Friday, December 10, 2010

Historic Flight

SpaceX successfully launched its Dragon spacecraft into low-Earth orbit atop a Falcon 9 rocket on Wednesday, 8 December 2010 at 10:43 AM EST (4:43 PM UTC) from Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The Falcon 9 rocket inserted the Dragon spacecraft into an orbit with a low point of 288 kilometers, a high point of 301 kilometers and an orbital inclination of 34.53 degrees. This orbit is remarkably close to the targeted orbit which called for an almost circular orbit 300 kilometers above the Earth’s surface with an orbital inclination of 34.5 degrees. Traveling at a velocity of nearly 28000 kilometers per hour, the Dragon spacecraft made almost two orbits around the Earth before reentering the Earth’s atmosphere and eventually landing on the surface of the Pacific Ocean at 3 hours and 19 minutes after liftoff.

This launch event marks the first time in history a commercial company has successfully recovered a spacecraft reentering from low-Earth orbit. Such a feat has been performed by only six nations or government agencies: the United States, Russia, China, Japan, India and the European Space Agency. Wednesday’s launch of the Dragon spacecraft marks a historic first for the future of space travel. No one was on onboard the Dragon spacecraft on its maiden flight even though the spacecraft has enough room for 7 astronauts. The entire mission from launch to splashdown in the Pacific Ocean was flawless and if there had been people in the Dragon spacecraft, they would have enjoyed the whole ride.

Timeline of Events:
T+00:00:00 – Liftoff
T+0:02:58 - 1st Stage Shut Down (Main Engine Cut Off)
T+0:03:02 - 1st Stage Separates
T+0:03:09 - 2nd Stage Engine Start
T+0:09:00 - 2nd Stage Engine Cutoff
T+0:09:35 - Dragon Spacecraft Separates from Falcon 9
T+0:13 - On-Orbit Operations
T+2:32 - Deorbit Burn Begins
T+2:38 - Deorbit Burn Ends
T+2:58 - Reentry Phase Begins (Entry Interface)
T+3:09 - Drogue Chute Deploys
T+3:10 - Main Chute Deploys
T+3:19 - Water Landing

As the Dragon spacecraft reenters the Earth’s atmosphere at a velocity of over 7 kilometers per second, the spacecraft experiences temperatures of around 2000 degrees Centigrade. To keep the interior of the spacecraft at room temperatures, against the ferocious heating during reentry, SpaceX worked with NASA to create a phenolic impregnated carbon ablator (PICA) heat shield called PICA-X. This heat shield is probably the most advanced heat shield ever to fly as it can be reused hundreds of times with little degradation, somewhat like an “on steroids” version of a Formula One racing car’s carbon brake pads.

Dragon is a reusable spacecraft that was developed by SpaceX under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program and it was initially conceptualized by SpaceX in 2005. The Dragon spacecraft is made up of a pressurized capsule and an unpressurized trunk for the transportation of pressurized cargo, unpressurized cargo and/or crew members to low-Earth orbit. Basically, the Dragon spacecraft has 10 cubic meters of pressurized volume, 14 cubic meters of unpressurized volume and it can support up to 7 passengers in crew configuration. The crew and cargo versions of the Dragon spacecraft are designed to be nearly identical to facilitate a rapid transition between cargo and crew.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket was used to launch the Dragon spacecraft into space on this historic voyage. The Falcon 9 rocket is basically a two stage launch vehicle that is powered by liquid oxygen and rocket grade kerosene (RP-1). The first stage rocket booster is powered by nine Merlin 1C rocket engines which generate a combined thrust of 5 million Newton at liftoff, while the second stage rocket booster is powered by a single Merlin Vacuum rocket engine which generates a thrust of 411 thousand Newton in a vacuum. The Falcon 9 rocket can launch over 10 metric tons into low-Earth orbit and a yet to be launched heavy variant called the Falcon 9 Heavy can launch almost 30 tons into low-Earth orbit.

SpaceX is developing a family of launch vehicles and spacecraft that will increase reliability and performance of space transportation, while ultimately reducing costs by a factor of ten. Next year, the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon spacecraft will start delivering cargo, including live plants and animals to and from the International Space Station for NASA. Both the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon spacecraft were developed to one day carry astronauts.

SpaceX has also revealed plans for future rocket designs, namely the Falcon X, Falcon X Heavy and Falcon XX. All these launch vehicle designs are in the heavy-lift to super heavy-lift range. The Falcon X can deliver up to 38 metric tons to low-Earth orbit while the Falcon X Heavy can deliver up to 125 metric tons to low-Earth orbit. Finally, the Falcon XX is a behemoth which can deliver up to 140 metric tons to low-Earth orbit. If developed, SpaceX’s Falcon X Heavy and Falcon XX will be among the largest and most powerful rockets ever built, with the long retired legendary Saturn V rocket being the closest rival. For comparison, NASA’s Space Shuttle can deliver 24 metric tons to low-Earth orbit while the Saturn V rocket can deliver a massive 120 metric tons to low-Earth orbit.