The 8-ton prototype spaceship will only reach a mile an altitude, but the trial aims to verify the Dragon capsule can safely escape from a launch failure and save its occupants from a potentially explosive mishap.
SpaceX says the human-rated spacecraft, which it calls Crew Dragon, will be ready to haul astronauts to the International Space Station in 2017, and Wednesday’s test of the capsule’s abort mechanism is key to proving the ship is safe enough for people.
NASA contracted with SpaceX and Boeing last year to develop commercial spaceships to carry astronauts to the space station and end U.S. reliance on Russia for crew transport services.
Eight hotrod 3D-printed SuperDraco rocket thrusters mounted around the circumference of the capsule are set to fire at 9 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT) to push the 20-foot-tall spacecraft off SpaceX’s launch pad at Cape Canaveral. Officials will watch for gusty winds that could delay the flight, but forecasters predicted Tuesday a 70 percent chance conditions will be acceptable Wednesday.
SpaceX had targeted 7 a.m. EDT (1100 GMT) for the opening of Wednesday’s test window, but a NASA spokesperson said late Tuesday the flight would be delayed at least two hours. Officials did not give a reason for the time change.
Officials said the test window extends until 4 p.m. EDT (2000 GMT), and SpaceX has reserved a backup day Thursday if needed.
Burning a nearly two-ton supply of hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide propellants, the SuperDraco thrusters will almost instantly ramp up to 120, 000 pounds of thrust, propelling the Dragon spaceship to an altitude of 100 meters — 328 feet — in two seconds. By the time the SuperDracos finish firing, the capsule will be a third of a mile above the launch pad.
Put another way, the capsule will go from 0 to nearly 100 mph in one second.
Six seconds of propulsion from the SuperDraco engines will send the spacecraft on an arcing trajectory east from the launch pad toward the beach.
“By the end of the burn — at the end of the six seconds — you’re going between 150 to 180 meters per second (335 to 402 mph), ” said Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of mission assurance. “You’re going pretty fast for the fact that you only stepped on the gas for six seconds.
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