Wednesday, December 08, 2010

SpaceX orbits and returns spacecraft today

Falcon 9 second stage engine above earth today. (SpaceX)

A private rocket company launched an unmanned spacecraft and returned it safely to earth today in a test flight for NASA to demonstrate future ferry flights to the International Space Station.

Space Exploration Technologies or Space X is a private company founded by PayPal founder Elon Musk. The company has developed their Falcon 9 rocket in support of lofting an unmanned cargo craft to the space station in 2011, and attempt human space flights over the next decade.

The 180-foot tall Falcon 9 launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida with an active Dragon C1 craft at 10:43 am EST, following a brief delay due to a technical issue.

The white candle stick darted straight up and then out over the central Atlantic Ocean on a chilly, beautiful morning along the Space Coast.

The Falcon 9 later delivered the Dragon into an orbital inclination of 34.53 degrees, and an altitude of about 140 miles.

The active cargo craft performed two orbits of earth testing on board systems and performing several firings of it's eighteen cone-shaped thrusters.

The Dragon, loaded with patches, ID badges and not much else from the company's hundreds of employees, completed two orbits of the earth before being maneuvered for it's return to earth.

The craft made an on target splashdown at 2:04 pm about 500 miles east of the Mexican coastline, SpaceX announced.

"It was a moment of jubilant and great relief," Musk stated when asked of his thoughts as the parachutes opened and the craft approached landing.

"There's so much that can go wrong and it all went right," Musk added. "I'm sort of in semi-shock."

The ten-foot high, capsule styled module ran solely on lithium ion batteries on this brief flight. Future flights lasting several weeks will use dual solar arrays to generate power.

SpaceX is working toward launching a fully loaded supply craft to the space station as early as next November as NASA prepares to retire the space shuttle program. The Falcon 9 is rated to carry as much as 23,050 pounds to the space station.

Musk said on Wednesday he feels confident that his company can launch an empty craft to the station, fly around and return it back home. The first docking flight with the complex is scheduled for around November.

Only two planned shuttle flights are all that is left, and each will be destined to deliver supplies and equipment to earth's orbital outpost.

Russia, Japan and the European Space Agency will launch their own government ran supply crafts in January and February, each destined to bring supplies for their county's own module.

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