WASHINGTON — Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) successfully debuted a new and more powerful variant of its Falcon 9 rocket Sept. 29, lofting an experimental Canadian satellite and paving the way for the company’s upcoming first launch of a geostationary-orbiting communications satellite.
However, the company was unable to demonstrate a reignition of the rocket’s upper stage following the deployment of the Canadian Space Agency’s experimental Cassiope space-environment monitoring satellite and multiple secondary payloads. A second burn will be required during SpaceX’s next mission, intended to place the SES-8 telecommunications satellite into geostationary transfer orbit for satellite operator SES of Luxembourg.
SpaceX founder and Chief Executive Elon Musk characterized the issue that forced the abort of the second upper-stage burn as minor and said the company expects to resolve it in relatively short order. During a post-launch teleconference with reporters, Musk said the SES-8 launch is still scheduled for October, but hinted that a few extra weeks might be needed to fully understand what happened.
Musk noted that Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX has demonstrated reignition of the Merlin 1D engine multiple times on the test stand. The said the abort during the demonstration flight likely had to do with the environmental differences between sea level and space.
“It’s nothing fundamental, Musk said.
After a number of delays, the first Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket, a stretch version of the vehicle that also features new engines and a larger-diameter fairing, lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., around 9 a.m. local time and successfully deployed its payloads shortly thereafter. The new variant is needed to launch telecom satellites to geostationary transfer orbit and to carry larger cargo loads to the international space station.
It was SpaceX’s first launch from Vandenberg and the sixth overall for the Falcon 9 rocket.
Musk said all flight objectives were accomplished save for the upper-stage reignition and a post-separation burn of the rocket’s first stage designed to demonstrate its reusability potential.
Two post-mission burns of the boost stage were attempted. The first, involving three of the rocket’s nine first-stage Merlin 1D engines, was successful in slowing its descent into the atmosphere. But SpaceX was unable to carry out a second burn of a single engine after the stage went into a spin and ran out of fuel due to what Musk described as a centrifuge effect.
The second burn was intended to further slow the first stage’s descent, and because it did not take place as planned, the stage hit the ocean hard, Musk said. Parts of the first stage had been recovered, he added.
SpaceX will not attempt any first-stage reusability demonstration maneuvers during its next two launches: SES-8 and the Thaicom 6 satellite for Thaicom of Thailand, both from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Those are SpaceX’s first two geostationary satellite launches and the maneuvers require additional fuel that otherwise would be used to maximize the vehicle’s performance for those customers, Musk said.
But SpaceX is serious about having a reusable first stage, which Musk said accounts for three-fourths of the cost of the Falcon 9 v1.1. He said most future missions of the rocket will feature a reusable first stage.
The company has been conducting low-altitude reusability tests of a vehicle dubbed Grasshopper that takes off and lands vertically on landing legs. Musk said that between the Sept. 29 demonstration flight and the Grasshopper tests SpaceX has an understanding of the full mission profile of a reusable Falcon 9 v1.1 first stage.
The next first-stage reusability test will be conducted on SpaceX’s next commercial resupply mission to the international space station, now scheduled for February, Musk said. SpaceX hopes to have landing gear on that rocket’s first stage, which could come down at sea or on land, Musk said.
Musk said if a landing on solid ground is attempted, it would take place at one of several possible sites at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Although SpaceX does not have the required Federal Aviation Administration license for that re-entry and landing, Musk said the company expects to receive it soon.