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SpaceX keeping Falcon 9's orbital target hush-hush

Posted: June 2, 2010

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The Falcon 9 rocket is standing tall on the Cape Canaveral skyline after rolling out of its hangar Wednesday, but SpaceX is purposely keeping the booster's flight plan under wraps to dodge instant analysis from armchair quarterbacks.

The Falcon 9 rocket at Complex 40 on Wednesday afternoon. Credit: Chris Thompson/SpaceX
Elon Musk, SpaceX's founder and CEO, says the company is not releasing the exact times of countdown and launch events to keep the information out of the hands of competitors.

The flight won't enter a news blackout like some military launches. SpaceX will announce events on its own live webcast of the historic test launch.

"We will report events as they happen, but are not providing a score sheet that our numerous enemies can use against us to nitpick what will hopefully be a great flight," Musk said. "This is the first flight of a new vehicle, so there will necessarily be differences between predictions and reality."

Liftoff is scheduled between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. EDT Friday, weather permitting. Air Force forecasters predict scattered showers and thunderstorms in the area during the four-hour launch window.

SpaceX has reserved Saturday on the Eastern Range as a backup date.

Test flights are all about data, and that's the objective of Friday's launch, SpaceX says.

A SpaceX spokesperson confirmed the company would not distribute a list of key countdown events. Responding to a request for a launch timeline, officials pointed to an online user's guide for the Falcon 9 rocket showing a generic schedule of flight events for a mission to a high-altitude geosynchronous orbit.

Friday's launch is headed for a much lower orbit, just don't expect to learn the flight's exact target before liftoff.

The Falcon 9 rocket will head east from the Space Coast, but SpaceX is not divulging the altitude or inclination of the planned orbit.

Although SpaceX views Friday's launch as a test flight, officials acknowledge a lot is riding on the mission.

The company has won the lion's share of attention focused on private companies in the wake of President Obama's new space policy, which would place human spaceflight in the hands of commercial providers after the space shuttle's retirement.

SpaceX secured a $1.6 billion contract with NASA in 2008 to launch up to 12 unmanned cargo missions to the International Space Station. The flights will use the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon capsule. A stripped-down version of the Dragon is flying on the Falcon 9's first flight Friday.

SpaceX released this patch for the Falcon 9's first flight. Credit: SpaceX
But SpaceX wants to upgrade the Dragon to carry crews to the space station by 2015. NASA has not awarded a contract yet for those services.

"If we didn't have competitors that were looking for any possible way to attack SpaceX or weren't at such a pivotal point in history, I'd feel a lot more comfortable," Musk said.

In an update posted Tuesday night on the company's website, SpaceX set the goal posts for Friday's risky demonstration flight.

"It's important to note that since this is a test launch, our primary goal is to collect as much data as possible, with success being measured as a percentage of how many flight milestones we are able to complete in this first attempt," the website update said.

The Falcon 9 rocket will take off after the nine-engine first stage fires up on the launch pad and passes a computer-controlled health check. After clearing the fueling tower and lightning masts at pad 40, the engines will swivel to pitch the rocket east of the launch site.

Riding more than 800,000 pounds of thrust, the rocket will surpass the speed of sound and reach the point of maximum aerodynamic pressure, the most stressful portion of the flight, approximately 75 seconds after liftoff.

SpaceX says the launcher's kerosene-fueled first stage has engine-out capability, meaning it can overcome the failure of a Merlin engine at any point during its three-minute burn.

The rocket will turn off two of its nine engines at about T+plus 2 minutes, 35 seconds, according to the vehicle's generic design data. The other seven Merlin engines will shut down about 19 seconds later, followed in another two seconds by stage separation.

The second stage will light its single Merlin engine three seconds later. The upper stage powerplant is similar to the Falcon's first stage engine, but it is optimized for burning in vacuum and features a large niobium nozzle.

The best guess is it will take between four and six minutes to reach low Earth orbit from there, if all goes according to plan.

"It would be a great day if we reach orbital velocity, but still a good day if the first stage functions correctly, even if the second stage malfunctions. It would be a bad day if something happens on the launch pad itself and we're not able to gain any flight data," the company wrote.

The Falcon 9 rocket rolled out of its hangar Wednesday morning. Credit: Chris Thompson/SpaceX
On Wednesday, SpaceX rolled the Falcon 9 rocket to the launch pad after finishing up tests of the rocket's destruct package, a make-or-break part the Air Force would use to terminate the flight if it veered from its planned trajectory.

Pulled by an aircraft tug, the rocket and its mobile transporter moved 600 feet from the hangar to pad 40. Hydraulic pistons engaged to push the massive assembly upright atop the launch pad before 3 p.m. EDT.