Falcon 9 Return to Flight Targeted for December 19

Falcon 9 Return to Flight Targeted for December 19

SpaceX announced today that it will conduct a static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket that will be used to launch 11 ORBCOMM OG2 satellites on December 16.  If all goes well, the launch will take place “about three days later” or December 19.  This will be the first flight of Falcon 9 since its June 28, 2015 launch failure.

Falcon 9 is the only SpaceX rocket currently available and is used for launches of a variety of commercial and government spacecraft, including cargo launches to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA.   It was one of those missions, SpaceX CRS-7, or SpX-7, that failed in June.   It was launching a Dragon capsule loaded with supplies for the ISS crew. 

SpaceX had successfully launched six such operational missions to the ISS previously, including two in 2015, as part of NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.  Under the contract, SpaceX and its competitor, Orbital ATK, each are to launch 20 tons of supplies to ISS by the end of 2016.  Both companies also received additional launch contracts for 2017 and are vying for more business under NASA’s CRS2 contract solicitation.  NASA has delayed announcement of the CRS2 contract winners several times already; the current plan is to award those contracts on January 30, 2016.

Orbital ATK also suffered a failure under the CRS contract and just returned its Cygnus cargo spacecraft to flight this weekend, but using a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket instead of its own Antares.  It is still getting Antares ready to fly again using different engines.  The first flight is currently expected in May 2016.

SpaceX is taking a cautious approach in Falcon 9’s return to flight.  Initially the plan was to launch an SES communications satellite to geostationary orbit on the return-to-flight mission, but that would require a second firing of the Falcon 9’s second (or upper) stage.   It was the second stage that failed in June.   SpaceX decided to launch the ORBCOMM satellites first because they need to go only into low Earth orbit and a second firing is not necessary.

The exact order of SpaceX’s next three launches remains a bit unclear.  ORBCOMM will be first, but whether SES or the next NASA mission, SpX-8, will be second has not been formally announced.  SES’s satellite, SES-9, arrived at Cape Canaveral today to be ready for a mid-January launch.  NASA ISS Program Director, Kirk Shireman, said last week that January 8 is the earliest that SpX-8 will fly, but that is not a firm date.

ORBCOMM’s press release conveyed that its launch date is
dependent on the outcome of the December 16 static fire test:  “Once the
static fire is completed to verify the readiness of the Falcon 9
rocket, ORBCOMM’s second OG2 Mission is targeted to launch about three
days later between 8:00 PM and 9:00 pm ET.”  This is second and final launch of ORBCOMM’s second
generation satellite constellation, OG2, for machine-to-machine
communications that allow companies to remotely track, monitor and
control fixed and mobile assets from trucks to oil platforms to ships.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted the news:

SpaceX also is trying to land the Falcon 9’s first stage back on Earth.  To date, attempted “landings” have been just above the ocean or on autonomous drone ships (which many people refer to as a barge, but barges do not have motors and these do), but the goal is to land them back at Cape Canaveral and SpaceX may attempt that with at least one of these missions if it can get the needed approvals.

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