Jason DavisOct 08, 2012

SpaceX's first paid cargo run off to bumpy start

SpaceX successfully sent their first paid Dragon capsule towards the International Space Station Sunday night. But the bigger story happened on the way to orbit.

According to SpaceX, engine number one on the Falcon 9 lost pressure and shut down approximately one minute, 19 seconds into the flight. Long-range tracking cameras showed an orange flash blow outward from the engine, followed by several pieces of debris flying off the vehicle. SpaceX says the engine did not explode, and the materials falling away from the rocket were panels designed to relieve pressure inside the engine bay.

I grabbed eight frames from the launch video showing the failure, adjusted them to bring out more detail and created an animation:

Falcon 9 loses an engine
Falcon 9 loses an engine In this animation from SpaceX's CRS-1 flight, the top-right engine (number one) is engulfed in an orange flash, just before several pieces of debris fall from the Falcon 9.Image: SpaceX / animation by Jason Davis

It certainly looks harrowing, but the Falcon 9 is designed to withstand an engine failure and still be able to place Dragon into its intended orbit by simply increasing engine burn times. That’s exactly what happened here.

However, after releasing Dragon, the second stage was supposed to execute a second burn before deploying a satellite payload for Orbcomm, another paying customer. NASA safety rules say that if an engine dies on the way to space, an additional burn is not allowed. Therefore, Orbcomm's satellite was deposited into an orbit much lower than intended.

Orbcomm is currently trying to see what they can do to raise their satellite's orbit (link goes to PDF). In the meantime, SpaceX is likely trying to figure out what caused the pressure drop in engine one. Dragon is still on course for its Wednesday arrival at the International Space Station.

CRS-1 takes flight
CRS-1 takes flight SpaceX's Falcon 9 and Dragon liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral to begin the private spaceflight company's first paid cargo run to the International Space Station.Image: SpaceX

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