Its been over three months since the loss of the SpaceX Commercial Resupply Services (CRS)-7 Dragon cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA, which appeared to have fallen victim to a failed helium tank strut, provided by an external supplier. Now the Hawthorne, CA-based company stands ready to resume launches of its heavily modified Falcon-9 rocket in as soon as “6-8 weeks”, and will do so for the Orbcomm OG-2 Mission-2.
The rocket will fly 11 satellites to orbit for Orbcomm, and will be followed soon after by launch of another Falcon-9 to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) with another satellite, SES-9, by the end of the year.
“As we prepare for return to flight, SpaceX together with its customers SES and Orbcomm have evaluated opportunities to optimize the readiness of the upcoming Falcon 9 return-to-flight mission,” says SpaceX in a statement released this afternoon. “All parties have mutually agreed that SpaceX will now fly the Orbcomm-2 mission on the return-to-flight Falcon 9.”
Launch of the SES-9 communications satellite, on behalf of the Luxembourg-headquartered SES, had been speculated for some time as SpaceX’s Return to Flight mission, but the company “switched” in order to conduct on-orbit testing of their now modified Falcon-9 upper stage.
“The Orbcomm-2 mission does not require a relight of the second stage engine following orbital insertion. Flying the Orbcomm-2 mission first will therefore allow SpaceX to conduct an on-orbit test of the second stage relight system after the Orbcomm-2 satellites have been safely deployed. This on-orbit test, combined with the current qualification program to be completed prior to launch, will further validate the second stage relight system and allow for optimization of the upcoming SES-9 mission and following missions to geosynchronous transfer orbit.”
Built by Sierra Nevada Corp., the original plan was to launch 18 OG-2 satellites, the first of which flew ‘piggyback’ on SpaceX’s first dedicated Dragon mission in October 2012. However, an upper-stage engine shortfall of the Falcon-9 v1.0 rocket caused the satellite to be injected into a low orbit of just 125 x 200 miles (200 x 320 km), instead of the intended 220 x 470 miles (350 x 750 km). As a result, the satellite re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and was destroyed.
SpaceX’s third Falcon-9 launch of 2014 flew the first six Orbcomm OG-2 satellites (OG-2 Mission-1), successfully delivering the 380 pound satellites into a circular 460 x 460 mile high orbit. Each satellite measures 42.7 feet (13 meters) x 3.3 feet (1 meter) x 1.6 feet (0.5 meters) when fully deployed, and each can generate about 400 watts of electrical power. 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.
“We are excited to launch our eleven OG2 satellites aboard SpaceX’s newly upgraded Falcon 9 rocket and have full confidence in SpaceX and their dedication to this launch,” said Marc Eisenberg, ORBCOMM’s Chief Executive Officer. “We look forward to completing the deployment of our next generation constellation and delivering a higher level of performance, coverage and reliability through our modernized and upgraded OG2 network to our customers around the world.”
The rocket itself has been upgraded in many ways. SpaceX refers to it as the “Falcon 9 v1.1 Full Thrust”, which is an internal code name for calculating the Merlin 1D engine output at 100 percent, and many of the modifications are outlined in a recent Falcon-9 update by AmericaSpace Senior Writer Ben Evans. Upgraded Merlin 1D+ engines, increased thrust performance, structural enhancements to the vehicle’s airframe, increases in propellant tank volumes, a lengthened second stage, upgraded landing legs and grid fins and an improved “Octaweb” support structure for the first-stage engine suite all compliment the “new” Falcon-9.
The Orbcomm OG Mission-2 flight will also give SpaceX another try at landing their rocket’s first stage on an offshore barge known as the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), part of the company’s efforts to turn the Falcon-9 into a truly reusable launch system. A series of “controlled oceanic touchdowns” in April, July, and September 2014 were followed with mixed fortune earlier this year, when two attempts were made to land on the ASDS. The first reached the deck, but impacted hard at a 45-degree angle and exploded, whilst the second landed with excessive lateral velocity and toppled over upon impact.
Stabilizing the 150-foot-tall rocket stage in flight, traveling at a velocity of 2,900 mph at separation, has been likened to someone balancing a rubber broomstick on their hand in the middle of a fierce wind storm.
VIDEO: SpaceX Falcon-9 Rocket Landing Attempt CRS-6
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk expects that the new improvements will allow Falcon-9 to soft-land even during high-energy launches to the 22,300-mile (35,900-km) altitude of GTO, where SES-9 will launch to. Previously, only comparatively low-energy launches to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) had seen soft-landing attempts, although SpaceX originally intended to bring the first stage from NASA’s L1-bound Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) back to the ASDS in February 2015, but was ultimately thwarted by rough seas.
When they do finally land a rocket successfully, it will be a history-making feat, a game-changer that many expect the company to accomplish sooner rather than later, including their main competitor United Launch Alliance (ULA). Never has a rocket made a controlled landing after a launch, and the expectation is that once the Falcon-9 is truly reusable it will drive down dramatically both the costs of access to space and turnaround time between launches.
In the meantime, SpaceX is building the actual landing site for their rockets, at the old Launch Complex-13 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, under a five-year lease agreement with the U.S. Air Force. Although instead of being called “Launch Complex-13,” it is now designated as “Landing Complex-1.” A primary concrete landing pad will be developed, surrounded by four smaller contingency landing pads for use in case a landing rocket is not quite on the bull’s eye.
The company is also planning similar operations at their west coast launch site at Vandenberg AFB, Calif. Another ASDS will serve as the company’s Vandenberg barge while SpaceX continues on the reusability development path to landing their rockets back on solid ground.
– Article authored by Mike Killian and Ben Evans.
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