Rapid-response satellite system clears test hurdle
Vehicle bankrolled by millionaire PayPal-founder nears success.
When a multi-million-dollar launch vehicle burns up in the atmosphere before achieving orbit, the mission might be deemed a failure. Yet space industry experts say that the latest test run by SpaceX, a firm that aims to radically cut the cost and time needed to launch satellites, should be judged a significant success.
The company's Falcon 1 vehicle developed a rolling motion around 6 minutes after launching from the Marshall Islands on 20 March, at which point it had reached an altitude of 300 kilometres. The motion somehow caused the craft's engines to shut down, sending it towards a fiery end as it re-entered the atmosphere and burnt up.
The launch was watched with interest because of the way that SpaceX is shaking up the satellite-launch industry. The firm aims to be able to get its rocket ready for launch in a matter of hours. Launches usually take months of planning, but industry observers say the Falcon 1 can be turned around quickly because SpaceX has focused on using a simple design that the firm says will eventually be operated by as few as 15 staff.
A rapid launch service would allow the US military, which paid for the test, to launch satellites at very short notice. It could then put extra surveillance capability in orbit above conflict zones, or replace satellites that had failed or been shot down.
Most rocket failures are caused by problems with the firing of engines and the separation of the first and second stages of the rocket, all of which passed off without problems. In a previous test conducted around a year ago, the Falcon 1 failed before separation occurred.
"They've gone a long way towards demonstrating overall reliability," says Jeff Foust, a senior analyst at Futron, an aerospace business consultancy based in Bethesda, Maryland.
"You don't get paid until the end product works," adds Wolfgang Demisch, an aerospace consultant based in New York, "but if you can demonstrate the launch vehicle works then you're pretty much there."
Elon Musk, the multi-millionaire founder of the Internet service PayPal and the man behind SpaceX, says that his team is now examining data from onboard sensors to determine the cause of the engine shut-down. One possibility is that the rolling motion caused fuel to slosh away from the line that feeds the engine.
Musk says that SpaceX engineers should have made a preliminary diagnosis by early next week. He adds that they are confident of being able to fix the problem and that the next flight, scheduled for later this year, will involve the launch of a US Department of Defense satellite.
Small aerospace firms have traditionally had a hard time taking on the big companies that dominate the industry: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Arianespace. But as SpaceX starts to earn confidence — enough to have generated orders for 13 launches — industry analysts say that the giants will now be looking over their shoulders.
"Musk has a lot of money and he's determined to make it work," says Leon McKinney, an aerospace consultant based in St Louis, Missouri.