The SpaceX Dragon capsule remains on course for the International Space Station despite losing one of nine booster engines, but a satellite launched on the same rocket didn't reach its intended orbit, its operator said Monday.
SpaceX launched the first commercial space cargo mission on Sunday night. But a minute and 19 seconds after the Falcon 9 booster lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, one of the nine Merlin engines that power the rocket "lost pressure suddenly," the company disclosed Monday.
The rocket "did exactly what it was designed to do," as its flight computer made adjustments to keep the Dragon headed into the proper orbit. The unmanned capsule, which is carrying about 1,000 pounds of supplies for the space station, is scheduled to arrive at the orbital platform on Wednesday, SpaceX said.
However, the rocket also was carrying a satellite for the New Jersey-based communications company Orbcomm. The satellite separated properly from the second stage of the Falcon 9 -- but the engine trouble meant the satellite would not pass clear of a safety zone if it fired its own engine, leaving it in a lower orbit than planned, Orbcomm said in a statement issued Monday night.
Engineers from Orbcomm and its partner on the project, Sierra Nevada Corporation, "have been in contact with the satellite and are working to determine if and the extent to which the orbit can be raised to an operational orbit using the satellite's on-board propulsion system," the statement said.
Neither SpaceX nor Orbcomm responded to request for comment about the satellite issue. California-based SpaceX said earlier that controllers are reviewing flight data in an effort to figure out what happened to the booster rocket, but initial readings indicate the No. 1 engine fairing broke apart under stress.
"We know the engine did not explode, because we continued to receive data from it," the company said. But it said two of NASA's Saturn V boosters lost engines on two flights during the Apollo program, and the Falcon 9 "is designed to handle an engine-out situation and still complete its mission."
The failure occurred seconds after the booster achieved supersonic speed and approached its moment of maximum aerodynamic pressure after liftoff. Video posted online by the company shows a flash as the rocket ascends, followed by what appears to be debris falling away from the accelerating craft.
Sunday's launch was the first of a dozen freight runs SpaceX is slated to make to the station under a contract with NASA, which plans to turn much of its focus toward exploring deep into the solar system. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden called it "a critical event in space flight."
SpaceX, meanwhile, is looking beyond just cargo flights to developing a human-rated version of the Dragon that would carry astronauts to the ISS. It's one of three companies, along with Sierra Nevada and aerospace giant Boeing, that NASA has chosen to work on the project.
And within the next few months, Orbital Sciences is expected to fly its own demonstration flight to the space station. Instead of using Cape Canaveral as its launch site, the company's rocket will take off from Wallops Island, off the coast of Virginia. Orbital has a nearly $2 billion contract with NASA for station resupply missions.
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