Tuesday, September 6, 2016

What Do We Know About The Falcon 9 Explosion?

[Update, September 28, 2016: SpaceX has provided additional details on its website. The company's preliminary findings revolve around the possibility that there was a large breach in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen. While its cause is still unknown, the malfunction appears unrelated to the Falcon 9 mishap during the CRS-7 mission in June 2015. SpaceX expects to return to flight in November. In addition, Elon Musk announced this week that SpaceX is targeting early 2017 for the maiden flight of the company's Falcon Heavy rocket.]

Five days later, what do we know about the events surrounding an explosion during a pre-launch test that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket along with its satellite payload and damaged SpaceX's launch pad SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral? 

The short answer: Very little at this point.

SpaceX still refers to the event as an "anomaly" in updates posted to its website. As of this writing, the most recent update was published on September 2. Not that this is unusual less than a week after the loss of a rocket. It's safe to assume that it will take time to determine what happened. I don't think anyone at SpaceX - or elsewhere - was expecting this or had planned for a catastrophic outcome during a static fire test. Even Elon Musk isn't on twitter joking about RUDs (rapid unscheduled disassembly), like he did on occasions when experimental attempts to land Falcon 9 rockets on an ocean-going barge failed. The difference is those failures were semi-expected and necessary to refine SpaceX's path towards re-usability.

Below are the most commonly asked questions since the explosion, with up-to-date answers:

What is a static fire test?

Static fire tests are typically conducted a few days prior to the scheduled launch date as a "rehearsal run" for the actual launch and to assess a rocket's launch readiness. Such "rehearsals" are not unheard of in the space launch industry, even though other launch providers do not use them as often and typically only to test new rocket designs. SpaceX, on the other hand, conducts static fires prior to every launch. A few years ago, I would make a point of watching static fire tests, but they turned out to be so anti-climactic compared to actual launches that I soon stopped. Which goes to show that when we view a detail of the launch preparation process as "routine" or "unremarkable", reality has a way of dramatically, sometimes tragically, reminding as otherwise. After all, the rocket is partially or fully fueled during static fire tests. The explosion apparently occurred five minutes prior to the static fire sequence that briefly ignites the rocket, so it is still unclear which role the test itself played in the progression of events that led to the explosion.

Is SLC-40 SpaceX's only launch pad? 

No. While we do not yet have information on how badly SpaceX's launch pad at the Cape was damaged or how much it will cost to repair, the private space company has another pad on the space coast: SLC-39A, the former space shuttle launch pad. SpaceX has not yet launched from 39A, but plans to start doing so were already underway and could theoretically be accelerated. Moreover, SpaceX can and has launched from facilities at Vandenberg AFB north of Los Angeles. Even so, not all launch pads are the same. Some altitudes or orbits are harder or easier to reach from some locations than others, depending on rocket specifications and mission requirements. There is no word yet on whether scheduled launches from launch pads other than SLC-40 will proceed as planned, such as the maiden flight of SpaceX's largest rocket yet, the Falcon Heavy, from Vandenberg in November. In my opinion, it is not likely, unless the cause of last week's loss is discovered and mitigated very quickly.

Was the payload insured?

Yes. Insurance-related questions immediately began to swirl after the on-pad explosion, as the video clearly shows the payload fairing plummeting to Earth. Speculation centered around the question if the satellite was insured at all, since it was not destroyed as part of an actual launch. That question, at least, has been answered: the manufacturer of the AMOS-6 satellite, Israeli company spacecom, was insured for pre-launch activities and will receive $200 million in payouts. Nonetheless, the company is poised to ask SpaceX for additional compensation of up to $50 million or a free launch in the future. spacecom's shares dropped by almost one-third in the days since the explosion and its pending sale to a Chinese company is now in question. spacecom says it wants to continue to work with SpaceX and complete the launch contract with amended agreements. This means the company may well recover most of its losses, even as SpaceX faces significant costs, including loss of the rocket, launch pad facility and a possible decline in customer confidence.

Why was the payload integrated in the rocket during the static fire test?

Good question. The payload does not need to be atop the rocket to complete a static fire test successfully and SpaceX did not do this until about two years ago. Since then, the private launch provider has moved increasingly towards conducting static fire tests with the payload secured to the rocket. Conducting the test without it adds a day to the launch preparation time frame. Since static fire tests are conducted so close to the actual scheduled launch date, it's not surprising to see that SpaceX would try to streamline the process, especially considering the company's busy launch schedule.


Will this affect SpaceX's launch manifest?

Almost certainly. The private space company had assembled its most ambitious launch manifest yet for the remainder of 2016, with 9-10 launches scheduled through December. With that in mind, it makes sense SpaceX would move toward efficiency during pre-launch preparations. Still, it's also possible to frame such a move as an indication that SpaceX did not anticipate a failure during a static fire test, or did not perceive the risk as serious. It very well may not have been; we know nothing yet about what happened and why, or how likely it was to happen in the first place.


As jarring as it is to see a rocket explode when you least expect it, this is not a time to give up on SpaceX. I fully expect the company to rebound as strongly as it did following a launch failure in June 2015: By the end of that year, not only did SpaceX return to flight, it did so while simultaneously demonstrating the successful evolution of its landing and re-usability technology. 

"Of Course We Still Love you, SpaceX!" - Space geeks everywhere 

Update, September 7, 2016: An article published in The Atlantic confirms that Elon Musk plans to provide additional information this month about the Mars Colonization Project, an ambitious plan to colonize Mars by the mid-2020s. While many are understandably skeptical of this timeline, getting to Mars has always been SpaceX's goal. Ten years ago, Elon Musk got mocked for saying this out loud. Today, SpaceX is the only commercial or government launch provider in the world that can land its rockets on land and on water.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

SpaceX JCSAT-16 Mission: A Beautiful Night Launch...And Landing!

On Sunday, August 14, SpaceX launched a Japanese satellite into orbit, the JSAT 16, as part of a beautiful night launch, topped off by a perfect landing of the rocket's first stage on SpaceX's ocean-going barge "Just Read The Instructions".

Image credit: SpaceX
Falcon 9 on the pad at Cape Canaveral after sunset on launch night

Image credit: SpaceX
JCSAT 16 mission patch

This was the second time that a JSAT Corporation satellite traveled to orbit atop a SpaceX rocket.The first was JCSAT 14. The JCSAT network is designed to support and expand communication services across Asia. Prior to choosing SpaceX as a launch provider, JSAT Corporation's satellites usually launched on Europe's Ariane rocket from Kourou, French Guinea.

Image credit: SpaceX
Liftoff of Falcon 9 with JCSAT 16 payload at 1:26 am EDT, right at the start of a 2-hour launch window

Source: SpaceX
Graphic illustrating Falcon 9 launch and landing arc

JCSAT 16 was launched to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), an orbit much further out than a low Earth orbit (LEO) destination such as the International Space Station. Since Falcon 9 had to travel further, it had little fuel left prior to re-entry, and thus fewer options to maneuver using controlled burns to reach the landing destination. A Falcon 9 returning from geostationary transfer orbit lands harder than one returning from a mission to the ISS. After a previous mission to GTO, Falcon 9's recovered first stage listed visibly to one side on the barge as it returned to port, an indication that at least some of the rocket's struts and dampers had been pushed to the limits of their capability during touchdown.

Below is SpaceX's full webcast for the launch and landing. As always, the entire video is worth watching, but if you want to skip to the good parts, the legend on the bottom tells you when the launch, landing and payload delivery events occur.

Video source: SpaceX
Live webcast from SpaceX HQ in Hawthorne, CA, detailing all the stages of the mission.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Last Monday's Perfect SpaceX CRS-9 Launch And Landing In Pictures

Last Monday's commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station was a perfect night launch from Cape Canaveral, topped off by a successful return to launch site, which means SpaceX landed a Falcon 9 first stage back at the launch site, while the Dragon capsule it sent to orbit continued on to dock with the ISS. This landing marks the second time SpaceX has returned a rocket intact to a launch site on land. Rocketry doesn't get more picture perfect than this:

Image credit: SpaceX

Falcon 9 and its ISS-bound Dragon payload launch into the night sky in Florida...

Image credit: SpaceX

Image credit: SpaceX

...and then Falcon 9 returns to its launch site a few minutes after lift-off.
This picture shows the landing burn just before touchdown.

Image credit: SpaceX

The above long exposure image shows a familiar night sight on the Cape: a launch into orbit on the left. Not so familiar are the landing burn on the right and the re-entry burn visible at the center top of the image. Falcon 9 performs three burns to land: the boostback burn right after payload separation, which reorients the rocket in orbit in preparation for landing. This is followed by the re-entry burn. Spent rockets used to burn up in the atmosphere at this point. SpaceX's technological advances guide them back to Earth for re-use. The third and final burn occurs just before landing.

Image credit: SpaceX

Long exposure image of the launch and landing burn:
Falcon 9 returns to land next to the launch location.

Image credit: SpaceX

Launch, re-entry and landing burns with SpaceX signage at Cape Canaveral

Image Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX marks the spot: Falcon 9 just after it returned to the launch pad location

Image Credit: SpaceX

Dragon cargo capsule CRS-9, solar wings extended, approaches the ISS

After Dragon docked to the International Space Station on Thursday, NASA shared the following two tweets:

Sunday, July 17, 2016

SpaceX's CRS-9 Mission Launches Tonight

It's launch day for a Dragon commercial resupply capsule to the International Space Station. More precisely, it is launch day in the U.S. in every time zone EXCEPT the one (Eastern Daylight Time) where the launch actually happens: Cape Canaveral on Florida's Space Coast.

Launch times that switch days depending on which U.S. time zone you are in can be confusing, so if you plan to watch live, here are the launch times by time zone and day for the continental U.S., as well as Central Europe and UTC:

12:45 a.m. Monday, July 18 EDT
11:45 p.m. Sunday, July 17 CDT
10:45 p.m. Sunday, July 17 MDT

9:45 p.m. Sunday, July 17 PDT

06:45, Monday, July 18 CEST

4:45 a.m., Monday, July 18 UTC 

This launch window is instantaneous. 

If the launch does not occur tonight at 12:45 a.m. EDT, July 18, there is another instantaneous backup window at 12:00 a.m. (midnight) EDT on July 20. That is mid-to-late evening this Tuesday, July 19, for most viewers in the continental U.S. in time zones other than Eastern (e.g., 9 p.m. PDT, July 19). This means 06:00 CEST on July 19 in Central Europe and 4:00 a.m., July 19 UTC.

SpaceX will host a live webcast at http://www.spacex.com/webcast.

The company will almost certainly also stream a technical webcast for those who are more interested in engineering details and telemetry than the webcast from SpaceX HQ. The link to the technical broadcast usually appears once the webcast goes live at the above link.

As with every SpaceX mission since last December, the private rocket company will attempt a landing tonight to recover the spent first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket. 

Earlier this year, SpaceX successfully landed spent rockets used in missions on land near Cape Canaveral (one time) and on an autonomous ocean-going barge three consecutive times, most recently on May 27, 2016, when the Thaicom-8 mission delivered a payload into geostationary transfer orbit. However, last month's barge landing attempt as part of the successful Eutelsat/ABS mission ended in a RUD - a rapid unscheduled disassembly at sea, in the words of Elon Musk. The spent rocket stage reached the barge, but disintegrated on touchdown.

SpaceX will attempt another land-based landing near Cape Canaveral tonight. The third of three burns, the landing burn, is scheduled to begin at 7 minutes, 38 seconds after liftoff. It is this landing burn that occurs closest to the ground, just before the rocket attempts to land.

The two prior burns, the boost back burn starts at 2 minutes, 42 seconds after liftoff, followed by the entry burn at 6 minutes and 31 seconds after liftoff.

Image credit: Space X
Graphic illustrating the stages of launch, landing and mission completion. Graphic is for barge landing, but stages are the same for a ground-based landing
(click to enlarge)

When the webcast begins, pay attention to the legend below the video that shows when to expect the different launch and landing milestones. Some of them are included in the graphic above. SpaceX has been very good about providing live footage not just of its mission launches, but its landing attempts as well. Night landings, though, pose visibility challenges. In case of a successful landing - or even an unsuccessful one - expect a brief camera whiteout as the brightness of the landing burn overloads the cameras for a few seconds before we will know if the rocket has landed upright.

Image Credit: SpaceX

Official Mission Patch for SpaceX's 9th Commercial Resupply (CRS) Mission to the International Space Station under contract with NASA

Image credit: SpaceX 

Dragon capsule atop SpaceX's flagship Falcon 9 rocket on the pad at Cape Canaveral awaiting launch to the ISS on July 18

Monday, May 9, 2016

SpaceX Just Landed A Second Rocket On A Drone Ship - At Night!

Friday, May 6, 2016 was National Space Day, a great annual day of celebration and acknowledgment of our human future in space. My Twitter feed was abuzz with info from space companies, including NASA, hosting special events and exhibits for the day. This inspired my following tweet, and brings us to the topic of this blog post:

Yes, SpaceX landed another spent rocket stage on an ocean-going barge, the "Of Course I Still Love You", during high waves and wind, with the rocket coming in faster and hotter than it did last month. This time, SpaceX was tasked with delivering a Japanese satellite, the JCsat-14, into high geo-stationary transfer orbit at about 25,000 mi (36,000 km) above Earth's surface. Compare this to last month's successful launch and landing mission, when Falcon traveled into low-earth orbit (LEO) "only", ca. 250 mi (400 km) above our planet, to re-supply the International Space Station. Consequently, last Friday, Falcon was traveling many thousands kilometers faster on ascent than it did last month and also had less fuel available for those critical pre-landing burns upon its return. And yet, Falcon 9 landed perfectly, under harsh conditions, standing proud and tall on its landing barge, still breathing fire. And you know what? I'm starting to feel less and less nostalgic about the Space Shuttle.

Image credit: SpaceX
Falcon 9 with its JCsat-14 satellite payload on the pad at Cape Canaveral, awaiting launch. The rocket stands 229 ft (70m) tall.

Image credit: SpaceX
Mission patch for the JCsat-14 mission

Image credit: SpaceX
LIFTOFF of Falcon 9 with its JCsat-14 payload!

Image credit: SpaceX
Trajectory of Falcon 9 and its payload en route to 36,000 km above Earth

While last month's barge landing happened during the day time and was filmed by nearby quad copters from the air, no such footage exists for last week's night landing. The only transmitting cameras were mounted on the barge itself. This led to temporary "white out" conditions as the brightness of the landing burn briefly overloaded the cameras. Those were nail-biting seconds. Did Falcon land? Did it break apart? Did it fall into the ocean? It wasn't until the brightness had receded that the barge's camera revealed Falcon 9's landing legs intact, and with that, another upright, beautiful landing of historic significance. 

Congratulations to Elon Musk and the entire team at SpaceX!

Image credit: SpaceX
View of landed Falcon 9 upper stage - still breathing fire - on the drone ship

Image credit: SpaceX
Recovered Falcon 9 on SpaceX's drone ship the next morning in all its - albeit a bit scorched - glory. (Let's see you travel 36,000 km out and then back into the atmosphere in a matter of minutes :)

Elon Musk, as per usual, inserted his own particular brand of wry humor into the twitter discussion once it had become clear that Falcon was safely on the barge, and would be tested for reuse, along with the booster recovered last month:

Here's a video of the launch and landing details only:

The entire hour-long webcast from SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, CA is worth a look as well, if only to experience the jubilant atmosphere that prevailed among SpaceX employees as their rocket performed flawlessly, including sticking a precarious landing on an ocean-borne barge, for the second time in a month.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Dual Success For SpaceX

It's been a weekend of amazing successes for SpaceX. The private space company delivered its eighth Dragon resupply capsule to the International Space Station and stuck an experimental landing of the spent Falcon 9 booster rocket on a drone ship in the Atlantic. SpaceX has previously tried landing the first stage of a Falcon 9 used in missions. Both times, the rocket made it to its target on the drone ship, but failed to land upright, resulting in RUD events (rapid unscheduled disassembly).

This tweet from early Sunday morning, April 10, shows Dragon safely docked to the ISS Harmony module, next to an Orbital Sciences' Cygnus cargo craft and a Soyuz crew capsule on the lower right. In total, six spacecraft are currently docked to the International Space Station.

But let's go back to launch day, Friday, April 8, and take a look at all that SpaceX accomplished this weekend:

Image credit: SpaceX
Falcon 9 with its Dragon payload on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral

Image credit: SpaceX
Mission patch for SpaceX's eighth commercial resupply mission (CRS-8) to the International Space Station

If you look closely, you'll find the patch full of interesting details. For example, the eight stars in the design represent the eight missions to the ISS that SpaceX has flown so far, with one star dimmed out to symbolize last June's failed launch.

Image credit: SpaceX
Close-up of Dragon capsule atop Falcon 9, which stands over 200 feet (60 m) tall

Image credit: Space X
Graphic illustrating the stages of launch, landing and mission completion (click to enlarge)

The drone ship name in the above graphic is Just Read The Instructions. The ship on which Falcon 9 stuck its historic landing is Of Course I Still Love You.

The following trio of still pictures captured by SpaceX's chaser plane near the drone ship shows the landing's most breath-taking moments. This is the first time that SpaceX has successfully landed a rocket used in a mission on a drone ship at sea. The private space company previously succeeded at landing a Falcon 9 first stage on-shore.

Image credit: SpaceX

Image credit: SpaceX

Image credit: SpaceX

Whether Falcon 9's first stage lands on a drone ship or on shore after delivering a payload depends on several factors. Elon Musk explained some of them on Twitter.

Following are two tweets from SpaceX with landing video clips that were posted to the company's twitter account within hours of the landing.

Here is SpaceX's 36-minute launch and landing live webcast. About 30 seconds in, a legend appears at the bottom that lists the consecutive events being covered. It is well worth the time to review the launch and what SpaceX labeled "experimental landing". While the landing is one of the most jaw-dropping and certainly the most historic aspect of the CRS-8 mission, a successful landing was not the primary mission objective. That was getting a Dragon resupply capsule, including its important science cargo, safely to the International Space Station. SpaceX succeeded on both counts, with several cherries on top.

The reactions from employees at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, CA after the successful launch and landing on Friday say it all. Elon Musk and the team at SpaceX have mastered another crucial step towards routine usage of reusable rockets, drastically lowering the cost of reaching targets in orbit and beyond and making space more accessible than ever before. SpaceX plans to re-fly a used rocket within a few months.

Video credit: SpaceX
Live webcast from SpaceX's headquarters during Friday's successful launch to the ISS and landing on one of the company's drone ship.

Below is the Storify of my live tweets and conversations during Friday's pre-launch, launch and landing events, with some additional remarks for this blog post.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Launch Alert: Go SpaceX and SES-9!

Update - February 28, 2016: 

Today's launch attempt was scrubbed after two tries. One involved technical issues, while the other hold was called due to an unauthorized vessel in waters off the coast of Cape Canaveral. It is routine to declare certain ocean stretches off-limits for brief periods while rocket launches occur. Alas, sometimes not everybody gets the message. It happened before and it happened again today. A launch is scrubbed when a vessel is present in the "off-limits" zone, where it could be hit by debris as a result of a launch accident. To paraphrase a tweet from Elon Musk: The important thing is that both vehicle and spacecraft are healthy
A new launch date has not yet been announced. I will post updates here.

Original Post:

In about an hour, SpaceX is scheduled to launch an SES-9 communications satellite from Cape Canaveral. SES is based in Luxembourg and among the world's leading satellite manufacturers. Today's launch is the third attempt to launch the satellite into a geostationary transfer orbit. 

Previous launches last week have been scrubbed due to fueling issues. According to a SpaceX statement, these steps were taken out of an abundance of caution.

Let's hope today's launch will proceed as planned; it should be spectacular, set against a colorful sunset on the Space Coast. 

Launch time:
6:46 pm EST
3:46 pm PST 
23:46 CET

The launch window lasts well over an hour and closes at about 8:23 pm EST (5:23 PST, 04:46 CET).

The launch includes a Falcon 9 upper stage landing attempt on an ocean-faring autonomous landing barge, whimsically named "Of Course I Still Love You", after Iain M. Banks' (fictional) sentient starships.

 Photo credit: SpaceX

SpaceX has previously attempted landings on ocean-based barges. While it has nailed landing a Falcon 9 upper stage on land, it has yet to stick a rocket landing on an ocean-faring barge. Previous attempts have resulted in RUDs on the barge ships - Rapid Unscheduled Disassemblies. Let's hope today's landing attempt will yield a more positive result!

Live launch - and possibly landing - footage is available here: http://www.spacex.com/webcast

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Will I Get Up Before Sunrise To See 5 Planets?

Today was one of those unexpectedly joyous days because my husband surprised me with a 4-day stargazing and hot spring-exploring trip to the California and Nevada deserts. We'll be heading for Pahrump, NV on Thursday and use that as a staging area for various night- / daytime forays and explorations. Death Valley is on the menu, and so is the Tecopa Hot Springs Resort.

Yet what I really look forward to - after 18 months spent in urban environs - is the lack of light pollution and unobstructed views of the skies. The weather looks favorable for the entire time and I'm hoping for spectacular celestial displays. Perhaps a glimpse of the Milky Way, which I have not seen with the naked eye since...oh,...let's just say a trip to the Canary Islands last century. 

I especially hope to get a great view of the current 5-planet alignment in the early morning skies:

Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

In a rare alignment, Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter will form an arc in the pre-dawn southern skies, about 45 minutes prior to sunrise. In the CA and NV deserts, that's about 6:00 - 6:30 a.m. Antares in the constellation Scorpio will also join this early morning celestial dance, as will Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo.

Image credit: Sky & Telescope

Another graphic of the early-morning planetary and celestial line-up that will remain visible until late February.

Image credit: New York Times

The diagram above shows that just because we can see five planets at the same time they are not the same distance away from Earth. The diagram illustrates the orbits of Saturn, Jupiter (planet name cut off in graphic), Mars, Venus and Mercury around the sun as well as the planets' relative distances from Earth. If I look at these five planets this weekend, and consider their relative distances from me, I wonder which one will appear brightest?

(Related science fact: Planets are not intrinsically bright. We can see them in the night skies because they reflect the light of our sun).

Finally, I wonder if I will be able to locate the new Starman constellation, named in honor of the late, great David Bowie, who showed all of us how to reach for the stars.

Image credit: The Weathernetwork
I'll already be looking for Mars and Spica, so maybe The Starman will reveal itself to me this weekend ~