CAPE CANAVERAL: Elon Musk's SpaceX will try again on Sunday (Jan 19) to destroy one of its own rockets in a test of a crucial emergency abort system, a day after bad weather forced the company to delay its final milestone test before flying NASA astronauts from US soil.
High winds and choppy seas in the area where the spacecraft was expected to splashdown on Saturday delayed the dramatic inflight test of the unmanned astronaut capsule to Sunday, with a longer six-hour launch window starting at 8am EST.
If the test goes ahead, SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule, an acorn-shaped pod that can seat seven astronauts, will fire thrusters to detach itself from a Falcon 9 rocket less than two minutes after liftoff, simulating an emergency abort scenario to prove it can return astronauts to safety.
The test is crucial to qualify the capsule to fly humans to the International Space Station, a feat the National Aeronautics and Space Administration expects to come as soon as mid-2020. It follows years of development and delays as the United States has sought to revive its human spaceflight program through private partnerships.
NASA awarded US$4.2 billion to Boeing and US$2.5 billion to SpaceX in 2014 to develop separate capsule systems capable of ferrying astronauts to the space station from US soil for the first time since NASA's space shuttle program ended in 2011. The space agency has since relied on Russian spacecraft for rides to the space station.
During the test the Falcon 9 rocket's boosters will shut down roughly 19 km above the ocean, a mock failure that will trigger Crew Dragon's so-called SuperDraco thrusters to jet itself away at supersonic speeds of up to 2,400 kph.
The capsule will deploy three parachutes to slow its descent to the water, and will carry aboard two human-shaped test dummies fitted with motion sensors to collect data on the immense g-force — the effect of acceleration on the body — astronauts would be subjected to during abort.
The test was originally scheduled for mid-2019 but was delayed after a Crew Dragon capsule exploded in April on a test stand just before firing its launch abort thrusters, triggering a lengthy investigation.
SpaceX-led investigators in July zeroed in on a previously unknown explosive reaction between a titanium valve and a propellant used to ignite the thrusters. A SpaceX official said the company completed the investigation within the last week.