Stratolaunch Systems Teams With Orbital Sciences

Stratolaunch Carrying A Falcon Rocket from SpaceX
Image Credit: Stratolaunch

Previously, NSSPhoenix reported in December 2011 on the new Stratolaunch design for air launched orbital satellite services. Stratolaunch is the brainchild of billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

Allen enlisted Scaled Composites from Mojave, California to build the twin boom mothership, pictured above. The 222,000-kilogram airplane with a 117-meter wingspan would be capable of flying 2,400 kilometers before deploying a rocket capable of delivering 2,300 kilograms to geosynchronous orbit. Space Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) agreed to study the feasibility of turning their Falcon 9 rocket into an air-launched system. Dynetics Corp. of Huntsville, Alabama was chosen to build the mating and integration system.

Allen, the author of the SpaceShipOne project that won the Ansari X-Prize for two consecutive sub-orbital flights of 100 kilometers within two weeks in 2004, said that he expected to spend “at least an order of magnitude more” on Stratolaunch than he spent on SpaceShipOne.

In late November, SpaceX and Stratolaunch parted ways, agreeing that the effort to retool the SpaceX assembly line into one capable of building a four or five engine Falcon with the associated structural and engineering changes, was too great a change to the SpaceX business model in return for the financial possibilities.

Subsequently, Stratolaunch approached Orbital Sciences, a company with a long history of air launched orbital missions dating back to 1990. Orbital has agreed to study providing the launch vehicle for Stratolaunch. Currently, Orbital’s Pegasus system can put 450 kilograms of satellite into low-Earth orbit. But there has been only a single launch in the past four years, and the only remaining manifest is for a 2013 launch of NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph space telescope.

Orbital is currently working on their Commercial Resupply Service (CRS) Antares rocket, which relies on a liquid fueled first stage powered by Ukrainian built rocket engines, to fulfill a contract with NASA to resupply the International Space Station (ISS).

Stratolaunch has been engaged with Orbital for several months and have contracted with Orbital to evaluate configurations of Orbital systems capable of satisfying Stratolaunch requirements.

Dragon – Capture and Berthing – Images

Capture of the Dragon was completed by Sunita Williams and Akihiko Hoshide at 3:56 AM Phoenix time (10:56 UTC). Suni: “Looks like we tamed the dragon, she’s on board with us.”

Referring to the fact that Dragon is capable of carrying powered equipment to and from the space station, the space station crew reported that they had captured Dragon and were looking forward to the chocolate-vanilla swirl ice cream in the freezer aboard the space craft.

Dragon Attached to ISS – In The Sunlight Above Earth
Image Credit: NASA TV

At 4:45 Phoenix time, the space station crew is preparing for Common Berthing Mechanism (CBM) inspection.

The CBM has been inspected and has been confirmed to be in good condition. Since the ISS is out of range of KU communication, there will be a 10-15 minute wait until the crew can move the robotic arm to the pre-install position.

Dragon Moving Carefully to the Berthing Position on the Harmony Node
Image Credit: NASA TV

In the image below, the Dragon Common Berthing Mechanism (CBM) is in the upper right and the Harmony Node is in the lower left. The ISS crew is waiting to receive permission to move the Dragon to the pre-install position.

Dragon Common Berthing Mechanism
Image Credit: NASA TV

At 5:15 AM Phoenix time (12:15 UTC), Dragon is being moved to the pre-install position.

Dragon Being Moved to the Pre-Install Position
Image Credit: NASA TV

The ground crew is preparing to give the go ahead to berth the Dragon. Currently the Flight director hand-over is in work for transition from Orbit-1 to Orbit-2.

The flight director has begun to continue the process leading up to berthing. Suni is checking that the thrusters have been safed.

At 5:41 AM, the Dragon is again in motion, moving toward the bottom of the Harmony module.

And Suni has confirmed contact: “We are ready to latch”.

Dragon Makes Contact and is Ready To Latch
Image Credit: NASA TV

First stage capture is complete and the bolts have been tightened. The robotic arm has been “limped”, but not disengaged.

Second stage capture is underway, 272 Miles above the South Atlantic. With the re-establishment of solid comm, Suni can proceed.

At 6:03 AM (13:03 UTC), installation has been confirmed.

Dragon Installed on the International Space Station
Image Credit: NASA TV

Graphic showing all the vehicles currently attached to the International Space Station.

Dragon in the International Space Station Parking Lot
Image Credit: NASA TV

Dragon – Capture By ISS – CRS-1

Dragon 12 Meters from the International Space Station
Image Credit: NASA TV


NASA TV provides coverage of the SpaceX/Dragon rendezvous and grappling. SpaceX will also provide coverage.

Latest Key times:

  • 5:13am et/2:13am pt – 250 meter hold (go/no-go)
  • 6:25am et/3:25am pt – 30 meter hold (go/no-go)
  • 6:57am et/3:57 am pt – 10 meter hold (go/no-go for capture)
  • 7:17am et/4:17 am pt – Capture/grapple

And we are at the 10 meter capture point at 3:43 AM Phoenix time. About 10 minutes ahead of schedule.

NASA has given GO for capture.

From Dragon
Dragon Ready for Grapple by Canadarm on the International Space Station
Image Credit: NASA TV

One Meter to go.

Capture complete at 3:56 AM Phoenix time. Everything has gone according to plan and ahead of schedule.

One Meter
Dragon One Meter From Canadarm on the International Space Station
Image Credit: NASA TV

Dragon One Captured By Canadarm on the International Space Station
Image Credit: NASA TV

Close Up of Dragon One Attached to the Canadarm
Image Credit: NASA TV

Dragon Attached to ISS – In The Sunlight Above Earth
Image Credit: NASA TV

Dragon On Course For The International Space Station

Dragon Rendezvous with the International Space Station
Image Credit: SpaceX

While a lot of attention has been drawn to the drama of the launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 Sunday night and the engine anomaly, the Dragon space craft is making steady progress toward a rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS) on Wednesday morning.

Day 2: Tuesday: Dragon Phasing – Approaching the Space Station

  • Coelliptic burn places Dragon in a circular orbit

Day 3: Wednesday: Height Adjustment Maneuvers to R-Bar and Grappling

  • (R-Bar – Radial Bar – is an imaginary line connecting station to the center of the Earth)
  • Height adjust burns start adjusting altitude higher toward station
  • COTS Ultra-high Frequency Communication Unit (CUCU) and on-board UHF communication system between Dragon
    and ISS is configured
  • Height adjust burn: Dragon begins burns that bring it within 2.5 km of station (go/no-go)
  • Dragon 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)
  • Dragon holds at 250 meters (go/no-go) for confirmation of proximity sensors targeting acquisition
  • Dragon begins R-Bar Approach
  • Dragon holds at 30 meters (go/no-go)
  • Dragon holds at capture point, 10 meters below the station (go/no-go)
  • Crew captures Dragon using the station’s robotic arm (SSRMS)
  • Dragon is attached to the station

Day 4: Thursday:

  • Hatch Opening

And from Facebook, SpaceX says:

Tonight, Dragon will make its final approach to the station, passing a series of GO/NO-GO points determined by both Mission Control in Houston and the SpaceX team in Hawthorne. It will also establish its close-range guidance systems, comprised of LIDAR and thermal imagers. If all goes according to plan, at approximately 5:30AM ET, Dragon will be permitted to enter the Keep-Out Sphere (KOS), an imaginary circle drawn 200 meters (656 feet) around the station that prevents the risk of collision, and continue its approach to the capture point. Grapple is currently targeted for 7-7:30AM ET; however, this time is variable. Live coverage will begin at 6:30AM ET at

This means 3:30 AM Phoenix time with grappling scheduled for roughly 4:00 to 4:30 AM tomorrow morning.

Dragon Grappled by Canadarm on the the International Space Station
Image Credit: SpaceX

For greater detail on the process, see this post on the COTS 2,3 mission last May.


SpaceX Falcon Engine Anomaly – Day 1

Today, SpaceX released the following statement:

Approximately one minute and 19 seconds into last night’s launch, the Falcon 9 rocket detected an anomaly on one first stage engine. Initial data suggests that one of the rocket’s nine Merlin engines, Engine 1, lost pressure suddenly and an engine shutdown command was issued immediately.

We know the engine did not explode, because we continued to receive data from it. Our review indicates that the fairing that protects the engine from aerodynamic loads ruptured due to the engine pressure release, and that none of Falcon 9’s other eight engines were impacted by this event.

As designed, the flight computer then recomputed a new ascent profile in real time to ensure Dragon’s entry into orbit for subsequent rendezvous and berthing with the ISS. This was achieved, and there was no effect on Dragon or the cargo resupply mission.

An update has been released, and the second sentence of the second paragraph now reads: “Panels designed to relieve pressure within the engine bay were ejected to protect the stage and other engines. Our review of flight data indicates that neither the rocket stage nor any of the other eight engines were negatively affected by this event.”

The current, complete press release is here.

Information on Pintle Injector Rocket Engines is here.

At left below is an image of the Falcon 9 and the nine Merlin 1C engines. Each corner engine is protected by the triangular fairing.

The image on the right shows the engine fairing (dark, triangular object) tumbling behind the engine compartment.

Falcon 9 Rocket – Engine Fairings
Image Credit: SpaceX

Anomaly 01
Falcon 9 Engine #1 Anomaly – Fairing Failure
Image Credit: You Tube

Successful Dragon Launch – And Engine 1 Anomaly

SpaceX successfully place both the Dragon space capsule (on a resupply mission to the ISS) and the Orbcomm satellite into orbit this evening.

During the launch, however, there was an anomaly associated with the #1 engine (Merlin 1c). See this slow motion video posted by Zephyrus271:

Below is a series of still images from the video showing the anomaly. The first shows the 9 engines burning normally at 1:19 into the flight.

Anomaly 01
Falcon 9 Engine #1 Anomaly – 01
Image Credit: You Tube

The second shows an initial flash.

Anomaly 01
Falcon 9 Engine #1 Anomaly – 02
Image Credit: You Tube

The third shows a wider flame outside the normal stream.

Anomaly 03
Falcon 9 Engine #1 Anomaly – 03
Image Credit: You Tube

The fourth shows the initial wide flame dissipating.

Anomaly 04
Falcon 9 Engine #1 Anomaly – 04
Image Credit: You Tube

The fifth shows possible debris along the upper side of the plumes of the engines. At the very top, right is visible a large piece of debris.

Anomaly 05
Falcon 9 Engine #1 Anomaly – 05
Image Credit: You Tube

The sixth shows the large piece of debris (dark, triangular shape) in the engine plume, as well as other possible debris.

Anomaly 06
Falcon 9 Engine #1 Anomaly – 06
Image Credit: You Tube

The Falcon 9 was designed for engine out capability, as well as loss of an engine in an accident. It seems that this episode may be the proof of concept. Scary thought to have an engine fail in this manner. But both payloads were delivered.

Well done SpaceX.

SpaceX has released the following statement:

“Falcon 9 detected an anomaly on one of the nine engines and shut it down. As designed, the flight computer then recomputed a new ascent profile in realtime to reach the target orbit, which is why the burn times were a bit longer. Like Saturn V, which experienced engine loss on two flights, the Falcon 9 is designed to handle an engine flameout and still complete its mission. I believe F9 is the only rocket flying today that, like a modern airliner, is capable of completing a flight successfully even after losing an engine. There was no effect on Dragon or the Space Station resupply mission.”

This is not the first Merlin 1C engine anomaly. SpaceX acknowledged an “oxidizer-rich” condition that shut down an engine on the first Dragon flight in December 2010.

CRS-1 Launch

LOX Loading
Loading of Liquid Oxygen aboard Falcon stage 1 and 2
Image Credit: NASA / KSC Video Feed

With less than three (3) hours to go, loading of liquid oxygen aboard the first and second stages of the Falcon 9 rocket has been completed.

Here is the pre-launch schedule for major events:

  • – 7:30:30 Vehicles are powered on
  • – 3:50:00 Commence loading liquid oxygen (LOX)
  • – 3:40:00 Commence loading RP-1 (rocket grade kerosene)
  • – 3:15:00 LOX and RP-1 loading complete
  • – 0:10:00 Falcon 9 and Dragon terminal count auto-sequence started
  • – 0:02:30 SpaceX Launch Director verifies go for launch
  • – 0:02:00 Range Control Officer (USAF) verifies range is go for launch
  • – 0:01:00 Command flight computer to begin final pre-launch checks. Turn on pad deck
    and Niagara water
  • – 0:00:40 Pressurize propellant tanks
  • – 0:00:03 Engine controller commands engine ignition sequence to start
  • 0:00:00 Falcon 9 launch

At 3:05 PM Phoenix time, we are at T-2 hours 30 minutes.

At 4:35 pm we are at T-60 minutes and counting. A weather briefing is schedule momentarily by the Launch Weather Officer (LWO). Currently there are no significant issues being worked.

LWO – Weather is good, visibility is expected to be unlimited, there are clouds around 4,000 feet, winds are low at 5-10 knots and the chance of launch has been raised to 80%.

T-80 Minutes
T-80 minutes and Counting
Image Credit: NASA TV

At T-35 minutes, a variety of system and range condition checks are underway. There are no issues at the moment.

At T-30 minutes, the Launch Director notes that Dragon can carry powered cargo. One such item is a freezer stocked on this trip with chocolate-vanilla swirl ice cream for the crew aboard the space station.

At T-25 minutes, weather is green. LWO says there are no weather violations at this time.

T-20 and counting.

At T-14 minutes, Falcon switched to internal power. A complete readiness poll is due in two minutes.

T-12 minutes and all systems are go for terminal countdown to begin at T-10:30.


Merlin engines are beginning chill down. At T-8, Dragon will go to internal power. All systems are go and the weather is green.

T-5 minutes.

Stage one and stage two on internal power.

LOX topping has terminated.

T-2:30 – go for launch.

T-2:00 – range office has go for launch.

T-60 seconds and all systems are go.

T-30 seconds.


At T+60 seconds all systems are good. Vehicle is supersonic.

All Merlin engines are nominal.

Second stage chill down.


Separation of first and second stages.

Second stage ignition for a six minute burn.

Fairing jettisoned correctly.

3.1 K/sec.

All systems nominal at 4:42.