On Saturday, April 20th, 2019, an explosion took place on SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The company was engaged in a series of static fire engine tests for their Crew Dragon‘s In-Flight Abort test vehicle. This vehicle is essential for crewed missions since it acts as a sort of ejection seat for the crew capsule in the event of an emergency.
While the initial tests of the twelve Draco thrusters on the vehicle were completed successfully, the initiation of the final test of eight SuperDraco thrusters resulted in the destruction of the vehicle. After a thorough investigation, SpaceX has concluded that the explosion was caused by a nitrogen tetroxide leak that occurred just prior to the final test.
The long-awaited Static Fire of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket has been declared a success by SpaceX founder Elon Musk. After this successful test, the first launch of the Falcon Heavy is imminent, with Musk saying in a Tweet, “Falcon Heavy hold-down firing this morning was good. Generated quite a thunderhead of steam. Launching in a week or so.”
This is a significant milestone for the Falcon Heavy, considering that SpaceX initially thought the Heavy’s first flight would be in 2013. The first launch for the Falcon Heavy has always seemed to be tantalizingly out of reach. If space enthusiasts could’ve willed the thing into space, it would’ve launched years ago. But that’s not how it goes.
Developing rockets like the Falcon Heavy is not a simple matter. Even Musk himself admitted this when he said in July, “At first it sounds real easy: you just stick two first stages on as strap-on boosters. But then everything changes. All the loads change; aerodynamics totally change. You’ve tripled the vibration and acoustics.” So it’s not really a surprise that the Falcon Heavy’s development has seen multiple delays.
After first being announced in 2011, the rocket’s first flight was set for 2013. That date came and went, then in 2015 rocket failures postponed the flight. Failures postponed SpaceX again in 2016. New target dates were set for late 2016, then early 2017, then late 2017. But with this successful test, long-suffering space fans can finally breathe a sigh of relief, and their collective sigh will last about as long as the static fire: only a few seconds.
The Falcon Heavy has a total of 27 individual rocket engines, and all 27 of them were fired in this test, though the Heavy never left the launch pad. For those who don’t know, the Falcon Heavy is based on SpaceX’s successful Falcon 9 rocket, a nine-engine machine that made SpaceX the first commercial space company to visit the International Space Station, when the Falcon 9 delivered SpaceX’s Dragon capsule to the ISS in 2012. Since then, the Falcon has a track record of delivering cargo to the ISS and launching satellites into orbit.
The Heavy is like a Falcon 9 with two more 9-engine boosters strapped on. It will be the most powerful rocket in operation, by a large margin. (It won’t be the most powerful rocket in history though. That title still belongs to the Saturn V rocket, last launched in 1973.)
The Falcon Heavy will create 5 million pounds of thrust at lift-off, and will be able to carry about 140,000 lbs, which is about three times what the Falcon can carry. The Falcon’s engine core is reusable, and returns itself to Earth after detaching from the second stage. The Falcon Heavy will do the same, with all three cores returning to Earth for reuse. The two outer cores will return to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, and the center core will land on a drone ship in the Atlantic. This is part of the genius behind the SpaceX designs: reusable components keep the cost down.
We aren’t exactly sure when the first launch of the Falcon Heavy will be, and its first launch may be a very short flight. It’s possible that it may only get a few feet off the launch pad. At a conference in July, Musk said, “I hope it makes it far enough beyond the pad so that it does not cause pad damage. I would consider even that a win, to be honest.”
We know a few things about the eventual first launch and flight of the Falcon. There won’t be any scientific or commercial payload on-board. Rather, Musk intends to put his own personal Tesla roadster on-board as payload. If successful, it will be the first car to go on a trip around the Sun. (I call Shotgun!) It’s kind of silly to use a rocket to send a car around the Sun, but it will generate publicity. Not only for SpaceX, but for Tesla too.
If the launch is successful, the Falcon Heavy will be open for business. SpaceX already has some customers lined up for the Falcon Heavy, with a Saudi Arabian communications satellite first in line. After that, its second commercial mission will place several satellites in orbit. The US Air Force will be watching these launches closely, with an eye to using the Falcon Heavy for their own purposes.
But the real strength of the Falcon Heavy is not blasting cars on frivolous trips around the Sun, or placing communications satellites in orbit. Its destination is deep space.
Originally, SpaceX planned to use the Falcon Heavy to send people to Mars in a Dragon capsule. They’ve cancelled that idea, but the Heavy still has the capability to send rovers or other cargo to Mars and beyond. Who knows what uses it will be put to, once it has a track record of success.
We’re all eager to see the successful launch of the Falcon heavy, but while we wait for it, we can enjoy this animation from SpaceX.
The successful engine test clears the path towards a liftoff now rescheduled to early January 2015.
The launch of the Falcon 9 had been slated for Dec. 19, but NASA and SpaceX decided just 1 day before liftoff on Dec. 18 to postpone the launch of the CRS-5 resupply mission into the new year, when the first static fire test failed to run for its full duration of approximately three seconds.
“SpaceX completed a successful static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket [on Dec. 19] in advance of the CRS-5 mission for NASA,” said SpaceX in a statement.
The second test was done because the first test of the Merlin 1D engines did not run for its full duration of about three seconds.
“While the Dec. 17 static fire test accomplished nearly all of our goals, the test did not run the full duration, ”SpaceX spokesman John Taylor confirmed to Universe Today.
“The data suggests we could push forward without a second attempt, but out of an abundance of caution, we are opting to execute a second static fire test prior to launch.”
Both tests were conducted at Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
“We opted to execute a second test,” noted SpaceX.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon cargo freighter had been slated to liftoff on Dec. 19 on its next unmanned cargo run dubbed CRS-5 to the ISS under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.
Following the catastrophic failure of the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo freighter on Oct 28 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, officials are being prudently cautious to ensure that all measures are being carefully rechecked to maximize the possibilities of a launch success.
The new launch date for CRS-5 is now set for no earlier than Jan. 6, 2015
“Given the extra time needed for data review and testing, coupled with the limited launch date availability due to the holidays and other restrictions, our earliest launch opportunity is now January 6 with January 7 as a backup,” said SpaceX.
The unmanned cargo freighter is loaded with more than 3,700 pounds of scientific experiments, technology demonstrations, crew supplies, spare parts, food, water, clothing and assorted research gear.
The Dragon research experiments will support over 256 science and research investigations for the six person space station crews on Expeditions 42 and 43.
CRS-5 marks the company’s fifth resupply mission to the ISS under a $1.6 Billion contract with NASA to deliver 20,000 kg (44,000 pounds) of cargo to the ISS during a dozen Dragon cargo spacecraft flights through 2016.