SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship is launching again this weekend — likely the capsule’s final uncrewed flight before it carries its first astronauts later this year.
On Sunday morning, the aerospace company plans to conduct a crucial safety demonstration called an in-flight abort test. The goal: demonstrate to NASA that the spacecraft’s escape mechanisms that can whisk astronauts away from a failing rocket or other emergency arises during their ascent. NASA requires this demonstration before it will allow SpaceX to fly its astronauts into space.
The mission is slated to lift off sometime between 8 a.m. and 12 p.m. ET on Sunday, January 19 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
SpaceX and NASA originally scheduled the launch for Saturday morning, and forecasters had initially predicted a 90% chance of favorable mission conditions, from the launch pad out to the ocean where Crew Dragon is supposed to splash down. But SpaceX said Friday night that conditions were looking less favorable.
“Latest weather data suggests sustained winds and rough seas in the recovery area,” the company tweeted.
On Sunday morning, NASA said Saturday’s attempt would be delayed to Sunday for that reason.
“[M]eteorologists with the U.S. Air Force 45th Space Wing predict a 60% chance of favorable weather toward the opening of the window with a 40% chance toward the end of the window,” NASA said in an update.
You can watch the action in real time via the YouTube video player below.
A major milestone for SpaceX and NASA
The goal of the Crew Dragon spaceship is to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
NASA hasn’t been able to transport astronauts on its own spaceships since July 2011, when its space shuttle completed its final flight. Since then, the agency has relied exclusively on Russia to ferry its astronauts to and from orbit in Soyuz spacecraft. To develop new American-made spacecraft, NASA launched the Commercial Crew program: a competition between private companies for billions of dollars’ worth of government contracts. Of about a dozen entrants, only SpaceX and Boeing passed NASA’s muster.
On Saturday, the Crew Dragon will sit atop one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets. After 84 seconds, engineers will intentionally cut the rocket’s engines. By that point, it will be traveling so fast (nearly twice the speed of sound) that aerodynamic forces will rip the rocket to pieces. The fuel tanks should rupture, and an explosion will ensue.
Before that catastrophe, though Crew Dragon is supposed to detach and escape by firing its own engines. If all goes well, the spaceship will get far enough away to stay safe, then deploy built-in parachutes and splash down about 20 miles away from Cape Canaveral in the Atlantic Ocean.
“We tried to design a way to save B1046, but not possible,” Elon Musk wrote on Twitter, referring to the reusable first-stage rocket booster. He added that it would be “destroyed by dragon fire.”
Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
SpaceX’s recovery ship, called GO Searcher, will be stationed nearby to retrieve it.
However, the following month, a Crew Dragon capsule exploded during a ground test — a different NASA safety check on its escape system. The company said the problem was due to an improper valve design, which cause leakage and a catastrophic blast.
The company has worked with NASA to investigate the issue, correct it, and re-perform the test late last year, which was successful.
“We are doing everything we can to make it not happen again,” Kathy Lueders, the manager of the agency’s program, said during a televised press briefing on Friday.
A SpaceX Dragon capsule during a hover test-fire on November 23, 2015.