In SpaceX’s first orbital attempt since its failed June 28 attempt to reach the International Space Station, the Hawthorne, Ca.-based company plans to launch a Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket tomorrow. The launch, carrying 11 ORBCOMM communications satellites, was originally scheduled earlier in the month. Updates below.
Sunday’s 8.29 p.m. EST launch marks the first operational use of the upgraded Falcon 9 rocket. The vehicle features new Merlin 1D engines, a new payload fairing, and stretched fuel tanks. The increased size of the fuel tanks will allow the first stage of the rocket to have enough fuel to attempt a recovery landing.
The launch was originally scheduled for today, but the company encountered problems during a static-fire test, which is a common practice that involves restraining a separated rocket engine and dissipating the exhaust in the atmosphere. The Falcon 9 rocket was restrained vertically on the pad when it encountered issues with part of its cryogenic liquid oxygen systems. SpaceX is planning on cooling its liquid oxygen oxidizer down to what CEO Elon Musk called ‘deep cryo’ on Twitter, or cooling it to -206 degrees Celsius. Cooling the liquid oxygen past its -183°C boiling point increases oxidizer density and theoretically improves performance. This does raise system complexity, though, and associated costs could offset already hard-to-measure performance gains.
Tomorrow’s launch marks SpaceX’s first attempt to land the first stage of the Falcon 9 on solid ground. Previous attempts involved landing attempts on an autonomous barge (though the company’s earlier Grasshopper rocket testbed landed on solid ground when it was tested in 2013).
SpaceX’s autonomous landing pad, named “Of Course I Still Love You,” was seen in transit on Wednesday, but the company has not confirmed whether or not this is related. Neither officials from SpaceX nor the Federal Aviation Administration have confirmed the landing attempt. However, message board Nasaspaceflight.com reported that an email was sent to Kennedy Space Center workers on Friday that detailed access exclusions for an hour after Sunday’s launch.
“Following the launch, SpaceX may attempt a landing of the Falcon 9 rockets first stage at Space Launch Complex 13 on CCAFS. Should there be an anomaly, personnel are to shelter in place and avoid being next to glass windows and doors,” the email is reported to have said.
Commenter Jacob L. brought to our attention two Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) issued by the FAA for the launch period. The first envelops an area around the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 40, and the second covers a larger area around Landing Zone 1, a former Atlas launch facility once known as Space Launch Complex 13.
The stakes are high for SpaceX on Sunday. The company is in close running with Boeing to win lucrative astronaut launch contracts with NASA. The space agency previously ordered a commercial flight from both companies, but ordered a second flight from Boeing earlier this month. SpaceX’s last launch attempt ended in failure when a structural strut failed in the rocket’s upper stage.
Update: SpaceX delayed the launch to Monday to improve the chances of landing the Falcon 9 first stage. On Twitter, Musk cited superior success probabilities calculated by the launch team’s Monte Carlo model as being the impetus for the delay.
Updated with correct rocket destination and more details about the landing zone.
Disclosure: I was once involved in space launch vehicle programs also bidding for federal contracts.