SpaceX Launch Far From Flawless -- update
Update: This story is updated to reflect SpaceX's emailed press statement this afternoon.
The good news for NASA is that yesterday's SpaceX launch put the Dragon spacecraft in the correct orbit to rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS), but the launch was far from flawless. One of the nine Merlin engines failed and a prototype Orbcomm satellite was deposited in the wrong orbit.
At last night's press conference following the launch, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell did not mention the engine failure until asked by a reporter. She confirmed there had been a problem with engine 1, adding that the Falcon 9 is designed to continue operating in such circumstances with other engines taking up the slack and operating longer in order to reach the desired orbit.
A slow motion video of the launch posted on YouTube shows the event.
SpaceX's post-launch press release last night was silent on the engine failure, but a separate statement emailed by the company today says "one of the rocket's nine Merlin engines, Engine 1, lost pressure suddenly and an engine shutdown command was issued immediately. We know the engine did not explode, because we continued to receive data from it. Our review indicates that the fairing that protects the engine from aerodynamic loads ruptured due to the engine pressure release, and that none of the Falcon 9's other eight engines were impacted by this event." The Falcon 9 "flight computer recomputed a new ascent profile in real time to ensure Dragon's entry into orbit...."
Both SpaceX press statements yesterday and today said nothing about the fate of the Orbcomm OG2 satellite, but experts who keep an eye on satellite orbits like Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) and Bob Christy (@zarya_info) tweeted that the Orbcomm OG2 satellite is not in its correct orbit. McDowell tweets that "Falcon 9 did not make its second upper stage burn, and the Orbcomm satellite is being tracked in low orbit..," while Christy tweets that the satellite is "stranded in LEO" but "a restricted mission (c500km instead of 700+km) may be possible if onboard thruster can be fired." A running discussion thread is taking place on NASASpaceflight.com's forum, a website that is not affiliated with NASA.
A September 25 Orbcomm press release describes the satellite as a prototype of its second generation Machine-to-Machine (M2M) communications satellites for messaging services that also carries an Automatic Identification System (AIS) payload for ship tracking and other maritime uses. SpaceX's press kit for this launch is only about the NASA portion of the flight and does not discuss Orbcomm. Shotwell confirmed it was aboard, however, at a press conference the day prior to the launch.
The Dragon spacecraft is the primary payload and it apparently is fine, but the impact on Orbcomm OG2 and whether this event might change the company's plans for future launches on Falcon 9 is unknown at this time. Orbcomm has not yet issued a public statement or replied to an emailed request for comment.
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