Space Exploration Technologies, better known as SpaceX, hopes launch its second Falcon 9 rocket in late October. The goal is putting its Dragon capsule in orbit for the first time.
The launch is part of a design and test program started in 2008 after the Southern California company, founded by Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, received a NASA contract for flights to the International Space Station. The $1.6 billion contract, for 12 cargo delivery flights, is part of NASA’s push to use commercial space flight operations once the space shuttle program is retired in 2011.
The October launch is expected to test the Dragon’s guidance and navigation systems during a planned three orbit trip, according to Aviation Week. The heat shield and reentry systems also will be used for the first time.
Earlier this month SpaceX successfully drop tested the Dragon off of the California coast. A large Erickson Aircrane helicopter lifted the capsule 14,000 feet over the Pacific and dropped it to test the parachute recovery system (shown in the pic above). It landed gently, a key step in the development of a capsule designed to carry astronauts into orbit and back to earth.
“By holding the Dragon to stringent standards for manned missions from the start,” Musk said in a statement after the drop, “tests like this will ensure the highest quality and reliability for Dragon over the long term.”
During the drop test, smaller drogue parachutes gradually slowed the capsule before three 116-foot chutes deployed. SpaceX says astronauts would experience only 2 to 3 times the force of gravity during a Dragon capsule reentry. Video of the drop test can be seen here.
SpaceX could conduct as many as three test flights during the next year, including a flight that would bring the Dragon within several miles of the space station and another where it would dock with the station.
The Falcon 9 rocket that will carry the Dragon reached orbit in June. It’s shown in the main photo lifting off at Cape Canaveral.
Cargo flights to the ISS are expected to begin next year. The Dragon also can be used to bring cargo back from the station, more than 5,500 pounds per trip. There is no word on when manned flights using the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule would begin.
In addition to the parachutes, thrusters on the capsule will be used to help guide the reentry to a precise landing point. SpaceX says they eventually plan to add landing gear so the capsule can touch down on land.
Main photo: Chris Thompson / Space X. Second photo: Roger Gilbertson / SpaceX
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