SpaceX launch on hold after launch abort

CBS News

Already running three days late, launch of an upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a commercial communications satellite -- the company's first -- was aborted Thursday two seconds after the booster's nine first stage engines began throttling up for takeoff from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The engines were safely shut down and SpaceX engineers, believing the underlying problem could be resolved, recycled the countdown for a second launch try at 6:44 p.m. EST (GMT-5), the end of a 65-minute window. But with less than a minute to go, the countdown was interrupted again when an engineer on the countdown network called "hold, hold, hold."

The engines at the base of an upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket roared to life Thursday and safely shut down seconds later when countdown computers sensed a problem and ordered an abort. The flight is on hold pending a data review and engine inspection. (Credit: SpaceX webcast)

"This is the LD on countdown net," the launch director said a few minutes later. "We have scrubbed for the day. We'll continue through the abort safing and go into de-tank and site securing. We did call a hold at approximately T-minus 60 seconds. Essentially, we just ran out of time to complete data review from the first engine start.

"So taking the safe path out here, we decided to abort for the day and do sufficient, complete data review. So stand by for more information on our recycle timeline."

A launch opportunity was available Friday, but Elon Musk, SpaceX founder and chief designer, said in a Twitter posting earlier that in the event of a second abort, the rocket's tanks would be drained and the booster lowered to horizontal for a detailed engine inspection.

"We called manual abort," he tweeted. "Better to be paranoid and wrong. Bringing rocket down to borescope (inspect) engines."

As a result, he said earlier, another launch attempt likely will be delayed by a few more days.

This will be only the second flight of an upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9, featuring stretched propellant tanks, a new flight computer and more efficient engines. It is also the company's first flight with a non-government commercial satellite on board.

Perched atop the rocket in a protective nose cone was a 24-transponder GEOStar 2 relay station built by Orbital Sciences Corp. and owned by SES World Skies, a Luxembourg-based company that operates a fleet of more than 50 communications stations.

Martin Halliwell, the chief technology officer of SES, said the company decided to risk a satellite on the first launch of an upgraded Falcon 9 because of a growing need for an alternative, less expensive rocket to offset higher satellite costs and lower revenue streams in emerging markets.

SpaceX already holds a $1.6 billion NASA contract to launch unmanned Dragon cargo ships to the International Space Station and the company is competing for contracts to build a manned version of the rocket and capsule to ferry crews to and from the outpost.

But Musk wants to claim a share of the commercial satellite launch market now dominated by Arianespace, the European consortium that markets Ariane 5 rockets, and International Launch Services, or ILS, which sells Russian-built Proton rockets.

The SES-8 relay station atop the Falcon 9 is valued at around $100 million. The exact cost of the rocket is not known, but the SpaceX website advertises prices between $56.5 million and $77.1 million.

For comparison, Protons are believed to sell for around $100 million while a heavy-lift Ariane 5, which typically carries two satellites at a time, is believed to run around $200 million to $225 million per rocket.

Thierry Guillemin, chief technical officer of Intelsat, a major satellite operator, told Spaceflight Now that SpaceX "has already infused a lot of positive energy and they are poised to be a game-changer. Of course, this particular launch is extremely important for us operators in geostationary orbit. This is the real deal now."

He said SpaceX's competitors will "have to work on the cost side one way or the other. This is all good news for commercial operators and Intelsat in particular."

The dramatic engine start and shutdown Thursday came at the end of an otherwise smooth countdown, three days after a last-minute scrub Monday caused by concern about unusual oxygen pressurization readings in the rocket's first stage.

SpaceX engineers immediately "safed" the towering rocket after Thursday's abort and recycled the countdown in hopes of resolving the problem before the launch window closed.

In a tweet after the shutdown, Musk said the Falcon 9's nine first stage engines did not appear to be throttling up as rapidly as expected, prompting a computer-ordered abort as a safety precaution.

After studying telemetry, engineers decided the engines probably were operating in an acceptable range and they pressed ahead for another launch try.

But that was contingent on a full understanding of the engine abort and throttle sequence and as the countdown ticked into its final minute, engineers decided they needed more time to review the data.