Image: Still from SpaceX animation
This still from a SpaceX animation depicts an unmanned Dragon spacecraft re-entering Earth's atmosphere ahead of a planned splashdown in the ocean.
updated 12/3/2010 6:49:28 PM ET 2010-12-03T23:49:28

A privately built rocket designed by the spaceflight company SpaceX to launch commercial space capsules into orbit hit a snag during an engine test Friday, less than a week before a planned Dec. 7 launch.

SpaceX will make a second attempt Dec. 4 to test fire the engines of its Falcon 9 rocket, slated to lift off the company's new space capsule on its first flight next week.

The so-called static fire test was aborted today because one of the Falcon 9's engines experienced too-high chamber pressure. The company will try again tomorrow to conduct a two-second test burn of the rocket's first stage engines.

"Today the 1st static fire attempt aborted at T-1.1 seconds due to high engine chamber pressure," SpaceX spokeswoman Kirstin Brost said in a statement. "We are reviewing data now and will make a second attempt tomorrow."

The test is a vital check for the Falcon 9 before its planned Dec. 7 launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida carrying SpaceX's first Dragon space capsule.

The Falcon 9 rocket, the second built by the Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX ( Space Exploration Technologies ), began to fire its cluster of nine Merlin engines at about 1 p.m. EST (1800 GMT) Friday while securely anchored in place by ground restraints at the seaside Space Launch Complex 40 in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The test firing initially appeared to go as planned, despite being delayed from an earlier 9 a.m. ET (1400 GMT) target. Yet the burn was called off when sensors indicated engine pressure was too high. [ Photos from first Falcon 9 rocket launch ]

The test is part of a full dress rehearsal for the Falcon 9's planned Dec. 7 liftoff. That launch will be the first voyage of the company's Dragon spaceship, designed to carry cargo, and possibly eventually crew, into low-Earth orbit.

SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to provide Dragon spacecraft for cargo flights to the International Space Station after the U.S. space agency's shuttle fleet retire. The company also hopes to win a contract to ferry astronauts to the station as well though Dragon is not yet man-rated to carry people to space.

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During next week's test launch, the Falcon 9 is slated to carry the Dragon capsule to low-Earth orbit at speeds greater than 17,000 mph (27,300 kph). The Dragon capsule will separate from the rocket's second stage and make multiple orbits of Earth, demonstrating its operational communications, navigation and maneuvering abilities, before re-entering Earth's atmosphere and landing in the Pacific Ocean a few hours later. 

The entire spaceflight is expected to last about four hours, SpaceX officials have said.

Ground crews plan to retrieve the capsule from the water in the first attempt by a commercial company to recover a spacecraft re-entering from low-Earth orbit.

The flight will also be the first mission by any company under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, designed to spur development of private vehicles capable of carrying crew and cargo to the International Space Station. SpaceX plans to fly at least 12 unmanned missions to deliver supplies to the space station with Dragon and the Falcon 9.


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