BREAKING: SpaceX Dragon Launch Runs Into Trouble

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March 1 2013 7:00 AM

SpaceX Ready to Launch Another Dragon to the Space Station

[UPDATE 9, FINAL (21:30 UTC, launch + 6 hr 20 m): All four thrusters are now apparently working, and SpaceX is preparing to fire them to lift up Dragon's orbit. The rendezvous with ISS has been postponed, but everything's looking good at this time. I have a complete blow-by-blow description on the blog now, so I will no longer be updating this article.]

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Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death from the Skies!  

[UPDATE 8 (20:00 UTC, launch + 5 hours): Great news: Elon Musk reports that thrusters 1 and 4 are now both online, and now being used to actively control the Dragon capsule! I am listening to the NASA/SpaceX press conference now and will have another update shortly.]


[UPDATE 7 (19:30 UTC, launch + 4 h 20 m):The NASA website states that only one Dragon thruster pod is working, and the capsule needs two to get to the space station. A press conference is scheduled for 20:00 UTC (3:00 p.m. Eastern US time) so I should have more info soon.]

[UPDATE 6 (16:50 UTC, launch + 1 hr 40m): Elon Musk now reports that the solar panel arrays were deployed! That's great news. I assume this means that they now have two working thrusters, and they will continue to work on getting the other two online as well.]

[UPDATE 5 (16:45 UTC, launch + 1 hr 35 m): Elon Musk reports that "Thruster pod 3 tank pressure trending positive. Preparing to deploy solar arrays." That's excellent news! If they get a second thruster working they can continue with the procedure to get the Dragon capsule to the space station. First they'll deploy the solar arrays to give the capsule power (it's running on batteries right now), then they can work on getting the other two thrusters online.]

[UPDATE 4 (16:30 UTC, launch + 1 hr 20 m): I received the following from Christine Ra, Communications Director of SpaceX: "One thruster pod is running. Two are preferred to take the next step which is to deploy the solar arrays.  We are working to bring up the other two in order to plan the next series of burns to get to station." They have to upload a command that will override the command that is preventing the thruster pods from initializing; the thrusters are needed to maneuver the capsule and get it on the right orbit to rendezvous with the space station. Commands are uploaded via communication uplink stations; there is one in Australia and Musk has stated they will use that to try to fix the probem.]

[UPDATE 3 (16:10 UTC, launch + 1 hour): Musk has tweeted saying they are holding off deploying the solar arrays until at least two thrusters are active (3 of the 4 pods were not initialized; that is, primed for startup). This is a serious problem but perhaps not catastrophic; right now the capsule is orbiting the Earth safely, and engineers here on Earth can try to figure out exactly what happened and whether they can fix the problem. In the meantime, here is a video of the launch itself uploaded by Jason Major of Lights in the Dark, which apparently went very well:

Hopefully the problem will be diagnosed and fixed quickly. If not, there is still time to get things in order since the capsule will continue to orbit the Earth.]

SpaceX test firing the Falcon 9 rocket
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket undergoes an engine test a few days before the actual launch. Click to tsiolkovskynate.

Image credit: SpaceX

[Update 2 (15:50 UTC; launch + 40 minutes: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted that the problem is with the Dragon thruster pods, used to maneuver the capsule in space: "Issue with Dragon thruster pods. System inhibiting three of four from initializing. About to command inhibit override." We're waiting to see what happens.]

[UPDATE 1 (15:40 UTC; 30 minutes after launch): The Falcon 9 successfully launched the Dragon capsule into orbit, but here has been a subsequent problem. The SpaceX live web video feed didn't give specifics, but it looks like the solar panels did not deploy. These panels supply power to the capsule while it's on orbit, and are critical components. No further information has been given, but there will be a status update very soon, and a press conference in a couple of hours where hopefully we'll learn more. Stay tuned.]

At 15:10 UTC (10:10 Eastern U.S. time) today, the private commercial company SpaceX is scheduled to launch the second fully-loaded Dragon space capsule to the International Space Station.

This is the second of 12 SpaceX missions to the ISS; the first operational flight was in May 2012, which carried supplies to the station. Today's flight will carry 550 kilograms (1200 pounds) of supplies to the astronauts in orbit. The Dragon capsule is planned to return on March 25, carrying well over a ton of cargo back to Earth, including scientific experiments, supplies, and hardware no longer needed on orbit.

The Falcon 9 rocket will carry the Dragon into space, and it’ll be shown live on NASA TV. From launch to orbit is less than 10 minutes, and it’s pretty exciting; there are cameras on the rocket that provide a dramatic view of events, including the solar arrays deploying which is very cool to watch (though my favorite part by a long shot is hearing the engineers and other folks cheering and clapping as launch milestones are achieved). SpaceX has a press kit online that gives details.

On Feb. 25, the Falcon 9 underwent a static test fire, where all nine Merlin engines were fired for two seconds while the rocket was kept secured from taking off. Here’s the video:

SpaceX performs these static fires as a full launch dress rehearsal. Because the Falcon 9 rocket uses liquid fuel, the engines can be turned on or off as needed. Solid rocket boosters don’t work that way; once ignited, they go until they’re done.

I’ll be live-tweeting the launch, so follow me on Twitter to get the news as soon as I see it.

Ad astra, SpaceX. Let’s light this candle and get another one of these missions underway.