The next flight of SpaceX’s Dragon has been realigned to a February 11, 2014 NET (No Earlier Than) launch date. The launch will mark Dragon’s first ride on the upgraded Falcon 9 v.1.1 rocket, potentially sporting landing legs, as Elon Musk plans his next attempt at proving the rocket’s ability to return its stages back to Earth for reuse.
The SpX-3 flight will carry a full launch and return complement of 1,580kg/3,476lb of payload, an increase from the previous limit of 800kg, afforded by the increased upmass capabilities of the Falcon 9 v1.1.
For launch, Dragon will carry a record of 1 GLACIER and 2 MERLIN freezers for transporting ISS experiment samples.
As a result, the CRS-3 Dragon realigned its preparations for a mission that has an available berthing window ranging from January 17, 2014 through February 16.
Setting a launch date for February 11 – as noted in the latest Flight Planning Integration Panel (FPIP) presentation (dated October 15 and available in L2) – results in a rendezvous and berthing with the orbital outpost on February 13, with additional flexibility based on the initial berthing window for arrival that stretches through to the 16th of that month.
Should it be required, the ISS program could possibly arrange additional opportunities. All dates are are subject to changes to manifested dates for numerous vehicles that come and go from the Station.
Should the CRS-3/SpX-3 mission remain on track for the February 13 berthing, Dragon will stay at the ISS for 30 days, prior to being unberthed and sent on its way for a re-entry and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
CRS-3/SpX-3 is scheduled to be the first of three Dragon missions to the ISS in 2014. However, the dates for SpX-4 and SpX-5 are yet to be solidified, given a similar Visiting Vehicle scenario – to that employed for ORB-1/SpX-3 – exists on the manifest.
Currently, SpX-4 and Orbital’s Cygnus mission ORB-2 both have the similar berthing dates in May, with a March decision point set for working out which vehicle will gain the opportunity to arrive within that timeframe. A similar scenario plays out for SpX-5 and ORB-3 between September and October.
Both vehicles use the same docking port on the ISS, meaning only one of the duo can be at the ISS at the same time.
Falcon 9 v.1.1′s Role during CRS-3/SpX-3:
The upgraded launch vehicle successfully lofted the Cassiope satellite into orbit during its debut mission last month, paving the way for a salvo of missions, two of which may occur within a month of each other from SpaceX’s East Coast site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) in Florida.
The two upcoming launches will loft SES-8 and Thaicom-6 respectively, prior to preparations then moving towards the CRS-3/SpX-3 mission.
While the F9 v1.1 is capable of launching additional mass uphill, its main advance is the potential of it being able to return both of its stages back to Earth for reuse – hence its other name, the F9-R.
An attempt to test part of this technology took place during the Cassiope mission, with the supersonic retro-propulsion via three of the F9′s Merlin 1D engines – and a second burn involving the center engine – conducted to simulate the stage performing a precise and controlled landing.
Photographs of the recent attempt have since been published by SpaceX, showing the stage propulsively returning back to Earth, prior to hitting the ocean, as had been planned for the test.
“The first stage hit the water relatively hard,” noted Mr. Musk in post Cassiope launch comments. “The most important thing is that we now believe we have all the pieces of the puzzle (for recovery).”
Another test of the Grasshopper – a10-story Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing (VTVL) vehicle designed to test the technologies needed to return a rocket back to Earth intact – also took place recently, resulting in vehicle rising to 744 meters in altitude, hovering and returning back to the launch pad.
The test lasted 78.8 seconds and was conducted at SpaceX’s rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas – as the company prepares for its its next leap forward via low altitude tests of the Falcon 9 Reusable (F9R) development vehicle in Texas followed by high altitude testing in New Mexico.
“If you take the Grasshopper tests, where we were able to do a precision takeoff and landing of a Falcon 9 first stage and you combine it with the results from this flight where we were able to successfully transition from vacuum to hypersonic, through supersonic, through transonic and light the engines all the way through and control the stage all the way through,” added Mr. Musk.
“We have all (of) the pieces necessary to achieve a full recovery of the boost stage.”
One major element, however, was missing from the debut F 9 v.1.1 mission, namely the landing legs that can be seen on the Grasshopper.
While SpaceX won’t carry out any resuable testing on the next two flights of the Falcon 9, the CRS-3/SpX-3 F9 v1.1 may include the legs on the first stage.
“(For) the next two launches, we are going to gather data from the first stage but we are not going to attempt to recover it because we’ve committed to give the customers on the next two flights maximum performance of the rocket. The next recovery attempt for the first stage will be the fourth flight of this version,” he added.
“If landing legs end up being delayed for any reason then we won’t hold up the (CRS-3) flight for that. The schedule for that mission is mostly governed by upgrades to the Dragon spacecraft.”
As such, with the schedule for the CRS-3 mission moving slightly to the right, SpaceX have more time to implement their next plan for re-usability, pending the successful flights of the next two missions.
(Images: via L2′s SpaceX Special Section, which includes over 1,000 unreleased hi res images from Dragon’s three flights to the ISS. Special section also contains presentations, videos, images (Over 3,500MB in size), space industry member discussion and more.)