The next launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to deliver cargo to the International Space Station is being delayed until early January, company officials confirmed this morning. Trouble encountered during a test firing of the vehicle’s first stage prompted SpaceX to move the launch date until after the holidays.
During the static test on Tuesday, the rocket’s nine first stage Merlin 1D engines were ignited for one of the final readiness checks before launch. The test firing was supposed to last several seconds, but did not execute the entire planned duration. As a result, engineers want to run a second test before committing the rocket for flight. According to a statement issued by SpaceX this morning:
“While the recent static fire test accomplished nearly all of our goals, the test did not run the full duration. The data suggests we could push forward without a second attempt, but out of an abundance of caution, we are opting to execute a second static fire test prior to launch.”
Additionally, and launch delay beyond this week would run into the Christmas and New Year’s holidays when most people take time off including workers at SpaceX, NASA and the Air Force – who manage the Cape Canaveral launch range.
“Given the extra time needed for data review and testing, coupled with the limited launch date availability due to the holidays and other restrictions, our earliest launch opportunity is now Jan. 6 with Jan. 7 as a backup,” SpaceX said in its statement.
Launch time on January 6 would 6:18 am EST during an instantaneous launch window.
Complicating matters further is the fact that the International Space Station will be entering a period of a high beta angle, which refers to the difference between the postition of the Sun in relation to the orbital plane of the space station. When the angle is at its greatest, additional thermal and power concerns arise which prohibit Dragon from berthing with the outpost.
“The ISS orbits through a high beta angle period a few times a year. This is where the angle between the ISS orbital plane and the sun is high, resulting in the ISS being in almost constant sunlight for a 10 day period,” said SpaceX. “During this time, there are thermal and operational constraints that prohibit Dragon from being allowed to berth with the ISS. This high beta period runs from 12/28/14-1/7/15. Note that for a launch on 1/6, Dragon berths on 1/8.
Both Falcon 9 and Dragon remain in good health, and our teams are looking forward to launch just after the New Year.”
It is important for both NASA and SpaceX that CRS-5 get off the pad in early January. Launch of CRS-6 has already slipped into the spring timeframe. NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observer (DISCOVR, formerly known as Triana) had been scheduled to blast off on the following Falcon 9 v1.1 on January 23 but will now almost certainly slip into February or March as SpaceX’s near-term manifest experiences a “domino effect” pushing all launches further into 2015.
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