|SpaceX studying Falcon rocket nose cones before proceeding with KSC launch|
James Dean, FLORIDA TODAY Published 6:39 p.m. ET Nov. 17, 2017 | Updated 8:05 p.m. ET Nov. 17, 2017
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NASA engineers were stunned: For the second time in two years, a high-value Earth science mission had been lost to a launch failure.
And what doomed the Glory mission in 2011, like the Orbiting Carbon Observatory in 2009, was not an engine shutdown, fuel tank rupture or guidance software glitch, but the nose cone on top of Orbital Sciences’ Taurus XL rocket.
The payload fairing, as it is technically known, had failed to split apart again, trapping the satellite in a shroud that dragged it to a watery grave in the Pacific Ocean.
“When we had those problems, that’s when people began to devote extra interest and attention to fairings,” remembers George Diller, a retired NASA spokesman who called the OCO and Glory launches on NASA TV. “They had been so reliable.”
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It was potential concerns about fairings that led SpaceX to postpone this week’s planned launch from Kennedy Space Center of a secret U.S. government mission called Zuma on a Falcon 9 rocket.
The company said it stood down to review the results of fairing tests performed for another customer.
“We will take the time we need to complete the data review and will then confirm a new launch date,” said a statement Thursday.
Not typically considered one of a rocket’s most complex or high-risk systems, giant fairing structures are nonetheless critical to a mission’s success.
The nose cones protect satellites worth hundreds of millions of dollars from the stresses of a rocket’s climb through the atmosphere, including aerodynamic pressure, weather, heating and the rocket’s rumble.
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If all goes well, fairing pieces — usually two or three, depending on the design — split apart like a clamshell or flower petals to reveal the spacecraft several minutes into flight.
But if they fail to fall away, the hardware's extra weight will keep a satellite from deploying in the right orbit, or from reaching orbit at all.
Success hinges on devices designed to separate fairing components from each other and the rocket. Often those use explosives that cut bolts or wires; SpaceX's system is pneumatic.
Similar devices may separate rocket stages, or the satellite from the rocket.
“Fairings in general are not problematic, but when they are, it’s usually the release mechanisms,” said Ray Lugo, director of the Florida Space Institute at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. “All of those things are fairly high-risk elements, because if they don’t work then you could lose the entire mission.”
An Orbital Sciences Taurus XL rocket carrying NASA's encapsulated Glory spacecraft launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in March 2011. The launch failed when the rocket's payload fairing did not jettison, preventing the mission from reaching orbit. (Photo: NASA/Randy Beaudoin)
NASA this month delayed a science mission’s launch aboard an Orbital ATK Pegasus rocket until next year to study a separation component on the rocket.
Investigations of the Taurus XL fairing failures years ago, which destroyed NASA science satellites worth nearly $600 million combined, found multiple potential causes.
SpaceX builds Falcon fairings in-house. The composite structures stand 43 feet tall and up to 17 feet in diameter atop a Falcon 9.
A high-pressure helium circuit releases mechanical latches holding the fairing halves together. Four pneumatic pushers then shove halves apart at a vertical seam, a system SpaceX says creates “a benign shock environment” and minimizes debris.
As with any system, if a problem crops up in testing, teams may need to hold a launch to make sure the next rocket isn’t vulnerable to the same issue or flawed component.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the U.S. government's secret Zuma mission stands vertical on launch pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center. (Photo: SpaceX)
“It’s frustrating, but it’s the prudent thing to do,” said Adrian Laffitte, a former Atlas launch director for Lockheed Martin.
“We know that a fairing anomaly can occur,” he said. “I understand why they’re devoting extra attention to it, if that’s what they’re working on.”
Like rocket boosters, payload fairings have become part of SapceX’s push to make rockets reusable and reduce launch costs.
The nose cone halves typically break apart and burn up as they fall back through the atmosphere and impact the water.
But SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has likened the hardware to a pallet plummeting to the ocean with $6 million in cash.
“Would you try to recover that?” he said. “Yes, you would.”
The goal is to deploy parachutes and a sort of “bouncy castle” to cushion splashdowns. So far, SpaceX has said it has recovered at least one half of a fairing from the ocean.
“Bringing the fairing back, that’s going to be a huge accomplishment if they’re successful in doing that,” said Lugo.
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