Tag Archives: LC-39A

Falcon Heavy Launch Replays and Status

First off, the best news: the upper stage appears to have performed its final burn on schedule!  [UPDATE: final orbit is confirmed, with an aphelion extending nearly to the asteroid belt!]  SpaceX is doubtless waiting for confirmation of final orbit before announcement; this is a little trickier when the object is heading into heliocentric orbit and is therefore more challenging to track.  But spotters on the ground witnessed engine plumes consistent with the timing and expected ground track of the Falcon upper stage.  This view was from Marana, AZ:

Less good news: while the two side cores made perfect landings back at the Cape, the central core missed the droneship.  It’s unclear why at this point, but that’s definitely something that SpaceX will want to investigate.  Still, recovery is gravy at this point in the program, so it’s not bad at all, and it definitely got *close* to the barge “Of Course I Still Love You”.

And then we’ll wrap up with some coolness!  First, replay of the launch broadcast (skip ahead 22 minutes for the actual liftoff; skip to 25 minutes for a bit of David Bowie as we see fairing separation, revealing the mannequin “Starman” in the Tesla):

Now, the launch and landing as viewed by folks on the rooftop of the Cocoa Beach Hilton:

And I don’t know how long this next link will be good for, but Space Videos is streaming a reply of the Starman feed, showing the Tesla and its anthropomorphic occupant prior to that final burn:

Oh, and here’s a graphic showing the final orbit — nearly to the orbit of Ceres!  The “Mars-crossing” target was well and truly achieved, and then some.


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Falcon Heavy roars to life!

The Falcon Heavy at pad LC39A lit all twenty-seven of its engines for about ten seconds this morning, in what SpaceX declared a successful static fire test.  This is the most thrust Pad A has experienced since 2011, when the Space Shuttle Atlantis made the final flight of the Space Shuttle program.  (It’s also considerably less thrust than Shuttle, but only one other American rocket has ever hit that level — and it also flew from LC39: the Saturn V.)  This is also the most engines that any American orbital rocket has ever attempted to use simultaneously.  The only other rocket to have used so many engines was the N-1 (which had thirty on the first stage), and it had a very disappointing (and expensive) record — four attempts, all catastrophic failures.  But today’s test demonstrates one thing the Soviets were never able to do with N-1: perform an all-up static test fire, forcing them to test the combined performance of all engines only in flight, an exceedingly expensive and dangerous way to go about it.

Now SpaceX is looking ahead towards launch, possibly as soon as next week pending engineering analysis of the data collected today.  If all goes well, there will be a Tesla Roadster on a Mars-crossing heliocentric orbit by early February.  😉

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This Tesla is Going to Mars(ish . . . hopefully)

It’s a new year, and this new year will see a lot of cool stuff in space — but one of those cool things will be the long-awaited first flight of the Falcon Heavy!  It’s basically three Falcon 9 first stages strapped together, with a single upper stage, and it’s what Musk ultimately wants to use to boost his Red Dragon concept to Mars.  Red Dragon is experiencing delays of its own (the abandonment of propulsive landings for the ISS crew transfer Dragon is a bit of a blow, since that’s a prerequisite for Mars landings), but the launch vehicle is almost here.  And perhaps surprisingly for such an enormous rocket, it actually already has customers lined up.  The conventional wisdom is that there’s too little need for a rocket in this class to make it commercially viable, but it appears that the Falcon 9 reusability and parts commonality may just tip the scales enough to make it viable.  For this first flight, the core stage is brand new, but the two strap-ons are recycled, having previously boosted Thaicom 8 and the ninth commercial Dragon cargo mission to the ISS.

But what of the payload?

This is the first flight of a completely new rocket, so there is no paying customer.  Typically, a new rocket will carry some type of “mass simulator” — a slab of metal, a chunk of concrete, perhaps even a tank of water to do the job of being lifted for not a lot of extra money.  But that’s too boring for SpaceX.  So Elon Musk has contributed his cherry-red 2008 Tesla Roadster as the payload.  And it’s been installed on the rocket, which gives me no end of delight due to the sheer, beautiful ridiculousness of these images, showing the Roadster mounted on a payload adapter, about to be encapsulated in a payload fairing that is ridiculously large for such a tiny payload.

If you have the opportunity to be in Florida for this, I highly recommend it.  (I doubt I’ll be able to, alas.)  If all goes well, not only will this be the biggest thing lifting from LC-39A since the end of the Shuttle program, but it will also feature the spectacular return of three core stages.  Two will return to land at Cape Canaveral, while the central core stage will continue on for a water landing aboard the droneship “Of Course I Still Love You” (equipped with its autonomous welding bot, Roomba, which secures the returned stage before the barge heads back to port).  The upper stage, meanwhile, is expected to boost the Tesla roadster into a Mars-crossing Hohmann Transfer Orbit, which it may persist for billions of years.  It won’t actually reach Mars; it won’t be launching at the right time for that.  (Unless it gets delayed sufficiently; the Mars window will be opening in March, just in time for Mars InSight to launch aboard its Atlas V.)

It’s ridiculous, but oh so cool all the same.  😉  If successful, it will be the first car (well, with seats anyway) to go beyond the Moon.

Meanwhile, since then, the vehicle has been rolled to the pad for a fit check.  All went well, and it was returned to the hangar.

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SpaceX has reused another booster!

A Falcon 9 rocket successfully placed the SES-11/EchoStar 105 spacecraft onto geosynchronous transfer orbit, and recovered the first stage after an exceptionally hot reentry from this high-energy trajectory.  This was their third flight of a reused stage.

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X-37 dodges Hurricane Irma aboard a Falcon 9

Today was the scheduled liftoff day for the fifth X-37 mission (OTV-5), and the first aboard a Falcon 9.  (X-37 was designed from the start to be compatible with almost any launch vehicle, including the Space Shuttle, but its first four launches were all aboard the Atlas V.)  As a bonus, since SpaceX is still unable to use their original Florida launchpad, Cape Canaveral Air Station’s SLC-40, this launch used the pad they’re adapting for Falcon Heavy, Kennedy Space Center’s venerable LC-39A.  So LC-39A got to launch another spaceplane after all.  😉  (LC-39A’s last spaceplane launch was STS-135, the final flight of the Space Shuttle program, just over six years ago.)

Coverage of the ascent stops with first stage separation, as normal for classified flights*, but since this was Falcon 9, we got to see coverage of the first stage continue all the way to touchdown back at the Cape.  Now, SpaceX gets to scramble to safe it and stash it safely in a hangar in advance of Hurricane Irma.

*X-37 is not a classified spacecraft, but its missions are generally classified.  This one does carry one unclassified payload, the Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader, for the Air Force Research Laboratory.  It will “test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipe technologies in the long duration space environment”.  Satellites already use heat pipe technology to draw waste heat away from sensitive electronic components (since obviously fans don’t work for cooling a spacecraft computer), but this new technology will be lighter and cheaper.  All the other payloads, as well as their quantity and the target orbit and any planned maneuvers, remain classified.  But they are probably also experimental technologies, since X-37 offers a unique opportunity to test equipment for a long duration in space and recover it for extensive engineering analysis afterwards.

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An era fades: the Rotating Service Structure at LC-39A comes down

It’s been kind of fun watching the last few Falcon 9 launches with the Shuttle’s Fixed Service Structure and Rotating Service Structure still in place at the icon LC-39A.  (The structures at LC-39B were removed years ago to return it to its “clean pad” configuration from the Apollo years.)  But that fun has come to an end.  Crews have begun delicately removing the Rotating Service Structure, piece by piece, to avoid damaging the new Falcon 9 structures in place at the pad.  It doesn’t need to be gone right away, but there is a bit of a downtime in the Falcon 9 launch schedule at Merritt Island, so it was a good time to get some progress in.  They expect to have it completely demolished by the end of the year, and the steel hauled off for recycling.

The Shuttle structures won’t be completely gone, though.  The Fixed Service Structure will be retained to support a gantry that will allow crew access once the crewed Dragon flights begin.  That access arm is scheduled to be added this fall, to support flights sometime next year.

There’s a time-lapse video in this article, showing the cranes arriving and beginning to lift down sections:


But, as one era ends, another is beginning.  The loss of Shuttle remains bittersweet, but we’re moving into an exciting era of commercial spaceflight, not just in crewed flights but unmanned as well.  With luck, by the end of the year we’ll also see the launch of some of the Google Lunar Xprize candidates…..

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Catching up on launches and landings!

I’ve been remiss in blogging, so here’s a pile of videos to try to make it up.  😉

First off, last Saturday China carried out the second launch of their new heavy-lift rocket, the CZ-5 (Long March 5), from their newest launch site on Hainan Island.  CZ-5 is intended to support their deep space exploration aspirations, including eventual manned missions to the Moon, so a successful launch was very important.  Unfortunately, it does not appear to have been successful.  Initial indications suggest the first stage burned considerably longer than expected, which would suggest a possible engine failure resulting in the stage burning much longer in attempt to compensate, perhaps to propellant depletion.  The second stage appears to have carried out a normal burn, but was clearly unable to make up the velocity shortfall.  The upper stage and its seven-ton experimental commsat payload (Shijan-18) both reentered, most likely impacting in the Pacific Ocean.  The strap-on stages of the CZ-5 operate on kerosene and LOX, while the core and upper stages burn LH2/LOX.  The booster engines use a design licensed from NPO Energomash in Russia, the world’s undisputed leader in staged-combustion kerolox engines (it really is amazing how many vehicles around the world use their designs), while the cryogenic engines are domestically designed and produced.

Meanwhile, the first recycled SpaceX Dragon capsule completed its mission to the ISS.  One of its payloads was the Roll-Out Solar Array (ROSA), an experiment to test a new type of solar array that is more robust than earlier roll-out designs (remember Hubble’s original arrays, which usually looked a bit twisted and wonky when deployed?) but more compact than rigid arrays.  The experiment was almost a complete success, with the array generating lots of power.  Unfortunately, retraction was unsuccessful, so the array had to be jettisoned in its deployed state.

The ROSA’s ride up also left the ISS, but in a more controlled fashion, and returned to Earth.

The CRS-11 spacecraft then made the first Dragon reentry at night.  Astronaut Jack Fisher photographed the plasma trail from orbit:

Rounding out the launches of the last few days is today’s launch of the tenth Falcon 9 of the year, placing Intelsat 35E into geosynchronous transfer orbit.  Due to the size of the payload, this was flown as a fully expendable launch vehicle, with no grid fins and no excess propellant margin to carry out a reentry burn:

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