SpaceX today is investigating the failure of one of the nine Merlin 1C engines that power the Falcon 9 launch vehicle during the 7 October launch of a Dragon space capsule on its first resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS).
The incident occurred roughly 80sec after lift-off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, just after the vehicle passed through M1.0. Footage from the launch appears to show engines functioning normally up to that point, when a flash is visible and a large chunk of the engine breaks off.
SpaceX noted that the engine was shut down immediately and data continued to flow from the engine, suggesting no explosion occurred.
"Initial data suggests that one of the rocket's nine Merlin engines, Engine 1, lost pressure suddenly and an engine shutdown command was issued immediately," says SpaceX. "Our review indicates that the fairing that protects the engine from aerodynamic loads ruptured due to the engine pressure release, and that none of Falcon 9's other eight engines were impacted by this event."
The vehicle's onboard flight computer made real-time adjustments and the mission continued, placing the Dragon capsule into its required orbit.
Observers say, however, that the secondary payload, a prototype communications satellite for Orbcomm, was placed in the wrong orbit, stranding the satellite in low Earth orbit (LEO) as opposed to its planned highly elliptical orbit. While speculation centers around a fault in the Merlin 1C second stage, neither the satellite's orbit nor a second stage fault have been confirmed.
If proven true, the incorrect orbital insertion could give pause to potential customers, who require orbital precision to correctly operate satellites. It would mark the Falcon 9's first partial launch failure.
The 7 October launch marks the fifth flight of the Falcon 9, and its first commercial mission for NASA. No similar anomalies are known from previous flights.
Neither SpaceX nor Orbcomm were available for immediate comment.