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SpaceX calls off launch to 'triple-check' rocket

Posted: August 27, 2014

In a precautionary move, SpaceX decided Tuesday to postpone an overnight launch of the AsiaSat 6 commercial telecommunications satellite to "triple-check" the Falcon 9 rocket's fault detection and recovery software, according to Elon Musk, the company's founder and chief executive.

File photo of a Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad. Credit: SpaceX
The 224-foot-tall Falcon 9 booster was already poised for liftoff from Cape Canaveral's Complex 40 launch pad. The rocket was rotated vertical on the launch pad Tuesday, hours before SpaceX released news of the postponement.

"SpaceX has decided to postpone tomorrow's flight of AsiaSat 6," Musk said in a statement released late Tuesday. "We are not aware of any issue with Falcon 9, nor the interfaces with the spacecraft, but have decided to review all potential failure modes and contingencies again."

According to Musk, the review should last one to two weeks.

The launch was set for 12:50 a.m. EDT (0450 GMT) Wednesday, 24 hours later than planned after SpaceX ordered a one-day delay last weekend to ensure the Falcon 9 rocket is not at risk from the cause of an explosion of the company's reusable rocket testbed in Central Texas.

The Falcon 9R prototype rocket is designed for vertical takeoffs and landings to demonstrate precision touchdown capabilities for SpaceX's operational Falcon 9 rocket, which officials hope to make reusable to cut the cost of launches.

SpaceX says the rocket self-destructed after detecting an anomaly during ascent Friday from the company's test facility in McGregor, Texas.

"The natural question is whether this is related to the test vehicle malfunction at our development facility in Texas last week," Musk said in a statement after Tuesday's Falcon 9 launch delay. "After a thorough review, we are confident that there is no direct link."

Musk said the problem during the Falcon 9R test flight was with a "blocked sensor port." If the same issue occurred during an operational Falcon 9 satellite launch, "it would have been outvoted by several other sensors. That voting system was not present on the test vehicle."

"What we want to do is triple-check is whether even highly improbable corner case scenarios have the optimal fault detection and recovery logic. This has already been reviewed by SpaceX and multiple outside agencies, so the most likely outcome is no change," Musk said.

If any changes are made after the review, SpaceX said it will release as much detail as possible under U.S. law.

Before Tuesday's launch slip, SpaceX was gearing up for its second launch for AsiaSat in three weeks.

The two-stage Falcon 9 rocket was supposed to deploy the spacecraft, manufactured by Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif., into a geostationary transfer orbit about a half-hour after liftoff.

The AsiaSat 6 satellite, weighing approximately 9,900 pounds fully fueled with in-space maneuvering propellant, was expected to enter service in early October, providing video broadcasting services across China for AsiaSat of Hong Kong.

Half of the spacecraft's C-band telecommunications capacity is leased by Thaicom to service data networks in Southeast Asia.

The mission is valued at approximately $190 million, including the spacecraft, launch services and insurance, according to William Wade, AsiaSat's president and CEO.

The last Falcon 9 launch boosted the similarly-sized AsiaSat 8 satellite into orbit Aug. 5.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.