Yesterday (September 29th), SpaceX launched the newest version of its Falcon 9 rocket, which includes an improved payload capacity of 13 tons to Low Earth Orbit. The new rocket also featured a preliminary version of the reusability package that SpaceX hopes will allow them to recover their rockets in a state suited to rapid turn-around, but there was no expectation that this rocket would return safely.
The primary payload this time was the Canadian Space Agency’s CASSIOPE satellite, which was launched into polar orbit. The CASSIOPE combined two distinct functions – the e-POP, which is supposed to gather information on solar storms, and Cascade, which is a technology demo for a digital broadband courier service. There were also five nano satellites on board.
Here’s the video from the launch. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of ‘Awaiting Vehicle Downlink’, and I wish they had just switched to a screen with telemetry data whenever the signal was lost. Still, the camera they had on the Falcon 9 provided a great view when the connection was active.
All the satellites reached orbit successfully, so from that standpoint the launch was a total success. As far as the tricky part, though – the attempt to execute a controlled descent of the first stage – aerodynamic torque caused the engines to flame out during the second deceleration burn. So, no miracles there, but this was just supposed to net data for them, anyway. SpaceX was careful to manage expectations.
The future of the reusability aspect of the Falcon program looks quite bright despite the lack of a homerun on this first attempt. Elon Musk says that they have the information they need, which presumably the next time they try it, the expectations will be much higher. That won’t be on the next Falcon 9 v1.1 launch however – only some of the first stages are being fitted with the return package. Instead, it will be on the fourth v1.1 launch, which is CRS-3 – the ISS resupply launch scheduled for February 2014. That’s plenty of time for them to analyze all the data and redesign as necessary, but even on that run a successful retrieval would be . . . unexpected. The idea that, by 2015, we might have a rocket that can make a controlled landing anywhere, though, is remarkable enough.