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SpaceX Successfully Tests New Rocket's Engines at Launch Pad

Falcon 9 rocket successfully test fires nine engine first stage.
The commercial spaceflight company SpaceX successfully test fires the nine-engine first stage of its first Falcon 9 rocket on March 13, 2010 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (Image credit: Chris Thompson/SpaceX)

Abrand-new Falcon 9 rocket envisioned to launch cargo ships to the InternationalSpace Station for NASA fired up its powerful first stage engine atop a Floridalaunch pad in a successful weekend test.

Builtby Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., the commercialFalcon9 rocket ignited the cluster of nine engines that make up its first stagefor 3.5 seconds during the Saturday test firing, which followed four days ofdelays due to bad weather and a ground equipment glitch.

SpaceXis planning to launch the new Falcon 9 rocket and a flight qualificationversion of its gumdrop-shaped Dragonspacecraft sometime between March and May. U.S. Air Force officials havetold that April 12 is being considered as a potential launch target,but it is not yet approved.

Butregardless of the exact launch date, Saturday?s engine test brings the Falcon 9rocket a step closer to that test flight, SpaceX officials said.

?Thetest validated the launch pad propellant and pneumatic systems, as well as theground and flight control software that controls pad and launch vehicleconfigurations,? SpaceX officials said in an update. ?The completion of asuccessful static fire is the latest milestone on the path to the first flightof the Falcon 9, which will carry a Dragon spacecraft qualification unit toorbit.?

Saturday?ssuccessful test marked SpaceX?s second try to test fire the Falcon 9?s firststage atop Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station inFlorida.  An attempt four days earlier was abortedwhen SpaceX?s computer-controlled launch sequence failed to open a valve usedto funnel high-pressure helium used to start turbopumps inside the rocket?sfirst stage engine.

SpaceX?smedium-lift Falcon 9 rocket is a two-stagebooster that stands 180 feet (55 meters) tall and is about 12 feet (3.6meters) wide. The first stage is powered by nine of SpaceX?s own Merlin rocketengines fueled by liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene.

EachMerlin engine generates 125,000 pounds of thrust at sea level. Together thenine engines of Falcon 9?s first stage are designed to generate more 1.1million pounds of thrust during liftoff.  

Forcomparison, the Pratt & Whitney RS-68 engine that powers the first stage ofa basic United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket ? a variant of which launched thenew GOES-P weather satellite earlier this month ? generates up to 663,000pounds of thrust at sea level. The Delta 4 rocket variant that launched GOES-Phad two strap-on solid rocket boosters, which increased its liftoff thrust.

Foundedby Paypal co-founder Elon Musk, SpaceX has a $1.6-billion contract with NASA todeliver 20 tons of cargo to the space station through 2016. NASA has alsocontracted another company, the Virginia-based company Orbital Sciences, toprovide cargo deliveries using the Taurus 2 rockets and their Cygnus spacecraftthat company is building.

Thefirst Falcon 9 flight will not count as one of the three demonstration missionsSpaceX has agreed to fly for NASA under the agency?s Commercial OrbitalTransportation Services program.

NASAplans to retire its workhorse spaceships ? the three aging U.S. space shuttles? after the four last flights scheduled for this year. President Barack Obamahas canceled NASA?s Constellation program building new spaceships to replacethe shuttle fleet, and instead ordered the agency to support the development ofcommercialspaceships like SpaceX?s Dragon vehicle to launch astronauts into space.

 Thenext shuttle to blast off will be Discovery, which is due to launch supplies tothe space station on April 5. That same shuttle is slated to fly the finalshuttle mission in September, to end NASA?s space shuttle era after more than29 years of flight. The space shuttle Columbia was the first shuttle to launch,on April 12, 1981.

Musksaid he and his SpaceX team fully expect to encounter glitches during theFalcon 9 rocket?s shakedown period.

"Problemsare expected to occur, as they have throughout the development phase,"Musk said in a statement last week.  "The beta phase only ends when arocket has done at least one, but arguably two or three consecutive flights toorbit."

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Tariq Malik
Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter.