WASHINGTON — A Falcon 9 first stage failed to land after a launch last month because one of its engines shut down during flight after hot gas breached a worn-out cover.
During a NASA press conference March 1 about the upcoming Crew-2 commercial crew flight, Benji Reed, senior director for human spaceflight programs at SpaceX, said that while the booster used on that Feb. 15 launch was making its sixth flight, some components on it were “life leaders” that had flown more often than any other in the Falcon 9 fleet.
That included “boots,” or covers around parts of the Merlin engines in the first stage. “This was the highest count number of flights that this particular boot design had seen,” he said.
However, one of those boots had a “little bit of a hole” that allowed hot gas to get into parts of the engine during flight, he said. “A little bit of hot gas got to where it’s not supposed to be, and it caused that engine to shut down,” he said.
Reed didn’t mention at what point in the launch the engine shut down, but he suggested it took place during ascent. “A great thing about Falcon 9 is that we have engine-out capability,” he said, meaning that one of the first stage’s nine engines can shut down without jeopardizing the mission. “The vehicle got to orbit and put the satellites exactly where they want to be. The primary mission was accomplished.”
The shutdown of the engine, though, kept the first stage from landing. “When that booster came to return home, because of the problem with that particular engine, we didn’t have enough thrust to get back to where we needed to be, and didn’t land where we wanted to be,” he said.
Reed’s comments offered the most details to date on why the booster failed to land, breaking a streak of two dozen consecutive landings dating back nearly a year. Hans Koenigsmann, a longtime SpaceX executive who is currently a senior adviser for build and flight reliability at the company, said Feb. 23 that “heat damage” was to blame, but didn’t go into more details.
The Falcon 9 has not launched since that Feb. 15 mission, although the company attempted a launch Feb. 28 of another set of Starlink satellites. The launch was scrubbed 84 seconds before the scheduled 8:37 p.m. Eastern liftoff, and the company has not set a new date for the launch or provided more information about the cause of the scrub.
During the webcast of that launch attempt, the SpaceX hosts did not discuss the failed landing. However, they noted that there would be no video from the first stage on that launch, a break with the company’s standard practices.
Reed said the engine problem was “a great lesson that we learned” as the company works to better understand the lifetime of Falcon 9 boosters and which components are most susceptible to wear and tear. The company is also working to upgrade control systems on the vehicle “to even further detect and control what the vehicle needs to do” in circumstances like that.
NASA has been following the investigation to understand if there are any problems that may pose safety issues to the Falcon 9 that will launch the Crew-2 mission, currently scheduled for no earlier than April 20. “We will follow along with SpaceX’s investigation,” Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, said at the briefing, including making sure they understand the problem before giving approval to launch the mission.
A big difference between the Starlink missions and Crew-2 is the number of flights. “We’re about to embark on our first reuse here for a crewed vehicle,” he said. The Falcon 9 booster that will launch Crew-2 previously launched the Crew-1 mission in November 2020, but with no flights in between. “SpaceX Starlink flights are pretty far out there” in terms of number of reuses of the boosters, he noted.
The astronauts who will fly on Crew-2 have also been keeping track of this and potentially other Falcon 9 issues. “We’ve been briefed about every month on the updates of our spacecraft as well as the rocket, so we’re very confident that they’re going to figure out what’s going wrong.” said Shane Kimbrough, the NASA astronaut who will command Crew-2. “It’s just been a few little things on a few of these rockets.” He didn’t elaborate on what those “few little things” are.
Crew-2 mission timeline
The timeline below covers major vehicle and crew activities during the Crew-2 countdown and rendezvous with the International Space Station. All times assume liftoff of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 5:49:02 a.m. EDT (0949:02 GMT) on Friday, April 23. All times in Eastern Daylight Time (GMT-4).
See our Mission Status Center for additional coverage and real-time mission updates
THURSDAY, APRIL 22
- 11:09 p.m. EDT: Crew wakeup
FRIDAY, APRIL 23
- 12:19:02 a.m. EDT: Chief engineer launch readiness briefing
- 12:49:02 a.m. EDT: Launch shift arrives in Firing Room 4; Dragon IMU align/configure for launch
- 1:19:02 a.m. EDT: Dragon prop pressurization
- 1:29:02 a.m. EDT: Crew weather brief
- 1:30 a.m. EDT: NASA TV coverage begins
- 1:39:02 a.m. EDT: Crew handoff to SpaceX
- 1:49:02 a.m. EDT: Suit donning and checkouts
- 1:49:02 a.m. EDT: Launch director readiness poll for advance team to enter Blast Danger Area
- 1:54:02 a.m. EDT: Advance team travels to pad 39A
- 1:59:02 a.m. EDT: ISS state vector uploaded to Dragon
- 2:29:02 a.m. EDT: Crew walkout from Neil Armstrong O&C Building
- 2:34:02 a.m. EDT: Crew departs for pad 39A in Tesla Model Xs
- 2:54:02 a.m. EDT: Crew arrives at pad 39A
- 3:14:02 a.m. EDT: Astronauts ingress into Crew Dragon
- 3:29:02 a.m. EDT: Crew communications checks
- 3:34:02 a.m. EDT: Verify ready for seat rotation
- 3:35:02 a.m. EDT: Suit leak checks
- 3:54:02 a.m. EDT: Hatch closed for flight
- 5:04:02 a.m. EDT: SpaceX launch director verifies go for propellant load
- 5:07:02 a.m. EDT: Crew access arm retracts
- 5:11:02 a.m. EDT: Launch escape system armed
- 5:14:02 a.m. EDT: 1st and 2nd stage RP-1 fuel load begins; 1st stage LOX load begins
- 5:33:02 a.m. EDT: 2nd stage LOX load begins
- 5:42:02 a.m. EDT: 1st stage engine chill begins
- 5:44:02 a.m. EDT: Dragon transitions to internal power
- 5:44:32 a.m. EST: Strongback retraction begins
- 5:44:42 a.m. EDT: 1st stage fully loaded with RP-1
- 5:45:22 a.m. EDT: Autonomous Flight Termination System final setup
- 5:45:57 a.m. EDT: M-Vac engine igniter purge
- 5:46:02 a.m. EDT: 1st stage LOX tank full; Strongback at ~1.7 degrees
- 5:47:02 a.m. EDT: 2nd stage LOX tank full
- 5:48:02 a.m. EDT: Flight computer starts final pre-flight checks; F9 prop tanks pressurize for flight
- 5:48:17 a.m. EDT: SpaceX launch director verifies go for launch
- 5:48:59 a.m. EDT: Engine controller commands engine ignition sequence
- 5:49:02 a.m. EDT: Liftoff
- 5:49:02 a.m. EDT: Stage 1a abort mode
- 5:49:12 a.m. EDT: Pitch kick
- 5:49:55 a.m. EDT: Stage 1 throttle bucket
- 5:50:04 a.m. EDT: Max-Q
- 5:50:11 a.m. EDT: Mach 1
- 5:50:16 a.m. EDT: Stage 1b abort mode
- 5:51:37 a.m. EDT: Stage 2a abort mode
- 5:51:38 a.m. EDT: MECO; 1st stage engines cut off
- 5:51:41 a.m. EDT: Stage separation
- 5:51:49 a.m. EDT: 2nd stage’s M-Vac engine ignites
- 5:53:22 a.m. EDT: Bermuda ground station acquires F9 and Dragon signals
- 5:56:29 a.m. EDT: 1st stage entry burn
- 5:57:49 a.m. EDT: SECO-1; 2nd stage M-Vac engine shuts down; Orbit insertion
- 5:58:05 a.m. EDT: 1st stage landing burn
- 5:58:32 a.m. EDT: 1st stage landing on droneship
- 6:01:00 a.m. EDT: Dragon separates from 2nd stage; Begin Draco thruster checkouts
- 6:02:04 a.m. EDT: Dragon nosecone open sequence begins
- 6:38:25 a.m. EDT: Phase burn using Draco thrusters
- 7:30 a.m. EDT: Post-launch news conference on NASA TV
- 8:00 a.m. EDT: Crew downlink opportunity (approximate time)
- 2:00 p.m. EDT: Crew-2 sleep shift begins
- 5:30 p.m. EDT: ISS crew sleep shift begins
- 9:25:04 p.m. EDT: Boost burn using Draco thrusters
- 10:00 p.m. EDT: Crew-2 wakeup
- 10:10:32 p.m. EDT: Close burn using Draco thrusters
SATURDAY, APRIL 24
- 12:00 a.m. EDT: Crew downlink opportunity (approximate time)
- 12:06:46 a.m. EDT: Transfer burn using Draco thrusters
- 12:53:12 a.m. EDT: Coelliptic burn using Draco thrusters
- 2:00 a.m. EDT: ISS crew wakeup
- 2:10 a.m. EDT: Crew Dragon range 30 kilometers from ISS
- 2:48:56 a.m. EDT: Out of Plane burn using Draco thrusters
- 3:01 a.m. EDT: Crew Dragon range 15 kilometers from ISS
- 3:15 a.m. EDT: Go/no go decision for approach initiation burn
- 3:18 a.m. EDT: Crew Dragon range 10 kilometers from ISS
- 3:40 a.m. EDT: Approach initiation burn; Crew Dragon range 7.5 kilometers from ISS
- 4:05 a.m. EDT: Approach initiation midcourse burn
- 4:15 a.m. EDT: Go/no go decision to enter ISS keep out sphere (a 200-meter zone around the ISS)
- 4:25 a.m. EDT: Waypoint Zero arrival (400 meters below ISS)
- 4:39 a.m. EDT: Go/no go decision to approach Waypoint 2
- 4:49 a.m. EDT: Docking axis/Waypoint 1 arrival (220 meters in front of ISS)
- 5:00 a.m. EDT: Waypoint 2 arrival and hold (20 meters from ISS)
- 5:01 a.m. EDT: Go/no go decision for docking
- 5:05 a.m. EDT: Resume approach from Waypoint 2 (20 meters from ISS)
- 5:10 a.m. EDT: Contact and capture at IDA-2 on forward port of the Harmony module
- 5:23 a.m. EDT: Docking sequence complete; All hooks closed; Power umbilicals mated
- 5:35 a.m. EDT: Leak checks begin between Crew Dragon and ISS
- 7:00 a.m. EDT: Leak checks complete; Vestibule pressurization
- 7:15 a.m. EDT: Hatch opening; Crew-2 astronauts enter ISS
- 7:45 a.m. EDT: Welcome ceremony
- 2:29 p.m. EDT: Crew safety briefing
- 5:30 p.m. EDT: ISS crew sleep begins
- 5:49 p.m. EDT: Crew-2 sleep begins
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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.
SPAC rule changes add complexity and delays for space companies eying public markets
TAMPA, Fla. — New accounting rules have thrown a wrench into a SPAC machine that has been catapulting space companies to the public markets.
Changing guidance from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) are adding complexities, and delays, for SPACs (special-purpose acquisition companies) that merge with businesses after listing on the public market.
The changes laid out by the financial regulatory agency mean that warrants, which give investors the option to buy shares at specific prices in the future, need to be classified as liabilities instead of equity instruments in a company’s accounting books.
It is already prompting some space companies to redo paperwork, clogging up accountancy firms that are being overwhelmed by filings from other sectors.
There has also been a noticeable drop in new SPACs, sometimes called blank check companies, since the SEC unveiled the guidance April 12.
Only around 10 deals have been issued so far in April compared with more than 100 in March, according to news reports citing data from SPAC Research.
Uncertainty around the rules is also causing headaches for SPACs that have already merged with their target company, because the changes affect some more than others.
“Importantly, this is not specific to any one SPAC, but all SPACs,” said an official for launch company Rocket Lab, which is merging with the Vector Acquisition Corp. SPAC to help develop a medium-class vehicle.
“We are working with our auditors and advisors and will communicate any changes in due course, but we have nothing to update at this present juncture,” the Rocket Lab official said.
The possibility of delays also adds pressure on SPAC companies that have listed on a public market but are still hunting for a suitable acquisition.
SPACs have to find a deal within a certain period, usually two years, or return to shareholders the money they have raised through their public listing.
“We’re still assessing at this time,” said an official for New Vista Acquisition Corp., which has two years to find a target after listing on the Nasdaq stock exchange Feb. 19.
New Vista, led by former Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, is concentrating its acquisition search on companies in space-based communications and defense, as well as advanced air mobility, transportation and logistics industries.
Space-focused blank check companies looking to list on the public markets include Space Acquisition I, which is co-led by venture capital firm E2MC founder Raphael Roettgen, and CEA Space Partners I Corp, led by former SES Americom CEO Edward Horowitz.
It is unclear what the potential for delays means for in-space transportation company Momentus, which is working on completing a merger with a SPAC called Stable Road Acquisition Corp.
Stable Road has until May 13 to finalize the deal, but is asking shareholders to approve a three-month extension as government reviews of the transaction drag on. A shareholder meeting has been scheduled for May 6 to vote on the extension.
Momentus did not respond to a request for comment.
A matter of perception
SPAC accounting rule changes to classify warrants as liabilities affect companies across all industries.
However, they could add more perceived risk for space ventures, which — with their usual wait times to generate significant revenues — are already seen as on the riskier end of the market, according to Micah Walter-Range, president and partner of consultancy firm Caelus Partners.
“Space companies are still viewed as incredibly risky and going public does not change that perception,” said Walter-Range, who created the underlying index for the Procure Space exchange-traded fund (ETF).
He said markets are still figuring out whether to perceive this accounting change as adding more risk to the long-term survival of space companies.
Others point to the long history of warrants being used in the financial markets, meaning they are understood by most investors regardless of how they are classified for accounting purposes.
However, more scrutiny for SPACs in general could help cool the once red-hot market even after there is clarity over what these accounting changes mean for businesses, impacting space companies that had been thinking about hopping on the bandwagon.
Ingenuity makes second flight on Mars
ORLANDO — NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter successfully made its second flight on Mars April 22, expanding its flight envelope as the project considers more ambitious tests in the coming days.
Ingenuity took off at 5:33 a.m. Eastern on the 51.9-second flight, although controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory waited nearly four hours before telemetry and images from the flight were returned to Earth. That data confirmed that the 1.8-kilogram helicopter performed as expected on that flight.
“So far, the engineering telemetry we have received and analyzed tell us that the flight met expectations and our prior computer modeling has been accurate,” Bob Balaram, chief engineer for Ingenuity, said in a NASA statement.
This flight took place three days after Ingenuity’s successful first flight, when the helicopter rose to an altitude of three meters, hovered and then descended. On this flight, Ingenuity went to an altitude of five meters, then tilted slightly to allow it to move sideways two meters. It stopped and turned, then went back two meters and descended to a safe landing.
“It sounds simple, but there are many unknowns regarding how to fly a helicopter on Mars,” Håvard Grip, chief pilot for Ingenuity at JPL, said in the NASA statement. “That’s why we’re here: to make these unknowns known.”
The flight is the second in a series of up to five that the project plans to perform. At the April 19 briefing after the first flight, MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager, said the third flight would be similar to the second, but would have the helicopter move 50 meters sideways and back, rather than the two meters of this flight.
Project officials said at that briefing the plans for the fourth and fifth flights were still to be determined. “In general terms, what we’re talking about is going higher, going further, going faster; stretching the capabilities of the helicopter in those ways,” Grip said. Because Ingenuity is a technology demonstration, the project is willing to take risks that could result in the loss of the helicopter.
NASA said in the statement that, because Ingenuity flew as expected on its first two flights, “the Ingenuity team is considering how best to expand the profiles of its next flights to acquire additional aeronautical data from the first successful flight tests on another world.”
NASA did not disclose when the next flight is scheduled, but project officials previously said they expected to attempt flights every three to four days. They are also constrained by the schedule the overall Mars 2020 mission set for Ingenuity, reserving one month for the Ingenuity test campaign. This flight took place on the 18th sol, or Martian day, of that 30-sol test period.
In another first, NASA’s Perseverance rover generates oxygen on Mars
In another first, an instrument inside NASA’s Perseverance rover has made oxygen out of carbon dioxide sucked in from the atmosphere of Mars, officials said Wednesday. The technology could help future astronauts “live off the land” by generating their own rocket fuel and breathing air.
The milestone for the Perseverance rover’s Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, one of the six-wheeled robot’s seven instruments. The rover’s other experiments study the Martian environment, while MOXIE is a pure technology demonstration.
NASA said Wednesday the MOXIE instrument — about the size of a toaster oven — succeeded in generating oxygen on Mars. The instrument works by ingesting carbon dioxide, which makes up about 96% of the Martian atmosphere, and separating one of the molecules’ oxygen atoms from a second oxygen atom and carbon.
“This is a critical first step at converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s space technology mission directorate, which partnered with NASA’s human spaceflight division to develop the MOXIE instrument. “MOXIE has more work to do, but the results from this technology demonstration are full of promise as we move toward our goal of one day seeing humans on Mars.”
The instrument emits carbon monoxide, the waste product left over after the conversion, back into the Martian atmosphere. Future missions, including astronaut explorers, could use a similar process to generate tons of oxygen to use as rocket propellant and breathable air.
“Oxygen isn’t just the stuff we breathe,” Reuter said. “Rocket propellant depends on oxygen, and future explorers will depend on producing propellant on Mars to make the trip home.”
NASA said the MOXIE instrument completed its first trial run Tuesday, April 20. Over the course of about an hour, the instrument produced 5.4 grams of oxygen, enough for an astronaut to breathe for about 10 minutes, according to NASA. The agency said MOXIE is designed to generate up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour.
In order to strip oxygen out of carbon dioxide molecules, MOXIE heats the gas to a temperature near 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit (800 Celsius), according to NASA.
“To accommodate this, the MOXIE unit is made with heat-tolerant materials,” NASA said. “These include 3D-printed nickel alloy parts, which heat and cool the gases flowing through it, and a lightweight aerogel that helps hold in the heat. A thin gold coating on the outside of MOXIE reflects infrared heat, keeping it from radiating outward and potentially damaging other parts of Perseverance.”
A future human expedition to Mars would need a scaled-up oxygen generation unit. A rocket powerful enough to launch astronauts off the surface of Mars would need about 15,000 pounds (7 metric tons) of fuel and 55,000 pounds (25 metric tons) of oxygen, NASA said.
The astronauts would need less oxygen to breathe. Four astronauts might require about a metric ton of breathable oxygen in a year, said Michael Hecht, the MOXIE instrument’s principal investigator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Haystack Observatory.
The MOXIE instrument is the first experiment on Mars to prove out technologies for in situ resource utilization, where missions rely on natural materials on other planets to live off the land. Other resources that future astronauts could use include rocks and soil to help create structures, or water from ice deposits.
NASA plans nine more oxygen generation runs on the MOXIE instrument over the next two years. The experiments will test the instrument’s performance at different temperature settings, and measure how MOXIE works at different times of day on Mars.
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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.
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