Monday, June 29, 2015

Falcon 9 rocket fails during launch of Dragon supply ship

Falcon 9 breaks apart mid-flight. Credit: NASA
Yesterday, Space Exploration Technologies' seventh resupply flight carrying the Dragon cargo ship bound for the International Space Station ended in failure about two minutes 19 seconds into flight.

The Falcon 9 rocket launched on June 28, 2015 at 9:21 CDT at Cape Canaveral. Everything happened normally in flight all the way to, and through, Max Q, the time in the launch where aerodynamic stress loads on the rocket are at a maximum. 

Shortly after that, a small plum appeared near the top of the second stage of the rocket, and quickly engulfed the whole rocket. Moments later, the rocket disintegrated. This was the Falcon 9s first launch failure, and SpaceXs first complete loss of mission since 2008.

 NASA TV coverage of the SpaceX launch

"Falcon 9 experienced a problem shortly before first stage shutdown. Will provide more info as soon as we review the data," said Elon Musk, the chief executive officer and founder of SpaceX, in a twitter post.

A few minutes later on twitter, he reported there was an "overpressure event" in the second stages liquid oxygen tank. He said the data suggests a counter-intuitive cause.

The second stage engine was in the process of getting ready to take over within the next minute of flight, but before staging could occur, the anomaly happened.

International Docking Adapter 1 at the payload processing
facility. A second one was scheduled to launch later
this year. Credit: NASA
The Dragon capsule riding on top of the Falcon 9 was carrying a multitude of cargo for the orbiting outpost. The biggest loss was the International Docking Adapter, one of two adapters that will be used to support commercial crew dockings to the ISS.

This was the third space station cargo ship to fail in eight months. On October 28, 2014, Orbital Sciences Antares rocket failed seconds after liftoff, destroying the Cygnus Capsule. The Russian Progress cargo ship, launched by a Soyuz rocket, failed shortly after orbital insertion on April 28, 2015. Shortly after it was discovered that the ship was spinning out of control, and would not be able to dock to the station. It later reentered the atmosphere.

The CRS-7 contingency press conference.
Credit: NASA/Glenn Benson
During a press conference a few hours later, William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said the station crew in orbit would be fine for the time being.

There are enough supplies to support the crew, which will increase to six in July, though October. However, a number of supply ships will soon be launching, including the a re-flight of the Russian Progress ship. Additionally, a Japanese HTV cargo ship will be launching in august.

Gerstenmaier said that NASA was working with Orbital Sciences to move up the next launch of their Cygnus spacecraft, which will launch on an Atlas 5 rocket, from December to as soon as October.

Michael Suffredini, space station program manager, said there are parts for a third IDA; the second one will fly on a future SpaceX launch as soon as flight resume.

Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, said she expects the accident investigation to last between four and six months.

More information will be posted on this blog as it becomes available.