Falcon 9 gets its feet wet as SpaceX notch up two more launch successes

Also, Musk's giant mitt misses again but don't worry. Those salt stains will buff out ok

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SpaceX demonstrated that it can indeed walk on water last night, but only briefly, in this week’s space round-up.

Falcon 9 makes an unscheduled splash down

As if to prove that landing a spent booster fiery end down time and time again is actually pretty tricky, SpaceX lost one of its new block 5 stages off the coast of Florida after successfully depositing a cargo freighter bound for the International Space Station (ISS) into orbit.

The latest and greatest evolution of Musk’s mighty missile is supposed to be reused over and over again. Indeed, a large chunk of SpaceX’s business plan to drive down launch costs depends on this, and the company was still in the process of putting away the champagne glasses after a West coast recovery (see below) when the incident occurred.

Things began smoothly enough, as the Falcon 9’s nine engines fired up at 18:16 UTC to send the Dragon cargo spacecraft on its way from Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 40 following a day’s delay.

The first stage separated on schedule at the 2:23 mark to begin the trademark descent to earth. In this case, to a landing site not far from the launchpad rather than a barge out in the ocean.

Alas, for the first time since June 2016 (not counting poor Amos-6), things didn’t go entirely to plan, and onboard video transmitted from the booster showed it in a slow spin as it barrelled back toward Florida. Panicked observers fearing an uncontrolled impact with the ground were reassured to see the stage headed out to sea.

The default behaviour for a returning Falcon 9 is to head for a watery grave, only correcting course for land when systems have verified that everything is tickety-boo. In this case things were neither tickety nor boo, caused by a stalled hydraulic pump for one of the grid fins, according to SpaceX supremo Elon Musk. Hence the dunking.

Musk later tweeted that there was no redundancy for the failed pump since a landing is not considered mission critical. In light of the incident, a back-up may be fitted.

The spin of the rocket appeared to stabilise as the landing legs were deployed prior to a spashdown in the Atlantic. The Falcon 9 then gently toppled over and remained intact, which will give SpaceX engineers a good starting point in working out what went wrong. This was, after all, a brand spanking new rocket.

The incident will add to concerns that have already resulted in an investigation into SpaceX’s workplace culture, although NASA has been quick to dismiss the quality issues that have plagued another partner, Russia. While some in the US Air Force base where the things land will have understandable worries about the safety of SpaceX’s landing technology, Musk’s boffins will point to the fact that the rocket behaved exactly as designed in its abort mode. Just like Russia’s Soyuz did.

As for the floating Falcon 9, once dried out, His Muskness reckoned it could be good for an internal SpaceX mission.

The launch itself, however, can be classified as a complete success. Dragon is safely in orbit and headed to a rendezvous with the ISS with a cargo of provisions for the crew and food for rodents. As well as some cubesats, it is also carrying some intriguing gear as part of NASA’s Robotic Refuelling Mission 3 (RRM3). RRM3 will demonstrate tech to transfer and store liquid methane in space – essential for longer duration missions and, of course, the much-vaunted fuel depots in orbit.

“By testing via multiple fluid interfaces, RRM3 will demonstrate methods for transferring cryogenic fluids to satellites that were not designed to be serviced as well as future satellites that were designed for robotic refueling,” said Jill McGuire, project manager for RRM3.

Falcon 9 launches for the third time, flings out 64 sats, doesn’t get feet wet

A few days before its Florida sibling returned to a fishy reception, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from California on 3 December, carrying 64 small satellites. The cargo was a record for the upstart rocketeers, but more impressive was the fact that it was the third time the booster had been launched, having had two previous successful launches and landings from Florida before being shipped to the West Coast.

The launch, which had been delayed to give engineers more time to check the “flight proven” booster wasn’t going to spectacularly dismantle itself (“additional pre-flight inspections” in SpaceX lingo), launched at 18:34 UTC on 3 December. The first stage then returned to a drone ship stationed off-shore while the second stage continued its journey into low earth orbit.

SpaceX also attempted another recovery of the pricey payload fairing, and equipped its boat, Mr Steven, with an embiggened net to try to capture at least half of the clamshell-like shroud. Alas, Mr Steven missed yet again and the fairing halves were left bobbing in the water.

Musk expressed hope that the fairing would still be good for re-use after drying off, although if it was as easy to deal with the effects of salt-water as that then a cynic might ask why bother trying to catch them in the first place?

The payload, SSO-A, was deployed over a 30 minute period shortly after the second stage of the Falcon had shut down. Consisting of 64 spacecraft (15 microsats and 49 cubesats) from 34 organisations (including governments, commercial outfits and universities), the mission is the biggest single rideshare from a US-based launcher.

Biggest. Indian. Communication. Satellite. Ever.

While SpaceX had its ups, downs, and splashes, Arianespace sent a duo of satellites into orbit on its 10th launch of the year, this time aboard the hefty Ariane 5 launcher, designated VA246.

The lift-off, at 20:37 UTC on 4 December, carried India’s GSAT-11 and South Korean's GEO-KOMPSAT-2A.

GSAT-11 is a big beast, weighing in at 5,854 kg, with an expected lifespan of 15 years and is tasked with providing broadband services across India from its geostationary orbit. The 3,507kg GEO-KOMPSAT-2A spacecraft is a geostationary meteorological satellite, due to last for at least 10 years. It will be joined by a sibling, the imaginatively named GEO-KOMPSAT-2B in 2019 if all goes to plan.

The launch is the 102nd of the Ariane 5 from Arianespace’s Kourou spaceport. A further 18 or so are planned as Arianespace winds down production of the booster in favour of the Ariane 6, tentatively planned to make its debut in 2020.

Both SpaceX and Arianespace have one launch apiece remaining in 2018. A Falcon 9 is due to send up a GPS navigation satellite for the US Air Force from its Launch Complex 40 in Florida, while Arianespace will be launching a military imaging satellite onboard a Soyuz 2-1b from French Guiana. ®


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