Falcon 9 Hot-fire Test is Successful

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WASHINGTON — Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) successfully completed a static fire test of its Falcon 9 medium-lift rocket March 13 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., four days after an initial attempt was aborted due to a technical glitch with ground equipment.

“Following a nominal terminal countdown, the launch sequencer commanded ignition of all [nine] Merlin first-stage engines for a period of 3.5 seconds,” the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company said in a March 13 statement.

The crucial prelaunch test was first attempted March 9 but was aborted just as the vehicle’s nine main-stage engines were about to ignite.

In a statement issued March 11, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk blamed a glitch in the Falcon 9 computer-automated launch sequence, which failed to open a valve used to direct high-pressure helium needed to start the first stage engines’ turbomachinery.

With the launch sequence issue corrected and the static fire test now complete, SpaceX plans to return the rocket to its hangar at Launch Complex 40, where engineers will replace cork tiles shed during a Feb. 26 wet dress rehearsal in which the Falcon 9’s fuel tanks were filled with liquid propellant.

Additional launch preparations are planned in the coming weeks, including tests of the Falcon 9 flight termination system, which uses explosives to destroy the rocket in the event that it veers off course during launch. Safety officials at the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Air Force Eastern Range must certify the flight termination system prior to the rocket’s maiden voyage, which is now slated to take place in April at the earliest.

SpaceX’s first Falcon 9 has been at Cape Canaveral since late February undergoing preparations for its inaugural launch, a demonstration flight purchased in 2005 by an unnamed customer.

During that flight the rocket will carry a qualification unit of SpaceX’s Dragon cargo capsule into orbit. However, the mission will not count as one of the three demonstrations the company has agreed to conduct for NASA under the U.S. space agency’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program.

NASA is counting on the Falcon 9 and Dragon to deliver at least 20 tons of cargo to the international space station over the next five years under a $1.6 billion contract awarded in late 2008.