Cape Canaveral - In a dramatic development pointing the way towards America’s future in space, SpaceX has conducted the first launch of it’s new Falcon 9 launch vehicle – a booster that the company hopes will one day be used to launch American astronauts into orbit.
As is usually the case with new rockets, today’s launch was a nail biter. The four hour launch window opened at 11:00 am but the rocket was prevented from launching due to a series of minor glitches. First, a blocked signal from the rocket's telemetry system threatened to prevent Air Force officials from destroying the rocket in the event of an accident. Once this was resolved a boat strayed into the safety range and needed to be removed. Finally, after about 2 and one half hours, SpaceX was ready to launch. The ignition sequence was started and with just one second remaining before launch, an out-of-limit startup parameter forced a scrub. The countdown was then recycled and Falcon 9 finally thundered off the pad at 2:45 pm.
Once airborne, Falcon 9 traveled eastward until the fuel was exhausted in its first stage. The second stage then took over eventually delivering it’s payload to an orbit 155 miles (250 km) above Earth. Engineers are still analyzing data from the flight but company CEO Elon Musk was quoted as saying “Falcon 9 hit the bulls eye”. SpaceX hopes to recover the first stage of the rocket, which fell into the Atlantic Ocean cushioned by parachutes.
Since this launch was a test of the rockets capabilities the goal of the mission was simple – put a mock-up of the SpaceX “Dragon” spacecraft into orbit and collect as much information as possible about the boosters flight. Dragon is the name of the company’s automated cargo delivery and recovery spacecraft that SpaceX plans to use to ferry NASA payloads to and from the International Space Station. Later the company intends to modify the spacecraft to carry people.
Prior to the launch Musk Commented on the company’s web site “It would be a great day if we reach orbital velocity, but still a good day if the first stage functions correctly, even if the second stage malfunctions. It would be a bad day if something happens on the launch pad itself and we’re not able to gain any flight data.”
Today's successful test launch likely means that the next time the rocket blasts off, it will head straight to the space station to practice delivering supplies. An actual docking and cargo delivery would probably take place on the Falcon 9's third flight.
The launch comes as a shot in the arm for President Obama's plan to commercialize manned access to low Earth orbit. Reciently the plan has Falcon 9 has given them a lot to think about.
About Falcon 9
Like Falcon 1, Falcon 9 is a two stage, liquid oxygen and rocket grade kerosene (RP-1) powered launch vehicle. It uses the same engines, structural architecture (with a wider diameter), avionics and launch system.
Length: 54.9 m (180 ft)
Width: 3.6 m (12 ft)
Mass (LEO, 5.2m fairing): 333,400 kg (735,000 lb)
Mass (GTO, 5.2m fairing): 332,800 kg (733,800 lb)
Thrust (vacuum): 4.94 MN (1,110,000 lbf)
The Falcon 9 tank walls and domes are made from aluminum lithium alloy. SpaceX uses an all friction stir welded tank, the highest strength and most reliable welding technique available. Like Falcon 1, the interstage, which connects the upper and lower stage for Falcon 9, is a carbon fiber aluminum core composite structure. The separation system is a larger version of the pneumatic pushers used on Falcon 1.
Nine SpaceX Merlin engines power the Falcon 9 first stage with 125,000 lbs-f sea level thrust per engine for a total thrust on liftoff of just over 1.1 Million lbs-f. After engine start, Falcon is held down until all vehicle systems are verified to be functioning normally before release for liftoff. This is the system that caused the scrub on the boosters first launch attempt.
The second stage tank of Falcon 9 is simply a shorter version of the first stage tank and uses most of the same tooling, material and manufacturing techniques. This results in significant cost savings in vehicle production.
A single Merlin engine powers the Falcon 9 upper stage with an expansion ratio of 117:1 and a nominal burn time of 345 seconds. For added reliability of restart, the engine has dual redundant pyrophoric igniters (TEA-TEB).