x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 October 2017

Meet the Falcon that can fly into space at the speed of sound

Falcon 9 rocket will take UAE Genes in Space experiment to the International Space Station 

SpaceX's Falcon 9 is moved to the launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Nasa via Getty
SpaceX's Falcon 9 is moved to the launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Nasa via Getty

When the winning experiment from The National’s Genes in Space competition blasts into orbit on Monday, it will be on top of a Falcon 9 rocket.

The launch, scheduled for exactly 12.31pm Eastern Standard Time (20.31 UAE time) , will be watched by contest winner, Alia Al Mansoori and her family who have travelled to Florida for the lift-off.

Weather conditions for the launch are said to be good, with hopes the mission will finally go ahead after several delays.

The Falcon 9 is a two stage rocket manufactured by Space X, the company founded by Tesla billionaire Elon Musk and takes its name from the number of engines, which push it to the speed of sound within a minute.

At two minutes and 42 seconds, the nine Merlin engines shut down and the second stage engine fires for six minutes to put the payload into a parking orbit.

On Wednesday morning, the Dragon capsule, containing Alia’s experiment, will be captured by the robotic arm of the International Space Station and docked for unloading.

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Read more:

The UAE's journey to space

Genes in Space winner in Florida to witness her idea take off

The billionaires backing projects in a new space race

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What makes the Falcon 9 unique is that the first stage can be reused. Around 10 minutes after launching, it lands upright at the Kennedy Space Centre, extending legs and slowing in a final blast of smoke and fire.

Dozens of experiments will be joining Alia’s on the trip to the ISS. The payload will also include what is being claimed as the most powerful computer ever sent into space.

The Hewlett Packard supercomputer is able to make one trillion calculations in a second, and is said to be up to 100 times more powerful than the laptops currently used by astronauts on the ISS.

By contrast, the computers used on the Apollo Moon programme were no more powerful than a modern pocket calculator.

The HP “Spacebourne Computer” will be tested to see how it performs for a lengthy period in space, with the objective to use it in deep space missions, like to Mars.

According to Mark Fernandez, the HP engineering heading the test, the sophisticated computer has been hardened to protect it from radiation. But he adds: “Some think it'll never power up or be fried within the first few minutes.”

Also on board are seeds for the astronauts to grow, and 20 mice, all to test the varying effects of living in space on organisms.

SpaceX has a contract with Nasa, the US space agency, to resupply the ISS. This mission is the 12th of 20 resupply missions.

Later this year, the company hopes to launch the larger Falcon Heavy rocket which can be used for manned space flight.

The maiden flight of the Falcon Heavy has been put back to November because of repairs needed to the launchpad, which was badly damaged when a Falcon 9 exploded in preflight testing last September.

The explosion also caused a rift between two of the world’s richest men. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was using Musk’s rocket to send a satellite into space to give internet service to Africa.

The US$120 million explosion totally destroyed the satellite, with Zuckerberg complaining: “ I’m deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX’s launch failure destroyed our satellite that would have provided connectivity to so many entrepreneurs and everyone else across the continent.”