It’s really quite amazing the things that happen when you’re gone for only a few short weeks. One of the first things I had heard when I got back was that Barack Obama had received the Nobel peace prize, which for me was somewhat unexpected but completely understandable. Although what really amazed me is that the private space sector has been chugging along quite happily and amongst the flood of articles I have to get through this one stood out in particular:
SpaceX has announced the payload for the first Falcon 9 launch later this year will be a stripped-down version of the company’s own Dragon capsule, a vehicle being developed to deliver supplies to the International Space Station.
Artist’s concept of the Falcon 9 rocket launching a Dragon capsule. Credit: SpaceX
In an update on the company’s Web site, SpaceX said the demonstration launch would provide “valuable aerodynamic and performance data” for future Dragon test flights under the umbrella of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services and Commercial Resupply Services programs.
The payload is called the Dragon spacecraft qualification unit, a vehicle originally built only for ground testing to verify the spacecraft’s myriad of systems are ready for flight.
It’s an absolutely fantastic idea from SpaceX and shows how serious they are about providing a true low cost solution to deliver people and cargo to the International Space Station and beyond. On the surface it might not seem like a lot, I mean really they’re just changing the payload and what really matters is the rest of the rocket right? Well yes and no, the test flight of the rocket is certainly the most important aspect, but testing the Dragon capsule is by far more valuable than what they were going to do.
Traditionally they’d launch a dummy payload since the Falcon-9 is primarily focused on commercial payloads. Most of these take the form of satellites and as such they’ll strap a great hunk of metal to the top of it (they called the first one they used RatSat). Doing this allows them to test all systems required to get commercial payloads into orbit whilst not having to find someone willing to risk their project on an experimental rocket, as you can’t usually insure a payload unless the rocket has had at least one successful launch. So what are they missing out on by swapping out the dummy for Dragon?
Primarily it’s the fairing separation system, which are the covers over the payload whilst its in the atmosphere. Once they’re in space and there’s little air resistance they separate from the rocket to reduce weight. The dragon capsule on the other hand doesn’t need fairings since its design is close to that of a tear drop, so it’s already aerodynamic and doesn’t need protection whilst its in the atmosphere. Flying a skeleton Dragon capsule up makes a lot of sense as they get double the testing for a single launch, that is should it make it to orbit.
SpaceX are constantly showing that they have what it takes to become a serious low cost competitor in the rocket business. Every step they take we see more innovation from them, from being able to flight certify hardware in under 24 hours to running with a total staff of 800 they really are on the cutting edge and every announcement from them gets me excited. With their Falcon-9 test flight scheduled for sometime between the end of November and early next year we’re on the cusp of seeing the first fully private rocket make its way to the International Space Station.