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Falcon 1 Video Suggests Stage Collision

Image grab from Space X video feed after first stage separation.
by Greg Zsidisin
Casper WY (SPX) Mar 22, 2007
The video of the SpaceX "Demoflight 2" launch this week in the South Pacific appears to show a serious staging anomaly that, if confirmed, would likely need to be addressed before the next flight of the Falcon 1 vehicle. In response to an email, Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX Vice President of Business Development, disagreed with the anomaly assessment. "There was no anomaly there. We knew the second stage would kick a bit after separation. There was no contact from initial look."

Onboard video of the orbital launch strongly suggests, however, that there was a collision between the top of the first stage and the exit cone on the second stage at staging. Less than 15 seconds after staging, a structural ring near the bottom of the cone can be seen disintegrating, possibly as a result of the collision.

It is not known what, if any, effect a collision and the ring disintegration might have had on the vehicle, which failed to reach orbit after what SpaceX has described as a roll control problem. A control issue is evident as a conical oscillation of increasing severity towards the end of the released video, although it appears mostly to involve pitch and yaw, with the roll position holding relatively steady.

On the video (currently available at spacex), staging occurs at the displayed T+2:51 point (3 minutes 28 seconds from the start of the video as published). From the point of view of the camera on Stage 2, Stage 1 skews to the left as it separates, and appears to strike the end of the exit cone with a significant "bump".

It is unclear, however, whether Stage 1 initially runs into Stage 2, or vice versa. Stage 2 skews, as is evident by the background, before its exit cone makes a large, quick shift to the right at Stage 2 ignition, and the stage appears to resume its previous course.

A structural ring at the base of the exit cone begins to noticeably peel away beginning at T+3:07, at approximately the location of the perceived strike. The entire ring comes off as a unit at T+3:14, just as a mission commentator announces "Coming up on fairing separation."

The exit cone position and background show a circular oscillation, consistent with a coning motion, beginning around T+4:20. This oscillation markedly worsens until the end of the video at T+5:01. Despite an announcement of "Telemetry lock on both stages" just before this point, SpaceX has said that telemetry and vehicle tracking were lost at about this time.

Possible scenarios in which a collision with the Stage 2 exit cone would affect the vehicle guidance control include damage to Stage 2 thrust vector actuators. Direct structural damage to the Stage 2 exit cone could also possibly have affected control, especially if it resulted in a changed and/or varying thrust angle due to cone asymmetry and out-of-round condition, especially after the loss of the structural ring.

The launch was the second attempt by SpaceX to fly its Falcon 1 small launch vehicle into orbit. Almost exactly a year before, the first Falcon 1 vehicle failed shortly into its first stage burn, crashing back into the atoll from which it was launched. Despite the launch problems and failure to reach orbit, SpaceX claimed success.

In an online update on the SpaceX website, founder Elon Musk stated "We retired almost all of the significant development risk items," listing staging as one such milestone. "This test has flight proven 95+ percent of the Falcon 1 systems," he asserted.

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SpaceX Set To Try Again Today
Washington (AFP) March 20, 2007
Private satellite carrier SpaceX will launch its Falcon 1 rocket into space from the Marshall Islands Tuesday, nearly a year after its first attempt failed, the company said in a statement.

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