Upstart startup rocket biz SpaceX has had a seemingly successful launch on its second resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS), but as the Dragon capsule reached orbit the company announced there was an "unspecified problem" and cut its webcast of the mission.
The announcement was made about 12 minutes into the flight. Within 30 minutes SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted that there was a problem with the Dragon capsule's thrusters.
Issue with Dragon thruster pods. System inhibiting three of four from initializing. About to command inhibit override.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 1, 2013
This isn't the first time something has gone wrong during a SpaceX ISS launch. A rocket nozzle failure on the last such mission left a commercial satellite that the rocket was also lifting unable to reach its orbit, although the ISS resupply mission itself was successful. The prototype communications satellite from Orbcomm later burned up on reentry.
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket stack was erected on Thursday night and blasted off from the Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on schedule at 10:10am ET (3:10pm UTC), lifting the Dragon delivery vehicle packed with 2,200lb of supplies and scientific experiments, along with much smaller commercial payloads. The Dragon is planned to return next month with a similar weight of completed scientific experiments and rubbish from the ISS.
Unlike the previous mission, with took the Dragon nearly 62 hours to get to the ISS, SpaceX has a much better orbital trajectory this time and said before launch it would be ready to dock within about 18 hours. The ISS has already started preparing for the visit by extending its Canadarm2 robot arm ready to catch the incoming craft, but now it's possible the capsule could be late or a no-show.
It will be the third visit to the ISS for the Dragon capsule and its second delivery mission. SpaceX has a $1.6bn contract with NASA for another 10 and is looking to extend that. By 2015 the company expects to be carrying out manned flights to the station with upgraded Dragon, freeing NASA from having to use the Russians as a taxi service.
The Dragon capsule has already carried two live passengers, one of whom made it back to earth without snuffing it. Neffi, a red-backed jumping spider that was being used to test how jumping arachnids managed in space, survived her ride back down on the last mission. Sadly her associate, a female zebra spider named Cleopatra, was DOA on landing.
Rocketry is always an uncertain business, but if the mission is a bust then it will be a serious setback to Elon Musk's plans for SpaceX to be the world's leading space delivery service - not to mention his plans for trips to Mars.
El Reg is keeping an eye on the situation and will update as soon as hard information becomes available. ®