After numerous delays, going back several months, Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) successfully launched their Falcon-9 v1.1 rocket on Monday, July 14. The rocket, flying its fifth mission, took to the skies from Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex-40 a little later than expected, at 11:15 a.m. instead of the first opening at 9:21 a.m., to give teams at the launch site time to resolve a potential ground systems issue.
Presented here is our photo gallery from our coverage of the launch, as well as a portion of our post-launch report, the full version of which can be read HERE.
At 11:02 a.m., with the clock at T-13 minutes, the standard poll of all 13 stations was conducted by the Launch Director, producing a unanimous “Green” (“Go for Launch”), and the Terminal Count got underway shortly afterward, at T-10 minutes. Now running on the autosequencer, the nine Merlin-1D engines were chilled down in order to provide pre-launch thermal conditioning. With all propellant tanks verified to be at their correct pressures, the launch pad’s “strongback” was completely retracted by T-4 minutes. The Flight Termination System (FTS)—tasked with destroying the vehicle in the event of a major accident during ascent—was placed onto internal power and armed. By T-2 minutes and 15 seconds, the first stage propellant tanks were verified to be at flight pressure. “Range Green” came the final call from Air Force Range personnel.
At T-1 minute, the flight computer was confirmed to be in control of the vehicle and the second-stage propellant tanks reached flight pressures. SLC-40’s “Niagara” deluge system began to flood the pad surface with 30,000 gallons (113,500 liters) of water per minute to suppress acoustic waves radiating from the Merlin-1D engine exhausts. At T-3 seconds, the nine Merlins roared perfectly to life, ramping up to their required parameters, and at 11:15:00 a.m. the third mission of the Falcon 9 v1.1 in 2014 (and its fifth flight overall) was at last airborne. At the instant of liftoff, the nine first-stage engines generated 1.3 million pounds (590,000 kg) of thrust, pushing the vehicle uphill for the first three minutes of the flight. Their propulsive yield gradually rose to 1.5 million pounds (680,000 kg) in the rarefied high atmosphere. “Unlike airplanes, a rocket’s thrust actually increases with altitude,”explained SpaceX. “Falcon 9 generates 1.3 million pounds of thrust at sea level, but gets up to 1.5 million pounds of thrust in the vacuum of space. The first-stage engines are gradually throttled near the end of first-stage flight to limit launch vehicle acceleration as the rocket’s mass decelerates with the burning of fuel.”
With around 1,970 seconds of test time and a lengthy qualification program, SpaceX has expressed supreme confidence in the Merlin-1D. During a full-duration-mission firing in June 2012 in McGregor, Texas, the engine operated at or above the power and duration required for a Falcon 9 launch. The Merlin-1D has a vacuum thrust-to-weight ratio in excess of 150:1, making it the most efficient liquid-fueled rocket engine in history. The ignition system for the v1.1′s first stage was tested in April 2013. The stage also includes four extendible landing legs, manufactured from carbon-fiber and aluminum honeycomb, to support a series of tests which SpaceX CEO Elon Musk hopes will lead to vertical-takeoff-vertical-landing (VTVL) capability by the latter half of the present decade.
Immediately after clearing the SLC-40 tower, the Falcon 9 v1.1 executed a combined pitch, roll, and yaw program maneuver to establish itself onto the proper flight azimuth for the injection of the six OG-2 satellites into low-Earth orbit. Eighty seconds into the ascent, the vehicle passed Mach 1 and experienced a period of maximum aerodynamic stress (known as “Max Q”) on its airframe. At 11:17:10 a.m., as planned, two of the nine Merlin-1D engines shut down to reduce the rate of acceleration, ahead of Main Engine Cutoff (MECO) and separation of the first stage. The remaining seven Merlin-1Ds continued to burn hot and hard, finally shutting down at 11:17:38 a.m., and the first stage was jettisoned about three seconds later. “Between the first and second stages is the ‘interstage’,” explained AmericaSpace’s Launch Tracker. “The interstage is a composite structure that connects the first and second stages and holds the release and separation system. The Falcon 9 uses an all-pneumatic stage separation system for low-shock, highly reliable separation.” With the first stage thus jettisoned, the turn then came for a single “burn” by the Falcon’s restartable second stage, which ignited for the first time at 11:17:49 a.m. Less than 30 seconds later, the protective payload fairing was discarded, exposing the OG-2 payload to the space environment for the first time. “At this height in the atmosphere,” noted the Tracker, “there is no threat of damage to the delicate satellites from the rushing air.”
The second stage’s single Merlin-1D Vacuum engine, with a maximum thrust of 180,000 pounds (81,600 kg), burned for almost seven minutes to deliver the payloads into orbit. It finally shut down at 11:24:35 a.m., less than 10 minutes after leaving Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
“All six OG2 satellites were successfully separated from the Falcon 9 launch vehicle into the proper insertion orbit,” said customer ORBCOMM via a statement on their website Mon. afternoon. “Thanks SpaceX and Moog! We’ll work with SNC to take it from here”
Each OG-2 satellite weighs 380 pounds (170 kg) and, when fully deployed, each will measure 42.7 feet (13 meters) x 3.3 feet (1 meter) x 1.6 feet (0.5 meters) and generate about 400 watts of electrical power.
In the aftermath of today’s launch of six OG-2 satellites, a further 11 are expected to fly aboard another Falcon 9 v1.1, although the target date has yet to be announced. Orbcomm announced in May 2008 that SNC would build a total of 18 satellites for a fee of $117 million, with an option for up to 30 others. A few weeks later, Orbcomm chose Argon ST, a subsidiary of Boeing, to develop advanced communications payloads to increase subscriber capacity by up to 12 times over earlier satellites, as well as transmitting data at higher speeds and quantities. Designed with Automatic Identification System (AIS), it is expected that the OG-2 network will be marketed by Orbcomm to U.S. and international coast guards and government agencies, as well as private security and logistics companies.
Monday’s successful OG2 launch will most certainly add credibility to SpaceX’s quest to earn the right to compete for awards of big-money government launch contracts, as just last week the Air Force certified the Falcon-9 v1.1 as having having met the mandatory three-flight prerequisite required by the Air Force for certification. SpaceX expects to successfully complete the certification requirements by the end of this year, which would pave the way for bidding against ULA for launch contract awards for high-priority government missions as soon as 2015.
AmericaSpace has reached out to SpaceX for comment on how the vertical soft-landing test with the Falcon-9 went, and we will update as the company makes that information available.
Written by AmericaSpace writers Ben Evans and Mike Killian.
BELOW: Photos from our coverage of the SpaceX ORBCOMM OG2 Mission 1 launch. All images are copyright 2014 Alan Walters Photography, all rights reserved.
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