26 November 2012, 22:06

Who will challenge Dragon? Dragon spaceship postponed until March

Who will challenge Dragon? Dragon spaceship postponed until March

The head of the Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) Elon Musk has foretold a grim future for the European Ariane 5 rocket launcher, but SpaceX’s own project, the Dragon spaceship, bound for the International Space Station, has now been postponed until March, 2013.

It's thought that could be due to malfunctions in the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and in Dragon’s onboard systems that were discovered during the latest flight from 7th to 28th of October, 2012. Next year will hopefully see Cygnus, another private spacecraft, supplying the ISS after the shuttle program was closed.

The Dragon's third flight to the ISS in October was also its first operational mission under a Commercial Resupply Services contract made with NASA under the new Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Program. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the most ‘glitchy’ flight so far, starting with a malfunction in one of the Falcon 9 engines and ending with water penetrating the capsule after splashdown along with a temperature increase inside the GLACIER freezer, possibly due to power loss. Anomalies were also observed in Flight Computers when the capsule detached from the ISS while using two computers instead of three as well as problems with several other components, possibly due to radiation hits. Then there have also been some technical issues with the Dragon's onboard 'Draco' thrusters.

All the failings are currently being looked into by experts from NASA and SpaceX, but no findings from the investigation have yet been published. Twelve Dragon launches are due under the contract with NASA, and the next has been rescheduled from January 18, to March 1, 2013.

The launcher malfunction also led to the loss of an Orbcomm communication satellite, which could not be delivered to the planned orbit because of a lack of fuel; the Falcon 9 was unable to use a first stage engine making the others work harder.

Despite the failings, the company's CEO, Elon Musk, remains optimistic, bravely declaring that ESA’s Ariane 5 is no match for Falcon 9 and even less so for the upgraded Falcon 9 v.1.1. The next ISS resupply mission will use the current spacecraft, while three more SpaceX launches planned for 2013 are to use the new version.

Among the forthcoming payloads are the Canadian Space Agency's Cassiope satellite to monitor space weather, eight Orbcomm telecommunication satellites (the company has stuck with SpaceX despite the recent failure), and the SES 8 telecommunications satellite (SES is a satellite operator). The latter will present something of a challenge to SpaceX as the satellite needs to be delivered to a geostationary orbit, which will be a first for the Falcon 9. The client is also demanding at least one successful launch before the SES 8 lifts off. The backup plan for SES is, again, Europe’s Ariane 5.

The next year might also bring another challenge for SpaceX, as the Cygnus spacecraft, developed by the Orbital Sciences Corporation, is scheduled to launch in April, 2013, which will be the first (and so far the only) demonstration flight needed to evaluate the two systems' performances. Then, two more Cygnus flights are planned for the rest of 2013 and early 2014. Even though the real schedule may turn out to be a little more relaxed, the pace is spectacular.

Cygnus will lift off with the help of an Antares rocket launcher, also developed by Orbital, but using existing components. Orbital is also famous for its Pegasus rocket, which is currently used to carry small satellites into orbit. Pegasus starts its flight on an aircraft, one of very few to use the 'air launch' method.

But SpaceX does not need to worry, with twelve launches to the ISS already secured. However, over the coming year the company will be under intense pressure to prove its vehicle's reliability. Even though the Falcon 9 costs less than its competitors, price is not the only consideration, the number of successful launches will, to a large extent, also drive the customer's decision and, for SpaceX, that count has yet to begin.

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