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Dragon Reaches Orbit But is Experiencing a Problem

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
March 1, 2013
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LATEST UPDATE, 4:05 EST:  All four thruster pods are now operating normally and efforts are underway to raise the Dragon’s orbit, which is too low to sustain it in space much beyond another day or so.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said he suspects that debris in the helium fuel line or a stuck valve may have been responsible. It might have been a frozen piece of helium.

The rendezvous with the space station scheduled for Saturday has been delayed. Sunday is a possibility if NASA officials are convinced that the Dragon is operating normally. There is a 24-hour turnaround on rendezvous and berthing.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifted off on time this morning from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, sending a Dragon freighter into orbit on its way to the International Space Station. The spacecraft separated from the second stage about 10 minutes after launch.

However, SpaceX announced that the Dragon is experience some kind of problem in orbit. The company then abruptly cut off its live coverage, saying it might have more to say at a press conference in a few hours.

The webcast cut off just prior to the expected deployment of the solar panels. SpaceX has shown the deployment on previous missions.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell was asked what would happen if Dragon failed to deploy the solar panels during a pre-flight briefing on Thursday. She said she thought Dragon could make one berthing attempt using its batteries in that eventuality.

UPDATE: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has Tweeted the following:

Issue with Dragon thruster pods. System inhibiting three of four from initializing. About to command inhibit override.

Holding on solar array deployment until at least two thruster pods are active

About to pass over Australia ground station and command inhibit override

Thruster pod 3 tank pressure trending positive. Preparing to deploy solar arrays.

11:49 EST: Solar array deployment successful

12:02 p.m. EST: Attempting bring up of thruster pods 2 and 4

2:57 p.m. EST: Pods 1 and 4 now online and thrusters engaged. Dragon transitioned from free drift to active control. Yes!!

4:05 EST: Thruster pods one through four are now operating nominally. Preparing to raise orbit. All systems green.

Statements from SpaceX & NASA Updates:

11:19 a.m. EST: One thruster pod is running. Two are preferred to take the next step which is to deploy the solar arrays.  We are working to bring up the other two in order to plan the next series of burns to get to station.

12:05 p.m. EST: Falcon 9 lifted off as planned and experienced a nominal flight. After Dragon achieved orbit, the spacecraft experienced an issue with a propellant valve. One thruster pod is running. We are trying to bring up the remaining three. We did go ahead and get the solar arrays deployed. Once we get at least 2 pods running, we will begin a series of burns to get to station.

1:08 p.m. EST: Twitter reports indicate SpaceX is targeting a teleconference for 3 p.m. EDT. Reports at this moment indicate that solar panels have been deployed but only one thruster pod is operating. Three are reportedly required to rendezvous and berth with ISS.

2:19 EST: NASA mission control reports that Dragon will not arrive at ISS tomorrow. SpaceX still troubleshooting thruster problems.

3:00 EST: Press conference has begun, but I’m having trouble hearing anything on the audio webcast.

3:15 EST:  NASA announces that all four thruster pods are now operational.

3:19 EST: Announcement of all four thruster pods working was premature.

NASA will host a press conference at 11 a.m. EST.

Looks like the press conference is delayed as NASA and SpaceX teams work through the problem.

Launch Video:

2 responses to “Dragon Reaches Orbit But is Experiencing a Problem”

  1. Geoff T says:

    In a worst case scenario can the dragon be deorbited with only one set of working thrusters?

    • Christopher James Huff says:

      It likely could, yes. It’s in an orbit with a low perigee to begin with, and only needs a few tens of m/s of delta-v. However, they’ve got a second set up and running, enough to control attitude (which likely improves their ability to talk to the Dragon, since they can keep directional high-gain antennas pointed the right way), and are testing pods 2 and 3 now. They need 3 working pods to go to the ISS, so it looks fairly promising.

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