Sunday, June 28, 2015

SpaceX's Falcon 9 Rocket Explodes Shortly After Launch

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket explodes shortly after launch. Credit: SpaceX/NASA

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon cargo ship loaded with more than 4,000 pounds of supplies and equipment bound for the International Space Station -- including a critical docking adapter needed by future U.S. crew ships -- broke apart in a shower of debris shortly after launch Sunday in a major setback for NASA and the California rocket company. An anomaly occurred approximately two minutes 19 seconds into the seventh operational flight to the International Space Station (CRS-7). The launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 in Florida, started right on time at 10:21 a.m. EDT (14:21 GMT) during the instantaneous launch window (1 second). Everything appeared to be proceeding normally until about the time of staging – when something clearly went wrong. Elon Musk posted the following on Twitter at 10:40 a.m. EDT (14:40 GMT): “Falcon 9 experienced a problem shortly before first stage shutdown. Will provide more info as we review the data.”

Later in the morning, he added: "There was an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank. Data suggests counterintuitive cause. ... That's all we can say with confidence right now. Will have more to say following a thorough fault tree analysis."

The dramatic failure came eight months after an Oct. 28 explosion that destroyed a space station cargo craft build by Orbital Sciences Corp. and two months after a Russian cargo ship spun out of control moments after reaching orbit April 28.

But the back-to-back Progress and Dragon cargo failures are a major setback for NASA and its space station partners, reducing the reserves of food, clothing and other consumables needed by the lab's crew.

More important, the first of two International Docking Adapters, or IDAs, was on board as part of a major station reconfiguration to ready the lab for arrival of U.S.-built crew ships starting in 2017. A second IDA is scheduled for launch aboard a Dragon capsule in December, but the SpaceX launch schedule will almost certainly face a major revision in the wake of Sunday's failure. Parts already available will be built up into a replacement for the first one, said Mike Suffredini, manager of the space station program.

In the near term, both of NASA's U.S. space station resupply contractors -- SpaceX and Orbital Sciences -- are out of action, leaving only the Russian Progress and Japanese HTV freighter to carry up supplies and equipment.

Suffredini added the agency will work with the students who lost experiments on CRS-7 and get them launched on a future flight so the research can still take place.

“We are disappointed in the loss of the latest SpaceX cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station. However, the astronauts are safe aboard the station and have sufficient supplies for the next several months," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "We will work closely with SpaceX to understand what happened, fix the problem and return to flight. The commercial cargo program was designed to accommodate loss of cargo vehicles. We will continue operation of the station in a safe and effective way as we continue to use it as our test bed for preparing for longer duration missions farther into the solar system."

The 208-foot-tall (63-meter) Falcon 9 rocket had flown 18 times previously since its 2010 debut, all successfully. Those missions included six station cargo runs for NASA under a 15-flight contract worth more than $2 billion.

However, SpaceX has twice previously tried and failed in an experiment to land the rocket on a platform in the ocean.

The cause of Sunday’s explosion was not yet clear, officials said.

"This was a blow to us. We lost a lot of research equipment on this flight," NASA Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier told a news conference.

SpaceX was poised to compete for the first time against United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing and the current sole launch provider for military and spy satellite launches, to launch a GPS III satellite.

An investigation into the explosion will ground the Falcon 9 rockets for "a number of months or so" but less than a year, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell told the news conference.

SpaceX’s Hans Koenigsmann will lead the investigation into the CRS-7 launch anomaly.

The investigation team will study telemetry from 3,000 channels that were transmitted during the launch of CRS-7, Shotwell said. “If there’s something there, we’re going to find it.”

A preliminary analysis indicated a problem with the rocket's upper-stage engine, Musk said on Twitter.

The company had hoped to use the rocket’s discarded 14-story-tall first stage in an innovative landing test, part of its overall goal to refurbish and refly its rockets, slashing launch costs.

It was the seventh flight of a Falcon 9/Dragon resupply ship under a $1.6 billion contract with NASA calling for 12 missions to the space station to deliver 44,000 pounds of supplies and equipment through 2016. Orbital Sciences Corp. holds a similar $1.9 billion contract to launch Cygnus cargo craft.

Both companies are needed to replace the lost cargo capability of the now-retired space shuttle. Orbital's Antares will be grounded throughout 2015 while the company replaces the booster's first-stage engines, relics of the Soviet Union's ill-fated moon program. Now, the Falcon 9 will be grounded pending the results of an exhaustive failure investigation.

While the station crew will face no immediate problems from the loss of the Dragon cargo craft Monday -- officials say the lab complex is fairly well stocked at present -- it is not yet clear how long the station can support a crew of six given the available cargo ships.

“A Progress vehicle is ready to launch July 3, followed in August by a Japanese HTV flight. Orbital ATK, our other commercial cargo partner, is moving ahead with plans for its next launch later this year," Bolden said.

The Falcon 9 launched Sunday was an upgraded version, featuring extended propellant tanks, more efficient and lighter engines, an new triply redundant flight computer and a custom nose cone intended for large commercial satellites.

Musk has repeatedly told reporters that SpaceX would continue its quest despite any initial failures, saying before a 2013 launch that "I'm confident we will certainly make it on some subsequent launch."

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