SpaceX, the private company under the leadership of Elon Musk, didn’t manually scrub the launch of its Falcon 9 rocket even as the countdown hit zero. The Falcon 9 rocket was supposed to ferry a telecommunications satellite into space.
After two disappointing postponements, SpaceX announced that it was ready to try another rocket launch on Sunday, Feb. 28 at 6:46 p.m. ET. However, even though the countdown reached T-00:00:00 and the primary thrusters appeared to roar to life, the launch was scrapped, and the rocket that was to carry a critical telecommunications satellite continued sitting on the launch pad. The pre-launch announcement appeared to confirm that everyone in the control room was anticipating the rocket to zoom into the atmosphere and light up the evening sky, but it did not happen.
The Falcon 9 was initially meant to take off earlier this week. However, on Thursday SpaceX postponed the SES-9 mission launch for the second time in the past two days, reported The Christian Science Monitor. While the second attempt was cancelled mere 1 minute 40 seconds prior to liftoff, Sunday’s launch wasn’t cancelled by those sitting in the control room, but by the onboard computer. As confirmed by Elon Musk himself, a series of events eventually caused the temperature of the propellant to rise, making the conditions unfavorable for launch, forcing the onboard computer to give a “No Go” and scrap the launch, even as the countdown continued.
The problem began earlier in the evening. A boat had strayed too close into the danger zone, forcing the launch to be temporarily halted. To give the unfortunate maritime explorer time to get to a safe distance, the launch was temporarily halted. SpaceX was still expecting liftoff, albeit a little later than scheduled, reported Yahoo.
However, during the delay of about 40 minutes, the launch parameters altered significantly. It seems the problem was the propellant’s temperature. Falcon 9 uses a new experimental fuel — a cryogenic propellant made up of liquid oxygen propellant mixed with a type of kerosene. Speaking about the fuel earlier, Musk had said,
“One of the things we’re doing for the first time, the first time I think anyone’s done it, is deeply cryogenic propellant … We’re sub-cooling the propellant, particularly the liquid oxygen, close to its freezing point, which increases the density quite significantly.”
Commonly referred to as deep cry liquid oxygen (LOX), the propellant is chilled at -340 degrees Fahrenheit. Understandably, maintaining such low temperatures is extremely difficult, but it does offer substantial benefits. Such super-cooled fuel is denser than the standard fuel that has been used for the rockets so far. Essentially, since the fuel is denser, a lot more quantity of the fuel can be crammed inside the rockets, giving it greater range.
It is the temperature of the fuel that was disturbed by the wayward boat. As the rocket’s internal computer takes control of the launch sequence with one minute to go before every SpaceX launch, it was the artificial intelligence onboard – which constantly analyzes the fuel, the engines, and other aspects of the rocket to make sure everything is functioning properly – that made the decision to scrap the launch.
The satellite SpaceX was supposed to place into orbit is called SES-9, which belongs to satellite communication provider SES. According to the SpaceX mission overview, the SES-9 will be the largest satellite dedicated to serving the Asia-Pacific region. The satellite is expected to significantly boost access to SD and HD television channels to the areas of India, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The satellite will also expand internet access to remote areas. However, the services are meant to primarily assist electronic banking or government services.
[Update] SpaceX has confirmed it will attempt, for the fourth time, to launch the SES-9 into orbit on Tuesday, March 1.
[Photo by Bill Ingalls / NASA / Getty Images]