SpaceX aborts landmark launch

2015-01-06 19:38
The Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket lifts off from space launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida. (Terry Renna, AP)

The Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket lifts off from space launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida. (Terry Renna, AP)

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Miami - SpaceX on Tuesday aborted its Falcon 9 rocket launch at the last minute, postponing a landmark bid to open a new era of recycling rockets by landing a key part on a platform in the Atlantic Ocean.

The problem that led to the delay involved the rocket's second stage, which is the portion that carries the cargo vessel to orbit after the first stage falls back to Earth.

"A thrust vector control actuator for the Falcon 9's second stage failed to perform as expected, resulting in a launch abort," said a Nasa statement.

"SpaceX is evaluating the issue and will determine the next opportunity to launch."

The California-based company headed by South African internet entrepreneur Elon Musk could make another launch attempt on Friday at 05:09 (10:09 GMT), and minutes later refire the first stage engines to land it on a floating platform some 322km off the coast of northern Florida.

As of now, rocket launches cost hundreds of millions of dollars or more, largely because the rockets are allowed to fall in pieces into the ocean after liftoff, becoming trash and pollution.

Musk wants to transform the industry by honing technology that would allow rockets to return to Earth intact for use again and again, much like the airline industry does with passenger planes.

The company has made two attempts at controlled ocean landings already, and this launch would mark the first bid to land the rocket on a platform in the ocean.

Eventually, the company hopes to make rockets that can return to a landing spot on solid ground.

"A fully and rapidly reusable rocket - which has never been done before - is the pivotal breakthrough needed to substantially reduce the cost of space access," said a SpaceX statement.

Mission: cargo

While the bid to recycle a rocket has garnered plenty of attention, SpaceX says the mission's primary goal is to bring a load of supplies and food to the six astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

The rocket launch will propel the Dragon cargo ship on its fifth official trip as part of a $1.6bn contract with Nasa to replenish equipment and gear at the orbiting outpost.

The launch was initially supposed to take place last month. But SpaceX postponed it on 18 December after a launchpad static test fire was a "tad short" and the team decided to exercise caution and postpone until the New Year, said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president for Mission Assurance at SpaceX.

The stakes are particularly high because Orbital Sciences, the only other US company capable of sending cargo to low-Earth orbit, suffered a catastrophic rocket failure in October, forcing an end to its supply missions until further notice.

After mission operators detected a problem with the rocket engine moments after launch, the Antares rocket was purposefully exploded, causing extensive damage to the Virginia launchpad and costing the company more than $200m in lost equipment.

Orbital has said it will still be able to complete its contract with Nasa by 2016, but no launches are scheduled for its Cygnus cargo carrier until the rocket problem can be fixed.

Orbital Sciences has a $1.9bn contract with Nasa to supply the space station.

In the absence of Orbital's cargo ship, the Dragon supply ship is carrying its heaviest load yet - 1.8 pressurised metric tons of "much-needed cargo," said ISS programme manager Mike Suffredini.

"The SpaceX folks have used quite a bit of ingenuity to help us put items in all the little cracks and crevices as we kind of lean on the Dragon vehicle to supply ISS here for the next little while until the Orbital folks are flying again," he told reporters on Monday.

Read more on:    spacex  |  elon musk  |  us  |  space

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