Jason DavisMay 18, 2012

SpaceX set to launch COTS 2 flight this Saturday

This Saturday, SpaceX will attempt to make history by launching the first commercial spacecraft to berth with the International Space Station. The flight will demonstrate the Dragon spacecraft’s readiness to begin official cargo runs to the orbiting laboratory. NASA has signed off on twelve resupply flights, which could begin later this year. But before that happens, SpaceX has to prove their vehicle is up for the challenge.

SpaceX COTS2 mission patch
SpaceX COTS2 mission patch The official mission patch for Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Demo 2, SpaceX's inaugural flight to the International Space Station.Image: SpaceX

It has been six years since NASA began accepting proposals for their Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. A press release at the time challenged private industry to "open new space markets and support the crew and cargo transportation needs of the International Space Station." SpaceX’s May 19 flight, scheduled for a 4:55AM EDT (8:55 UTC) liftoff, marks the culmination of NASA’s efforts to pass the banner of low-Earth orbit cargo services from the space shuttle program to the commercial spaceflight industry.

The Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule have not flown since their first demonstration flight in December 2010, during which the Dragon became the first privately-built spacecraft to orbit the Earth and return to the ground intact for recovery. To date, only the governments of the United States, Russia and China have accomplished this feat.

Private spaceflight has been at the heart of differing opinions regarding U.S. space policy. SpaceX has become the most visible symbol of the burgeoning industry, and the outcome of this flight will likely be used as a talking point for stakeholders on all sides of the debate. But despite the clenched-teeth excitement surrounding the launch, the flight remains a demonstration of the Dragon’s ability, not an official cargo run. 520 kilograms of food and supplies are going up, and 660 will come down, none of which are mission-critical should the flight end in disaster.

Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Demo 2, or COTS 2, combines a list of SpaceX objectives that were originally slated to take place during two separate flights, with berthing not scheduled until the second (COTS 3). However, last year, SpaceX approached NASA about the possibility of combining the missions, and the space agency agreed.

Before proceeding, SpaceX had to overcome ongoing issues with the Dragon capsule’s software testing and validation. NASA and its International Space Station partners have to be assured that the Dragon will respond properly in the event flight controllers order it to stop its approach. Additionally, SpaceX alluded to their own concerns that the Dragon might call for an abort when one was not necessary.

Launch activities get started the previous evening on May 18, as the Falcon 9 is prepared for flight. The launch window of 4:55AM EDT (8:55 UTC) is an instantaneous launch window, meaning any delay in the count forces a scrub, with the next launch window occuring three days later. Why such narrow constraints? The Dragon will be consuming a lot of propellant as it performs its space station flyaround and demonstration maneuvers. SpaceX wants to launch only at times that will minimize the amount of fuel required to catch up with the International Space Station, which completes an orbit around the Earth every 90 minutes.

Your correspondent plans on waking up around 4:30AM EDT on May 19 to watch and live Tweet the historic event. I also plan on posting live updates to my blog throughout the weekend as the mission progresses.

Here is the current mission timeline. This information comes from SpaceX’s press kit, and is subject to change. 

Prelaunch events

Time to liftoff, H:M:SEvent
7:30:30Vehicles are powered on
3:50:00Commence loading liquid oxygen (LOX)
3:40:00Commence loading RP-1 (rocket-grade kerosene)
3:15:00LOX and RP-1 loading complete
0:10:30Falcon 9 terminal count autosequence starts
0:05:30Dragon terminal count auto starts
0:02:30SpaceX Launch Director verifies go for launch
0:02:00Range Control Officer (USAF) verifies range is go for launch
0:01:00Command flight computer state to startup, turn on pad deck and Niagara Water
0:00:40Pressurize propellant tanks
0:00:03Engine controller commands engine ignition sequence to start
0:00:00Falcon 9 Launch


Ascent events

Time after liftoff, H:M:SEvent
0:01:24Max Q
0:03:001st stage engine shutdown/Main Engine Cut Off (MECO)
0:03:051st and 2nd stages separate
0:03:12Stage 2 engine starts
0:03:52Dragon nose cone jettisoned
0:09:142nd stage engine cut off (SECO)
0:09:49Dragon separates from 2nd stage


On orbit operations/initial demonstrations in the far field

Time after liftoff, H:M:SEvent
0:11:53Start sequence to deploy solar arrays
0:54:49Demonstrate absolute GPS
2:26:48Start GNC Bay door deployment (holds sensors necessary for rendezvous)
2:40:49Relative navigation sensors checkout, checks LIDAR and Thermal Imager
8:46:52Demonstrate full abort, demonstrates Dragon’s ability to abort with a continuous burn
9:57:58Pulsed abort demonstration, checks Dragon’s ability to perform abort using pulsating burns
10:37:58Demonstrate Dragon’s ability to free drift


Phasing, Dragon moves closer to the ISS

  • Co-elliptic burns, place Dragon in a circular orbit
  • Height adjust burns, start adjusting altitude higher towards station



  • Height adjust burn carries Dragon 2.5 km below the station (GO/NO-GO)
  • Dragon demonstrates relative GPS
  • Dragon starts receiving and transmitting information from/to the CUCU unit on the station
  • Height adjust burn carries Dragon away from ISS



  • Dragon begins burns that carry the spacecraft above the space station (GO/NO-GO)
  • Rear height adjust burn, Dragon starts a series of maneuvers that place it behind and below the space station (GO/NO-GO)


Height adjustment maneuvers

  • Height adjust burn, Dragon begins burns that bring it within 2.5 km of station (GO/NO-GO)
  • Dragon again receives and sends information from/to the CUCU unit on station
  • Height adjust burn, brings Dragon 1.2 km from station (GO/NO-GO)
  • Height adjust burn, carries Dragon into the station’s approach ellipsoid (GO/NO-GO)


R-bar to capture (Radial bar is an imaginary line connecting ISS to the center of the Earth)

  • Dragon LIDAR Demo, shows LIDAR is providing Dragon with necessary information for proximity operations
  • Dragon holds at 250 meters (GO/NO-GO) for Demo Maneuvers
  • Dragon begins R-Bar Demonstration (GO/NO-GO)
  • Dragon holds at 30 meters
  • Dragon holds at capture point, 10 meters below the station
  • Station’s robotic arm (SSRMS) captures Dragon (GO/NO-GO)
  • Dragon berths



  • Dragon vestibule de-mate and depressurization
  • Station’s robotic arm uninstalls Dragon
  • Robotic arm releases Dragon
  • Dragon starts departure burns
  • Dragon closes the guidance, navigation and control bay door
  • Deorbit burn
  • Trunk jettisoned
  • Drogue chutes deployed
  • Main chutes deployed
  • Dragon lands in water and is recovered

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