UPDATE #2 (4 p.m. Eastern Standard Time): SpaceX says that a second set of thrusters is up and running. Dragon needs two to fly towards the station but won’t be able to dock without at least three. SpaceX engineers are working to bring the other two sets of thrusters online, but Saturday’s scheduled docking with station has been postponed.
UPDATE #1 (3 p.m. Eastern Standard Time): Owing to a problem with a propellant valve, only one of Dragon’s four thrusters fired. SpaceX deployed the spacecraft’s solar panels and is working to get at least two thrusters running before beginning maneuvers. Whether Dragon could hobble to the station on a single thruster remains unknown.
On Friday at 10:10 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, a Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, the fifth successful launch of this model by SpaceX. Riding the rocket was an unmanned Dragon capsule that detached about ten minutes after lift-off and entered orbit, heading towards the International Space Station (ISS).
But just before the spacecraft’s solar panels were set to deploy, SpaceX engineers reported a problem. What the problem was, and how it will impact Dragon’s visit to the ISS, scheduled for 2 March, remains unknown.
The ISS visit would be the space freighter’s third to date and the second of 12 resupply missions paid for by SpaceX’s US$1.6-billion NASA contract. Dragon’s pressurized pod contains 677 kilograms of packaged cargo. That includes food, clothing, equipment, a rock song called “Up in the Air,” and research experiments studying how plant cells, soot, and mixtures of liquid and solid behave in reduced gravity. For the first time, the spacecraft will also carry cargo in its unpressurized external trunk, bars that will be attached to the outside of the ISS.
During its previous resupply mission in October, Dragon successfully delivered its cargo. But a satellite carried by that Falcon 9 failed to reach its proper orbit after an engine failed in mid-flight. All nine engines appeared to function properly during Friday’s launch, giving a boost to SpaceX’s track record of reliability.
On 25 March, if all goes well, Dragon will detach from the space station and come back down, ultimately splashing into the Pacific Ocean. Retrofitted to prevent water leakage, which shorted out a freezer on board last time, the capsule will bring back 1,370 kilograms of cargo and samples from experiments including NASA’s human research program. By 2015 SpaceX hopes to be returning humans themselves in its first crewed Dragon.
Image: via Livestream