Sunday, December 17, 2017

Return, Return, Return: CRS-13 Mission Marks Triple-Play in Terms of SpaceX Reuse

Completing its second mission in support of the $1.6 billion contract SpaceX has signed with NASA, the ‘flight-proven’ Falcon 9 first stage comes in for a landing at Cape Canaveral’s Landing Zone 1 in Florida. Photo Credit: Michael John McCabe / SpaceFlight Insider

The 13th SpaceX Commercial Resupply Service (CRS-13) mission roared into the Florida sky aboard a ‘Full Thrust’ Falcon 9 launch vehicle Friday morning. The flight-proven spacecraft and Falcon 9 first stage launched at 10:35 a.m. (15:35 GMT) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 40.

CRS-13 is the 17th SpaceX launch in 2017 and saw an estimated 4,800 pounds (2,177 kg) of crew supplies, experiments and supplies sent to the International Space Station (ISS). It marks the second time a flight-proven Dragon spacecraft has been launched towards the space station. This Dragon last flew on the CRS-6 flight to the ISS between April and May 2015.

The use of a flight-proven Falcon 9 first stage also marks the first time that multiple flight-proven components have been utilized during a SpaceX launch. The Falcon 9 first stage last flew on CRS-11 on June 3, 2017 – a six month turn around between the stage’s flights.

The weather was partly cloudy for the launch. The 45th Space Wing was predicting a 90 percent chance of favorable conditions prior to liftoff. Both the weather and the launch vehicle’s systems delivered and when the instantaneous (1 second) launch window opened – nothing stood in the way of today’s successful flight.

The flight was the first to use the pad since a different Falcon 9 exploded during pre-flight tests in September of 2016. That mission, Amos-6, saw the loss of the Falcon 9 rocket, $185 million Amos 6 spacecraft and a good portion of the infrastructure at Pad 40. 

There were no issues today however, with the vehicle thundering away from the launch pad and out across the Atlantic Ocean, trimming its trajectory to ultimately reach the ISS.

The Falcon 9 first stage pushed through max-Q (maximum dynamic pressure) at just over a minute after launch, followed by main engine cutoff at around 2 minutes, 25 seconds into the flight. As the first stage separated from the second stage, the Merlin Vacuum engine on the second stage ignited to propel the second stage and Dragon spacecraft to orbit. The flight-proven first stage conducted a boostback burn to safely land at Canaveral’s Landing Zone 1 (formerly Space Launch Complex 13).

The first stage performed a series of maneuvers over a period of about five minutes to refine its trajectory toward Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Landing Zone 1 (formerly known as Space Launch Complex 13) or “LZ-1.” Following the boost-back burn, the stage oriented itself so that its nine Merlin engines were facing the direction of flight. As the vehicle re-entered the atmosphere, four grid-fins were deployed to help steer the 160 foot (50 meter) tall first stage toward the landing zone.

About 7 minutes, 43 seconds after lift-off, the first stage made a soft landing at LZ-1. This was the second landing for this first stage and the 20th time overall that SpaceX has landed a Falcon 9 first stage. Eight of those recoveries have been at LZ-1 and 12 have been on Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ships positioned out in either the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans.

The second stage and Dragon C108 capsule continued to their initial orbit. After about 9 minutes, 14 seconds of flight time, the single Merlin Vacuum engine was shut down. One minute after that, Dragon separated from the second stage and deployed its twin solar panels about 45 seconds later.

Astronaut Mark Vande Hei is serving as the prime Expedition 53 crew member who will capture and berth the Dragon spacecraft to the Harmony Module using the station’s Canadarm2. Should the mission go as planned, CRS-13 will remain berthed to the ISS for about one month before returning to Earth. The spacecraft is expected to splash down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California for recovery by SpaceX.

Its payload consists of crew supplies, scientific experiments, and spacewalk equipment. The total payload weight also includes nearly 1,422 pounds (645 kg) of unpressurized payloads in the “trunk” of Dragon. Once Dragon has been unloaded by the crew, any equipment and trash needing to be sent back to Earth will be packed into the capsule before it departs the space station.

Today’s flight was a long time in the making, with the mission scheduled to launch on Sept. 13, Nov. 1, Dec. 4, 12, 13 and 15, according to SpaceFlight Now

SpaceX plans to conduct one final launch in 2017 from Vandenberg Air Force Base located in California, with the launch of the Iridium Next Flight 4. At 18 total launches, 2017 will be the busiest year on record for the company and has outpaced the launch manifests of other space programs. The first SpaceX launch of 2018 is expected to be for the secretive Zuma mission, launching Florida’s Space Coast on Jan. 4.

SpaceX is working towards rolling out the cargo version of the next generation Dragon 2 capsule over the next year. SpaceX has not indicated when the first Dragon 2 cargo capsule will fly to the ISS, but it is planning to test the crew-variant of the spacecraft around April 2018. Until Dragon 2 is ready, SpaceX plans to continue using flight-proven Dragon spacecraft to carry out their CRS missions in the meantime.

The next cargo mission, CRS-14, is slated to be launched on March 13, 2018 according to SpaceX officials. CRS-13 is part of the $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract SpaceX has entered into with NASA to complete 20 missions to the ISS by 2019.

Written by: Paul Khightly
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