SpaceX Launch Aborted Plus Solar Eclipses For Your Bucket List

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket ignites its nine engines for a few seconds before shutting them down this morning. Credit: NASA TV

It huffed and it puffed but never took to the sky. Today was to be the historic launch of the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule to the International Space Station (ISS), but a mere half-second before liftoff, on-board computers shut it down. Launch aborted. A high pressure reading in the combustion chamber in engine #5 was to blame.

Tuesday May 22 at 2:44 a.m. Central time is the next earliest launch opportunity. Fortunately a spare engine – Falcon runs with a total of nine – is available as a replacement if needed. Falcon is the first attempt by the private American company SpaceX to get into the ISS cargo-delivery business, a task that to date has been handled by government-run space programs in Russia, Japan, Europe and the U.S.

Artist rendering of SpaceX Dragon spacecraft being berthed on the Harmony module of the space station. Credit: NASA

The company was founded by billionaire Elon Musk, the fellow who helped start Paypal. Once launched successfully, Falcon will send the Dragon capsule into orbit near the space station, where it will perform check-out procedures before attempting a rendezvous. SpaceX’s longer term goal is to develop a ship to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS, a task handled by the Russians for the time being.

According to NASA, the primary objectives for the Falcon mission include a flyby of the space station at a distance of approximately 1.5 miles to validate the operation of sensors and flight systems necessary for a safe rendezvous and approach, including abort procedures. If it passes those tests, mission control will clear it for berthing with the station.

Dragon will later return to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean with space station equipment and experiments. Let’s hope launch is a go next Tuesday. Because of the delay, there’s a chance of seeing Dragon chase the ISS across the sky for U.S. observers. The space station returns to the dawn sky beginning Tuesday (maybe a little earlier or later depending on your location). I’ll have details on how to watch for it soon.

Tomorrow’s annular eclipse is oh-so-close. I hope you’re well-prepared for what will be the last solar eclipse visible from the U.S. until October 23, 2014. That will only be partial at best with a maximum of 81% of the sun covered. Interestingly, it will also occur around sunset as seen from the Midwest and central Canada.

Path of the total eclipse on August 21, 2017. GE is short for Greatest Eclipse, the location where totality lasts longest. Credit: NASA

The eclipse following that one is the BIGGIE – a total eclipse on August 21, 2017. The path of totality begins in northern Oregon and continues through Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Missouri, southern Illinois, Tennessee and South Carolina. Lots of great opportunities and places to see that one!

And if you can hang in there long enough, another total eclipse will grace the western U.S. only six years later on October 14, 2023.