SpaceX launches Falcon 9 rocket carrying crucial cargo to ISS

After numerous delays, the space transport company sends its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft into orbit to carry cargo to the International Space Station. Next up: get that rocket back.

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SpaceX successfully launched one of its Falcon 9 rockets into orbit Friday. Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

SpaceX, the space transport company founded and run by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, successfully launched its flagship Falcon 9 rocket Friday. The Dragon spacecraft is carrying a crucial payload that will resupply the International Space Station as part of a 12-mission, $1.6 billion contract with NASA.

As of 12:30 p.m. PT (3:30 p.m. ET), the Falcon 9 rocket had separated from the Dragon attached at its nose. Five minutes later the Dragon entered orbit shortly before deploying its solar arrays, which help power the crafts pressurization and communications systems by providing on average 1,500 watts.

CRS-3, as the mission was called, will be the third of the 12 slated deliveries when it touches base with the ISS on Sunday, April 20. Like many dealings with spacecraft, the complex operation of thrusting invaluable equipment and cargo into space -- at the estimated cost of $56.5 million per launch -- was not without its series of setbacks.

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SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft has been used for regularly scheduled cargo deliveries to the ISS since October 2012. NASA

The Falcon 9 launch was initially planned for March 13, but was pushed back by SpaceX to tighten up operations. A second planned launch was foiled by a fire that damaged a liftoff-tracking radar system.

That wasn't the end of CRS-3's problems. A helium leak earlier this week cancelled the next scheduled liftoff on April 14, and bad weather conditions this morning again cast doubt on the fate of the launch. Yet, as the launch time of 12:25 p.m. PT (3:25 p.m. ET) approached, the rocket's flight out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida was approved and went off without any issues.

The Dragon spacecraft, which will ultimately be outfitted to ferry astronauts to and from space, is carrying close to 5,000 pounds of supplies for the ISS, including food and spacewalk repair supplies urgently needed for scheduled fixes.

Included in the payload is equipment for a series of science experiments -- including one labeled Veg-01 that will help scientists better understand the process of growing food in space -- that will be conducted on the orbiting station. To get its money's worth, NASA also packed in a set of legs that will give mobility to NASA's Robonaut 2 humanoid bot, a laser communication experiment, and a small satellite using experimental smartphone technology to test the viability of low-cost components in space.

While NASA conducts its orbiting experiments now that the ISS is on its way to remaining well stocked, SpaceX will attempt the audacious reusability component of its Falcon 9 rocket, which was designed specifically with the eventual goal of reliable reuse to greatly reduce the sky-high costs of spaceflight.

A primary mission for SpaceX is to realign the more than $50 million Falcon 9's capabilities with that of a commercial airliner. According to the company, commercial airplanes can costs around the same amount of money, but obviously gets tens of thousands of flights in its lifetime, opposed to the Falcon 9's single use limitation.

Since the reusability program's launch in 2011, SpaceX has been running tests using its Grasshopper rocket, which successfully flew higher than 1,000 feet before laterally maneuvering to land back on its launch pad.

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SpaceX's experimental Grasshopper rocket -- which aids the Faclon 9 reusability initiative -- in a successful launch and subsequent landing in June, 2013. Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

Given the success of the test flights, SpaceX has begun equipping every Falcon 9 rocket with the necessary technology to perform a controlled landing. The first stage of the recently-launched rocket is currently on a journey back into Earth's atmosphere thanks both to its design that can sustain reentry and two stages of thruster burns to slow it down, the first occurring in space after separation.

The second burn will occur before the rocket hovers over the Atlantic Ocean, where it will deploy 25-foot landing legs and then softly land in the water for pickup. If successful, Musk said he wants to send the same Falcon 9 back to space and have it return once more, but this time use those landing legs to settle back down on firm ground.

"If we bring back the boost stage, I think it's the most significant thing SpaceX has done, for sure," Musk told Mashable earlier this week. SpaceX estimates the chance of success in this particular reusability test to be around 30 to 40 percent. Despite the low probability of success -- and Musk's admission that he wholly expects multiple failures before perfecting the reuse system -- the company expects to have rapid reuse of the first stage of its rocket by 2015.

Update at 2:38 p.m. PT: Added additional details on SpaceX's reusable launch program.

 

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