SpaceX has confirmed they will attempt to land their Falcon-9 first stage booster on a floating offshore barge after launching the Jason-3 satellite from Vandenberg AFB (VAFB) in Southern California, currently scheduled to launch No-Earlier-Than (NET) Jan. 17. The mission will be the first of 2016 for SpaceX, and the first launch from American soil for a very busy U.S. space launch manifest this year as well.
The Earth-observing Jason-3 satellite will be sealed inside the Falcon rocket’s protective payload fairing today, while launch and mission managers convene for the Flight Readiness Review (FRR) before clearing the booster for a standard static fire “launch dress rehearsal” to test its nine Merlin engines this weekend.
UPDATE Jan 9: The FRR concluded Friday evening, and managers determined that work should proceed toward a launch on Sunday, Jan. 17. The static fire of the Falcon-9 is now scheduled for Monday, Jan. 11.
The spacecraft—nestled inside its payload fairing on behalf of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA, and France—will be mated atop the Falcon-9 on Tuesday, Jan. 12. Liftoff of Jason-3 from VAFB 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.
The launch will come a month after SpaceX closed out America’s 2015 launch manifest with a very successful “Return to Flight” mission from Cape Canaveral, Fla., which delivered 11 Orbcomm OG-2 satellites to orbit atop SpaceX’s new and improved Falcon “Full Thrust” rocket, a highly modified and upgraded version of their evolvable Falcon-9. The satellites were delivered as planned, but SpaceX made history that night when they landed the rocket’s first stage back at Cape Canaveral 10 minutes after liftoff.
That booster is now back in a SpaceX hangar at their Launch Complex-39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to undergo a series of tests, including putting it on the transporter erector and rolling it out to the pad to complete fluid checks, electrical checks, and propellant loading. SpaceX signed a 20-year lease for the former Apollo and space shuttle launch site in spring 2014.
“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 company CEO Elon Musk.
Ultimately, the whole point of trying to bring back boosters is to make the Falcon-9 a truly reusable launch vehicle, capable of rapid turnaround time in order to launch more payloads, at a fraction of the current costs. The OG-2 booster now at 39A, however, will not fly again, even though SpaceX is confident it could if needed.
“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,” said Musk.
“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.”
SpaceX currently holds a manifest backlog of some 50 missions, with an estimated value (according to SpaceX) of roughly $7 billion.
SpaceX has attempted to land a first stage Falcon-9 on their Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) previously, but not with the success of the OG-2 booster at Cape Canaveral last month. 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.
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. After first stage engine cutoff, exoatmospheric cold gas thrusters are triggered to flip the first stage into position for retrograde burn. Three of the rocket’s nine Merlin engines are then restarted to conduct the retrograde burn in order to reduce the velocity of the booster and to place it in the correct angle to land. Once the first stage is in position and approaching its landing target, two of the three engines will be shut down to end the boost-back burn.
Utilizing compressed helium to deploy its four extendable landing legs, the booster and a quartet of lattice-like hypersonic grid fins, configured in an “X-wing” layout, will then be unfurled to control the rocket’s lift vector, and a final single engine burn will slow the stage to a velocity of zero for a stable (hopefully) landing on the ASDS.
.Missions » JASON-3 »