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October 4, 2013

Innaugural West Coast launch a huge success for SpaceX

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Peter W. Merlin
special to Aerotech News

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SpaceX successfully launched its next-generation Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., Sept. 29.

This was the sixth launch of a Falcon 9 and the maiden flight of the upgraded F9 (v.1.1) model. It was also the inaugural flight from the companys new West Coast launch complex. All previous Falcon rockets were launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Although SpaceX officials considered this a demonstration flight, the rocket carried a scientific payload into orbit for the Canadian Space Agency and MDA Corp., a Canadian aerospace contractor. The 1,100-pound satellite includes a prototype of a new small-satellite bus for future CSA missions and carried two Canadian instrument packages and three secondary payloads.

The Cascade Smallsat and Ionospheric Polar Explorer, or CASSIOPE, will serve as a technology demonstrator for a future space-based digital courier system for delivering large data files and will collect information on space weather phenomena. Canadian scientists will use a suite of instruments called the Enhanced Polar Outflow Probe, or e-POP, to study how solar variability affects Earths ionosphere, a region of the upper atmosphere between 53 and 370 miles above the planets surface where ionization caused by incoming solar radiation affects the propagation of radio waves. CASSIOPE also carried two international payloads for the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency and U.S. Navy. The JAXA-sponsored neutral mass spectrometer will examine how neutral particles behave relative to surrounding ions and electrons. The Navy provided a transmitter that will interact with several ground-based receivers to measure electron density in the ionosphere. Secondary payloads included the Polar Orbiting Passive Atmospheric Calibration Spheres, a privately funded Cubesat experiment to measure the effects of solar flares and coronal mass ejections on the density of Earths upper atmosphere; Drag and Atmospheric Neutral Density Explorer, a spherical satellite designed by students from the university of Colorado at Boulder to explore the phenomenon of spacecraft drag in the lower thermosphere; and Cornell Universitys CUSat, a technology demonstrator for testing a carrier-phase differential Global Positioning System algorithm that will provide GPS accuracy to the millimeter level.
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Shortly after liftoff SpaceX CEO Elon Musk confirmed that F9-006 had accomplished its primary objectives, placing its payloads in a precise orbit over Earth’s poles and successfully demonstrating the rocket’s upgraded engines, flight control computer and stage-separation system. Two secondary objectives ofthe flight were not met. The first of these was an attempt to recover the first stage booster, firing the engines twice to establish a stable trajectory for recovery in the ocean off the coast of Baja California. Musk said SpaceX mission control received data from the booster throughout reentry, but a second engine restart spun the first stage out of control, causing prematurely shutdown. The rocket broke apart upon impact in the Pacific Ocean a few hundred miles south of Vandenberg. Recovery crews picked up parts of the booster’s interstage fairing, engine section and pressure vessels. Another secondary objective, re-ignition of the second-stage engine following payload release, aborted automatically when the engines control software detected a problem during restart.

SpaceX, formally known as Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, Hawthorne, Calif., is a pioneer in the emerging field of commercial launch services. The companys Falcon family of rockets has already successfully delivered cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) with the Dragon cargo capsule and SpaceX has a growing backlog of commercial payloads awaiting launch. The new booster has more powerful engines than its predecessor, as well as stretched fuel tanks and a 17-foot-diameter payload fairing to accommodate larger satellites. These upgrades give the F9 (v1.1) about a 50 percent increase in spacelift capability over the F9 (v1.0), which flew five times on test flights and ISS resupply missions.

In preparation for West Coast operations, engineers modified an existing facility at Vandenberg that was previously used to launch Titan 4 rockets for the Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office. The Titan 4 was retired in 2005 and SpaceX subsequently arranged to use Space Launch Complex 4 East (SLC-4E) for Falcon 9 rockets destined to boost payloads into polar orbits. The first of these, F9-006, arrived at Vandenberg this summer and was mated to its transporter erector on August 22.† After being rolled out to SLC-4E for integration testing the two-stage booster, minus payload fairing, was subjected to a wet dress rehearsal exercise to practice propellant loading.† F9-006 was then returned to the SpaceX hangar for payload integration before being returned to the pad for hot-fire engine tests.†Nine liquid-fueled Merlin 1D engines generate 1.3 million pounds of thrust at sea level. On the F9 (v1.0), the engines were arranged in three straight rows but for the F9 (v1.1) they have been reconfigured in an octagonal pattern on the base of the first stage, with one in the center. A single Merlin 1D optimized for performance in the vacuum of space powers the second stage to place the payload in orbit.

The Air Force 30th Space Wing’s 1st Air and Space Test Squadron led all launch site certification activities at Vandenberg for SpaceX. Under the authority of the Space and Missile Systems Center, the squadron evaluated the company’s flight and ground systems, processes and procedures. The launch of F9-006 was originally to take place in mid-September but vehicle/pad interface problems, various technical difficulties, and schedule conflicts with other planned Vandenberg launches postponed the flight until the end of the month. SpaceX expects the F9 (v1.1) to serve as the companys workhorse in coming years, carrying cargo and eventually crew to the ISS and lofting commercial, scientific and military payloads to orbit.




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