SpaceX Making Headway on Upgraded Falcon 9 Debut, Dragon Fixes

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WASHINGTON — Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) is poised to begin testing the large payload shroud its upgraded Falcon 9 rocket needs to accommodate the commercial telecommunications satellites the company is under contract to start hauling to geostationary orbit this summer.

A 5.2-meter-diameter fairing was recently delivered to NASA’s Space Power Facility, billed as the world’s largest thermal vacuum chamber, where SpaceX expects to prove that the protective shroud will separate as the Falcon 9 races to orbit.

“We’re just assembling the fairing right now to do the vacuum separation test,” Elon Musk, SpaceX founder and chief executive, told reporters March 28. “We’ll be releasing information probably in the next few weeks about how those tests go.”

The tests will take place at NASA’s Plum Brook Station, a satellite campus of the Glenn Research Center near Cleveland.

The 13.9-meter-tall fairing has to prove spaceworthy before SpaceX can launch the Canadian Space Agency’s Cassiope space weather-observation satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in June. The Cassiope launch would be the first powered by the Falcon 9 v1.1, a more powerful rocket that will replace the version SpaceX has flown five times successfully since 2010.

A successful Cassiope launch would also clear the way for SpaceX to launch the SES-8 communications satellite to geostationary orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., in July.

Satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg agreed to be the customer for SpaceX’s first launch to geostationary transfer orbit — the drop-off point for most commercial communications satellites — as long as its SES-8 satellite was not the first payload to be launched by the Falcon 9 v1.1.

In addition to the 5.2-meter fairing, the upgraded Falcon 9 features recently flight-qualified Merlin 1D engines that provide about 60 percent more thrust than the nine Merlin 1C engines that powered the March 1 launch of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule to the international space station.

If all goes well, SpaceX expects to launch Thaicom’s Thaicom 6 satellite by the end of July, followed by a fall launch of a group of low Earth orbit machine-to-machine messaging satellites for service provider Orbcomm before rounding out the year by launching Dragon’s third paid cargo run to the space station. SpaceX holds a $1.6 billion contract to make a total of 12 cargo deliveries to the orbital outpost.

Dragon experienced a hiccup shortly after its March 1 launch when three of Dragon’s four maneuvering thruster pods failed to activate as expected. Blame was laid on jammed check valves in the system that feeds oxidizer to Dragon’s thrusters.

SpaceX was able to clear the blockage within a few hours of Dragon reaching orbit, and the glitch ultimately had no worse effect on the mission than delaying the capsule’s rendezvous with the space station by a day.

During a March 28 media teleconference NASA organized to discuss the cargo mission that wrapped up two days earlier with a successful splashdown in the Pacific, Musk said the company has since traced the issue to a minor design change that a SpaceX supplier made to the valves used in the oxidizer plumbing.

The fix is to revert to the old valve design, Musk said. For good measure, SpaceX will now subject these valves to high-pressure testing before each launch. Previously, the valves were tested only at lower pressure.

“We don’t need any software changes in the future, we really just need to fix this tiny, tiny little issue with the valve, essentially reverting it to what it was,” Musk said.

The upgraded Falcon 9 will not only give SpaceX a boost into the commercial communications satellite market, but also allow the company to test out technology that could eventually make the rocket’s booster stage recoverable and reusable.

On some Falcon 9 v1.1 launches this year, SpaceX will try to steer the rocket’s first stage into the ocean for a water landing. “We don’t expect success in the first several attempts,” Musk said. But if SpaceX can perfect the maneuvers necessary for a first-stage water recovery — two post-staging engine burns would be necessary — the company could try a propulsive booster landing on hard terrain sometime in 2014, Musk said.