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SpaceX Draco Thruster Performs Long-Duration Firing and Restart

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Small rocket engines to provide precise control of Dragon spacecraft as it approaches the International Space Station

HAWTHORNE, CA – December 9, 2008 – Just days after the successful full mission-length test firing of the nine-engine first stage of
Falcon 9, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) marked another significant advance with the performance of its smallest rocket engine, Draco. Known as a “thruster,” the new engine fired continuously for ten minutes in a specially constructed vacuum test chamber that simulates the space environment. After a ten-minute thermal soak period, Draco was restarted for an additional minute, simulating its typical use in space.

Performed at the SpaceX Texas Test Facility outside McGregor, this marks the longest firing of the Draco thruster, as well as the longest test on the new vacuum test stand, built by SpaceX and first put into operation in March 2008.

“Draco performed perfectly during the entire test, with expected temperatures and excellent performance,” said David Giger, Propulsion Manager, SpaceX. “We also broke the SpaceX record for longest continuous burn previously held by Kestrel, the Falcon 1 second stage engine.”

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft uses a total of 18 Draco thrusters for maneuvering, attitude control, and to initiate the capsule's return to Earth.

“The Draco engines are as important to Dragon as the large Merlin engines are to Falcon 9,” said Tom Mueller, VP Propulsion, SpaceX. “They will perform essential maneuvers as the SpaceX Dragon approaches and berths with the International Space Station (ISS) to provide delivery of cargo, and eventually crew transport to and from Station.”

The SpaceX-developed Draco thruster generates up to 90 pounds (400 Newtons) of force using monomethyl hydrazine as a fuel and nitrogen tetroxide as an oxidizer – the same orbital maneuvering propellants used by the Space Shuttle. These storable propellants have very long on-orbit lifetimes, providing the option for the Dragon spacecraft to remain berthed at the ISS for a year or more, ready to serve as an emergency “lifeboat” if necessary.

The first Dragon spacecraft is scheduled for flight in 2009 aboard a Falcon 9 rocket from the SpaceX launch site at Complex 40, Cape Canaveral, Florida.

About SpaceX

SpaceX is revolutionizing access to space by developing a family of launch vehicles and spacecraft intended to increase the reliability and reduce the cost of both manned and unmanned space transportation, ultimately by a factor of ten. With its Falcon line of launch vehicles, powered by internally-developed Merlin engines, SpaceX offers light, medium and heavy lift capabilities to deliver spacecraft into any altitude and inclination, from low-Earth orbit to geosynchronous to planetary missions. On September 28, 2008, the Falcon 1, designed and manufactured from the ground up by SpaceX, became the first privately developed liquid fuel rocket to orbit the Earth.

As a winner of the NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services competition (COTS), SpaceX is in a position to help fill the gap in American spaceflight to the International Space Station when the Space Shuttle retires in 2010. Under the existing Agreement, SpaceX will conduct for NASA three flights of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft, culminating in Dragon berthing with the ISS. SpaceX is the only COTS contender that has the capability to return cargo and crew to Earth. NASA also has an option to demonstrate crew services to the ISS using the Falcon 9 / Dragon system. The first Falcon 9 will arrive at the SpaceX launch site at Complex 40, Cape Canaveral within the next few months, in preparation for its maiden flight in 2009.

Founded in 2002, the SpaceX team now numbers more than 600 full time employees, primarily located in Hawthorne, California, with additional locations including SpaceX's Texas Test Facility in McGregor near Waco; offices in Washington DC; and launch facilities at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and the Marshall Islands in the Central Pacific.

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Photo and Video Caption: The SpaceX Draco thruster fired at full power for ten minutes, and then, after a thermal soak period, it was restarted for an additional minute. Conducted in the vacuum test chamber at the SpaceX Texas Test facility in McGregor, the Draco generated up to 90 pounds (400 Newtons) of force using the same high-performance propellants used by the Space Shuttle for orbital maneuvering.

Courtesy: SpaceX.