SpaceX delays AsiaSat 6 launch for additional troubleshooting

CBS News

Launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the AsiaSat 6 communications satellite is on hold pending additional work to make sure the booster is not susceptible to even extremely unlikely malfunctions in the wake of a failure that destroyed an experimental rocket last Friday at the company's McGregor, Texas, facility, company officials said Tuesday.

The failure involved a modified Falcon 9 first stage powered by 3 Merlin 1D engines and equipped with landing legs, a vehicle used to test techniques for recovering and reusing spent rocket stages.

Launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the AsiaSat 6 communications satellite is on hold pending additional analysis of unlikely failure scenarios after an experimental test rocket was destroyed last week. The rocket shown here carried a sister satellite into orbit earlier this month. (Credit: SpaceX)
Operational versions of the Falcon 9 rocket utilize the same engine -- nine in the first stage and one in the second -- and while company engineers believe an operational Falcon 9 would be immune to the problem that destroyed the test rocket, they want to make sure some other, more subtle issue, had not escaped detection.

"We are not aware of any issue with Falcon 9, nor the interfaces with the (AsiaSat 6 satellite payload), but have decided to review all potential failure modes and contingencies again," Elon Musk, SpaceX founder and chief designer, said in a statement late Tuesday. "We expect to complete this process in one to two weeks.

"The natural question is whether this is related to the test vehicle malfunction at our development facility in Texas last week. After a thorough review, we are confident that there is no direct link. Had the same blocked sensor port problem occurred with an operational Falcon 9, it would have been outvoted by several other sensors. That voting system was not present on the test vehicle."

But Musk said company engineers wanted to "triple-check" whether "even highly improbable" scenarios would be safely dealt with by the rocket's fault detection system and flight control software.

"This has already been reviewed by SpaceX and multiple outside agencies, so the most likely outcome is no change," Musk said.

If any modifications are required, he added, the company will provide an update.

The AsiaSat 6 flight originally was planned for early Tuesday, but the flight was delayed 24 hours, to Wednesday at 1:50 a.m. EDT (GMT-4), to give engineers time to evaluate the test launch mishap. Tuesday afternoon, company officials confirmed a more lengthy delay, this time with no estimate of when a launch attempt might be made.

The AsiaSat 6 launch is the second in a row for SpaceX and the Asia Satellite Telecommunications Co. following the successful Aug. 5 launch of the AsiaSat 8 relay station. SpaceX hopes to continue its rapid pace with launch of a space station resupply mission, the company's fourth under a $1.6 billion contract with NASA, Sept. 19.

But that flight would come just six days before the higher-priority launch of a Russian Soyuz ferry craft carrying three fresh crew members bound for the lab complex. If the SpaceX Dragon resupply ship is not off the ground by Sept. 21, the flight likely will slip to the other side of the Soyuz launching, delaying arrival of critical spacesuit batteries and other gear.

As of this writing, the resupply flight remains targeted for launch Sept. 19, but those plans could change depending on when the AsiaSat 6 flight gets off the ground.