Moon descends, Falcon rises: SpaceX lofts Dragon, fails to land booster on ship
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — After several delays pushed back the launch of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) fifth commercial resupply mission, the company’s Falcon 9 rocket lofted its Dragon cargo capsule into orbit , and on its way to rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS). This marks the first launch of 2015. Dragon is set to rendezvous with the space station on Jan. 12 at 6:12 a.m. EST (1112 GMT).
A Falcon 9 v1.1 roared to life, lifting off of Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at 4:47 a.m. (0947 GMT). The local weather cooperated beautifully, for the early Saturday morning launch, and at T-13 minutes, a final flight readiness poll was conducted and the official “GO” was given for launch. Three seconds prior to liftoff, the nine Merlin 1D engines, arranged in the Octaweb configuration, came to life. Between then and T-0, the flight computer assured all systems were nominal before the Falcon thundered into the sky above.
“It was an absolutely picture-perfect, flawless launch at 4:47 a.m. this morning. An on-time liftoff of the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon capsule and now all the critical experiments and payload that we need at the station – is on its way,” said NASA’s Michael Curie.
SpaceX aims to make its Falcon’s reusable, eventually landing the first stage on solid ground, where it can be recovered, refurbished and reflown on a subsequent mission. A previous commercial resupply mission (CRS-3) saw the addition of landing legs on the Falcon. SpaceX officials predicted the success of this first stage landing attempt at 50/50.
Despite all the barge hype, the company’s main objective for this mission is to ensure the crew supplies, research experiments, and hardware arrive to the International Space Station (ISS) safely. Following a catastrophic explosion of an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket in Oct., SpaceX was not taking any chances with the cargo and this mission.
SpaceX officials stated in a pre-launch press conference, “Our primary mission is to deliver the cargo to the space station safely. The first stage landing is a bonus experiment. It’s something no one else has tried before. We think it has a 50 percent chance of success.”
Approximately three minutes after launch, the second stage separated and ignited its own engine to continue to propel the Dragon into space. At this time, the first stage, having retained some fuel after the initial ascent boost, reignited and carried out a series of maneuvers designed to put it on target with a 300-foot-long, 170-foot-wide (91-by-52-meter) “autonomous spaceport drone ship” in the Atlantic Ocean.
SpaceX previously tested aspects of this experiment in other missions, including splashdowns in the ocean; however, this is the first time the company has attempted to land the first stage booster and return it to shore. In order to help facilitate this experiment, the Falcon is equipped with four hypersonic stabilizing grid fins and is outfitted with landing legs.
Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX mission assurance vice president, said “This is the first test in a series of tests that will ultimately lead to a fully reusable Falcon first stage. We may not know right away if the test was successful, as there could be some delays.”
Following the launch, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted status updates on the outcome of the attempted first stage landing.
Rocket made it to drone spaceport ship, but landed hard. Close, but no cigar this time. Bodes well for the future tho.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) 10 Janvier 2015
Ship itself is fine. Some of the support equipment on the deck will need to be replaced… — Elon Musk (@elonmusk) 10 Janvier 2015
Didn’t get good landing/impact video. Pitch dark and foggy. Will piece it together from telemetry and … actual pieces.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) 10 Janvier 2015
Twenty eight hours prior to liftoff, the Dragon spacecraft was powered up. At T-10 hours, the Falcon was turned on and fueling began seven hours later at the T-3 hour mark. Just under 30 minutes after the RP-1 propellant had been loaded into the vehicle, crews began to add the liquid oxygen.
At T-10 minutes, the terminal phase of the countdown began, with the Strongback rollback occurring at T-4 minutes and forty seconds. The strongback is used to keep the rocket erect on the pad as well as house umbilical supports during countdown.
Falcon is equipped with a Flight Termination System (FTS), that will destroy the rocket in the case of an anomaly. The FTS was switched to internal power at just under T-4 minutes, and was fully armed a minute later.
At this stage in the countdown, the launch director and range control officer gave the all clear to launch, with two minutes remaining before liftoff. It was at this point in the count when the previous launch attempt was scrubbed.
The reason for the scrub was determined to be actuator drift on the upper stage’s thrust vector control system. The TVC system was replaced prior to this morning’s launch. Three seconds before launch, the Falcon’s nine Merlin-1D engines roared to life and the rocketed lifted off the pad a few moments later.
Roughly one minute and 10 seconds into the flight, Falcon reached supersonic speeds. 13 seconds later, the rocket was travelling through an area called of maximum dynamic pressure or “max-Q”. This region is where the rocket experiences the great amount of pressure due to Falcon’s speed and atmospheric pressures.
At the 2.5-minute mark, the first stage engines are shut down, this is known as main engine cutoff or “MECO”. During this point in the flight, Falcon was travelling at speeds around ten times the speed of sound (Mach 10) and at an altitude of approximately 50 miles (80 kilometers). Following MECO, the first stage separated, making its way to the Atlantic in hopes of achieving the first ever barge landing.
Following stage separation, Falcon’s second stage activated its single Merlin vacuum engine, commencing a six-minute burn, and placing Dragon into low-Earth orbit. Dragon separated from the Falcon 9’s second stage approximately 10 minutes and 15 seconds after launch, and its solar arrays were deployed a few minutes later. SpaceX representatives said Dragon is in good shape, and was set to commence a series of burns over the next two days in order to be in good shape for Monday’s planned rendezvous with the orbiting laboratory.
In light of the Antares explosion, crews loaded this Dragon capsule with more scientific research investigations and supplies than any previous Dragon. Every crack and crevice was utilized. In total Dragon will carry 1,272 pounds (577 kilograms) of scientific research and hardware within the capsule, and 1,089 pounds (494 kilograms) of external payloads. This brings the total cargo Dragon is carrying to the space station, to over 5,200 pounds (2,350 kg) of supplies, experiments, and provisions. The Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS) will travel in Dragon’s unpressurized trunk section. Once unpacked, CATS will be attached to the exterior of the Japanese Experiment Module.
CATS is the fourth earth science mission in the past 11 months and the 2nd exterior payload to be transported by Dragon. With the current configuration of the ISS, there are a total of 20 slots available for external payloads. By the year 2018, NASA expects to have the majority filled, leaving only 1-2 open. One advantage CATS has to traditional orbiting satellites is an orbit of only 248 miles (400 kilometers), compared to 497 miles (800 kilometers).
Another promising experiment making its way to the space station is out of Florida Tech and is called SABOL. This fully-autonomous and student designed experiment focuses on protein fiber formation, growth processes, and the relationship between protein fiber formation and neurodegenerative diseases. There is a process where tau-proteins self-assemble into long thin fibers. The resulting long protein fibers can form a gel that slows or even stops the nerve signals in the brain. In SABOL these fibers are formed in an acidic buffer solution.
Also on this flight are a number of experiments involving model organisms such as the common fruit fly, officially known as Drosophila memanogaster. Fruit flies have been used in research for decades and we can learn a lot about how human cells and systems react based on data from fruit fly research. Model organisms are studied because how they react to different factors will provide data about how other species will react to those same factors. Approximately 77 percent of disease genes that affect humans have analogs in the fruit fly genome.
An new biological study will feature another model organism — the flatworm. With this experiment, researchers will be able to study how tissue regeneration is affected by gravity, as well as how damaged organs and nerves can repair themselves in a microgravity environment. Flatworms are capable of cellular regeneration; replacing cells after they are injured or as they age. This experiment will be able to [hopefully] identify the signaling mechanisms the flatworms use during their regeneration processes, enabling scientists to have new insight into how wounds heal in microgravity.
Another investigation, Micro-5, will explore how infections work in space. Through this research, scientists hope to better understand the risks associated with in-flight infections and long-duration spaceflight. Another model organism, Caenorhabditis elegans (roundworm) will be used to study the interaction between the host (the worm) and bacteria (samonella). The microbe Salmonella typhimurium is known to cause food poisoning in humans and has been shown in previous experiments to be more virulent in space.
NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore will employ the station’s Canadian-built robotic arm, Canadarm2, to grapple Dragon, with the help of European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, after it completes a laser-guided approach on Monday Jan. 12. Dragon will then be berthed to the station’s Harmony module.
NASA administrator, Charlie Bolden, issued a statement following his viewing of the launch. “We are delighted to kick off 2015 with our first commercial cargo launch of the year. ”
He went on to say, “Thanks to our private sector partners, we’ve returned space station resupply launches to U.S. soil and are poised to do the same with the transport of our astronauts in the very near future. Today’s launch not only resupplies the station, but also delivers important science experiments and increases the station’s unique capabilities as a platform for Earth science with delivery of the Cloud-Aerosol Transport System, or CATS instrument. I congratulate the SpaceX and NASA teams who have made today’s success possible. We look forward to extending our efforts in commercial space to include commercial crew by 2017 and to more significant milestones this year on our journey to Mars.”
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