A SpaceX Dragon capsule closed in on the International Space Station on Monday, following launch Sunday evening aboard the company’s fourth Falcon 9 rocket.

Engineers were looking into why one of the rocket’s nine engines shut down one minute and 19 seconds after liftoff. As designed, the other engines compensated for the loss of thrust and the capsule was put into its intended orbit.


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No word yet on how the engine shutdown impacted the positioning of a secondary payload, a prototype communications satellite for Orbcomm, which was deployed en route to Dragon’s destination.

“We know the engine did not explode, because we continued to receive data from it,” the company wrote in an update Monday afternoon.

Like NASA’s Saturn 5 moon rocket and modern airliners, Falcon 9 is “designed to handle an engine-out situation and still complete its mission. No other rocket currently flying has this ability,” SpaceX noted.

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Falcon 9 normally shuts down two engines to limit acceleration to five times the force of gravity so the rocket could have even lost another engine and still had a successful flight, SpaceX added.

“We will continue to review all flight data in order to understand the cause of the anomaly, and will devote the resources necessary to identify the problem and apply those lessons to future flights,” the company said.

Dragon is expected to rendezvous with the space station on Wednesday. Station commander Sunita Williams and Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide will be standing by to use the station’s robot arm to snare the capsule from orbit and dock it to the outpost.

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The capsule is the first of 12 cargo deliveries Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, plans to fly for NASA under a $1.6-billion contract. A second cargo re-supplier, Orbital Sciences Corp., is scheduled to test-fly its new rocket later this year and conduct a trial run to the station in February or March.

Image: SpaceX launch puts the United States back into the space station resupply business. Credit: NASA