The payload fairing for SpaceX's upgraded Falcon 9 rocket, set to debut this summer on a launch from California, is being tested inside the world's largest vacuum chamber in Ohio as the burgeoning space transportation company breaks in to the commercial launch market.
The 17-foot-diameter shroud was built entirely by SpaceX for the company's next-generation Falcon 9 rocket - called the Falcon 9 v1.1 in SpaceX's parlance.
SpaceX is testing the fairing inside the world's largest vacuum chamber at NASA's Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio. The cavernous chamber, which can simulate the pressure, temperature and radiation environments of space, has been used to test U.S. and European launcher fairings, Mars landers and International Space Station hardware.
The Hawthorne, Calif.-based space transportation company released a video of the fairing test Thursday, showing the shroud's two clamshell-like halves separating in high-speed camera views.
The 43-foot-tall fairing will enclose satellites in the first few minutes of launch as the Falcon 9 rocket flies through the lower atmosphere. Once the launch vehicle reaches thinner air resistance at the edge of space, it will jettison the fairing to let go of the extra mass.
Elon Musk, SpaceX's CEO and chief technology officer, said the payload fairing is made of carbon fiber with an aluminum honeycomb core. He called it "the lightest material choice possible" in an email with Spaceflight Now.
The fairing tests continue at Plum Brook, according to Christina Ra, a SpaceX spokesperson.
The Falcon 9 v1.1's upgraded Merlin engine completed qualification for flight earlier this year. The Merlin 1D engine produces more thrust than SpaceX's previous Merlin engines, and its design is more robust for reusability, higher production rates and lower cost, according to SpaceX.
The Falcon 9 rocket's first stage is powered by nine Merlin engines. SpaceX redesigned the upgraded Falcon 9's first stage to arrange the engines in a circular pattern instead of the "tic-tac-toe" three-by-three engine matrix used on the first-generation Falcon 9 booster.
A vacuum-rated Merlin 1D engine with an expansive nozzle will propel the Falcon 9 v1.1's second stage.
SpaceX's Falcon 9 qualification testing, which is not yet complete, is also verifying the structural integrity of the new rocket's first stage tanks, which are stretched to hold more liquid oxygen and kerosene propellants than previous Falcon 9s.
The maiden flight of the Falcon 9 v1.1 is scheduled for July from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., with the Canadian Space Agency's Cassiope communications and space weather research satellite.
The upgraded Falcon 9's first launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., will come in August with the SES 8 communications satellite. It will be SpaceX's first launch into geostationary transfer orbit, a high-altitude elliptical orbit commonly used by communications satellites transiting to operational positions over the equator.
All of SpaceX's Falcon 9 launches to date have flown to low Earth orbit on test flights or NASA-sponsored missions to resupply the International Space Station with the Dragon spacecraft.
Unlike most satellites, launches of the Dragon capsule do not use a fairing.
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