UPDATE: No SpaceX Falcon 9 launches until April
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — Reports appearing on NASASpaceFlight, Twitter, and elsewhere have noted that SpaceX has discovered issues revolving around the helium tank used for pressurization in both the first and second stages of the Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket, which has been tapped to ferry the TürkmenÄlem communications satellite aloft. Some reports suggest the TürkmenÄlem booster was the one with the faulty helium bottles, others have stated that it was an issue discovered in a booster back at the company’s production facility.
As was reported in the Waco Tribune, SpaceX President and CEO Gwynne Shotwell announced the delay of the TürkmenÄlem mission during the Satellite 2015 conference held in Washington D.C. on Tuesday, March 17. During that meeting, Shotwell announced that a new, “enhanced” version of the Falcon 9 was being developed by the company.
The upgrades could provide as much a 20 percent increased capacity. These efforts should be able to aid the company in its efforts to have the first stage of the Falcon 9 conduct a landing near the launch site at Cape Canaveral.
SpaceX had a number of launches scheduled to take place this month, including the pad abort test of the firm’s Dragon spacecraft. This critical step to having crews use the Falcon 9 / Dragon has also been pushed back to April at the earliest.
The static test-fire is the last step on the road to launch. The Waco Tribune’s article noted that the leak was discovered during the lead up to the firing. A number of SpaceX missions have seen their launch dates slip when it comes time for the static test-fire. As this is the last milestone before flight, one that walks the Falcon 9 through everything except lifting off, engineers tend to discover issues either prior to or during this test.
Different numbers in terms of the amount of launches that SpaceX has planned for this year have been noted, with amounts as high as 17 and as low as 13 being announced. It is unclear what impact this issue with the helium bottles will have on what could be a banner year for SpaceX. The company is not only planning on conducting various abort tests for their Dragon spacecraft, but they are also looking at carrying out the first flight of the heavy version of the Falcon 9 in the fourth quarter of this year as well.
SpaceX responded to SpaceFlight Insider’s request for further details and provided the following information to help clarify the situation.
“There were no specific issues with the helium bottles on the Thales vehicle or at the factory. However, during stress testing helium bottles of a similar lot, we identified a potential condition that could be shared with those on board the Thales vehicle. While it’s unlikely that the flight helium bottles would have encountered an issue during the mission, out of an abundance of caution, we have opted to replace a few of the flight bottles. With the time required to make the change along with Range availability, our target date for the Thales mission is now April 24,” said SpaceX’s John Taylor.
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.