Tuesday, December 16, 2014

SpaceX's Jan. 10 CRS-5 Launch Includes Precision-Landing Upper Rocket Stage On Barge

Update - January 8: SpaceX's CRS-5 resupply mission to the ISS has been postponed to Saturday, January 10, 1:47 a.m. PST (10:47 CET) - a weekend night launch. I'm sure other West Coast night owls like myself will stay awake to watch and live tweet the launch, given the historic nature of this mission. NASA TV will provide live coverage, starting at 12:30 a.m. PST (9:30 CET). Details about this mission are below the Update sections.

Update - January 6: Today's launch attempt was scrubbed at the last minute due to a problem with an actuator assembly, a part of the rocket's second stage engine steering system. The next launch attempt is scheduled for Friday, January 9, at 2:09 a.m. PST (11:09 CET) - an almost reasonable time for us West Coast night owls. SpaceX is characteristically stingy with details; Elon Musk posted this tweet today:

Update - December 18: Due to issues with a static fire test this week, SpaceX has moved the launch date to January 6, 2015, at 3:18 a.m. PST (12:18 CET).

Delayed multiple times since September, SpaceX's cargo delivery to the International Space Station is scheduled for January 10, 1:47 a.m. PST (10:47 CET), launching a Dragon cargo capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket from pad SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral. This mission will be the private space company's fifth cargo delivery to the ISS under NASA's Commercial Resupply Services contract. 

The mission is named CRS-5 and here is its patch. I like how the launch state of Florida is marked in a lighter blue color. Naturally, the traditional SpaceX clover leaf is there as well. What I like most about it is that Falcon 9 is practically bursting out of the confines of this beautiful patch, conveying anticipation, excitement and confidence in what's ahead. The Dragon capsule on the right has already found a way to escape its patch boundaries, but, hey, that lucky capsule is going to the International Space Station, so Dragon's impatience is quite understandable!


For SpaceX, CRS-5 is quite a bit more than another supply run to the ISS, as the company will further test re-usability functions and performance of its flagship Falcon 9 rocket. From its inception, SpaceX has aimed to make spaceflight more affordable and accessible. Reusable rocket stages are a crucial factor in the quest to develop rockets that are significantly cheaper to fly than their single-use counterparts. Notice the upside down V-shaped structures on the rocket in the patch - or, from a Trekkie's perspective, the Star Trek emblem-shaped structures affixed to this Falcon 9 stage. These are Falcon 9's landing legs for attempting a soft landing on a spaceport barge.

On a mission earlier this year, SpaceX began post-launch re-usability testing by guiding the Falcon 9's rocket stage to hover upright above the ocean for a few seconds before it tipped over sideways into the water. SpaceX uses a combination of landing legs, grid fins, retro rockets and stabilizing technologies, enabling Falcon 9's upper stage to perform a precision soft landing on water and eventually on land.

This time, Falcon 9's upper stage is expected to land on an autonomous spaceport drone ship. On twitter, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk gave us a glimpse of what to expect on January 10 - a historic milestone never before achieved: precisely land and recover a rocket that is intact and reusable, without the need to fish it out of the water.

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