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SpaceX rocket destroys itself during crucial Dragon spaceflight test

Tuesday, January 21st 2020, 1:30 pm - SpaceX remains on-track to fly astronauts to the International Space Station

After conducting a critical In-Flight Abort test of their Crew Dragon spacecraft, SpaceX appears to be one step closer to flying people to the International Space Station.

At 10:30 a.m. ET, Sunday, January 19, 2020, a doomed Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, carrying SpaceX's new Crew Dragon spacecraft.

This mission was never intended to make it into space, however.

According to SpaceX: "For this test, Falcon 9's ascent trajectory will mimic a Crew Dragon mission to the International Space Station to best match the physical environments the rocket and spacecraft will encounter during a normal ascent. However, SpaceX has configured Crew Dragon to intentionally trigger a launch escape after Max Q, the moment of peak mechanical stress on the rocket."

At 1 minute and 15 seconds into the launch, the booster and capsule had just reached the stratosphere and had undergone the most extreme forces during its trip (aka 'Max Q' or 'maximum aerodynamic pressure'), when Dragon initiated what's known as an In-Flight Abort Test.

At this point, the Falcon 9 cut its engines, while at the same time, the Crew Dragon ignited its eight SuperDraco thrusters, rapidly carrying it away from the rocket, which then destroyed itself in a spectacular mid-air explosion.

Falcon9-CrewDragon-Jan192020-SpaceXA Falcon 9 booster rocket explodes during SpaceX's In-flight Abort Test on January 19, 2020. Although obscurred by clouds, the Crew Dragon spacecraft is located within the white circle. Credit: SpaceX/NASA/Scott Sutherland

Jetisoning its 'trunk' and deploying two sets of parachutes for its trip back down to Earth, the Crew Dragon slowly descended and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean, just shy of nine minutes after launch.

"As far as we can tell thus far, it's a picture perfect mission. It went as well as one can possibly expect," Elon Musk, SpaceX 's chief engineer, told NASA. "This is a reflection of the dedication and hard work of the SpaceX and NASA teams to achieve this goal. Obviously, I'm super fired up. This is great."

This entire sequence was a carefully planned demonstration of exactly how the Crew Dragon would safeguard the lives of the astronauts on board, in the event of an unplanned failure of a Falcon 9 rocket during some future launch. It represents the final test of the spacecraft, prior to it being rated to carry astronauts into space.

After the test was completed, SpaceX crews recovered the Dragon and its parachutes. They also scoured the ocean surface to find as many pieces of the destroyed Falcon 9 rocket as possible.

They even retrieved the Dragon trunk - the portion of the spacecraft that joins the crew capsule to the booster rocket. This part of the rocket normally accompanies the Dragon spacecraft to the Space Station. It is then jetisoned to burn up before the spacecraft reenters the atmosphere on its return to Earth.

"The past few days have been an incredible experience for us," Astronaut Doug Hurley, who will be one of the first to fly in Crew Dragon, said in a NASA statement. "We started with a full dress rehearsal of what Bob and I will do for our mission. Today, we watched the demonstration of a system that we hope to never use, but can save lives if we ever do. It took a lot of work between NASA and SpaceX to get to this point, and we can’t wait to take a ride to the space station soon."

Sources: SpaceX | NASA | NASA Blogs

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