Falcon launches, but Dragon having some problems

This time it’s the spacecraft that’s causing some problems for SpaceX. The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off on time at 10:10 am EST (1510 GMT) after a trouble-free countdown and placed the Dragon into orbit nine minutes later, all according to plan. However, SpaceX reported a problem with the Dragon immediately after separation, offering no additional details. SpaceX CEO and CTO Elon Musk tweeted the most details offered to date about the issue, which may be software related.

11:20 am EST update: SpaceX public relations provided the following brief statement: “One thruster pod is running. Two are preferred to take the next step which is to deploy the solar arrays. We are working to bring up the other two in order to plan the next series of burns to get to station.”

12:05 pm EST update: Another update from SpaceX public relations: “Falcon 9 lifted off as planned and experienced a nominal flight. After Dragon achieved orbit, the spacecraft experienced an issue with a propellant valve. One thruster pod is running. We are trying to bring up the remaining three. We did go ahead and get the solar arrays deployed. Once we get at least 2 pods running, we will begin a series of burns to get to station.”

2:15 pm EST update: There’s been no further word from SpaceX about the status of the Dragon troubleshooting, but NASA has informed the ISS crew that Saturday’s planned arrival of Dragon at the station won’t take place, suggesting SpaceX is still working to get the Dragon’s thrusters working.

3:00 pm EST update: A press conference involving NASA and SpaceX personnel is starting momentarily, but Elon Musk passed along this bit of (good) news via Twitter just before the start: “Pods 1 and 4 now online and thrusters engaged. Dragon transitioned from free drift to active control. Yes!!”

4:25 pm EST update: Dragon appears to be on the mend after a near-death experience immediately after launch. NASA and SpaceX officials said in a telecon that the spacecraft’s thrusters were coming back online, and Elon Musk tweeted shortly after the end of the telecon that all four pods were now online. Musk said engineers suspect that debris of some kind lodged in a line leading from a helium tank to an oxidizer tank, keeping the oxidizer tank from pressurizing; alternative, a valve could have stuck closed. The problem appears to have been resolved, however, and Dragon will soon perform a thruster burn to raise its orbit.

As for when Dragon will arrive at the station, NASA and SpaceX officials said they’ll need time to review the data from the thrusters and be confident that they’re working properly before bringing Dragon close to the station. While a Saturday arrival has been ruled out, Dragon could still berth with the station as soon as Sunday. Once Dragon raises its orbit this afternoon, Musk said they’ll have plenty of time to determine next steps: Dragon can remain in orbit for months now that its solar arrays are deployed, and there are plenty of berthing opportunities for Dragon at the station, except for some days around mid-month when three members of the station’s current crew depart.

7:45pm EST update: One final update tonight, in the form of a press release just emailed to media by SpaceX, indicating Dragon is now on track for arrival at the ISS as early as Sunday, just one day later than original plans despite all of today’s drama:

Dragon spacecraft heads toward International Space Station

Hawthorne, Calif. – Today, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft to orbit for SpaceX’s second mission under its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA. Falcon 9 completed its job perfectly, continuing its 100 percent success rate.

“Falcon 9 was designed to be the world’s most reliable rocket, and today’s launch validated this by adding to Falcon 9’s perfect track record with our fifth success in a row,” said Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX.

After Dragon separated from Falcon 9’s second stage approximately nine minutes after launch, a minor issue with some of Dragon’s oxidation tanks was detected. Within a few hours, SpaceX engineers had identified and corrected the issue, normalizing the oxidation pressure and returning operations to normal. Dragon recomputed its ascent profile as it was designed to and is now on its way to the International Space Station (ISS) with possible arrival on Sunday, just one day past the original timeline.

Dragon is the only spacecraft in the world today capable of returning significant amounts of cargo to Earth. Dragon will stay on station for a three-week visit, during which astronauts will unload approximately 1,200 pounds of cargo and fill the capsule with return cargo, for return to Earth. Dragon is filled with supplies for the ISS, including critical materials to support science investigations. Later this month, Dragon will return a payload that includes research results, education experiments and space station hardware.

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