By Irene Klotz
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, expects to return a repaired and upgraded Falcon 9 rocket to flight around the start of December, a company vice president said, less than six months after one exploded shortly after liftoff.
The 208-foot-tall (63-meter) rocket carrying a load of cargo for the International Space Station exploded less than three minutes after liftoff from Florida on June 28.
The cause of the accident was traced to faulty bracket inside the rocket’s upper-stage engine. When the steel bracket broke, a bottle of high-pressure helium was released, causing the engine to over-pressurise and explode.
"We believe in the next six to eight weeks we’ll be able to return to flight," Lee Rosen, SpaceX vice president of mission and launch operations, said on Tuesday at the International Astronautical Congress under way this week in Jerusalem.
The Falcon 9, which failed after 18 successful flights, will carry a communications satellite for Luxembourg-based SES SA.
The rocket also will deliver a tiny satellite for SpacePharma, a privately owned Israeli startup, which developed a miniaturized laboratory for microgravity research. A countdown clock on display at the SpacePharma congress exhibit pegs the Falcon 9 launch for Dec. 1.
Privately owned SpaceX also is expected to attempt to land the rocket’s first-stage on a platform in the ocean after the second-stage takes over to deliver the SES and SpacePharma satellites into orbit.
To try to achieve that, California-based SpaceX will use a more powerful version of the Falcon 9 than it has flown previously. SpaceX wants to return its rockets so they can be refurbished and reflown, slashing launch costs.
“Things are coming along nicely with the upgraded version of the vehicle and we’re prepared to get back at this,” Rosen said.
SpaceX intends to submit its first bid for a U.S. military launch contract before it returns to flight.
It is expected to compete to fly a next-generation U.S. Global Positioning System satellite. If it wins, the company will break a monopoly on the military’s launch business held by United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed-Martin and Boeing.
Bids for the GPS 3 launch are due on Nov. 16.
(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Alison Williams)