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SpaceX Falcon Rocket Aims For Sunday Return to Flight at Vandenberg AFB

Ten Iridium communication satellites to ride to orbit from Space Launch Complex-4 on South Base

For the second year in a row, a Falcon 9 rocket is in line to become the first blastoff of 2017 from Vandenberg Air For Base, assuming favorable weather and no last-minute glitches. Space Exploration Technologies announced plans for a Sunday departure from Space Launch Complex-4 on South Base. Click to view larger
For the second year in a row, a Falcon 9 rocket is in line to become the first blastoff of 2017 from Vandenberg Air For Base, assuming favorable weather and no last-minute glitches. Space Exploration Technologies announced plans for a Sunday departure from Space Launch Complex-4 on South Base. (Iridium LLC photo)

For the second year in a row, a Falcon 9 rocket is in line to become the first blastoff of 2017 from Vandenberg Air For Base, assuming favorable weather and no last-minute glitches.

Space Exploration Technologies announced plans for a Sunday departure from Space Launch Complex-4 on South Base. 

Liftoff is planned for 10:28 a.m., with one shot a day for launch to ensure the satellites are placed where they need to be in space.

The rocket will carry 10 Iridium Next spacecraft to begin building the second-generation constellation for the satellite-phone system.

But the launch also will mark a return to flight for Falcon following the Sept. 1 explosion during a static fire test at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

SpaceX officials on Monday revealed the results of a “rigorous investigation” involving the company’s collaboration with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), U.S. Air Force (USAF), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), along with several industry experts.

“Investigators scoured more than 3,000 channels of video and telemetry data covering a very brief timeline of events – there were just 93 milliseconds from the first sign of anomalous data to the loss of the second stage, followed by loss of the vehicle,” SpaceX officials said in an update on its website. 

Since the failure occurred on the ground, investigators were also able to review umbilical data, ground-based video, and physical debris to help pinpoint the cause, SpaceX officials said.

“The accident investigation team worked systematically through an extensive fault tree analysis and concluded that one of the three composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) inside the second stage liquid oxygen (LOX) tank failed,” the statement said.

Last week, Iridium officials announced on Twitter that  the 10 satellites had been fueled and pressured before being tucked into the Falcon 9 rocket nose cone in readiness for launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Click to view larger
Last week, Iridium officials announced on Twitter that the 10 satellites had been fueled and pressured before being tucked into the Falcon 9 rocket nose cone in readiness for launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base. (Iridium LLC photo)

“Specifically, the investigation team concluded the failure was likely due to the accumulation of oxygen between the COPV liner and overwrap in a void or a buckle in the liner, leading to ignition and the subsequent failure of the COPV.”

The investigation team identified several credible causes for the failure, all of which involve accumulation of super-chilled liquid oxygen or solid oxygen in buckles under the overwrap. 

Corrective actions focus on making changes to avoid accumulations that likely caused the Sept. 1 mishap. 

“In the short term, this entails changing the COPV configuration to allow warmer temperature helium to be loaded, as well as returning helium loading operations to a prior flight proven configuration based on operations used in over 700 successful COPV loads,” SpaceX said. 

A long-term fix will involve design changes to prevent buckles altogether, which will allow for faster loading operations. 

“SpaceX greatly appreciates the support of our customers and partners throughout this process, and we look forward to fulfilling our manifest in 2017 and beyond."

Last week, Iridium officials said the satellites had been fueled, pressurized, stacked and encapsulated in the rocket's nose cone, which will be lifted onto the rocket in anticipation of the launch.

However, Iridium CEO Matt Desch has said the spacecraft won't be on top of the rocket during the static fire test.

Technical troubles appear to have been resolved, but the mission may encounter another hurdle to departure Sunday— a massive winter storm setting its sights on the Central Coast this weekend.

“While there is fairly good confidence that an atmospheric river heavy rainfall event will occur somewhere in Central or Southern California this weekend, there are still some uncertainties in the duration, location, and magnitude of this heavy rain event,” the National Weather Service said. 

The subtropical system is expected to bring heavy rains to the region.

"While the details on duration, magnitude, and location of this moisture plume will become more clear through the week, there is the potential for a heavy rain event across Southwest California next weekend which could pose significant flash flood with mud and debris flow issues across Southwest California, especially for the recent burn areas," the NWS added.

Last year, a Falcon rocket also kicked off a new year of launches from Vandenberg.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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