SpaceX Has Big Day Coming Up Tuesday-UPDATE 2

SpaceX Has Big Day Coming Up Tuesday-UPDATE 2

UPDATE, February 11, 2015:   DSCOVR was successfully launched at 6:03 pm ET.  The Falcon 9 first stage landing on the drone ship was not attempted due to high seas, but the stage did go through its reentry burns and splashed down in the ocean.

UPDATE, February 10, 2015:  SpaceX was one for three today.  Dragon successfully splashed down as planned at 7:44 pm ET, but the Falcon 9 launch of DSCOVR was postponed because of strong upper level winds, which meant the landing test of the F9 first stage also was postponed.  They will try again tomorrow (Feb 11).

ORIGINAL STORY, February 9, 2015:  If all goes according to plan, tomorrow (February 10) SpaceX will launch a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a space weather satellite headed to the Sun-Earth  L1 Lagrange point, the company’s first deep space mission, accompanied by a second attempted landing of the Falcon 9’s first stage on a drone ship.  Then, coincidentally, a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft should land in the Pacific Ocean after detaching from the International Space Station (ISS).  All in the course of an hour and a half.

Dragon arrived at the ISS on January 12, 2015 as SpaceX’s fifth operational Commercial Resupply Services mission (SpX-5) for NASA.   The spacecraft is scheduled to be released from the ISS at about 2:09 pm ET on Tuesday (NASA TV will provide live coverage beginning at 1:45 pm ET) and land in the Pacific Ocean around 7:44 pm ET (no live coverage is planned). 

Meanwhile. at 6:05 pm ET, SpaceX should be launching the NOAA/NASA/Air Force Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) from Cape Canaveral, FL on a Falcon 9 rocket.  Space X will conduct a second test of landing the Falcon 9 first stage on an “autonomous spaceport drone ship” positioned approximately 400 miles out at sea.  Its first attempt to land a first stage last month — on the flight that sent SpX-5 to ISS —  was “close, but no cigar,” as SpaceX founder and Chief Designer Elon Musk phrased it at the time.  

The problem last time was insufficient hydraulic fluid for the fins on the rocket stage that provide aerodynamic stability.  SpaceX has increased the amount of hydraulic fluid this time, but this rocket is flying a different profile and company representatives still give it only a 50-50 chance of success.  Last time, there were three post-launch engine firings to position the rocket stage for reentry and landing.  This time there will be only two and the rocket will be reentering at a higher speed and pressure.  Musk tweeted (@elonmusk) that it has “2X force and 4X heat” compared to the last attempt.  The tests are part of Musk’s attempt to develop a reusable rocket stage.

The drone ship, sometimes referred to as a barge although Musk points out that barges do not have their own thrusters and this does, will be positioned further out in the ocean than last time because of the different trajectory and associated higher safety risks.  Musk named the ship “Just Read the Instructions,”a sci-fi reference.

The DSCOVR launch and Falcon 9 landing attempt depend on many factors, of course, beginning with the weather.  The launch was aborted on Sunday because of a problem with a radar operated by the Air Force Eastern Test Range needed for tracking the rocket, and although there was a launch opportunity today, the weather forecast was only 40 percent favorable so they decided not to try.  The forecast for tomorrow is 70 percent favorable.  On Sunday there also was an issue with a transmitter on the Falcon 9 first stage, though it was the radar malfunction that aborted the launch attempt.  If something goes awry and the launch does not take place tomorrow, a backup date is Wednesday, February 11, at 6:03 pm ET.  After that, it would have to wait until February 20.

Weather in the Pacific theoretically could also delay Dragon’s landing, though at the moment all appears on track for the 7:44 pm ET (4:44 pm PT) splashdown. Dragon is bringing back 3,700 pounds of cargo from the ISS, including the results of scientific experiments.

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