Thursday, February 28, 2008

SpaceX Completes Merlin 1C Testing

SpaceX, a possible contender to transport astronauts to the International Space Station after the retirement of the space shuttle, has announced that they have completed qualification testing on their Merlin rocket engine. To explain to you what this means, I'll go a little bit into SpaceX's history and future plans. They were one of the next companies on my list anyway.

Despite the fact that SpaceX's services seem likely to be purchased by government organizations rather than space tourism interests, the technologies it is developing (at the very least) could be quite useful to the space tourism industry. It was founded in 2001 by Elon Musk, whose more interesting accomplishments have included the co-founding of PayPal, and he is currently the chairman of Tesla Motors. The goal of SpaceX seems to be to make satellite launch, and eventually the launch of manned spacecraft, much less expensive than it has been. One of the ways that they are doing this is to operate with much fewer personnel than most other space programs; they had 400 employees as of November, and they've already made two test launches.

SpaceX launches its rockets from the Martial Islands with an on-site crew of a mere 25 people. Their first rocket, called the Falcon 1, is a two-stage rocket with a single engine on each stage. The first stage has a Merlin engine, and the second a Kestrel, both of which are low-cost engines designed by SpaceX. The rocket is designed to take smaller satellites into low Earth orbit. They first tested this rocket in March 25, 2006 after four months of weather- and technology-related delays. The flight lasted 29 seconds, consisted of the first stage engine lighting itself on fire, and was topped off by a spectacular dive into the ocean. They traced the cause of the failure to a corroded nut on the fuel tank.

So do you remember that Far Side comic where a worker at the airport finds a nut on the runway, and a plane falls apart in mid-air? Yeah, that happened here.

They tried again a year later, on March 21, 2007, this time with a simulated payload and shiny new stainless steel nuts. They had a couple of aborts during the two days before launch; one was at T-1:02, and one was just a half of a second before the engines would have fired. This is actually fairly impressive; they have set up a system in which they are able to abort mere seconds before launch and quickly return to a configuration where they can try again if the cause of the abort is minor (which it was; the fuel was a tad too cold). When they launched, just an hour after the second abort, the rocket performed very well. It made it to space, but was aborted just before it could reach orbit due to control issues caused by the sloshing back and fourth of the fuel.

SpaceX has since found and eliminated the cause of the sloshing (it was started by unexpected movement caused by first stage separation), and they plan on launching a third Falcon 1 this spring. The third launch is actually a paid satellite launch for the US Navy, which is where this Merlin qualification becomes important. The completed qualification testing has done a couple things; it verified the final design for the Merlin 1C so that SpaceX can begin mass production of the engines. It has cleared the way for the next stage of testing for use in the Falcon 9 launch vehicle. And finally, it comprised the last requirement necessary for paid satellite launch operations. This springs launch is likely to be played live on the web as the previous two were, so I'll post the details of when and where it will be when I get them.

SpaceX has some ambitious future plans. By the end of this year, they plan on delivering the first Falcon 9 rocket to Cape Canaveral. Falcon 9 will facilitate the launch of much more massive payloads into orbit. Its first stage will contain 9 Merlin rockets, and the second stage will contain a single Merlin rocket. Beyond that, SpaceX is designing the Merlin 9 Heavy, which will be a Merlin 9 modified to launch with two boosters, each containing 9 more Merlin rockets, for a total of 27. That is a lot of launching power!

Even more exciting are their designs for a manned spacecraft called The Dragon. The Dragon will be a mercury-like capsule that will be able to hold 7 astronauts, or can be reconfigured for cargo transport. SpaceX intends to use this capsule to sell services to NASA to transport crew and supplies to the International Space Station when the space shuttle is retired.

And that's about it! My initial assumptions about this company seem to be flawed; they plan to sell their services to anyone, not just governments, which could potentially open their efforts up directly to space tourism. Some very exciting possibilities are in the works for this company. And they have already made a mockup of their Dragon capsule. I'll leave you with a picture of its very cool logo:

Credit: SpaceX

Progress: 3.24%  Flight Time: 0:04:51

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