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Spitting fire, a Dragon heads for the Space Station

SpaceX has launched its first mission to resupply the International Space Station, a major development in the commercial spaceflight sector.

The California-based company’s Dragon craft was launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Florida at 8:35 p.m. Eastern time on Sunday.

The Dragon capsule is scheduled dock with the Space Station on 10 October before returning to Earth. A similar mission in May also saw a Dragon capsule docking with the Space Station in a dry run without vital cargo. With the demise of the space shuttle, NASA and other countries are increasingly reliant on commercial companies for launches. NASA hailed the launch of this, the first genuine resupply, as the start of a “landmark” mission (see: ISS catch of the day: Dragon!).

“This was a critical event in spaceflight tonight,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden. “We’re once again launching spacecraft from American soil with the supplies our astronauts need in space. NASA and the nation are embarking on an ambitious program of space exploration.”

UPDATE: A very visible problem that saw one of the nine engines on the rocket that launched the Dragon shut down has been described by SpaceX as an “anomaly”, according to a statement issued to the NASAWatch blog. It goes on to say that launch had a longer burn time owing to the failure of the engine in question, but the Falcon 9 rocket is designed to handle such a problem.

“There was no effect on Dragon or the Space Station resupply mission,” says the statement, which does not comment on the satellite from the ORBCOMM company which was also on board the rocket and is reported by some sky-watchers to be in the wrong orbit.

We will update again once we obtain comment from SpaceX.

 UPDATE 2:  Space X has now released an official statement. It says, in part:

Approximately one minute and 19 seconds into last night’s launch, the Falcon 9 rocket detected an anomaly on one first stage engine. Initial data suggests that one of the rocket’s nine Merlin engines, Engine 1, lost pressure suddenly and an engine shutdown command was issued. … As designed, the flight computer then recomputed a new ascent profile in real time to ensure Dragon’s entry into orbit for subsequent rendezvous and berthing with the ISS. This was achieved, and there was no effect on Dragon or the cargo resupply mission.

ORBCOMM has also issued a statement. In part, it says:

Due to an anomaly on one of the Falcon 9’s first stage engines, the rocket did not comply with a pre-planned International Space Station (ISS) safety gate to allow it to execute the second burn. For this reason, the OG2 prototype satellite was deployed into an orbit that was lower than intended. ORBCOMM and Sierra Nevada Corporation engineers have been in contact with the satellite and are working to determine if and the extent to which the orbit can be raised to an operational orbit using the satellite’s on-board propulsion system.

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