On Dec. 21, six months after its 19th mission exploded offshore of Cape Canaveral, Fla., SpaceX’s new and improved “Full Thrust” Falcon-9 booster successfully launched 11 Orbcomm Generation-2 (OG-2) communications satellites into low-Earth orbit. The company made their “Return to Flight” triumphantly, not only because they pulled off the primary objective flawlessly, delivering Orbcomm’s satellites, but because they also landed the rocket’s first stage booster back at Cape Canaveral 10 minutes later. To add icing on the cake, not only did the booster hit its mark inside Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1), it did so almost dead center where X marked the bulls-eye on a roughly 200 foot by 200 foot concrete landing pad.
Activities commenced immediately upon landing so workers could safely access their historic vehicle. The LOX oxidizer system was purged, and any excess fuel was drained. Any remaining pressurants (i.e., helium or nitrogen) were vented, and any Flight Termination System (FTS) explosives had to be rendered “inert” prior to declaring the vehicle safe. Falcon-9 was then lifted and placed on to a stand, followed by the landing legs being removed before workers lowered the booster into a horizontal position, placed it on a transport vehicle, and took it to nearby Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center over this past weekend.
At a press event at 39A on Dec. 1, a NASA spokesperson from the agency’s Commercial Crew Program noted SpaceX plans to test the landed Falcon booster at 39A in preparation for upcoming launches from there with other Falcon-9’s and the company’s highly anticipated Falcon Heavy (which is expected to make its inaugural launch in 2016).
“The returned first stage will be the test article here (39A), and it will go into the hangar where they (SpaceX) will do a little refurbishment,” said NASA. “They will actually put it on the transporter erector and roll it out to the pad to do fluid checks, electrical checks and propellant loading with that test article.”
At a press conference call shortly after the successful landing, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk shed more light on upcoming plans for the booster.
“The plan is to do a static fire on the launch pad there to confirm that all systems are good and that we’re able to do a full-thrust hold-down firing of the rocket,” said Musk. “And then I think we’ll probably keep this one on the ground because it’s quite unique, it’s the first one we brought back. So I think we’ll probably keep this one on the ground and just confirm through tests that it could fly again and then put it somewhere to display, because it’s quite unique.”
Other history-making SpaceX vehicles, such as their first Dragon cargo ship to successfully launch into orbit and return back to Earth, have been kept for public display at SpaceX, so it is safe to assume they will do the same with the Orbcomm OG-2 booster now sitting in the hangar at 39A, rather than donating it to a museum.
“I think we’ll end up re-flying one of the subsequent boosters,” added Musk. “We have quite a big flight manifest and should be doing well over a dozen flights next year. I think sometime next year we would aim to refly one the rocket boosters.”
That flight manifest is expected to kick off first with launch of the Jason-3 satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB), Calif., for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA, and France as soon as Jan. 17, 2016. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that the Falcon-9 for Jason-3 is not the new upgraded “Full Thrust” version, as the Jason-3 booster has been ready for quite some time and was delayed this summer for an investigation into the loss of SpaceX’s CRS-7 mission for NASA.
Liftoff of Jason-3 from Space Launch Complex 4 East on Jan. 17 is targeted for 10:42 a.m. PST (1:42 p.m. EST), at the opening of a 30-second launch window. If needed, a backup launch opportunity is available at 10:41 a.m. PST (1:31 p.m. EST) on Jan. 18.
SpaceX currently holds a manifest backlog of some 50 missions, with an estimated value (according to SpaceX) of roughly $7 billion.
Following Jason-3, SpaceX is expected to shift focus back to Cape Canaveral, Fla., for launch of two missions: delivering the SES-9 communications satellite to space and launching their Dragon cargo ship on the CRS-8 mission to resupply the ISS for NASA.
The latter two flights do not yet have confirmed launch dates, but SpaceX is aiming to fly both SES-9 and CRS-8 by the end of February.
AmericaSpace Video: Falcon-9 OG-2 Launch and Landing
Landing plans for those three missions will not be announced until much closer to the launch dates. However, upgrades to the Falcon-9 now provide the capability to land future first-stage boosters for nearly every mission moving forward, and so it is expected that the first stage boosters will attempt a landing now for nearly every mission, with the specific flight profile of the launch determining whether or not the booster lands on land or on the company’s Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS).
SpaceX has two ASDS platforms: one at Cape Canaveral and one at VAFB. The same is true for landing sites.
SpaceX has attempted to land a first stage Falcon-9 on their ASDS previously, but not with the success of the OG-2 booster at LZ-1. Each time SpaceX hit the mark, but both times the booster tipped over. An attempt to land during the CRS-5 launch in January achieved partial success, reaching the deck, but impacted hard at a 45-degree angle and exploded, primarily due to a premature exhaustion of hydraulic fluid in its hypersonic grid fins. A second attempt was planned for the DSCOVR launch in February, but was called off due to rough sea conditions, and the most recent attempt during April’s CRS-6 launch reached the deck, but touched down with excessive lateral velocity and toppled over upon impact.
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