Sunday, September 29, 2013

SpaceX Falcon 9 Lifts Off with Canadian Satellite

SpaceX Falcon 9 Lifts Off with Canadian Satellite. Credit: SpaceX

A SpaceX rocket launched from the California coast Sunday carrying a Canadian satellite intended to track space weather in what was billed as a test flight. The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, about 150 miles northwest of Los Angeles, shortly after 9 a.m. PDT under clear skies. SpaceX launched an older model of Falcon 9 five times from Florida. This was the first time the Southern California-based private rocket maker flew the next-generation version that boasts upgraded engines designed to improve performance and deliver heavier payloads.

SpaceX carried a satellite dubbed Cassiope, a project of the Canadian Space Agency and other partners. It wasn't immediately known if the rocket had reached its intended orbit.

Once in orbit, scientists led by the University of Calgary hope to start powering up instruments after a checkout period, but the actual mission to track space weather won't begin until next month. Cassiope carries instruments to study space storms in the upper atmosphere and their potential effects on GPS navigation and radio communications.

Greg Enno, of the University of Calgary, says the CASSIOPE (Cascade SmallSat and Ionospheric Polar Explorer) satellite will focus on the interaction between the sun and the ionosphere (the upper atmosphere).

More specifically, it will study the effect of solar storms on radio communications, satellite navigation and other ground-based technologies.

Why is that important?

"Because the sun sends out big plumes of energy from its surface and they wallop our atmosphere and its magnetic field and affect GPS users — especially aircraft,'' Enno explained in an interview.

The 450-kilogram satellite also carries the Cascade technology demonstrator, which is described as a courier system in the sky for very large data files.

Dave Cady, an executive vice-president at MDA, the satellite's prime contractor, said Cascade will help to deliver data from ships at sea that are involved in oil and gas exploration.

"You have ships out on the ocean and they tend to be working in fairly inhospitable places where there's not a lot of Internet infrastructure."

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad 10 minutes before the launch. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad 10 minutes before the launch. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX considered Sunday's launch a demonstration flight to test the capabilities of the improved rocket. It was the third launch from the Vandenberg base this week. Earlier, the Air Force launched back-to-back unarmed Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles that traveled 4,200 miles over the Pacific Ocean.

Besides launching small satellites, SpaceX — or Space Exploration Technologies Corp. —has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to make a dozen unmanned missions to restock the International Space Station. SpaceX has completed three flights so far to the orbiting laboratory.

With NASA's space shuttle fleet retired, SpaceX is also working to modify its capsules to transport astronauts in several years. Until then, NASA astronauts are hitching rides on Russian rockets to zip to and from the space station.

A SpaceX competitor, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp., launched its first-ever cargo ship bound for the space station earlier this month. The arrival of Orbital's Cygnus capsule, bearing chocolate and clothing, had been delayed because of a software problem, but it docked with the space station Sunday.


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