SpaceX Botched Its Landing Thanks to a Broken Sea Leg
Well, at least the pieces were bigger this time! Won’t be last RUD, but am optimistic about upcoming ship landing. pic.twitter.com/w007TccANJ — Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 17, 2016 Once again, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket booster has come back to Earth with the wrong type of boom. Instead of landing safely on a floating barge in the middle of the ocean, it became the drone ship’s third victim. Not that anyone at SpaceX is counting, so they claim. The company is still in startup mode, cracking eggs on the way to that elusive omelette. Today the rocket seems to have targeted the the drone ship just fine, but something went wrong with one of its legs. SpaceX initially tweeted that one of the legs broke after a hard landing, but CEO Elon Musk followed up with a better explanation: However, that was not what prevented it being good. Touchdown speed was ok, but a leg lockout didn’t latch, so it tipped over after landing. — Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 17, 2016 No word yet on whether that was accompanied by a spectacular explosion, though you better believe we’ll have that imagery up as soon as it becomes available. Otherwise, the mission was a success. Its payload—a ocean height-monitoring satellite called Jason-3—is happily cruising in low Earth orbit. And don’t fret, SpaceX will have plenty of other opportunities to stick that barge landing, with a juicy new NASA contract, and dozens of already scheduled launches.
Well, at least the pieces were bigger this time! Won’t be last RUD, but am optimistic about upcoming ship landing. pic.twitter.com/w007TccANJ
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 17, 2016
Once again, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket booster has come back to Earth with the wrong type of boom. Instead of landing safely on a floating barge in the middle of the ocean, it became the drone ship’s third victim.
Not that anyone at SpaceX is counting, so they claim. The company is still in startup mode, cracking eggs on the way to that elusive omelette. Today the rocket seems to have targeted the the drone ship just fine, but something went wrong with one of its legs. SpaceX initially tweeted that one of the legs broke after a hard landing, but CEO Elon Musk followed up with a better explanation:
However, that was not what prevented it being good. Touchdown speed was ok, but a leg lockout didn’t latch, so it tipped over after landing.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 17, 2016
No word yet on whether that was accompanied by a spectacular explosion, though you better believe we’ll have that imagery up as soon as it becomes available.
Otherwise, the mission was a success. Its payload—a ocean height-monitoring satellite called Jason-3—is happily cruising in low Earth orbit. And don’t fret, SpaceX will have plenty of other opportunities to stick that barge landing, with a juicy new NASA contract, and dozens of already scheduled launches.
They stuck the landing! For the first time ever, SpaceX has landed a booster after sending its payload into orbit—on the ground.
Over the past year, SpaceX has tried and failed to land the first-stage booster of its Falcon 9 rocket twice on a drone barge in the ocean. (And on its third try, the rocket blew up on launch, which, yeah.) This time, SpaceX managed to land its rocket on a landing pad on Cape Canaveral, Florida. Being able to reuse the booster could help cut launch costs in the future.
So what’s different this time? SpaceX upgraded the Falcon 9 with extra firepower—and some of the firepower is used to orient its first-stage booster as it falls back to Earth. Landing on ground also has some perks: Solid ground doesn’t lurch like a drone barge on ocean waves, and the landing pad is a lot bigger than the barge.
A few weeks ago, Jeff Bezos inaugurated his Twitter account with the surprise announcement that his space company, Blue Origin, had launched and landed a rocket after suborbital flight. But SpaceX managed to deliver 11 satellites to orbit, which requires an order of magnitude more thrust, and land its rocket. SpaceX’s booster is coming a hell of lot faster, and its landing much trickier. So Elon Musk’s got this one. (For now.)
UPDATE 12/20/2015: Looks like SpaceX’s launch is being delayed 24 hours until Monday night.
Just reviewed mission params w SpaceX team. Monte Carlo runs show tmrw night has a 10% higher chance of a good landing. Punting 24 hrs.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 20, 2015
Guys, SpaceX is back—and it’s bigger than ever. For its first commercial launch since a SpaceX rocket blew up just after liftoff in June, the private space company is launching a modified Falcon 9 rocket tonight that is its biggest and most powerful yet. But that may not even be the most impressive part—in what could be first for spaceflight, the company is expected to attempt landing its reusable rocket on, well, actual land in Florida.
That’s all pretty ambitious for a company that one, is recovering from a catastrophic failure in June and two, has failed to land the rocket on a barge in the ocean, twice. But this version of the Falcon 9 has several modifications that could help it succeed.
The first is sheer power—30 percent more of it. SpaceX made a number of tweaks, like upgrading the rocket’s nine first-stage Merlin engines so they now have more than 1.5 million pounds of thrust. Engineers also tinkered with the single Merlin engine on the rocket’s second stage. All that extra juice means that the Falcon 9 can carry heavier payloads and more propellant into space.
More propellant is good for getting into space, but if you’re SpaceX and you have reuseable rockets in mind, it’s also good for getting back from space in one piece. The extra propellant can be used to maneuver the tall, thin first-stage booster—a pretty tough shape to land—on to the ground safely. Earlier this month, NASA said SpaceX would attempt a ground landing. SpaceX has been leasing a old launchpad on Cape Canaveral that is its rocket’s likely landing site.
Of course, SpaceX isn’t launching a rocket into orbit just for show. (Though Elon Musk is surely relishing a chance to one-up Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which surprised everyone in November by landing a rocket after launching it into suborbital space.) The Falcon 9 will carry 11 satellites for the telecommunications company Orbcomm.
The launch will kick off a busy two months for SpaceX, which is planning two more satellite launches as well as an International Space Station resupply run—assuming everything goes smoothly. It’s been a shaky 14 months for space travel, with three ISS resupply failures including SpaceX’s. The company recently won a contract to send astronauts to the ISS starting in 2017, and it’s in the running for a new ISS resupply contract, so it has every incentive to make sure nothing blows up.
Satellite internet provider Intelsat has asked the Federal Communications Commission to reject an application from Elon Musk’s private space company SpaceX for permission to test its proposed satellite internet service.
SpaceX hopes to build a large constellation of small, low earth orbit satellites capable of blanketing the globe in wireless internet coverage. Such a service would obviously be a threat to Intelsat’s existing business model. But at the moment, Intelsat’s concerns are technological. It’s worried that SpaceX’s experimental satellites could interrupt its own services and is asking the FCC to require SpaceX to disclose more information about its plans, even though the company has requested to keep much of this information confidential.
SpaceX claimed in its application for the experimental license that “interference with other systems is very unlikely.” But Intelstat isn’t buying it.
“The information that SpaceX is seeking to withhold is the kind of basic information that is routinely, and publicly, filed by other satellite operators (both GSO and NGSO) in applications seeking FCC authorizations,” Crandall wrote. “The information withheld is critical to any analysis of potential interference.”
Three weeks ago, on its seventh scheduled launch to resupply the International Space Station, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket inexplicably burst into flames less than three minutes into its flight. Today, Elon Musk finally announced what led to the explosion—sort of.
Emphasizing that their findings were only an “initial assessment,” Musk said that they believed that a broken strut—a two-foot-long piece of steel, an inch wide at its thickest point—was responsible for the rocket’s explosion, which had previously only been attributed to a “decompression event” in its liquid oxygen tanks. No one was injured, but the 4,000 pounds of cargo in the attached Dragon space capsule got blasted into smithereens.
By design, the faulty strut should have been able to take 10,000 pounds of force—well above the 3,500 pounds that the struts actually experience during a launch. But after screening “some enormous number” of them, SpaceX found that some could only withstand 2,000 pounds. The struts were made by an outside supplier that Musk wouldn’t name.
The original point of launching the rocket, in addition to resupplying the ISS, was to try to recover the Falcon 9 on a floating barge in the ocean so that SpaceX could reuse it. Commercial spaceflight companies like SpaceX want to find a way to reuse their rockets, dramatically decreasing the cost of space delivery and travel. (A NASA-funded study reported that using commercial spaceflight could make a trip to the moon up to ten times cheaper.)
SpaceX has never succeeded in recovering Falcon 9, this being the third time in the last eight months that the rocket has crashed or burned. But it’s the only time that the company has failed to even deliver the ISS supplies (and the third time this year that a resupply mission has failed).
Falcon 9 is a two-stage rocket, which means that as it shepherds the the Dragon capsule into space, it ejects its weight in two steps. The suspected broken strut, which held helium bottles in place in its liquid oxygen tank, was part of Falcon 9’s second stage. A rocket uses liquid oxygen to burn its fuel1, and as the oxygen gets used up, something—in this case, helium—has to replace the consumed oxygen to maintain proper pressure in the oxygen tank. During launch, the strut snapped, making too much helium leak into the oxygen tank, which led to too much pressure in the oxygen tank, which led to…boom.
Musk says in addition to losing biomedical experiments and high school science projects, SpaceX probably lost hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue in the explosion. Plus, a US and European climate satellite called Jason-3, originally scheduled for launch on August 8, had to be postponed.
So how is SpaceX planning to recover from this one?
First, it will go after the obvious—Musk says the rocket will use a different strut, which the company’s engineers will screen individually instead of trusting the guarantee on the label. In the event of another explosion, SpaceX is also rushing the installation of software on the capsule, Dragon, that will let it parachute back to Earth before the rocket explosion gets to the valuable contents in the capsule.
But Musk says that this explosion doesn’t affect the company’s overall commercial timeline—SpaceX doesn’t have any planned commercial launches until after September. Keeping a game face, he used the catastrophe as a reminder that going to space, after all, is hard. “The fundamental nature of rocketry is that it is a case where the passing grade is 100 percent, every time,” he says. “From the moment of lift-off, it’s 100 percent or nothing.”
Musk also blames overconfidence for the accident. The size of SpaceX increased from 500 employees to about 4,000 since their last failed launch seven years ago. “When you’ve only ever seen success, you don’t fear failure quite as much,” he says. Leave it to Elon to slip in some humble bragging while talking about one of his smoky failures lying on the ocean floor.
1UPDATE 7/30/15 6:50 PM This story originally referred to liquid oxygen as fuel. Oxygen is not the fuel; oxygen is needed to burn the fuel.
Today, in the eternal war between SpaceX’s reusable rockets and SpaceX’s robot boat, the rockets lost again. Elon Musk’s company loaded up a Dragon capsule full of supplies this morning in what would have been its seventh mission to the International Space Station—and its third attempt to salvage the capsule’s rocket, Falcon 9, by landing on an autonomous barge. But the poor thing didn’t even get the chance to try. Less than three minutes into flight, the rocket and its cargo exploded, their disintegrating parts cloaked by a huge cloud of smoke.
Astronaut Scott Kelly, watching the catastrophic failure from his perch in the ISS above, said it right: “Space is hard.”
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) June 28, 2015
It’s not clear yet what caused the rocket to break up. At the time of “launch vehicle failure,” in NASA-speak, Falcon was still firing all of its nine first-stage engines, with the Dragon capsule and second stage Merlin vacuum engine attached. Right now, the NASA mishap and anomaly teams are trying to piece together video analysis of the flight path with the two minutes or so of data sent from the craft before it exploded. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield speculated that the failure might have started at the front of the craft—near the second stage engine and the Dragon capsule.
In a NASA press conference today, SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell confirmed that a problem occurred in that general location, noting an overpressurization event in the liquid oxygen tank in the second stage of the rocket. But SpaceX doesn’t know yet what caused it. Even the typically speculation-happy Musk can’t say more yet, tweeting only that their “data suggests [a] counterintuitive cause.”
The Dragon capsule was carrying more than 4,000 pounds of supplies for the ISS. This is the third resupply mission to fail in the last eight months; at the end of April, a Russian Progress spacecraft and its Soyuz rocket similarly failed early in their launch, and last October, an Antares rocket from Orbital Sciences blew up right on the launch pad. While that might seem to indicate a troubling trend, “there’s no commonality across these three events other than that it’s space and it’s difficult to fly,” says NASA’s associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations William Gerstenmaier.
The multiple failed missions shouldn’t be a problem for the astronauts aboard the ISS; NASA confirmed that they have enough to live on for the next several months, and multiple launches will make it to the ISS before supplies run out. Another Progress craft is set to launch on July 3, a Japanese HTV flight is scheduled for August, and another commercial US outfit, Orbital ATK, has plans for a launch later this year.
But the loss of this cargo in particular is still a huge a blow to the ISS. On board the Dragon was a new docking station and a space suit that will take time to rebuild and replace. The cargo also included a multi-filtration bed that would have allowed the astronauts to continue processing water for reuse (though they don’t need the extra water, it’s certainly good to have the filter as a backup), and more than 30 student science projects.
Thousands of people were watching the failure live this morning, in anticipation of a potential historic landing of the rocket on SpaceX’s drone barge after two failed attempts. (You can see the moment in the video below, with the launch starting at 21:15 and trouble starting around 23:30.) SpaceX and many of its competitors are in hot pursuit of a reusable rocket, hoping to lower the costs of space travel. A Falcon 9 costs as much a jumbo jet, so it’d obviously be preferable if SpaceX could use it multiple times instead of driving its investment into the ground…or water.
Landing a rocket that travels ten times the speed of sound is no easy feat, and SpaceX had prepared this Falcon 9 in an attempt to learn from its previous failures. This time around, the rocket was stocked with extra hydraulic fluid—it ran out of that sweet sweet juice used to steer the rocket’s landing in January—and they’ve made improvements to a sluggish throttle valve which caused the rocket fall over during an attempted landing in April.
But those changes will have to wait until another launch to get tested. More updates to come on what caused the explosion, and what it means for SpaceX’s next planned launches.
Space tries to kill people who go there, and every time it fails, that’s a victory against an unfeeling universe. When Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chafee died on the pad in Apollo 1…when Apollo 13 barely limped back to Earth…when the space shuttle Challenger exploded on launch…when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry…when a Virgin Galactic test pilot died…engineers and review boards worked to place blame, to figure out where the organizational theory and institutional pressures broke down and killed astronauts. But the deep truth is, space travel is very, very hard, and the only way people know how to do it involves high explosives and the edge of current understanding of at least a dozen different fields of science.
But SpaceX—the company run by Tesla CEO Elon Musk—makes no secret of its desire to send people to other planets. The company has been flying its Dragon capsules to the ISS for three years now, successfully delivering five shipments of supplies to keep astronauts fed and science experiments running. Yesterday, SpaceX took a big step toward launching its first crewed capsule into low-Earth orbit. More specifically, it took a big step toward keeping that putative crew from dying if (when) something goes wrong.
At Cape Canaveral, the Crew Dragon capsule successfully underwent a pad abort test—basically, a simulation of an emergency bail-out. In a worst-case scenario, like if a booster failed—that’s engineering euphemism for “exploded”—at liftoff, an emergency abort system would act like a pilot’s ejection seat. The crew capsule and the astronauts inside would separate and escape from the doomed launcher. In this case, though, the only crew inside the capsule was a human-sized test dummy. (The six other seats in the capsule were weighted to simulate the presence of a full crew).
Instead of lifting off on a Falcon 9—SpaceX’s typical rocket—eight SpaceX SuperDraco engines propelled the Crew Dragon about a mile high, where the capsule separated from its trunk, standing in for the rocket booster. Like SpaceX’s other Dragon capsules, the crew capsule landed in the Atlantic Ocean, splashing down with the aid of parachutes.
The system is the latest in a long line of launch abort systems. The Mercury spacecraft used a “tractor escape system” as early as 1958, relying on a rocket tower on the head of the capsule to blow it free of the launch vehicle if something went wrong. Late-model space shuttles had a sort of cable-car system for bailing out of a shuttle when it was still on the launchpad.
SpaceX’s system tries to improve on that strategy by building escape rockets directly into the spacecraft—the same concept as the experimental Max Launch Abort System tested in 2009 for potential use with NASA’s Orion spacecraft. The rocket tower used in a tractor escape gets discarded at some point during a launch, after which an abort isn’t possible. But with integrated rockets, an escape is theoretically possible anywhere up until orbit.
The results of the test won’t be clear until the SpaceX and NASA teams have analyzed all the data collected during the abort. The test module had 270 sensors distributed throughout. “Temperature sensors on the outside, acoustic sensors, microphones. This is basically a flying instrumentation deck,” said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance with SpaceX at a briefing last Friday.
The capsule will attempt to pass its next test, an in-flight abort, powered by a modified Falcon 9 booster, later this summer. Once the crewed capsule is cleared—perhaps as early as 2017—astronauts will be able to launch to the ISS from the US for the first time since the shuttles were retired. And if those flights are safer, so much the better.
It’s not easy to land a rocket on a drone boat in the middle of the ocean. Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, knows this. After all, in January one of his Falcon 9 boosters failed spectacularly to plop down onto a specially designed, autonomously controlled barge tethered in the Atlantic. But that didn’t stop Musk from giving it a second try today.
Surprise! It didn’t work. Curse you, Team Barge! But today’s failure is still another step toward the ultimate goal of landing, and then reusing, rockets for SpaceX’s space delivery service.
As has become his habit, Musk tweeted about today’s launch. After the Falcon 9 successfully uncoupled from the Dragon capsule it sent toward the International Space Station, full of a supplies, he wrote: “Ascent successful. Dragon enroute to Space Station.”
— NASA (@NASA) April 14, 2015
Technically, the Falcon 9 actually landed on the barge. “Rocket landed on droneship,” Musk tweeted, “but too hard for survival.” Last time, the grid fins crucial to keeping the rocket upright ran out of hydraulic fluid. Coming in at high speed, the rocket hit the barge at an angle and blew up. This time, it looks like the rocket’s thrusters and directional control did just fine, but the tall, cylindrical booster came in just a little too hot.
That’s it in terms of info on the crash for now: The robot barge is still out at sea, with more high-resolution images aboard. “All we have right now is low frame rate video (basically pictures). Normal video will be posted when ship returns to port in a few days,” Musk tweeted. We’ll look forward to the gnarly crash footage when it gets back. In the meantime, satisfy your rocket crash craving with an outtake from January’s explosion:
Close, but no cigar. This time. https://t.co/JowUE6a1D7
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 16, 2015
Three months ago, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded spectacularly as it attempted to land on a robot boat. CEO Elon Musk described the failure, jokingly, as a “rapid unscheduled disassembly.” Today, the private space launch company is going to try again—firing an uncrewed Dragon spacecraft into low Earth orbit for a rendezvous with the International Space Station. And then it’s going to try to land on that robot boat again.
The mission is a cargo-resupply, the sixth of 12 for which SpaceX has contracted with NASA. It’ll carry almost 4,400 lbs of food, supplies, and scientific equipment. That’s important to the astronauts up there, of course, but the company really wants to stick this landing. It’d be a proof-of-concept in using reusable rockets for spaceflight. Using the now-retired space shuttles for this kind of thing cost $1.5 billion per launch; Musk has said he believes reusable rockets could bring that down by a factor of 100. “The goal for NASA is to buy a service, not build it, freeing up resources for other space launches and space exploration,” says Katherine Hembelton, a spokesperson at NASA HQ.
But as the January mission showed, landing a rocket isn’t easy. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster successfully sent its Dragon capsule to the ISS and re-entered the atmosphere, and it even hit its target on the drone barge. Then it blew up. Musk told reporters the rocket’s stabilizing “hypersonic grid fins” simply ran out of hydraulic fluid. Musk and the company vowed to fix the issue for the next launch.
Liftoff is scheduled for 4:33 p.m. Eastern time Monday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Dragon is expected to stay docked to the ISS for five weeks, taking away 3,000 pounds of used supplies and trash and then splashing down 400 miles off the California coast. (No barge landing for it.).
Dragon is currently the only spacecraft capable of returning supplies to Earth, a vital capability for much of the science being conducted on the ISS—which range from investigating new ways of counteracting microgravity-induced cell damage in bones and muscles, new materials that could be used in building synthetic tissue for astronauts, continued vision studies for astronauts on prolonged spaceflight, and more. Many studies require safe transport of live animals, plants, organic materials, and other physical data to and from the ISS.
Six days ago, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk was atwitter with excitement over the next step in his plan to get humans off the planet. After successfully sending four of its Dragon capsules to resupply the ISS, SpaceX was launching yet another—but this time, with an added level of difficulty. The launcher that gets the capsules into orbit, the Falcon 9, would attempt to land its boost stage—that’s the part with the rocket—back on Earth after the delivery. Well, not exactly on Earth. On a drone spaceport barge. In the middle of the Atlantic ocean.
Autonomous spaceport drone ship. Thrusters repurposed from deep sea oil rigs hold position within 3m even in a storm. pic.twitter.com/wJFOnGdt9w
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 22, 2014
On the scale of targets that you’re trying to hit from space, this thing is tiny. Usually, space explorers feel lucky when they can target anything roughly the size of a vast body of water when they reenter the atmosphere; indeed, all of SpaceX’s Dragon capsules are designed to splashdown, aided by an impact-mitigating parachute. The Falcon booster has completed two soft landings in the ocean. But this time, it was aiming for a barge just 300 by 170 feet. Musk put the Falcon’s chances for successful landing at 50/50, but a day before the launch, he took it back in a reddit AMA: “I pretty much made that up. I have no idea :).”
All things considered, for the first try, the Falcon could’ve done worse:
Close, but no cigar. This time. https://t.co/JowUE6a1D7
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 16, 2015
Technically, Falcon did hit its target—just at the wrong angle, and a bit off-center. It’s dark, and a little hard to see, but Musk explained exactly what went wrong in a series of tweets today. The grid fins that he had described as crucial to the landing process “lose power and go hardover.” On their own, the rocket’s nitrogen thrusters aren’t powerful enough to deal with the aerodynamic forces at play here. So once the fins run out of hydraulic fluid during the booster’s descent, all bets are off. “Engines fights [sic] to restore, but…Rocket hits hard at ~45 deg angle, smashing legs and engine section.” Then, the leftover fuel and oxygen combine in a big ol’ explosion. The technical summary: “Full RUD (rapid unscheduled disassembly) event,” Musk quipped.
Musk seems pretty nonchalant about losing an asset like this—the booster looks pretty torn up, though the ship suffered only minor damage. (That’s one tough ship.) But Musk’s sanguinity makes sense in the context of his larger plans. At an MIT symposium in October, Musk broke down how important reusing the Falcon will be to getting humans off of Earth. “Reusability is the critical breakthrough needed in rocketry to take things to the next level,” he said. If you can reuse a rocket, each ship from Earth only costs you the fuel it takes to leave—not the $60 million or so it takes to build a Falcon. Landing on a floating platform is the first step to an even greater efficiency: Putting it right back at the launch site from whence it came. “But before we boost back to the launch site and try to land there,” Musk said, “we need to show that we can land with precision over and over again, otherwise something bad could happen.”
Which, you know, turns out to be true.
Luckily, we won’t have to wait long to see another test of the Falcon’s precision landing system: “Next rocket landing on drone ship in 2 to 3 weeks w way more hydraulic fluid,” Musk tweeted. “At least it shd explode for a diff reason.”
UPDATE at 6:28 a.m. ET: SpaceX aborted the launch and moved it to Friday, January 9 at 5:09 a.m. ET.
At 6:20 ET Tuesday morning, the private space flight company founded by Elon Musk will attempt to land part of a rocket back on Earth.1
The unmanned Falcon 9 spacecraft will head to the International Space Station, delivering supplies and equipment. Its engine, which normally would fall into the ocean and be destroyed, will try to do something never done before: turn around and touch down safely on a barge in the Atlantic ocean. The target area is just 300 by 100 feet wide.
If SpaceX succeeds, it will be a major breakthrough in affordable and sustainable space exploration.
1Correction at 3:25 p.m. ET: An earlier version of this article failed to explain that only one part of the Falcon 9—its engines—will be attempting the historical landing back on Earth.