On Friday, SpaceX conducted the fifth consecutive successful launch of its Falcon 9 rocket, delivering the Dragon cargo spacecraft into orbit on its way to the International Space Station. Although the rocket performed flawlessly, there was a glitch with the Dragon thrusters that delayed planned maneuvers, but the glitch was fixed within a few hours and Dragon is now scheduled to arrive at the station about a day later than originally planned. This will have no ill effect on station operations, and also demonstrates the robustness and resiliency of both the Dragon technology and the team managing it. There is also an additional, important significance to the launch that I explain below.
But first, here are some cool screencaps of the launch as well as the 10 minute+ video they're from, which includes some things I don't believe I've seen before in a Falcon 9 launch video. The liftoff went as normal (there is a "normal" now that they're on the fifth F9 launch), and visually is the same as most kinds of space launches:
One thing I love about videos of Falcon 9 launches is how the engines look in flight - just beautiful and science-fictiony awesome, although you can't see much through the downward-facing cam as the rocket passes through clouds:
The cloud layer below soon recedes into a pillowy carpet visible by the downward-facing cam:
Then the first-stage engines cut off - an event known as MECO (Main Engine Cut-Off) - and the first stage is dropped off the rocket before the second stage ignites. In the next sequences of captures, the panel on the left is downward-facing cam on the second stage engine, and the panel on the right is from inside the top of the first stage as it separates and falls (which I don't recall seeing in previous F9 videos) - note when it sees the second stage ignite and begins tumbling back to Earth:
Then the second-stage engine cuts off (SECO) and the right panel switches to a different view:
Then the Dragon separates from the second stage, and the left panel switches to a view from Dragon looking down as the second stage departs:
The separation of the second stage in the final two minutes of the video is beautiful and dreamlike, and I recommend watching it in the video even if you skip the rest, though the first stage separation (beggining at 3:01) is also highly worth it (I also recommend going HD and full-screen):
The broader significance of this launch is that it's the last launch of version 1.0 of the Falcon 9, so this particular configuration is now retired. The next rocket SpaceX launches will be the Falcon 9 v.1.1, which is considerably different in appearance, engine configuration, and with hugely improved performance and lifting capacity:
First, the first-stage fuel tanks will be extended in v. 1.1 considerably, allowing for more fuel in a single launch. Then, the current engines - Merlin 1C - will be replaced with Merlin 1D, which is far more capable than its predecessor, making F9 v. 1.1 the most advanced rocket ever made (though not the most powerful). And thirdly, the first-stage engines will be reconfigured from a 3x3 square matrix into an octagon with a single engine in the center. I've heard SpaceX people explain this as being structurally simpler than the square matrix, since the forces of a rocket engine are supported by the outer wall of the rocket, so it's more efficient to have them arranged closer to the shape of the wall.
The v.1.0 was first launched in June 2010, and v.1.1 is targeted for launch this June, so that's three years for a vehicle iteration with significant structural changes and huge performance improvements - something totally unheard-of in commercial rocketry. But SpaceX has a habit of doing things big and fast. Moreover, provided the Dragon completes its mission and returns safely to Earth (knock on wood), not only will they be able to examine the glitch that had delayed it in orbit, but will get a NASA paycheck for the cargo delivery and return service that will further fund SpaceX's other projects - the Grasshopper reusable test rocket, the Falcon Heavy that will enable commercial Moon and Mars launches (such as that envisioned by Dennis Tito for 2018), the DragonRider crewed version of Dragon for travel to low Earth orbit, and the Red Dragon planetary lander version of Dragon.
The scheduled launch of the Falcon 9 v. 1.1 this upcoming June will be from Vandenberg launch range in California, and would be a commercial satellite launch rather than anything involving NASA. SpaceX has announced they are within a month of completing construction of their facilities at Vandenberg. Here's a beautiful (but somewhat older) view of the site - a worthy place from which to launch the future:
Sun Mar 03, 2013 at 4:13 AM PT: Dragon has arrived at ISS, and has been captured by the robotic arm.
Sun Mar 03, 2013 at 5:48 AM PT: Dragon is berthed to ISS.