Thursday night was supposed to see a new rocket — the United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan — come to life for its first engine test launch at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
But during the countdown at Launch Complex 41 Thursday afternoon, the ULA teams noticed “a delayed response from the boost engine ignition system,” the company said in a statement. The problem meant that the countdown procedure before the two Blue Origin BE-4 engines ignited at the working end of the company’s new rocket had to be stopped.
The 200-foot rocket will have to be returned to ULA’s approximately 300-foot Protective Vertical Integration Facility for technicians to assess the booster’s ignition system. According to company CEO Tory Bruno, the schedule suffered setbacks early in the day due to inclement weather.
Called the Flight Readiness Launch, the test is an important milestone the company must achieve before the maiden flight of the Vulcan rover, which reached the space coast in January. Since then, ULA teams have been putting them through the paces of the test, examining everything from fitting on the pad to filling their tanks with fuel and running through a mock countdown.
“FRF is really about assuring the operational readiness of the integrated system: the launch vehicle and associated ground systems, facilities, and software. In addition, we will demonstrate the ability to successfully execute an engine start-up sequence and validate hot-fire abort response procedures,” said Dillon Rice, Vulcan launch commander. At ULA, in a statement.
When teams are able to conduct the test, it will help pave the way for the rocket’s first launch later this summer.
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The rocky road to testing new missiles
The little rain wasn’t the only setback Vulcan faced in its test campaign.
The rocket uses a mixture of liquid natural gas (LNG) and liquid oxygen (LOX) as propellant, and during on-pad tank testing earlier this month, teams found a problem when the fuel flowed through an igniter in one of the BE-4 engines. To remedy this, the missile was returned to the Vertical Integration Facility to “adjust a few parameters and mark points to get a reliable number (for a ready-to-fly launch),” Bruno said via Twitter.
According to Bruno, teams work through a final count and “brake the rocket to the launch pad, turn the engines on without full power, and hold for several seconds” to perform the test.
After the test launch, the missile will be emptied of propellant, fully secured, and returned to the vertical integration facility. Two solid rocket boosters and their payload will be installed on the next-generation rocket prior to the first test mission, which could occur as early as next month.
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Meet Vulcan and the payload on its first mission
The Vulcan is designed to replace the entire ULA missile fleet, which at the beginning of its development in 2014 included the Delta IV, Delta IV Heavy, and Atlas V. Although no longer available for new missions, the Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy are the only ULA missiles The old one is still in service. They are expected to continue flying for the next few years.
The Vulcan is larger, more powerful, and cheaper than the rockets it replaces, and will be launched from the same platform as the Atlas V.
On top of simplifying the company’s products and reducing costs, Vulcan’s use of Blue Origin engines is a national security consideration. The Atlas V flies with Russian-made RD-180 engines, a point that has led to pressure from various public and private organizations to switch to US-made machines.
The first Vulcan mission, known as Certification-1, is a test flight to meet certification requirements for launching future national security missions for the US Space Forces. Scheduled to fly on Vulcan’s Certification-1 mission, there are two initial broadband satellites Amazon Kuiper Projecta proposed constellation of more than 3,000 satellites that will provide Internet services to customers around the world such as SpaceX’s Starlink.
Also on board is a payload headed for the moon: the Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Peregrine commercial lunar lander. According to NASA, the probe, which is part of the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, will study the lunar exosphere, regolith, magnetic fields, and radiation, and test advanced solar arrays.
The lunar lander will also carry a secondary payload to the lunar surface for the Celestes Memorial spaceflight. It contains 150 capsules holding ashes, DNA samples, and letters from clients around the world, including one from Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, his wife Majel Barrett Roddenberry, and Star Trek actor James “Scotty” Doohan.
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