SpaceX engineers are reviewing telemetry to figure out what caused a dramatic first stage engine failure Sunday night during launch of a commercially developed cargo ship on the company's first operational flight to the International Space Station, officials said today.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket's flight computer fired the remaining eight first-stage engines longer than planned to compensate for the failure of engine No. 1 and the Dragon cargo capsule was successfully boosted into the required orbit, setting up a rendezvous with the space station Wednesday morning as planned.
The SpaceX launch generated widespread interest because it was the first flight under a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to provide space station cargo delivery and return services as a commercial endeavor, restoring NASA's ability to resupply the lab complex with U.S. spacecraft.
The engine shutdown triggered widespread speculation among space enthusiasts, bloggers, and reporters because it was apparent something unusual had happened during the Falcon 9's ascent. Long-range tracking cameras showed a sudden brightening of the exhaust plume and what appeared to be debris falling away in the rocket's wake.
Any problem serious enough to generate debris typically results in a loss of mission. But the Falcon 9 continued its ascent and while it was apparent the remaining engines burned longer than expected, the Dragon spacecraft ended up in the proper orbit.
The company issued a press release shortly after launch saying "the Falcon 9 rocket, powered by nine Merlin engines, performed nominally today during every phase of its approach to orbit." But SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk acknowledged the premature engine shutdown in an e-mail to a reporter, saying the Falcon 9, like NASA's Saturn 5 moon rocket, was designed to withstand an engine-out during ascent.
In an update today, the company provided additional information, saying the rocket "detected an anomaly" with engine No. 1 one minute and 19 seconds after liftoff.
"Initial data suggests that one of the rocket's nine Merlin engines, engine 1, lost pressure suddenly, and an engine shutdown command was issued immediately, " the update said. "We know the engine did not explode, because we continued to receive data from it.
"Our review indicates that the fairing that protects the engine from aerodynamic loads ruptured due to the engine pressure release, and that none of Falcon 9's other eight engines were impacted by this event."
The rocket's flight computer then recalculated the trajectory and fired the remaining eight engines longer than originally planned to compensate for the loss of engine No. 1. As a result, the update said, "there was no effect on Dragon or the cargo resupply mission."
"Falcon 9 did exactly what it was designed to do, " the company said. "Like the Saturn 5, which experienced engine loss on two flights, Falcon 9 is designed to handle an engine out situation and still complete its mission."
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