Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Falcon 9 Returns to Flight and Makes Rocket Science History!

Let's start with a pleasant surprise SpaceX had in store for those of us who couldn't be there in person during an across-the-board successful mission that saw a perfect launch, followed by a nail-biting, historic landing and the flawless delivery of 11 Orbcomm satellites into orbit: SpaceX's much-improved live webcast.

If you have not yet seen it, it's worth the 20 minutes to get a feel for the anticipation and festive atmosphere at SpaceX HQ as events unfolded last night at and above Cape Canaveral:

Video credit: SpaceX

During two previous Falcon 9 missions that included failed landing attempts on an ocean-based barge, there was no live coverage of the landing. Images and details didn't emerge until the next day. 

Not so yesterday. While it didn't become obvious until after the webcast started, SpaceX planned to live stream the landing as well! The webcast also featured a time line at the bottom that let viewers know which maneuvers to expect next as Falcon 9 once again spread its wings, and then returned, scorched, steaming, still breathing fire, in one single, glorious piece! I didn't get any screenshots of the landing because I was cheering, jumping up and down, before I remembered "Wait! You're live tweeting this!"

Another unexpected treat was the live footage from orbit that showed the smooth deployment of Orbcomm's satellite payload as it happened.

Here are a couple of screen grabs from my tweet stream during the event. My full twitter coverage is at the end of this post.

Falcon 9 and its Orbcomm-2 payload at Liftoff
 Image credit: Screenshot from SpaceX webcast

Boostback burn that reorients rocket and prepares it for landing
Image credit: Screenshot from SpaceX webcast

Last June, SpaceX had a setback as the company lost a rocket and a cargo capsule bound for the International Space Station in a launch accident caused by a faulty strut. Earlier in 2015, SpaceX also tried twice to land a Falcon 9 on water atop an autonomous drone barge. Both times the rocket reached the drone ship but tipped over at landing. Both rockets were destroyed.

On December 21, 2015, at 8:29 pm EST, SpaceX not only returned to flight and successfully deployed its payload of 11 satellites, the private space company headquartered in Los Angeles also made rocket science history by successfully landing a Falcon 9 on land. For the first time ever, a rocket used in an actual mission - not a test landing - returned to Earth and precision-landed in one piece: Standing tall, waiting to be re-used instead of wastefully and expensively burning up in the atmosphere.

What we saw today was not just SpaceX coming back from a launch failure. We witnessed a private space company setting new industry standards that others will be hard-pressed to match. 

Long exposure shot of Falcon 9 launch and landing
within 10 minutes of each other at Cape Canaveral
Image credit: SpaceX

In the words of Elon Musk on Twitter: "Welcome back, baby!"
Image credit: SpaceX

Scorched and displaying landing legs. Don't you just want to run up and hug her?
Image credit: SpaceX

A new era in rocketry: Long exposure of launch, re-entry, and landing burns
Image credit: SpaceX

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Will Falcon 9 Fly Tomorrow?

Update - December 21, 2015, 10:45 a.m. PST:

Today's Falcon 9 / Orbcomm-2 launch time has been changed to four minutes earlier than reported yesterday. This is important as the launch window is only open for about one minute.

Updated launch times for TODAY:
8:29 p.m. EST 
5:29 p.m. PST 
0229 Central Euro Time, Tues Dec 22. 

Live coverage will start at http://www.spacex.com/webcast/ about half an hour prior to launch time.

Space X's official patch for the Falcon 9 Orbcomm-2 mission


Update - December 20, 2015, 4:30 p.m. PST:

Weather is 80% favorable for tomorrow's launch time. The launch window is open for just one minute.

If there is a landing attempt tomorrow, it will occur about 10 minutes after lift-off at SpaceX's Landing Zone 1, formerly known as Launch Complex 13. This location is near the eastern tip of Cape Canaveral. 

If you are on the ground near the landing site, you will hear a sonic boom as the rocket returns to Earth. From nearby locations, you may also see the rocket's engines firing in the dark in preparation for landing.

News media won't be allowed to cover the launch and landing, so I'm counting on landing updates from spacetweeps who will be at the space coast tomorrow.


Update - December 20, 2015, 1 p.m. PST:

Elon Musk just tweeted that launch will be delayed by 24 hours to December 21, 2015. Tomorrow's launch time is 8:33 p.m. EST (5:33 p.m. PST). That is 0233 Central European Time on Tuesday, December 22.

He also RT'd this image of Falcon 9 on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral at sunset today:


Update - December 20, 2015, 11 a.m. PST: 

Everything still looks good for a launch attempt today at 5:29 p.m. PST. SpaceX's coverage will start at 5:05 p.m. PST at spacex.com/webcast. The site is already displaying a countdown clock, which is a good sign. I'm not sure if NASA TV will live stream the launch. The launch window is 1 minute long and there are no other windows available today, should the launch not occur at 5:29 p.m. 

For those of you at Cape Canveral: Keep looking up after the launch. SpaceX may attempt to land the redesigned Falcon 9's upper stage on land near the launch site.
I hope so. It would be fitting for Falcon 9 to return to actual, real-life flight the same weekend a movie
soars to box office dominance that features the fictional ship - the Millennium Falcon - after which Falcon 9 was named.

Falcon 9 has been grounded since June, due to a failed launch attempt that was intended to deliver a Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station as part of NASA's commercial crew program. Tomorrow's flight will carry 11 second-generation Orbcomm satellites to orbit and will mark the second time SpaceX will deliver New Jersey-based Orbcomm's satellites into space.

The launch has been delayed since August and several times during December. The past week has seen problems with pre-flight static firing tests. The test was completed successfully last night and tomorrow's launch is contingent upon a review of the static fire data.

Elon Musk said on Twitter that all looks good for a Sunday launch from Cape Canaveral:


 Falcon 9 and its Orbcomm payload on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral
Image credit: SpaceX

The exact launch time is Sunday, December 20 at 8:29 p.m. EST (5:29 p.m. PST).

Falcon 9 has received some upgrades: more powerful Merlin 1D engines arranged in their trademark "octaweb" configuration - eight Merlins arranged around one in the center. Together, the engines can generate 1.5 million pounds of thrust. The older generation Merlins generated a maximum of 1.3 million pounds.

The redesigned Falcon is also a little taller, 229 feet (69.9 m) instead of 224 feet (68.3 m), to accommodate longer nozzles and extended tanks on the upper stage engines.

In addition, the improved Falcon 9 will use super-cooled, compressed fuel, which allows the rocket to carry more fuel that can be used in a landing attempt.

Jeff Bezos's company Blue Origin successfully launched a rocket to space and then landed it on a pad in West Texas just last month, and made rocket science history in the process.

SpaceX is also developing re-usability technology. A landing attempt may occur tomorrow on land near Cape Canaveral. At the moment, I can find no information on the likelihood of a landing attempt or the likely landing location near KSC. If you're on the space coast tomorrow, you just may find yourself in the right place at the right time to see a rocket stage *land* at Cape Canaveral for the first time ever.

I will update this post if new information comes in. I will also live tweet the launch tomorrow, starting around 5 p.m. PDT. The launch window is very brief, with no others available tomorrow.

Go Falcon 9!!