Over the weekend, SpaceX performed a static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket that will launch its Crew Dragon on a key test this coming Saturday. The company is aiming for the top of a four-hour launch window, which opens at 8am ET (13:00 UTC), to conduct its in-flight abort test.
During the test, the Falcon 9 will launch a Crew Dragon spacecraft. Then, at an altitude of about 21km, when the launch vehicle reaches a critical velocity, Dragon’s SuperDraco thrusters will ignite for several seconds to pull the capsule away from the rocket—simulating escaping from a rocket emergency.
The test is a critical one. An accident with the SuperDraco system destroyed a Crew Dragon spacecraft test in April, and the company and NASA have since said they have identified the cause of the problem. Approximately 100 milliseconds prior to ignition of Crew Dragon’s eight SuperDraco thrusters, a leaking component allowed about one cup of liquid oxidizer (nitrogen tetroxide, or NTO) into the wrong fuel tank plumbing. The company has implemented a fix. Saturday’s flight will also showcase the newer parachute system that will bring Dragon safely back down to the ocean.
Should SpaceX successfully complete this flight, it will be that much closer toward launching astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on the vehicle’s first crewed mission. The date of that flight, which could come as soon as this spring, will be set after NASA works through data from this in-flight abort test as well as other tests conducted by the California-based company.
As for the Falcon 9 rocket used for this mission, its first stage has already flown three missions. It is the very first Block 5 version of the Falcon 9 rocket that SpaceX built and launched, with missions in May, August, and December 2018. It is likely to break up during Dragon’s energetic escape and will not be recovered. This breakup may occur shortly after Dragon separation or upon reentry from the upper atmosphere. The second stage will be fully fueled, but since it will not be used during the flight, it will have a mass simulator instead of an actual Merlin vacuum rocket engine.