Christmas comes early for SpaceX! Falcon 9 returns to flight with Orbcomm OG2 mission
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) got an early Christmas present of sorts at 8:29 EST, Dec 21 (01:29 GMT, Dec. 22), when the firm’s “Full Thrust” Falcon 9 (v1.2) lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 30 in Florida. The holiday surprises did not end there, however.
Tonight’s flight saw 11 Orbcomm OG2 satellites take to the skies on what should be the final Cape flight of the year.
This mission marked a critical “Return to Flight” for the Falcon 9. When the last Falcon 9 v1.1 was launched, it was lost two minutes and 19 seconds into flight when a strut in the rocket’s second stage failed, resulting in a helium tank breaking free and causing the rocket to encounter an “over-pressure” event (the rocket exploded). That mission was launched on June 28, 2015.
For this flight, the launch team went from having a three-hour launch window on the Dec. 19, a one minute window on Dec. 20, to one lasting five minutes tonight. The changing and dynamic situation provided a window into what is required to conduct a launch and potential landing for the F9 booster. The fact that such a historic event was accomplished through adversity was noted by local members of the space community.
“Today clearly placed the exclamation mark on 2015, by closing out another successful year for the Eastern Range in historic fashion,” said Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, 45th Space Wing commander and launch decision authority. “This launch and flyback speaks volumes to the hard work this team puts in every single day driving innovation and success. This was a first for us at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and I can’t even begin to describe the excitement the team feels right now having been a part of this historic first-stage rocket landing.”
Perhaps of most interest to long-term SpaceX supporters is the fact that the primary mission of launching ORBCOMM’s fleet of commercial communications satellites was just the tip of the iceberg.
SpaceX CEO and Founder Elon Musk noted that he was planning shortly after tonight’s landing that he was about to head out to LZ-1 and that the mission appeared to have been “perfect”.
“All of the satellites were deployed almost dead center, perfect,” Musk said. “We could not have asked for a better mission or a better day.”
SpaceX had been attempting to have the first stage of the Falcon 9 conduct a controlled landing at sea, either on the water itself or via the company’s Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ships. SpaceX is not one to rest on its past accomplishments and decided to up the ante for this mission – they would shoot to land the first stage at what has been renamed “Landing Zone-1”.
Formerly known under the somewhat unlucky moniker of Space Launch Complex 13, the site was last used almost 40 years ago as a U.S. Air Force rocket and missile test range.
The mission had been tentatively slated to get underway on Dec. 19, but the static test fire took longer than anticipated to complete, pushing the launch to Dec. 20. That date also slipped when, as Musk put it: “Just reviewed mission params w SpaceX team. Monte Carlo runs show tmrw night has a 10% higher chance of a good landing. Punting 24 hrs.”
ORBCOMM is a global provider of what is referred to as “Machine-to-Machine (M2M) communications and Internet of Things (IoT) solutions”.
If everything works as Orbcomm has planned, the 11 Sierra Nevada Corporation-produced satellites should have been deployed some 20 minutes after the Falcon 9 booster left the pad at SLC-40. Once there, they will make up the final part of a 17-satellite constellation.
Each of these spacecraft should provide twelve times the level of access to data and up to twice the rate of transmission of the current OG1 fleet already on orbit. As was noted by SpaceX, each of the satellites, should, essentially, be equivalent to six OG1 satellites.
While tonight’s flight began with a flicker of light and a familiar roar from SLC-40 at 8:29 p.m., the launch really got underway more than a half hour earlier.
At 34 minutes prior to launch, the Launch Conductor carried out the launch readiness poll, signally the start of the night’s activities.
Four minutes later, RP-1 (rocket grade kerosene) and liquid oxygen (LOX) began loading into the Falcon 9. Some 20 minutes later, the rocket entered a chill phase in preparation for launch.
The Range Safety Officer announced that the range was cleared to support the launch just two minutes prior to the scheduled liftoff. Thirty seconds later, SpaceX’s Launch Director indicated that the mission was cleared to proceed.
At just one second prior to the opening of the launch window, the Flight Control Computer began final pre-flight checks.
Meanwhile, at the same time, the propellant tanks were pressurized. Within milliseconds, the computer ordered the nine Merlin 1D rocket engines – arranged in their “Octaweb” configuration – to ignite.
At 8:29 p.m., more than six months since SpaceX last launched, a new Falcon 9 took to the skies. The booster climbed up through the nighttime skies on a graceful, yet loud, arc.
Roughly one minute into the flight and the Falcon 9 and its payload entered into the region of the atmosphere known as maximum dynamic pressure, or, more commonly referred to as “max-Q”.
Main Engine Cutoff (MECO) and first stage shutdown took place some two minutes and 20 seconds after the rocket had left the pad. The Falcon 9 is a two-stage rocket, and the first stage separated from the remainder of the launch vehicle about 4 seconds after MECO took place.
Eleven seconds after staging had occurred, the second stage’s engine came alive, leaving the first stage to carry out its own historic journey.
About four minutes after the Falcon 9 rocket had lifted off the pad, the rocket’s first stage began its boost-back burn with the first stage re-entry burn taking place about four minutes later.
Meanwhile, at about ten minutes into the mission, the second stage’s engine cutoff (SECO) occurred.
When all was said and done, some ten minutes after the “Full Thrust” Falcon 9 rocket had lifted off from the Cape, the booster’s first stage landed at LZ-1. In so doing, it assured itself and SpaceX a place in space flight history.
Although somewhat forgotten in the fact that tonight’s mission marked the RTF for the F9 and that a ground landing was to be attempted – the primary objective of this mission continued.
About 12 minutes after launch, the Falcon 9’s payload fairing, which had shielded the Orbcomm satellites after launch, was jettisoned, exposing the spacecraft to the harsh environment of space for the first time. The satellites themselves began deploying at about 15 minutes into the mission, with the process concluding some five minutes later.
The satellites began deploying their solar arrays just 26 minutes after they had been launched and with just a half hour after the mission had gotten underway, all of the spacecraft had deployed their arrays and were transmitting – marking a successful end to the mission.
The NewSpace firm’s Falcon 9 is now the first rocket to carrying out an orbital satellite delivery mission – and then have its first stage land safely back near the launch site.
According to Musk, the first stage will now be transported to Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. It likely will not be used on upcoming flights.
When SpaceX demonstrates that it can duplicate this capability and employ it on a routine basis – the space industry will be drastically changed. Whereas, in the past, most launch vehicles were single use and the expensive engines that allowed them to hurl payloads to orbit ended up either at the bottom of an ocean or shattered upon the landscape – the Falcon 9’s first stage components should be able to be refurbished and prepped for future flights. This should have the much-desired effect of drastically lowering the cost of sending spacecraft and payloads to orbit.
The evening’s historic events were noted by fellow reusable rocket entrepreneur and billionaire Jeff Bezos who tweeted: “Congrats
@SpaceX on landing Falcon’s suborbital booster stage. Welcome to the club!”
Whereas Bezos’ New Shepard rocket successfully traveled to the edge of space on Nov. 24, tonight’s flight of the Falcon actually delivered a payload to orbit – before returning to the Cape.
Musk noted that each Falcon 9 cost about $60 million to build and an additional $200,000 to fuel – the price of the former is likely to drop as it now appears that each first stage can be reused to some degree.
The billionaire stated at a post-landing teleconference that he believed the landing only had about a 60–70 percent chance of success – and also that the sonic booms, a long-missed sound along the Cape since the end of the shuttle era, were the sound of failure. Musk and many in the area quickly changed that notion as a new sound hit their ears – the sounds of roaring cheers and thunderous applause.
Video Courtesy of SpaceX
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.