The SpaceX team kicked off 2010 with the successful full duration orbit insertion firing of the Falcon 9 second stage at our Texas test site (details below). This was the final stage firing required for launch, so the second stage will soon be packaged for shipment and should arrive at Cape Canaveral by end of month. Depending on how well full vehicle integration goes, launch should occur one to three months later.
...as we get closer to our first Falcon 9 launch, SpaceX would like to thank NASA, the Air Force, the FAA, and our commercial customers for their continued support. And, of course, I would like to thank the whole SpaceX team for their unwavering commitment to our company and our mission, especially over these last few months. Through their hard work and dedication, 2010 promises to be another great year.
[b]Falcon 9 First Stage[/b]
Prior to arrival at the Cape, the Falcon 9 first stage arrived at our Texas Test Site. There, we did a full checkout, raised it up to the top of the 72 meter (235 foot) tall test stand, and conducted two successful nine engine test firings -- the first 10 seconds long, followed by a 30 second long firing three days later.
Test firing of the full flight first stage of Falcon 9. Credit: SpaceX
Everything performed as planned; we then shipped the first stage to Florida and have commenced final processing in the hangar at the SpaceX launch site. Once all propulsion and avionics checkout processes are complete, we will move forward with stage mate, to be followed closely by vehicle transfer to the transporter erector, and a static fire shortly thereafter.
[b]Falcon 9 Second Stage[/b]
Flight hardware for the Falcon 9 second stage also shipped to Texas, where it completed static load testing, and then was integrated with the previously tested Merlin Vacuum second stage engine. After performing system checkouts, we raised the stage up on to the newly completed Upper Stage test stand.
In November we conducted the initial second stage test firing lasting forty seconds. This test involved a new test stand, a new flight stage, and it occurred as planned, on the first attempt without aborts or recycles.
Full duration orbit insertion firing of second stage. Credit: SpaceX
On January 2, 2010, the team completed a full duration orbit insertion firing (329 seconds) of the integrated Falcon 9 second stage. At full power, the Merlin Vacuum engine generates 411,000 N (92,500 lbs force) of thrust, and operates with the highest performance ever for an American-made hydrocarbon rocket engine.
Having multiple stands for testing individual engines, first and second stages, and Draco thrusters allows us great freedom in processing hardware for flight. Our manifest currently lists more than twenty-five Falcon 1e and Falcon 9 missions, seventeen of those with Dragon spacecraft, so all of our stands will be kept very active.
[b]Merlin Vacuum Engine Expansion Nozzle[/b]
We recently fabricated and formed the first flight expansion nozzle for the Merlin Vacuum second stage engine. Made of a thin, high temperature alloy, the large expansion nozzle extends from the regeneratively cooled portion of the engine, and improves its performance in the vacuum of space. Standing 2.7 meters (9 feet) tall and 2.4 m (8 ft) in diameter, it resembles the nozzle used on our Falcon 1's second stage engine, only larger.
The interstage physically joins the first and second stages, and houses the Merlin Vacuum engine during first stage ascent. The carbon composite cylinder measures 3.6 meters (12 feet) in diameter and nearly 8 m (26 ft) tall.
The top edge of the interstage contains a set of clamping collets that join the first and second stages during liftoff and ascent. After the first stage shuts down, the collets release, and three pneumatic pushers smoothly and forcefully separate the stages, clearing the second stage engine for ignition.
We recently conducted a series of full-scale tests verifying the performance of the separation system under a variety of load conditions. We placed the fully configured interstage in the Falcon 9 structural test stand in Texas, and mounted a large mass on top to simulate the second stage. During testing, the collets release the stage and the pushers force the simulated second stage high into the air.
This stage separation system resembles a larger version of the one successfully used on our Falcon 1 vehicle. Note that this system uses no explosives, making it safer to assemble and deploy, and increasing its overall reliability, as we can conduct multiple tests of every flight component, whereas an individual explosive device carries the risk of being fully testable only once -- in actual use.
In addition to the stage separation system, the interstage also houses the parachute system that will aide in first stage recovery. Our Cape team has mated the interstage to the first stage and continues to finalize vehicle wiring in preparation for complete vehicle integration.
[b]Dragon Qualification Spacecraft[/b]
As mentioned above, the inaugural Falcon 9 flight will loft our Dragon qualification spacecraft into orbit. After completing testing in Texas, the Dragon spacecraft shipped to the Cape in preparation for first flight.
Pressurized portion of Dragon, top, mated to unpressurized trunk. Credit: SpaceX
In preparation for flight, the Dragon spacecraft was mated to the trunk (see below), which in future flights will house both unpressurized payloads and the vehicle's solar panels. By flying the Dragon spacecraft configuration, we will obtain valuable data about its performance during the climb to orbit, which will support the following Falcon 9 flight -- the first launch under the NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. On that flight, an operational Dragon spacecraft will make several orbit of the Earth, followed by reentry and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.
[b]Launch Operations - Cape Canaveral SLC-40[/b]
As the flight hardware converges on Florida, many significant activities continue around our launch site in preparation for first flight.
As with our Falcon 1 rocket, the Falcon 9 uses a "hold before launch" system where the launch mount firmly restrains the rocket as it develops full thrust. Once engine performance is verified, the rocket commands the launch mount to set it free.
The Falcon 9's four-part launch mount assembly performs several significant tasks. At rest, it supports the fully fueled Falcon 9, with a mass of over 330,000 kilograms (nearly three-quarters of a million pounds). Next, as the first stage's nine Merlin engines fire and reach full power of nearly 5 MN (over 1 million pounds force), the mounts must hold the vehicle down against the upward thrust.
Finally, upon command, the mounts release the rocket and then move out of the way, giving the nine engines maximum clearance as they lift the vehicle away from Earth.
Months of construction and testing converged into a series of final tests of the launch mount system. The four mount towers were attached to the base of the Transporter / Erector, and their hydraulically powered actuators checked to verify performance.
We then conducted a set of live load tests that simulated the significant downward and upward forces present during the launch sequence. We placed an actual Falcon 9 truss (the structure that joins the nine Merlin engines to the vehicle) into the launch mount, and used a crane and pneumatic cylinders to simulate the forces at liftoff. On command, the launch restraints let the truss fly free.
Both the Falcon 9 first stage and Dragon spacecraft are designed to be recovered. For this first demonstration flight, the Dragon spacecraft will remain in orbit but our team will attempt recovery of the Falcon 9 first stage and has commenced with recovery testing operations.
Flotation testing of a portion of the recovery raft. Credit: SpaceX
Other progress at SLC-40 includes: [list][*]Nearing completion of a new hydraulic system to provide pressurized RP-1 propellant in support of hangar and pad checkout of vehicle Thrust Vector Control (TVC) systems.
[*]Nearing completion of new gaseous nitrogen system (used for pressurization, line purges, etc.), and a new helium system (used for vehicle pressurization, cooling and engine startup).
[*]Completion of the liquid nitrogen delivery system and final fill of 4,900 gallons to the site's storage tank.
[*]Installing new Payload Environmental Control System on the pad to keep future cargo loads comfortable during processing and preparation for launch.
[*]Functional testing of the new helium fill system. During loading, we chill the Falcon 9's helium storage tanks down to minus 184 degrees C (minus 300 degrees F).
[*]Multiple test deployments of the Transporter / Erector system (shown above), and the addition of vehicle fill and drain plumbing and umbilical support systems.
[*]Completed installation of a new dual-redundant, fault tolerant digital information network in support of mission operations and launch pad systems.
[*]Flow tests verifying the systems that will apply large amounts of water to the launch pad to provide noise and fire suppression during liftoff.[/list] [b]Mission Operations[/b]
Back at our Hawthorne CA headquarters in mid-October we conducted a complete end-to-end test of our Dragon radio communications system with the NASA geosynchronous Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS).
The SpaceX communications flight hardware, developed with subcontractors Delta Microwave (Low Noise Amplifier), Quasonix (transmitter and receiver), and Haigh-Farr (antennas), emulated a complete Dragon spacecraft comm link, and successfully sent and received data through the TDRSS network. Commands were dispatched from our Hawthorne headquarters command station, to NASA JSC in Houston, across Texas to the TDRSS White Sands Ground Terminal, up to the TDRS 5 Spacecraft in geosynchronous orbit, and back down to the Dragon receiver on the ground in Hawthorne.
The test series demonstrated telemetry and command transmission at a variety of data rates up to 2.1 Mbps, and paves the way for using TDRSS on all fifteen of our Dragon missions for the COTS and Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) programs.
[b]COTS Flight 2 Rehearsals[/b]
Also in Hawthorne, we recently completed a very successful joint mission simulation with NASA's Mission Operations Directorate where the team rehearsed the operations that will be conducted during the second COTS flight (the third Falcon 9 launch).
During that mission, dubbed "C2", a Dragon Spacecraft will approach within 10 kilometers (6 miles) of the International Space Station, and check out navigation, communication and control systems in preparation for actual approach and berthing with the ISS.
These tests help us progress towards the day when SpaceX will begin a series of twelve CRS cargo delivery missions for NASA to support the continued operation of the ISS.
Stay tuned for more Falcon 9 updates in the coming weeks as we head for launch in early 2010.