Wednesday, March 10, 2010

SpaceX Aborts Rocket Engine Test

Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) aborted the Falcon 9 medium-class rocket's first static fire test March 9 just as the vehicle's nine main-stage engines were about to ignite for a planned 3.5-second burn.

"Today SpaceX performed our first Static Fire for the Falcon 9 launch vehicle. We counted down to . . . T-2 seconds and aborted on Spin Start," the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company said in a statement. "Given that this was our first abort event on this pad, we decided to scrub for the day to get a good look at the rocket before trying again. Everything looks great at first glance."

"We'll look to do the next static fire attempt in three or four days," SpaceX said.

SpaceX attempted the crucial prelaunch test six days after completing what it described as a flawless countdown-and-propellant-loading exercise known in rocketry circles as a wet dress rehearsal.

An unspecified problem with the rocket's spin start system prompted the abort, according to the statement. While the engines never ignited, video of the test shows a ball of flame followed by a cloud of black smoke erupting from the base of the 15-story-tall rocket.

"As part of the abort, we close the pre-valves to isolate the engines from the propellant tank and purge the residual propellants. The brief flames seen on the video are burn off of [liquid oxygen] and kerosene on the pad. The engines did not ignite and there was no engine fire," SpaceX said in the statement. "We detanked and safed the vehicle and launch pad. Preliminary review shows all other systems required to reach full ignition were within specification. All other pad systems worked nominally."

SpaceX's first Falcon 9 has been standing erect at its Cape Canaveral, Fla., launch site since late February undergoing preparations for its maiden flight, a demonstration launch ordered in 2005 by an unnamed U.S. government customer.

During that flight the Falcon 9 will carry a prototype of SpaceX's Dragon space station cargo capsule into space. However, the mission will not count as one of the three demonstrations the company has agreed to conduct for NASA under the U.S. space agency's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program.

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