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SpaceX swaps Falcon 9 rocket flights, landing test next up

Irene Klotz, Spaceflight Correspondent
Mar 24, 2015, 3:15 UTC

Sen—Space Exploration Technologies is swapping its next two Falcon 9 missions as technicians resolve a potential issue involving bottles that hold helium to pressurize the rockets’ fuel tanks.

The schedule shift means a cargo resupply run for NASA will take place before launch of the first communications satellite for Turkmenistan. Built by Thales Alenia Space, TurkmenAlem/MonacoSAT had been targeted for launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Mar. 21, but the company decided to postpone the flight to replace the helium bottles.

“There were no specific issues with the helium bottles on the Thales vehicle or at the factory,” SpaceX spokesman John Taylor wrote in an email.

“However, during stress testing helium bottles of a similar lot, we identified a potential condition that could be shared with those on board the Thales vehicle. While it’s unlikely that the flight helium bottles would have encountered an issue during the mission, out of an abundance of caution, we have opted to replace a few of the flight bottles,” he said.

The delay means SpaceX will proceed with a previously planned early April launch to deliver a Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station for NASA. That rocket will have enough fuel after delivering the cargo ship into low-Earth orbit for a series of braking burns for a landing attempt on a platform in the ocean. Launch is targeted for Apr. 10.

The Falcon 9 rocket that needs to deliver the Turkmenistan satellite to a higher orbit will not have the reserves for a landing attempt.

SpaceX expects to debut a more powerful version of its Falcon booster this year so that the rockets can be recovered after all, or nearly all, of their missions.

SpaceX hopes to double its six-flight 2014 launch record this year. The company also plans to squeeze in two tests of the launch abort system being developed for its passenger Dragon spaceship.

The first test, which will not need a Falcon booster, which will take place from the same launch pad in Florida that the company uses for operational missions, so it will have to be worked in as the schedule allows.

The second launch abort test, using a Falcon rocket to loft a practice Dragon capsule to higher altitudes, is slated for later this year from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.