back to a terrestrial landing.
As for the main payload in Sunday’s launch, CASSIOPE, everything went as planned. The Canadian Space Agency’s small, six-foot-long satellite harbored a payload with two separate functions. It included a scientific payload, dubbed e-POP, as well as a commercial satellite called Cascade.
CASSIOPE will use e-POP’s instruments to investigate space storms in the upper atmosphere, as well as “to attempt to establish its influence upon radio transmissions and global positioning satellite technology,” according to Las Vegas Guardian Express.
“Specifically, it is hoped that CASSIOPE will provide researchers with a better understanding of how solar particles impact our planet’s atmosphere, during space weather events. These storms are responsible for giving rise to polar aurora, which are capable of interfering with a number of space-based systems and communication devices,” wrote GuardianLV's James Fenner.
The commercial payload, Cascade, is meant to act as a digital broadband courier service. It will be used to securely store and transfer large amounts of data around the world. Also, oil and gas exploration companies may be able to take advantage of Cascade’s secure two-way transfer method.
Three other payloads were also delivered to orbit on the Falcon rocket: CUSat, DANDE (Drag and Atmosphere Neutral Density Explorer) and POPACS (Polar Orbiting Passive Atmospheric Calibration Spheres).
Now that SpaceX has demonstrated the successfulness of its Falcon 9 v1.1, the first private sector customer – SES World Skies -- is set to take advantage of the rocket’s capabilities. The private company plans to launch a SES-8 telecommunications satellite, which needs to be put into a nearly 22,000-foot orbit over the Asia Pacific region.