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Live coverage: SpaceX launches Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral

May 8th 2021 at 16:54

Live coverage of the countdown and launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The mission will launch SpaceX’s next batch of 60 Starlink broadband satellites. Text updates will appear automatically below. Follow us on Twitter.

EDITOR’S NOTE: SpaceX’s live webcast begins about 15 minutes prior to liftoff. The “SFN view of pad 40” tab is streaming a live view of the Falcon 9 rocket beginning at T-minus 2 hours.

SpaceX webcast

SFN view of pad 40

SpaceX mission audio

SpaceX ready to break another rocket reuse record with launch early Sunday

May 8th 2021 at 11:44
A Falcon 9 rocket launches March 14 with the same booster set to fly a 10th time Sunday. Credit: SpaceX

A Falcon 9 rocket and 60 more Starlink internet satellites set for launch early Sunday at Cape Canaveral will mark the first time SpaceX has flown a first stage 10 times, reaching a milestone that the company once said could be a limit for reusing boosters. Now SpaceX plans to keep flying reused rockets on Starlink missions until one fails.

The mission Sunday is set for liftoff at 2:42 a.m. EDT (0642 GMT) from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida. Nine kerosene-burning Merlin 1D engines will power the Falcon 9 rocket northeast from Florida’s Space Coast, following a trail blazed by 26 previous dedicated Starlink missions.

There is an 80 percent chance of good weather for launch at Cape Canaveral, according to the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base. There is also a good chance of favorable upper level winds and acceptable conditions in the Falcon 9 booster’s downrange recovery area in the Atlantic Ocean.

“The overall threat for a delay looks to be small but the main weather concern for the primary day will be from the cumulus cloud rule,” forecasters wrote Saturday.

The flight Sunday will mark the 14th launch of a Falcon 9 rocket this year, and the fourth Falcon 9 mission in just 16 days.

The booster assigned to Sunday’s launch — designated B1051 — has flown to space nine times since debuting in March 2019 with the first unpiloted test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule. Since then, the rocket launched three Canadian Radarsat satellites, SiriusXM’s SXM 7 radio broadcasting satellite, and six Starlink missions, most recently on March 14.

The Falcon 9 booster’s 10th launch Sunday will mark the 63rd flight of a re-flown SpaceX first stage. All of the reused rocket flights to date have been successful.

When the current version of the Falcon 9 rocket — known as the Block 5 — launched for the first time in 2018, SpaceX officials said the booster could fly 10 times before requiring major refurbishment.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, said last month that the company now plans to keep flying Falcon 9 boosters until one fails. SpaceX will take that risk on missions launching the company’s own Starlink internet satellites.

“There doesn’t seem to be any obvious limit to the reusability of the vehicle,” Musk told Spaceflight Now in a press conference April 23.

Musk said SpaceX plans to keep reusing Falcon 9 boosters until they break, likely exceeding the 10-flight milestone.

“We do intend to fly the Falcon 9 booster until we see some kind of a failure with the Starlink missions, obviously, just to have that be a life leader,” Musk said.

Since launching the first reused Falcon 9 first stage on a mission in 2017, SpaceX has cinched agreements with all of its customers to fly payloads on recycled rockets.

One of the last customers SpaceX got to agree to launch on reused boosters was NASA’s commercial crew program. SpaceX’s most recent launch with astronauts April 23 was the first commercial crew mission to take off on a previously-flown rocket.

The U.S. Space Force plans to launch a national security payload on a reused Falcon 9 booster for the first time in June.

“You probably don’t want to be on a life leader for a crewed mission, but it’s probably good to have a flight or two under its belt, for the booster to have flown once or twice,” Musk said. “If it was an aircraft coming out of the factory, you’d want the aircraft to probably have gone through a test flight or two before you put passengers on.

“So I think that’s probably a couple of flights is a good number for a crew booster, and in the meantime, we’ll keep flying the life leader,” Musk said. “We’ve got nine flights on one of the boosters. We’re going to have a 10th flight soon with a Starlink mission.”

A view of 60 Starlink satellites stacked before a previous launch. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX has been using its fleet of Falcon 9 boosters to launch Starlink missions at an average pace of three times per month so far this year. On some of those missions, SpaceX has used reused first stages that set new records for their number of flights.

The most recent Falcon 9 launch Tuesday employed a booster making its ninth flight, tying B1051’s flight history until it makes its 10th launch Sunday.

Last year, a SpaceX manager said it costs less than $30 million to fly a Falcon 9 rocket with reused parts, such as the booster and payload fairing, the clamshell-like aero-structure that protects sensitive satellite payloads during the climb through the atmosphere.

Although SpaceX has proven it can safely reuse first stages, payload shrouds, and Dragon capsules, the Falcon 9 rocket’s upper stage remains a single-use component. None of SpaceX’s competitors in the commercial launch industry have successfully re-flown an orbital-class booster. Some companies, like Blue Origin and Rocket Lab, plan to eventually recover and reuse their rocket boosters.

Repeating a mantra he’s consistently said for decades, Musk said last week that reusing rockets is a “fundamental holy grail breakthrough” needed to revolutionize access to space.

“To make humanity a truly space-faring civilization, we must have a fully and rapidly reusable rocket,” Musk said in a webcast last month hosted by the X Prize Foundation. “We’ve made some progress in that direction with Falcon 9, where the booster is reusable, and the Dragon spacecraft — the upper portion — is reusable. But the Falcon 9’s second stage and Dragon’s unpressurized trunk are not reusable.

“And I would not say the Falcon booster, spacecraft, and fairing, they aren’t rapidly reusable,” Musk said. “It takes a fair bit of effort, much less effort than the space shuttle took.”

He said SpaceX refurbishment teams at Cape Canaveral can reduce the turnaround time between Falcon 9 booster flights to less than a month. So far, the shortest time between two flights of the same Falcon 9 booster has been 27 days.

Most Falcon 9 missions require the first stage booster to land on an offshore drone ship a few hundred miles downrange from the launch site. On some missions carrying lighter payloads, the booster has enough propellant reserved to turn around and fly back to the launch site for a landing onshore.

“Landing out to sea, and then having to bring it back, and then taking a month or so to get it ready for launch, I wouldn’t call that rapid by aircraft standards,” Musk said.

SpaceX’s next-generation Starship vehicle is designed to be fully and rapidly reusable, further driving down launch costs, according to Musk.

The first stage booster, known as the Super Heavy, will land back on the ground minutes after launch, similar to the profile pioneered by the Falcon 9 rocket. The Starship will propel itself into Earth orbit, and eventually to destinations in deep space, then re-enter the atmosphere at the end of its mission for a vertical rocket-assisted landing.

The entire Starship rocket stack will stand nearly 400 feet (120 meters) tall, with 28 methane-fueled Raptor engines on the first stage and six more Raptor powerplants on the Starship upper stage.

NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract April 16 to develop a derivative of the Starship vehicle to land the next astronauts on the Moon through the agency’s Artemis exploration program.

A NASA-owned Orion crew capsule launched on top of the space agency’s powerful Space Launch System rocket will transport the astronauts between the Earth and lunar orbit, where the crew will dock with the waiting unoccupied Starship to head to the surface of the Moon.

Under NASA’s flight plans, the Starship will launch the astronauts back into space to meet with the Orion capsule for return to Earth.

Despite using engines flown on NASA’s retired reusable space shuttles, each of NASA’s SLS rockets is designed for one flight. NASA plans to refurbish and reuse Orion crew capsules after splashing down at sea.

But the lunar mission is just part of SpaceX’s ambition for the Starship program. The rocket could launch massive clusters of small satellites, such as Starlink spacecraft, loft huge space telescopes, and carry large numbers of people to space. SpaceX says it can deliver payloads of more than 100 metric tons, or 220,000 pounds, or low Earth orbit.

“With Starship, we’ll hopefully reuse the whole thing,” Musk said. “This is a hard problem for rockets, that’s for sure. It’s taken us, we’re like 19 years in now. I think the Starship design can work. It’s just, it’s a hard thing to solve, and the support of NASA is very much appreciated in this regard. I think it’s going to work.”

“I’d say it’s only recently though that I feel that full and rapid reusability can be accomplished,” Musk said. “I wasn’t sure for a long time, but I am sure now.”

With the 60 satellites poised to blast off Sunday, SpaceX will have launched 1,625 Starlink internet satellites on 29 rocket flights, including 27 dedicated Falcon 9 missions. Some of those satellites are now decommissioned.

SpaceX has regulatory approval from the Federal Communications Commission to launch and operate 12,000 broadband satellites to provide high-speed, low-latency internet signals to consumers around the world. The network is already providing limited internet service to subscribers who have signed up for beta testing.

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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Upgraded Starship prototype makes first soft landing after test flight

May 5th 2021 at 17:59

SpaceX launched and landed an upgraded prototype for the company’s next-generation Starship vehicle in South Texas on Wednesday, the company’s first Starship test flight since winning a $2.9 billion NASA contract to use the craft to land astronauts on the Moon.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO tweeted: “Starship landing nominal!”

The 164-foot-tall (50-meter) stainless steel rocket flew to an altitude of about 33,000 feet (10 kilometers) over SpaceX’s rocket development and test facility in Cameron County, Texas, after lifting off at 6:24 p.m. EDT (2224 GMT). Around six minutes after takeoff, the rocket landed vertically back at the same test site at Boca Chica Beach near Brownsville.

Three Raptor engines consuming methane and liquid oxygen propellants powered the rocket into the sky, before the engines shut down in a staggered sequence as the Starship neared the high point of its trajectory. After the final engine switches off, cold gas control thrusters and body flaps maneuvered the vehicle to a horizontal orientation for the descent back to the ground.

Moments before the Starship reached the ground the Raptor engines reignited to flip the rocket vertical again and slowed it down for a gentle landing.

SpaceX has successfully launched four Starship prototypes on atmospheric test flights since Dec. 9, but all four rockets exploded during or shortly after landing.

A hard landing on an otherwise-successful Dec. 9 Starship test flight was caused by low pressure from header tanks feeding the vehicle’s Raptor engines for the critical burn just before touchdown, and one of the Raptor engines failed to reignite for the landing burn on a test flight Feb. 2.

The SN10 rocket achieved the first successful landing of a full-size Starship vehicle at the end of a March 3 test flight, but the rocket exploded minutes later after a harder-than-intended touchdown. And the most recent Starship test flight ended with an explosion moments before landing March 30, an accident caused by a methane fuel leak in one of the rocket’s Raptor engines.

The rocket that launched Wednesday, designated Starship Serial No. 15, debuted new upgrades to the Starship design. Last month, SpaceX rolled out Starship SN15 to the oceanside launch pad from the Starship production complex a couple of miles inland from the Gulf Coast.

SpaceX performed two test-firings of the Starship’s Raptor engines April 26 and 27, clearing the say for a launch attempt this week.

Elon Musk saoid the SN15 prototype introduces “hundreds of design improvements” in structures, engines, avionics, and software.

SpaceX said in a statement Wednesday that the upgrades “will allow more speed and efficiency throughout production and flight.” The changes include “a new enhanced avionics suite, updated propellant architecture in the aft skirt, and a new Raptor engine design and configuration,” SpaceX said.

SpaceX is developing the Starship spacecraft and its huge booster rocket, named the Super Heavy, as a fully reusable launch and space transportation system capable of ferrying more than 100 metric tons of cargo into low Earth orbit, more than any other rocket in the world.

With in-space refueling, the Starship could eventually carry people and heavy supply loads to the Moon and Mars.

Last month, SpaceX won a $2.9 billion contract from NASA to develop a derivative of the Starship vehicle to land astronauts on the Moon through the space agency’s Artemis program. SpaceX bested bids from Blue Origin and Dynetics to win the contract for NASA’s next human-rated lunar lander.

According to NASA’s plans, astronauts will depart Earth on the agency’s government-owned Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule, then rendezvous with a Starship pre-positioned in lunar orbit. The Starship would launch from Earth without anyone on-board.

After landing on the Moon, the astronauts will exit the Starship and ride an elevator down to the surface. Once their work is complete, the crew members will launch on the Starship back into lunar orbit, meet up with the Orion capsule, and return to Earth.

After several more Starship test flights in the coming months, the next major technology update to the Starship vehicle will come with SN20 later this year, according to Musk. Beginning with SN20, the Starship vehicles will be capable of flying into low Earth orbit on top of SpaceX’s Super Heavy booster, and they will be fitted with a heat shield to withstand the high temperatures of atmospheric re-entry.

Musk tweeted earlier this year that the Super Heavy/Starship combination will initially have a high probability of achieving a successful launch into orbit, but it will likely take many attempts before SpaceX perfects the Starship’s re-entry and landing maneuvers from orbit.

SpaceX has built a Super Heavy production test article in South Texas, but the company has not yet attempted the first Super Heavy test flight.

The orbital version of the Starship vehicle will have six Raptor engines, including three engines with enlarged bell-shaped nozzles optimized for higher efficiency in the vacuum of space. The Super Heavy will have 28 Raptor engines, producing some 16 million pounds of thrust, twice the power of NASA’s Apollo-era Saturn 5 rocket.

The entire Super Heavy/Starship rocket stack will stand nearly 400 feet, or about 120 meters, tall.

During an orbital launch attempt, a reusable Super Heavy first stage booster will detach from the Starship — which acts as both an upper stage and in-space transporter — and come back to Earth for a vertical landing, where catcher arms on the launch tower will try to capture the descending first stage.

The Starship will continue into orbit and deploy its payloads or travel to its deep space destination, and finally return to Earth to be flown again.

SpaceX has succeeded in cutting launch costs with the Falcon 9 rocket, which has a reusable first stage and payload shroud. But neither part is rapidly reusable, and the Falcon 9’s second stage is brand new for every mission.

“With Starship, we’ll hopefully reuse the whole thing,” Musk said last month. “This is a hard problem for rockets, that’s for sure. It’s taken us, we’re like 19 years in now. I think the Starship design can work. It’s just, it’s a hard thing to solve, and the support of NASA is very much appreciated in this regard. I think it’s going to work.”

Musk eventually wants to have a fleet of ocean-going platforms to recover and re-launch Super Heavy boosters and Starship rockets.

“It’s intended to be such that the booster can be used, I don’t know, a dozen times a day, basically every couple of hours,” Musk said in an XPRIZE webcast last month. “And that mostly is about reloading propellant and mounting the ship. and then the ship can probably be used, in theory, every three hours … But certainly every, say, six to nine hours. We’ll call it twice a day for the ship. And we’ll make more ships than there are boosters.

“Once we have the floating space platforms, we can position them such that the ship can come back in a single orbit,” Musk said. “So then it can be, let’s say we have three ship launches per day, that’s 1,000 flights a year, each with 100 to 150 tonnes of payload to orbit.”

“I’d say it’s only recently though that I feel that full and rapid reusability can be accomplished,” Musk said. “I wasn’t sure for a long time, but I am sure now.”

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Starlink launch marks 100 missions since an in-flight Falcon rocket failure

May 4th 2021 at 19:23
A Falcon 9 rocket takes off Tuesday with 60 Starlink satellites. Credit: SpaceX

The oldest Falcon 9 booster in SpaceX’s operational rocket fleet sent 60 more Starlink internet satellites into space Tuesday with a launch from historic pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

With the 60 satellites launched Tuesday, SpaceX has sent 1,565 Starlink spacecraft into orbit to beam broadband signals around the world, nearly nine times as many satellites in any other company’s constellation.

The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 rocket climbed away from the Florida spaceport and rumbled through a sunny mid-afternoon sky, flying on a track northeast from the Kennedy Space Center to place 60 more Starlink broadband stations into orbit.

The mission began at 3:01 p.m. EDT (1901 GMT) Tuesday as nine kerosene-fueled Merlin 1D booster engines fired up to propel the 1.2-million-pound Falcon 9 launcher off the pad.

The Falcon 9 surpassed the speed of sound in about one minute, then shut down its first stage engines and released the booster about two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff.

Liftoff of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket carrying the next 60 Starlink satellites into orbit. https://t.co/NPEygGCRNT pic.twitter.com/1HQQXcYHia

— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) May 4, 2021

The 15-story booster stage — designated B1049 in SpaceX’s fleet — continued coasting toward the high point of its suborbital trajectory and unfurled aerodynamic grid fins to help stabilize the rocket for descent back through the atmosphere.

Three of the booster’s Merlin engines reignited for an entry burn, and the rocket’s center engine ignited for a landing burn just before the first stage extended legs and settled onto the deck of SpaceX’s drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” for a bullseye touchdown in the Atlantic Ocean.

The landing about eight-and-a-half minutes after liftoff punctuated the ninth trip to space and back for this booster, which debuted in September 2018. This reusable booster is the oldest operational first stage in SpaceX’s inventory, and its nine launches and landings ties another booster for the most number of flights in the Falcon 9 fleet.

SpaceX plans to return the drone ship and Falcon 9 booster to Port Canaveral, Florida, from the recovery area a few hundred miles east of Charleston, South Carolina. Ground crews at Cape Canaveral are expected to inspect and refurbish the rocket for a 10th flight.

The Falcon 9 booster made a bullseye landing on SpaceX’s drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean, completing its ninth trip to space and back. Credit: SpaceX

The Falcon 9’s second stage engine completed two burns to place the 60 Starlink satellites into the proper orbit for deployment. About 64 minutes after liftoff, a forward-facing camera on the upper stage showed the 60 flat-panel satellites flying free of the rocket at an altitude of 182 miles (293 kilometers) south of New Zealand.

The 573-pound (260-kilogram) satellites will deploy their power-generating solar panels and switch on their krypton-fueled plasma thrusters to raise their altitude to 341 miles (550 kilometers) to join the rest of the Starlink fleet.

The launch Tuesday marked the 100th straight successful Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy mission without an in-flight failure, a streak stretching back to June 2015. It was the 91st successful mission for SpaceX since a Falcon 9 rocket exploded during a pre-flight test at Cape Canaveral in September 2016, destroying the launch vehicle and an Israeli-owned communications satellite, and damaging SpaceX’s launch pad.

The Starlink satellites are built on SpaceX’s assembly line in Redmond, Washington.

The 1,565 Starlink satellites launched today include prototypes and failed spacecraft that have dropped out of orbit and burned up in the atmosphere. Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer and expert tracker of spaceflight activity, says more than 1,400 Starlink satellites are currently in orbit, not counting the 60 spacecraft launched Wednesday night.

The Federal Communications Commission has authorized SpaceX to deploy some 12,000 Starlink satellites operating at Ku-band, Ka-band, and V-band frequencies, and at a range of altitudes and inclinations in low Earth orbit. The satellites are already beaming low-latency, broadband signals to users who have signed up for Starlink beta testing.

All 60 Starlink internet satellites have deployed from the rocket at an altitude of 182 miles (293 km) south of New Zealand.

With this flight, SpaceX has launched 100 straight Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets without an in-flight mission failure.https://t.co/NPEygGCRNT pic.twitter.com/gfD6GEtwQ6

— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) May 4, 2021

So far, nearly all of the Starlink satellites launched by SpaceX operate in 341-mile-high orbits tilted at an inclination of 53 degrees to the equator.

“We do have global reach but we don’t have full connectivity globally,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, at an industry conference last month. “We hope after about 28 launches, we’ll have continuous coverage throughout the globe. And then the plan after that is to continue to add satellites to provide additional capacity.”

The launch Tuesday was the 25th Falcon 9 flight dedicated to hauling operational Starlink satellites, known as Version 1.0, into orbit, and the 28th Falcon 9 mission overall with Starlink payloads on-board.

Last April, SpaceX requested approval from the FCC to operate its Starlink satellites at lower altitudes than initially planned, all between 335 miles (540 kilometers) and 354 miles (570 kilometers). The FCC approved the request last month.

With the commission’s approval, SpaceX will now operate its first 4,408 satellites at altitudes between 335 miles and 354 miles, instead of flying more than 2,800 of the spacecraft in orbits as high as 800 miles, or 1,300 kilometers, above Earth.

The FCC approval clears the way for SpaceX to start launching more Starlink satellites into polar orbit later this year. The polar orbiting satellites will give the Starlink network complete global coverage.

The updated Starlink network architecture has 1,584 satellites at 341 miles (550 kilometers) altitude and an inclination of 53 degrees, 1,584 satellites at 335 miles (540 kilometers) and an inclination of 53.2 degrees, 720 satellites at 354 miles (570 kilometers) and an inclination of 70 degrees, and 520 satellites at 348 miles (560 kilometers) and an inclination of 97.6 degrees.

SpaceX still has regulatory authorization to launch more than 7,000 additional Starlink satellites beyond the 4,408 spacecraft covered in the recent FCC approval.

The next Falcon 9 launch is scheduled for 2:42 a.m. EDT (0642 GMT) Sunday from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, carrying the next batch of Starlink internet satellites.

Another Starlink mission is planned in mid-May with a Falcon 9 launch from pad 39A.

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Live coverage: SpaceX launches another Starlink mission

May 4th 2021 at 09:46

Live coverage of the countdown and launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The mission will launch SpaceX’s next batch of 60 Starlink broadband satellites. Text updates will appear automatically below. Follow us on Twitter.

EDITOR’S NOTE: SpaceX’s live webcast begins about 15 minutes prior to liftoff. Until then, you can watch live views of the Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad by selecting the “Live view of pad 39A” tab.

SpaceX webcast

Live view of pad 39A

SpaceX mission audio

Chinese Company Claims to be Working on a Starship-Like Rocket

May 2nd 2021 at 15:33

Last weekend (April 24th), China celebrated its sixth “National Space Day” (aka. Aerospace Industry Achievement Exhibition) in Nanjing, an event that highlights advances China has made in space. Similar to Space Day that is held each year on the first Thursday in May (this year, it will be held on May 7th), the goal is to foster interest in space exploration and the STEMS so as to inspire the next generation of astronauts and aerospace engineers.

This year, the festivities focused on the Chang’e-5 mission (which showcased some of the lunar samples it brought back), and the name of China’s first Mars rover (Zhurong) – which will be landing on the Red Planet later this month. But another interesting snippet was a video presented by one of China’s main rocket manufacturers that showed demonstrated that they are working on a rocket similar to the Starship.

The video, titled “One Hour Global Arrival in the Space Transportation System,” was presented by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) – one of the country’s main state-owned rocket manufacturers. Similar to what Musk and SpaceX have proposed for the Starship, the video explores the potential for rocket systems that could deliver suborbital point-to-point transportation services.

The animation was recorded and uploaded to the Chinese social network Weibo (video above), which was accompanied by the following description (translated directly from Mandarin):

“The promotional animation of “One-Hour Global Arrival in Space Transportation System” of the First Academy of Aerospace Engineering, compare? This afternoon was recorded from [2021 Chinese Astronomy Day] Booth of China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology at the Aerospace Industry Achievement Exhibition. If you want to make an appointment to visit Lunar Land, please go to the bottom of this blog.”

In the video, we can see two different concepts for achieving suborbital passenger flights that could be operational by the 2040s. The video came to the attention of Eric Berger at Ars Technica, which mirrored it on Youtube so that it could reach a wider audience. The animation begins by showing a spaceport with several launch pads nearby. On each, we see two-stage vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) rockets that look strikingly similar to the Starship and Super Heavy

Also similar to the Starship is the way the first stage booster returns to Earth after separation, indicating that it is a totally reusable system. We then see passengers scening views of Earth and experiencing temporary weightlessness before the spacecraft begins making a powered descent. The flight ends with the spacecraft landing in a major city clearly several time zones away (since it’s nighttime where they land).

In addition to its appearance and configuration, the animation is also similar to the “Earth to Earth” concept video released by SpaceX in September of 2017 (shown below). In that animation, a Starship ferries passengers from a platform at sea off the coast of New York and land on a similar platform off the coast of Shanghai in just 34 minutes.

The second point-to-point concept in the Chinese animation shows a horizontal takeoff and landing (HTOL) vehicle being launched via an electromagnetic rail. Once this “spaceplane” is catapulted into the air, it engages what appears to be a hybrid-propellant rocket engine to accelerate from Mach 2 to Mach 15 (supersonic to hypersonic) and achieve suborbital flight.

Both of these concepts incorporate technology and ideas that are widely popular right now with both space agencies and commercial space. Between NASA, the ESA, SpaceX, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, Reaction Engines, and other federal and private programs, multiple reusable rocket and spaceplane concepts are currently under development.

What’s more, both are consistent with China’s long-term aim to become the world’s leading space power by 2045. According to the roadmap released by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation in 2017, China hopes to develop a “suborbital carrier vehicle” by 2025 that will eventually grow into a fleet, one which is capable of delivering cargo anywhere in the world by 2035 and passengers by 2045.

China’s HTOL spaceplane concept, presented at the . Credit: CALT/Eric Berger

However, the clear resemblance between CALT’s rocket concept and the Starship is also in keeping with the way China has monitored SpaceX’s progress practically from inception. As Eric Berger noted in his recently-published book Liftoff – which recounts the early struggles of SpaceX – a Chinese spy boat was stationed off the coast of Omelek Island (part of the Marshall Islands, South Pacific) in 2006 to watch the inaugural flight of the Falcon 1.

More recent examples include the incorporation of “grid fins” to the Long March 2C rocket (similar to the Falcon 9) for the sake of future reusability, as well as developing the Long March 8 to land on sea platforms. China’s long-term plan for the Long March 9 – which will be the country’s most powerful heavy-lift system once it is in service (slated for the 2030s) – includes making it partly reusable.

In the meantime, it is not clear if China plans to develop a Starship-like rocket would include equipping it for missions to the Moon and Mars (in addition to point-to-point suborbital flights). But since regular missions to the Moon and Mars were also part of the roadmap, it’s entirely possible China intends to adopt the Starship design and mission profile in its entirety.

One thing is for certain: China intends to be the superpower in space by the mid-21st century, and not merely one of several. While they have some catch-up to do before that can happen, their rate of growth is unparalleled.

Further Reading: Ars Technica, Weibo

The post Chinese Company Claims to be Working on a Starship-Like Rocket appeared first on Universe Today.

Crew Dragon brings four astronauts back to nighttime splashdown

May 2nd 2021 at 04:18

STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS & USED WITH PERMISSION

(Left to right) Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, Mike Hopkins, and Soichi Noguchi, prior to disembarking the SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience capsule after splashdown. Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

Four astronauts strapped into their SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, undocked from the International Space Station and plunged to a fiery pre-dawn splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico Sunday, closing out the first operational flight of SpaceX’s futuristic touch-screen ferry ship.

Crew-1 commander Michael Hopkins, along with NASA astronauts Victor Glover and Shannon Walker and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, disconnected from the space-facing port of the station’s forward Harmony module at 8:35 p.m. EDT Saturday.

That set up only the second piloted water landing for NASA’s post-shuttle commercial crew program and just the third night splashdown in space history — the first in nearly 45 years.

But the Crew Dragon executed a textbook return to Earth, dropping out of orbit, deploying four big parachutes and settling to a gentle splashdown south of Panama City, Florida, at 2:56 a.m.

Crew Dragon Resilience descends in darkness under its four main parachutes to a splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo: NASA TV.

“Dragon, on behalf of NASA and the SpaceX teams, we welcome you back to planet Earth, and thanks for flying SpaceX,” the company’s capsule communicator radioed. “For those of you enrolled in our frequent flyer program, you’ve earned 68 million miles on this voyage.”

“It is good to be back on planet Earth,” Hopkins replied. “And we’ll take those miles. Are they transferrable?”

“And Dragon, we’ll have to refer you to our marketing department for that policy.”

Despite the dead-of-night landing, NASA’s WB-57 tracking aircraft captured spectacular infrared views of the capsule as it descended through the dense lower atmosphere while cameras aboard SpaceX’s recovery ship showed the moment of splashdown.

SpaceX crews rushed to the Crew Dragon to secure the spacecraft and haul it on board a company recovery ship. The astronauts remained inside, waiting for the capsule to be hauled aboard where personnel were standing by to help them get out, on stretchers, as they begin re-adjusting to gravity after five-and-a-half months in space.

The Crew Dragon capsule is hoisted aboard the recovery ship. Photo: NASA TV.

Following medical checks and phone calls home to friends and family, all four crew members were to be flown to shore by helicopter and handed off to NASA personnel for a flight back to the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

While mission managers prefer daylight landings, rough weather ruled out re-entry plans Wednesday and Saturday but with mild winds expected early Sunday, NASA and SpaceX agreed to target a pre-dawn return for the Crew-1 astronauts.

“Night landing? At Sea? Good thing there is a Naval Aviator on board! You got this “@AstroVicGlover!!!” tweeted astronaut Nick Hague, noting Glover’s experience as a Navy F/A-18 carrier pilot. “Soft landings to the Crew of Resilience.”

Night landing? At Sea? Good thing there is a Naval Aviator on board! You got this @AstroVicGlover!!! 🎱 Soft landings to the Crew of Resilience. @SpaceX #Crew1 #splashdown https://t.co/q8MRfwXdxM

— Nick Hague (@AstroHague) May 2, 2021

Unlike the first piloted Crew Dragon splashdown last August, when boaters enjoying a sunny Sunday afternoon in the Gulf quickly surrounded the spacecraft, the Coast Guard planned to enforce a 10-mile-wide safety zone this time around to keep any early morning onlookers well away.

The Crew Dragon’s return will complete a record-pace crew rotation requiring two launches and two landings with four different spacecraft over just three weeks to replace the International Space Station’s entire seven-member crew.

On April 9, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft carried Oleg Novitskiy, Pyotr Dubrov and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei to the station after a launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. They replaced another Soyuz crew — Sergei Ryzhikov, Sergey Kud-Sverchkov and Kate Rubins — who returned to Earth on April 17.

Then, on April 24, a Crew Dragon brought Crew-2 commander Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur, European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet and Japanese flier Akihiko Hoshide to the station. The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket that launched them the day before also helped launch Hopkins and company, the crew they are replacing aboard the station.

After helping the Crew-2 astronauts settle in aboard the lab complex, Hopkins, Glover, Walker and Noguchi, who arrived at the station last November 16, bid their seven ISS crewmates farewell Saturday evening and floated into their own Crew Dragon for undocking.

After moving a safe distance away, the ship’s flight computer was programmed to fire the ship’s braking thrusters for about 16-and-a-half minutes starting at 2:03 a.m. Sunday.

Moving through space at more than 17,100 mph — more than 83 football fields per second — the rocket firing was designed to slow the Crew Dragon by just 258 mph or so, just enough to drop the far side of the orbit into the dense lower atmosphere on a path targeting the Gulf of Mexico landing zone.

Protected by a high-tech heat shield, the Crew Dragon was expected to slam into the discernible atmosphere around 2:45 a.m., rapidly decelerating in a blaze of atmospheric friction.

Once out of the plasma heating zone, the spacecraft’s parachutes were to unfurl, allowing the ship to settle to a relatively gentle impact in the Gulf.

The most recent previous nighttime water landing came in October 1976 when two cosmonauts in a Soviet-era Soyuz spacecraft, making an unplanned descent in blizzard-like conditions after a failed docking, were blown off course into a large lake in Kazakhstan. It took recovery crews nine hours to move the spacecraft to shore and rescue the cosmonauts.

The only other night splashdown came in December 1968 when the crew of Apollo 8, coming home from a Christmas trip around the moon, carried out a planned, uneventful pre-dawn landing in the Pacific Ocean.

Live coverage: Four astronauts return home after 167 days in space

May 1st 2021 at 14:22

Live coverage of the undocking, re-entry and splashdown of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft with astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Soichi Noguchi, and Shannon Walker. Text updates will appear automatically below. Follow us on Twitter.

NASA TV

SFN LIVE

EDITOR’S NOTE: NASA TV’s live coverage of hatch closure, undocking, and splashdown begins at 6 p.m. EDT (2200 GMT).

Astronauts describe thrilling ride to orbit on Falcon 9 rocket

April 30th 2021 at 19:07

STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS & USED WITH PERMISSION

When the countdown hit zero last Friday and the engines powering a previously flown Falcon 9 first stage roared to life for takeoff, the four astronauts strapped into a SpaceX Crew Dragon some 21 stories up started laughing.

“So we’re sitting on the launch pad, obviously, and when the engines lit, we all started laughing because it just felt so awesome and powerful,” Shane Kimbrough, commander of the Crew-2 ferry flight to the International Space Station, said in an interview Thursday with CBS News. “Shortly after that, we started accelerating, heading uphill.

“It was a great ride, very smooth,” he said. “I don’t remember any surprises, except we were just all very happy. We were all pretty excited to be on orbit again and feel that incredible acceleration.”

Kimbrough, co-pilot Megan McArthur, European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet and Japanese flier Akihiko Hoshide blasted off from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center last Friday morning and docked at the space station the next day.

Their arrival boosted the lab’s crew from seven to 11, but only until this weekend when the four astronauts they are replacing board their own Crew Dragon capsule and return to Earth to close out a 166-day mission.

“It’s great to be back on station, it’s great to be floating around again,” said Kimbrough, veteran of a space shuttle flight in 2008 and launch aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft for a 173-day stay aboard the station in 2016-17. “All of us are really enjoying that, relearning how to fly. So that’s been fun.

“Right now we have 11 on board, and it’s been really a lot of fun learning from the folks that have been on board for a while and learning all the new things. It hasn’t changed a whole lot since I was here last time. … It’s been really fun, though, we’re excited for Crew-1 to head back home here pretty soon whenever the weather allows.”

McArthur spent 13 days in space in 2009 to help repair the Hubble Space Telescope, “and this is my first time to the space station. First impression, of course, is that the living space is much, much bigger. You really have to be precise with your flying as so as not to crash into all the other people that are up here.”

“So I’m learning how to fly,” she said. “It feels really good. And it’s just an amazing, amazing place.”

Known for favoring lively footwear, McArthur did a zero-gravity flip toward the end of the interview, showing off her socks. Printed on the bottom of her right sock: “IF YOU CAN READ THIS” and on her left: “BRING ME SOME COOKIES.”

Kimbrough, McArthur, Pesquet and Hoshide are the third crew to launch aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon. Kimbrough, one of the few astronauts who has now launched aboard three different spacecraft, said the climb to space atop a Falcon 9 was thrilling.

“The first stage was, I would say, fairly smooth,” Kimbrough said. “There was a little bit of rumbling going on, but pretty smooth.”

About two-and-a-half minutes into the flight, the nine Merlin first stage engines shut down, the stage fell away and the single vacuum-rated Merlin powering the second stage ignited, giving the crew “a nice kick in the pants.”

“So we got to experience that M-vac engine lighting, and then kind of a little thrust back in our seats and then pure acceleration for the next six-and-a-half minutes or so,” Kimbrough said. “It was a bit rumbly, it kind of was like … being on a rocky road in a vehicle.”

The crew was pushed back in their seats with about four-and-a-half times the normal force of gravity compared to the 3 “Gs” Kimbrough and McArthur experienced during their shuttle launches.

“It just kind of felt like this rumble for about six-and-a-half minutes as we increased our speed and got up into space,” he said. “Pretty spectacular.”

The crew was in the process of winding down after a busy first day in space when flight controllers told them to get back in their spacesuits because of a predicted close encounter with a piece of space debris. It turned out to be a false alarm, but it highlighted a growing concern in the space community.

Wednesday night, SpaceX launched another batch of 60 Starlink internet satellites, pushing the total launched to date to 1,505. OneWeb also is launching a constellation of broadband satellites and other companies, including Amazon, have plans for their own “mega constellations.”

With more and more satellites populating low-Earth orbit, some analysts are concerned about an increased probability of collisions that would generate threatening space debris.

“It’s definitely something that we need to keep a careful eye on and keep aware of where all these things are, and the best ways to track them and how to get the information to the people that need it,” McArthur said. “It was quite an event for us.

“We were kind of winding down for the evening and getting ready to go to bed, rolled out our sleeping bags and gotten into our sleepwear when we got the notification that we needed to get in our (space)suits,” she said. “We got there just in time, just in time for them to call us out that it had been a false alarm.”

The crew responded per their training “and we felt like the team handled it really well,” she added. “But it’s definitely something that as a spacefaring nation … we’re going to need to keep each other apprised of what’s out there and how to avoid it as the space gets more and more crowded.”

SpaceX plans to follow the Crew-2 mission with launch of four civilian, non-astronaut fliers this fall, a flight purchased by billionaire entrepreneur and jet pilot Jared Isaacman to benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.

The “Inspiration4” crew will not visit the space station. Their Crew Dragon will simply orbit Earth for a few days, providing spectacular views from a higher altitude than the station. Asked if she had any reservations about commercial spaceflight and non-professional astronauts, McArthur said she welcomes their participation.

“Of course, part of our mission as astronauts is to try to inspire people, inspire the next generation of explorers,” she said. But “we’re engineers, so maybe we’re not always great with words.”

“These people are going to experience some of the same things that we’re experiencing, and they’re going to be able to share it in a different way, maybe, than we normally do. I think it’s gonna be really exciting.”

Chinese Long March 6 rocket delivers nine small satellites to space

April 30th 2021 at 18:06
A Long March 6 rocket lifts with April 27 with nine satellites. Credit: CASC

Nine small Chinese satellites, including a technology experiment to test out ways to capture space debris, rode a Long March 6 rocket into orbit April 27 on a rideshare mission managed by China Great Wall Industry Corp., the government-owned enterprise charged with selling Chinese launch services on the commercial market.

The fifth flight of a Long March 6 rocket lifted off from the Taiyuan space base in northern China’s Shanxi province at 0320 GMT April 27 (11:20 p.m. EDT April 26), according to China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., the state-owned prime contractor for the Chinese space program.

The contractor, known as CASC, said in a statement that the mission was a “complete success” after the Long March 6 rocket deployed nine satellites into their targeted orbit. Publicly-released tracking data from the U.S. military indicated the launch delivered its payloads to a polar orbit about 310 miles (500 kilometers) in altitude, with an inclination of 97.4 degrees to the equator.

Designed to loft relatively small satellites into orbit, the Long March 6 is one of China’s newer rockets. The Long March 6 stands about 95 feet (29 meters) tall, and can haul a payload of up to 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) to a sun-synchronous polar orbit a few hundred miles above Earth.

The Long March 6’s first stage is powered by a kerosene-fueled YF-100 main engine, a staged combustion powerplant Chinese engineers have worked on since 2000. The engine generates approximately 120 metric tons, or 264,000 pounds, of thrust. A YF-115 engine provides propulsion for the Long March 6 second stage.

The YF-100 and YF-115 engines are also used on China’s heavier-duty Long March 5 and Long March 7 rockets. The Long March 6’s third stage uses liquid-fueled thrusters for final orbital injection maneuvers before payload separation.

The payloads aboard the Long March 6 launch this week included two Earth observation satellites owned Shandong Institutes of Industrial Technology. The Qilu 1 and Qilu 4 spacecraft are designed for radar and optical imaging, respectively.

Qilu 1 will obtain all-weather remote sensing images of sites around the world, and also verify technologies for autonomous mission planning, on-orbit image processing, and inter-satellite laser communications, according to CASC. Qilu 4 will collect high-resolution optical imagery, aiding urban planning, agriculture, forestry, energy, and disaster mitigation efforts in Shandong province of northeast China.

Another small satellite, named Foshan 1, is an optical Earth observation test out an “ultra-lightweight camera design,” CASC said. Foshan 1 was developed by Cultivate Space Technology Co. for Jihua Laboratory.

Two more optical remote sensing satellites, Hangsheng 1 and Taijing 2-01, were developed by Hunan Hangsheng Satellite Technology Co., Ltd. and Beijing MinoSpace Technology Co., Ltd., according to CASC.

The NEO 1 spacecraft for a Chinese company named Origin Space will perform experiments aimed at validating technologies, such as a net, that might be used on future missions to capture and remove space junk from Earth orbit. The NEO 1 satellite will also observe small celestial bodies, presumably asteroids, CGWIC said in a press release.

The Tianqi 9 satellite that launched on the Long March 6 rocket joins a fleet of orbiting data relay stations designed for Internet of Things services. The Tianqi constellation is owned by Guodian Gaoke, a Beijing-based company.

The other two spacecraft on the Long March 6 launch were the Golden Bauhinia 1-01 and Golden Bauhinia 1-02 satellites. Both are remote sensing satellites developed by Beijing ZeroG Space Technology Co., Ltd.

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Crew Dragon return postponed again by poor weather

April 30th 2021 at 09:35

EDITOR’S NOTE: Updated at 4 p.m. EDT (2000 GMT) with new undocking and splashdown times.

NASA astronaut Shannon Walker, pilot Victor Glover, Crew-1 commander Mike Hopkins, and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi on the International Space Station. Credit: ESA/NASA/Thomas Pesquet

The departure and return to Earth of a four-person space station crew on a SpaceX Dragon capsule has been postponed again by high winds in the splashdown zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

NASA and SpaceX officials announced the Crew Dragon is now scheduled to undock from the International Space Station at 8:35 p.m. EDT Saturday (0035 GMT Sunday) and head for a predawn splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida at 2:57 a.m. EDT (0657 GMT).

The Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft’s early morning return to Earth will mark just the third time in the history of spaceflight that a crew capsule has splashed down at night.

NASA’s Apollo 8 mission splashed down in the Pacific Ocean before sunrise Dec. 27, 1968, to conclude the first human voyage to orbit the moon.

On Oct. 16, 1976, the Soviet Union’s Soyuz 23 mission ended prematurely after a docking system failure. The capsule and its two cosmonauts descended under parachute in blizzard-like conditions. The strong winds blew the craft toward a splashdown in the frozen waters of Lake Tengiz in Kazakhstan, where they awaited rescue the next day.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft with NASA Crew-1 commander Mike Hopkins, pilot Victor Glover, Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, and outgoing International Space Station commander Shannon Walker was originally supposed to come back to Earth on Wednesday.

NASA announced earlier this week that high winds in the Gulf of Mexico exceeded the Crew Dragon capsule’s limits for a safe splashdown, and rescheduled the ship’s undocking from the space station for 5:55 p.m. EDT (2155 GMT) Friday, setting up for a landing at sea Saturday around 11:36 a.m. EDT (1536 GMT).

The space agency said late Thursday that wind conditions in the Gulf of Mexico remained unfavorable for the return of the Crew-1 mission. NASA officials announce the new undocking and splashdown times Friday.

“Crew Dragon is in great health on the space station, and teams now forecast ideal conditions for both splashdown and recovery during the weekend,” NASA said Friday.

Earlier this week, Walker handed over command of the space station’s Expedition 65 crew to Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, who arrived at the orbiting outpost April 24 with crewmates Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur, and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet on a different Crew Dragon capsule.

Hoshide, Kimbrough, McArthur, and Pesquet — flying on the Crew-2 mission — plan to stay on the space station until late October.

The Crew-1 mission set to wrap up in the coming days is the first “operational” flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, following a two-month test flight with a two-man crew last year. It’s also the first Crew Dragon flight with a duration approaching the capsule’s certification limit of 210 days.

Hopkins and his crewmates launched Nov. 15 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on the Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft during a port relocation maneuver outside the International Space Station on April 5. Credit: NASA

The automated departure maneuvers will carry the Dragon spacecraft a safe distance away from the space station, setting the stage for a retrograde braking burn to allow the ship to drop out of orbit for a scorching re-entry back into the atmosphere Saturday.

After descending to the sea under four parachutes, the astronauts will be helped out of their spaceship by SpaceX recovery teams. They will undergo preliminary medical checks before returning to shore by helicopter, then the crew will travel by airplane to their home base at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The extended Crew-1 mission means the International Space Station has hosted an expanded crew of 11 astronauts and cosmonauts for a few extra days. The international crew represents four nations: the United States, Russia, Japan, and France.

Joel Montalbano, NASA’s space station manager, said earlier this month that the space station’s life support systems could support the 11 residents for up to 20 days, if necessary. The limitations include the station’s oxygen generator and carbon dioxide removal system, he said.

The record number of crew members on the space station is 13 astronauts, a staffing level last reached in 2011 during a space shuttle visit.

“We have to fly some additional consumables for the extra crew members,” Montalbano said. “Of course, you have to look at sleeping arrangements. We’ll have some temporary sleeping arrangements for the crew members because we’ll have so many people.”

Some of the astronauts planned to sleep inside their Crew Dragon capsules, which serve as lifeboats during long-term stays at the space station.

SpaceX and NASA have seven Crew Dragon splashdown zones available off the coast of Florida, with locations in the Gulf of Mexico near Pensacola, Panama City, Tallahassee, and Tampa. Three sites in the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Cape Canaveral, east of Daytona beach, and northeast of Jacksonville are also options.

The weather criteria for splashdown of a Crew Dragon spacecraft include wind speeds no greater than 12 mph, or about 10.5 knots. Managers also want the right mix of wave heights and wave periods, and a low probability of lightning.

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“Big relief” as Europe’s Vega rocket returns to service with successful launch

April 29th 2021 at 00:55
A four-stage Vega launcher blasts off from French Guiana on Wednesday night. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace – Photo Optique Video du CSG – JM Guillon

A European Vega rocket deployed six commercial satellites in orbit, including a new Airbus-built eye-in-the-sky for high-resolution Earth-imaging, on a successful launch from French Guiana on Wednesday night after two of the last three Vega missions failed.

The 98-foot-tall (30-meter) Vega rocket fired off its launch mount at the Guiana Space Center in South America at 9:50:47 p.m. EDT Wednesday (0150:47 GMT Thursday) and rapidly climbed through the atmosphere, exceeding the speed of sound in just 31 seconds.

Heading north over the Atlantic Ocean, the Vega rocket’s first stage booster consumed its pre-packed solid propellant in two minutes, then jettisoned as the second stage’s solid-fueled motor ignited to continue the ascent into space. A third stage solid motor later ignited, then a hydrazine-fed reignitable fourth stage engine fired to precisely place the mission’s six satellite payloads into two distinct orbits.

The fourth stage deployed Airbus’s Pléiades Neo 3 remote sensing satellite into a polar orbit about 54 minutes after liftoff. After separating from the rocket at an altitude of 392 miles (632 kilometers), the Pléiades Neo 3 spacecraft unfurled its two fan-shaped solar arrays and contacted ground controllers at Airbus’s operations center in Toulouse, France.

Two more brief firings of the upper stage moved the rocket to a slightly lower altitude for separation of five small secondary payloads for commercial customers in the United States, France, and Norway.

Arianespace, the French launch services company that oversees Vega flights, declared the mission a success.

“A successful mission tonight, and especially a big relief,”  said Daniel Neuenschwander, director of space transportation at the European Space Agency, which participated in the recent Vega failure investigations in its role as qualification authority for the rocket program.

The launch is crucial for Arianespace, the French launch services firm that oversees Vega launches, and Italy-based Vega prime contractor Avio. Two of the last three Vega rockets have failed to place their payloads into orbit, for different reasons.

A Vega launcher climbs away from the Guiana Space Center on Wednesday night. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace – Photo Optique Video du CSG

After 14 straight successful flight since its debut launch, a Vega rocket lost control about two minutes after liftoff in July 2019 with the Falcon Eye 1 military surveillance satellite for the United Arab Emirates. The launcher and payload crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

Investigators traced the cause of the accident to a “thermo-structural failure” on the forward dome of the Vega rocket’s solid-fueled second stage, allowing hot gas to damage the motor’s casing and leading to the in-flight breakup of the launch vehicle.

Engineers beefed up thermal insulation and improved quality control checks, and the next Vega launch in September 2020 successfully placed 53 small commercial and government satellites into orbit, a record number of payloads on a single Arianespace mission.

But failure struck again on the next Vega launch Nov. 16.

Engineers determined a problem on the rocket’s liquid-fueled fourth stage caused the loss of the Spanish SEOSAT-Ingenio Earth observation satellite and the French space agency’s Taranis research satellite.

Officials concluded that cables leading to thrust vector control actuators on the Vega’s Attitude and Vernier Upper Module, or AVUM, were inverted, a mistake from the assembly of the upper stage engine. The thrust vector control system pivots the upper stage engine nozzle to direct thrust, allowing the rocket to control its orientation and steering.

Quality control checks before the launch missed the cable installation error, which caused the engine to move its nozzle in the wrong direction in response to commands from the rocket’s guidance system. That resulted in the rocket losing control and tumbling just after ignition of the upper stage engine around eight minutes after launch with the SEOSAT-Ingenio and Taranis satellites.

“We really went through highs and lows in the past years with Vega,” Neuenschwander said. “First of all, 14 successes in a row. It was great. Then a mishap with VV15, back to success with VV16, where we had a proof of concept of the Small Spacecraft Mission Service, which was really a proof of concept and which showed that we can address new markets with existing products.”

The SSMS multi-payload adapter structure flew again on Wednesday night’s mission to accommodate five rideshare payloads mounted below the Pléiades Neo 3 inside the Vega rocket’s payload fairing.

“We are definitely now on a good path, and let’s make it now a sustainable path,” Neuenschwander said.

Officials from Arianespace and the European Space Agency stressed last year that the failure on the Nov. 16 launch was attributable to human error, and not a design fault like the one that caused the July 2019 launch mishap.

Misleading instructions and inadequate preflight checks caused teams to overlook wrongly-installed cables on the launcher’s upper stage steering system, officials said.

Managers ordered additional inspections of already-built rocket components to ensure they are free of the problem that caused the failure in November, clearing the way for a resumption of Vega missions.

Giulio Ranzo, CEO of Italy-based Avio, said he felt “a lot of relief” after Wednesday’s launch success.

“We have gone through a very intense effort over the last five months, checking, re-checking, and re-re-checking everything on the launcher to get ready for flight,” Ranzo said. “Of course, it has been quite emotional to come back to flight and to perform well.”

The Vega rocket debuted a new telemetry transmitter to beam flight data to ground teams via NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System. The capability is common to U.S. launch vehicles but new to European rockets, eliminating long stretches of communications outages as the launcher flies between ground stations.

Arianespace has found success in selling Vega launches to ESA and the European Commission, which owns Europe’s fleet of Copernicus environmental satellites. National space agencies across Europe and in other parts of the world have also purchased rides on Vega rocket for their small satellites.

Startups and other commercial satellite operators have also secured slots on Vega rideshare missions, including the launch set to blast off Wednesday night.

The Vega rocket can deliver about 3,300 pounds (1.5 metric tons) of payload to a 435-mile-high (700-kilometer) sun-synchronous orbit.

An upgraded version called the Vega C will feature larger first and second stage motors, plus a widened payload berth, increasing the rocket’s payload carrying capacity to about 4,850 pounds (2.2 metric tons) to the same orbit. The first Vega C launch is now scheduled for early 2022.

The Pléiades Neo 3 spacecraft launched Wednesday night will improve on Airbus’s first-generation Pléiades Earth observation satellites launched in 2011 and 2012.

The next Vega launch — expected in July — will carry the identical Pléiades Neo 4 satellite into orbit, and a Vega C launch in 2022 will loft the final two Pléiades Neo payloads on a single mission, taking advantage of the new rocket’s increased carrying capacity.

Artist’s concept of a Pléiades Neo satellite. Credit: Airbus

Airbus says it entirely funded the development of the Pléiades Neo satellites, with intentions to sell the imagery commercially to private companies and government users. The company assembled the spacecraft at its facility in Toulouse, France.

“The launch of this first Pléiades Neo satellite will pave the way to new services and great opportunities for our customers, thanks to its high accuracy and increased reactivity. The Pléiades Neo constellation will definitively boost the 30cm (11.8-inch) imagery market, bringing a lot of innovation and coverage capacity to the commercial and governmental end-users,“ said François Lombard, head of intelligence at Airbus Defence and Space.

The imaging resolution of Airbus’s four Pléiades Neo satellites is comparable to the resolution provided by Maxar’s six-satellite WorldView Legion surveillance satellites due to begin launching later this year. The companies are competitors, providing the highest-resolution Earth observation imagery on the global commercial market.

With the help of laser inter-satellite communications links, the Pléiades Neo satellites will be able to respond rapidly to tasking requests within 30 to 40 minutes, according to Airbus.

The five rideshare payloads on Wednesday night’s mission included Norsat 3, a 35-pound (16-kilogram) Norwegian Space Agency satellite that fuses an experimental on-board radar detector with a Automatic Identification System receiver to track maritime ship traffic.

There was also a briefcase-sized satellite built by NanoAvionics integrated with a radio frequency characterization payload from Denver-based startup Aurora Insight. The new Bravo satellite joins the identical Charlie smallsat that flew into orbit on a SpaceX rideshare mission in January.

Two commercial CubeSats — also about the size of a briefcase — were deployed from the Vega launcher to join Spire’s ship tracking and commercial weather data collection fleet.

There was also a small pathfinder satellite on the Vega rocket for Eutelsat’s planned constellation of narrowband data relay satellites. The ELO Alpha spacecraft, built by California-based Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, will allow Eutelsat to gauge how low Earth orbit satellites might augment services provided by the company’s large geostationary communications satellites.

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SpaceX launches 60 more Starlink spacecraft; FCC clears SpaceX to fly satellites at lower altitudes

April 29th 2021 at 05:39

SpaceX deployed 60 more Starlink internet-beaming spacecraft into orbit after a fiery late-night blastoff of a Falcon 9 rocket Wednesday night from Cape Canaveral, surpassing the 1,500-satellite mark since Starlink launches began. Another Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to haul the next batch of Starlink satellites to space next week.

The launch of the newest 60 Starlink satellites came soon after the Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday approved a SpaceX request to fly the rest of the company’s near-term Starlink spacecraft at lower altitudes.

SpaceX deployed the 60 quarter-ton Starlink satellites about an hour after they lifted off from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Station at 11:44 p.m. EDT Wednesday (0344 GMT) Thursday.

The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 rocket soared into a clear night sky over Florida’s Space Coast, blazing a trail to the northeast over the Atlantic Ocean to align with the Starlink network’s orbital geometry. Nine kerosene-fed Merlin 1D engines on the Falcon 9’s first stage booster produced 1.7 million pounds of thrust in the first two-and-a-half minutes of flight.

Then the Falcon 9’s booster shut down and separated, beginning maneuvers aided by cold gas thrusters, grid fins, and engine retro-burns to land on SpaceX’s drone ship “Just Read the Instructions” in the Atlantic Ocean a few hundred miles east of Charleston, South Carolina.

The reusable booster’s on-target landing concluded the rocket’s seventh trip to space and back since debuting last June. It was the 81st successful recovery of a Falcon rocket booster since SpaceX’s first rocket landing in 2015.

The Falcon 9 rocket’s second stage engine continued the mission into orbit, delivering the 60 Starlink payloads to a preliminary parking orbit less than 10 minutes into the mission. After soaring across the Atlantic, traversing Europe and the Middle East, and flying over the Indian Ocean, the second stage’s single Merlin engine reignited for a brief one-second firing to nudge the Starlink satellites into the proper orbit for separation.

The stack of 60 Starlink satellites, which weighed some 34,400 pounds (15.6 metric tons) on the launch pad, flew free of the rocket at 12:49 a.m. EDT (0449 GMT), wrapping up SpaceX’s 115th Falcon 9 launch since 2010, and the 12th this year.

SpaceX is gearing up for another launch next week carrying the next group of Starlink satellites. A Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled for liftoff from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center next Tuesday, May 4, at 3:01 p.m. EDT (1901 GMT).

A Falcon 9 rocket climbs away from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station with 60 more Starlink internet satellites. Credit: SpaceX

The flat-panel satellites, built on SpaceX’s Starlink assembly line in Redmond, Washington, will unfurl their solar panels and switch on krypton ion thrusters to begin raising their orbits from their deployment altitude of 180 miles (291 kilometers) to join the rest of the Starlink constellation at 341 miles (550 kilometers) above Earth.

With this launch, SpaceX has delivered 1,505 Starlink satellites to space, including prototypes and failed spacecraft that have dropped out of orbit and burned up in the atmosphere. Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer and expert tracker of spaceflight activity, says 1,374 Starlink satellites are currently in orbit, not counting the 60 spacecraft launched Wednesday night.

The Federal Communications Commission has authorized SpaceX to deploy some 12,000 Starlink satellites operating at Ku-band, Ka-band, and V-band frequencies, and at a range of altitudes and inclinations in low Earth orbit. The satellites are already beaming low-latency, broadband signals to users who have signed up for Starlink beta testing.

The FCC announced Tuesday it had granted a request by SpaceX to modify the structure of its Starlink fleet.

So far, nearly all of the Starlink satellites launched by SpaceX operate in 341-mile-high orbits tilted at an inclination of 53 degrees to the equator.

“We do have global reach but we don’t have full connectivity globally,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, at an industry conference earlier this month. “We hope after about 28 launches, we’ll have continuous coverage throughout the globe. And then the plan after that is to continue to add satellites to provide additional capacity.”

The launch Wednesday night was the 24th Falcon 9 flight dedicated to hauling operational Starlink satellites, known as Version 1.0, into orbit, and the 27th Falcon 9 mission overall with Starlink payloads on-board.

Last April, SpaceX requested approval from the FCC to operate its Starlink satellites at lower altitudes than initially planned, all between 335 miles (540 kilometers) and 354 miles (570 kilometers).

SpaceX said the change in altitude would reduce latency of internet signals and allow the company to build out its network more quickly. The company pitched the proposed change as also enabling improved internet connectivity over polar regions, a capability desired by the U.S. military, and reducing the risk that dead or failed satellites might become a long-term source of space junk.

A Falcon 9 rocket heads downrange from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Wednesday night. Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

Starlink competitors, such as Viasat and representatives from Amazon’s planned Kuiper network, objected to SpaceX’s request to fly its satellites at lower altitudes. The companies claimed the change would increase the Starlink fleet’s interference with other spacecraft, and create more congestion at an already-populated orbital altitude, or shell.

The FCC dismissed the objectives, ruling that the changes proposed by SpaceX served the public interest.

“Our action will allow SpaceX to implement safety-focused changes to the deployment of its satellite constellation to deliver broadband service throughout the United States, including to those who live in areas underserved or unserved by terrestrial systems,” the FCC wrote in its ruling.

With the commission’s approval, SpaceX will now operate its first 4,408 satellites at altitudes between 335 miles and 354 miles, instead of flying more than 2,800 of the spacecraft in orbits as high as 800 miles, or 1,300 kilometers, above Earth.

SpaceX officials and astronomy groups said the placement of Starlink satellites in lower orbits reduces their impacts on ground-based telescopic observations. SpaceX has darkened the coatings on its satellites after scientists complained that sunlight reflected off the spacecraft surfaces might ruin some astronomical research.

The FCC approval clears the way for SpaceX to start launching more Starlink satellites into polar orbit later this year. The polar orbiting satellites will give the Starlink network complete global coverage.

The updated Starlink network architecture has 1,584 satellites at 341 miles (550 kilometers) altitude and an inclination of 53 degrees, 1,584 satellites at 335 miles (540 kilometers) and an inclination of 53.2 degrees, 720 satellites at 354 miles (570 kilometers) and an inclination of 70 degrees, and 520 satellites at 348 miles (560 kilometers) and an inclination of 97.6 degrees.

SpaceX still has regulatory authorization to launch more than 7,000 additional Starlink satellites beyond the 4,408 spacecraft covered in the recent FCC approval.

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Live coverage: Arianespace launches Vega rocket from French Guiana

April 28th 2021 at 19:50

Live coverage of the countdown and launch of a Vega rocket with Airbus’s Pléiades Neo 3 commercial Earth observation satellite and five secondary payloads. Text updates will appear automatically below. Follow us on Twitter.

Arianespace’s live video webcast begins at approximately 0135 GMT (9:35 p.m. EDT), and will be available on this page.

Vega rocket’s return-to-flight launch set for Wednesday night

April 28th 2021 at 18:50
The payload shroud containing six satellites set for launch on a European Vega rocket Wednesday night. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace – Photo Optique Video du CSG – G. Barbaste

Six satellites are set to ride a light-class European Vega rocket into orbit from French Guiana on Wednesday night, the first Vega launch since a failure last year that officials attributed to human error.

The prime payload on the four-stage Vega launcher is Pléiades Neo 3, a high-resolution Earth-imaging satellite built and owned by Airbus. Pléiades Neo 3 is the first of four French-built next-generation Pléiades with sharp eyes and the ability to rapidly beam their reconnaissance imagery back to military, scientific, and commercial customers.

Five smaller payloads for the Norwegian Space Agency, NanoAvionics, Spire, and Eutelsat will accompany Pléiades Neo 3 into orbit on top of the Vega launcher.

Liftoff from the European-run Guiana Space Center is set for 9:50:47 p.m. EDT Wednesday (10:50:47 p.m. local time), or 0150 GMT Thursday. It will be the 18th flight of a Vega rocket since 2012, and the first launch from the equatorial spaceport in South America this year.

The launch is crucial for Arianespace, the French launch services firm that oversees Vega launches, and Italy-based Vega prime contractor Avio. Two of the last three Vega rockets have failed to place their payloads into orbit, for different reasons.

After 14 straight successful flight since its debut launch, a Vega rocket lost control about two minutes after liftoff in July 2019 with the Falcon Eye 1 military surveillance satellite for the United Arab Emirates. The launcher and payload crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

Investigators traced the cause of the accident to a “thermo-structural failure” on the forward dome of the Vega rocket’s solid-fueled second stage, allowing hot gas to damage the motor’s casing and leading to the in-flight breakup of the launch vehicle.

Engineers beefed up thermal insulation and improved quality control checks, and the next Vega launch in September 2020 successfully placed 53 small commercial and government satellites into orbit, a record number of payloads on a single Arianespace mission.

But failure struck again on the next Vega launch Nov. 16.

Engineers determined a problem on the rocket’s liquid-fueled fourth stage caused the loss of the Spanish SEOSAT-Ingenio Earth observation satellite and the French space agency’s Taranis research satellite.

Officials concluded that cables leading to thrust vector control actuators on the Vega’s Attitude and Vernier Upper Module, or AVUM, were inverted, a mistake from the assembly of the upper stage engine. The thrust vector control system pivots the upper stage engine nozzle to direct thrust, allowing the rocket to control its orientation and steering.

Quality control checks before the launch missed the cable installation error, which caused the engine to move its nozzle in the wrong direction in response to commands from the rocket’s guidance system. That resulted in the rocket losing control and tumbling just after ignition of the upper stage engine around eight minutes after launch with the SEOSAT-Ingenio and Taranis satellites.

A Vega launcher stands on its launch pad in French Guiana last year. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace – Photo Optique Video du CSG – P. Piron

Officials from Arianespace and the European Space Agency, which led the failure investigation, stressed last year that the failure on the Nov. 16 launch was attributable to human error, and not a design fault like the one that caused the July 2019 launch mishap.

Misleading instructions and inadequate preflight checks caused teams to overlook wrongly-installed cables on the launcher’s upper stage steering system, officials said.

Managers ordered additional inspections of already-built rocket components to ensure they are free of the problem that caused the failure in November, clearing the way for a resumption of Vega missions.

Arianespace has found success in selling Vega launches to ESA and the European Commission, which owns Europe’s fleet of Copernicus environmental satellites. National space agencies across Europe and in other parts of the world have also purchased rides on Vega rocket for their small satellites.

Startups and other commercial satellite operators have also secured slots on Vega rideshare missions, including the launch set to blast off Wednesday night.

The Vega rocket stands about 98 feet (30 meters) tall and is capable of delivering about 3,300 pounds (1.5 metric tons) of payload to a 435-mile-high (700-kilometer) sun-synchronous orbit.

An upgraded version called the Vega C will feature larger first and second stage motors, plus a widened payload berth, increasing the rocket’s payload carrying capacity to about 4,850 pounds (2.2 metric tons) to the same orbit. The first Vega C launch is now scheduled for early 2022.

The Pléiades Neo 3 satellite and five secondary payloads are encapsulated inside the Vega rocket’s payload fairing in French Guiana. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace – Photo Optique Video du CSG – G. Barbaste

The Vega rocket flying Wednesday night will blast off from the Guiana Space Center and head north over the Atlantic Ocean, targeting a polar orbit with its six satellite payloads.

The rocket’s three solid-fueled boost stages will fire and burn out in succession in the first six minutes of the mission, leaving the AVUM upper stage’s hydrazine-fed engine to maneuver the six satellites into orbit.

A first firing by the AVUM engine will cut off about 16 minutes after liftoff, and the rocket will coast over the North Pole and head south on the other side of the world before reigniting at Plus+52 minutes.

That will set the stage for deployment of the 2,028-pound (920-kilogram) Pléiades Neo 3 satellite at Plus+54 minutes, 29 seconds. The rocket will aim to release Pléiades Neo 3 into a 390-mile-high (628-kilometer) sun-synchronous orbit with an inclination of 97.89 degrees to the equator.

Two more AVUM engine burns will reduce the rocket’s altitude to 380 miles (613 kilometers) and adjust its inclination to 97.79 degrees before deployment of the remaining five satellites at T+plus 1 hour, 41 minutes.

The Pléiades Neo 3 spacecraft will improve on Airbus’s first-generation Pléiades Earth observation satellites launched in 2011 and 2012. Another Vega launch later this year will carry the Pléiades Neo 4 satellite into orbit, and a Vega C launch in 2022 will loft the final two Pléiades Neo payloads on a single mission, taking advantage of the new rocket’s increased capabilities.

Airbus says it entirely funded the development of the Pléiades Neo satellites, with intentions to sell the imagery commercially to private companies and government users. The company assembled the spacecraft at its facility in Toulouse, France.

“Pléiades Neo is a game changer for Airbus and its geo-intelligence customers,” said Jean-Marc Nasr, head of space systems at Airbus. “Thanks to our disruptive and bold investments we can offer a state of the art constellation delivering 30cm (11.8-inch) resolution imagery in near real-time, opening up a completely new range of applications to give our customers more detail, more quickly.”

The imaging resolution of Airbus’s four Pléiades Neo satellites is comparable to the resolution provided by Maxar’s six-satellite WorldView Legion surveillance satellites due to begin launching later this year. The companies are competitors, providing the highest-resolution Earth observation imagery on the global commercial market.

With the help of laser inter-satellite communications links, the Pléiades Neo satellites will be able to respond rapidly to tasking requests within 30 to 40 minutes, according to Airbus.

The five rideshare payloads on Wednesday night’s mission are mounted to a fixture below the Pléiades Neo 3 satellite inside the Vega rocket’s Swiss-made payload fairing.

They include Norsat 3, a 35-pound (16-kilogram) Norwegian Space Agency satellite that fuses an experimental on-board radar detector with a Automatic Identification System receiver to track maritime ship traffic.

There is also a briefcase-sized satellite built by NanoAvionics integrated with a radio frequency characterization payload from Denver-based startup Aurora Insight. The Bravo satellite, set for launch on the Vega rocket, joins the identical Charlie smallsat that flew into orbit on a SpaceX rideshare mission in January.

Two commercial CubeSats — also about the size of a briefcase — are on-board to join Spire’s ship tracking and commercial weather data collection fleet.

There’s also a small pathfinder satellite on the Vega rocket for Eutelsat’s planned constellation of narrowband data relay satellites. The ELO Alpha spacecraft, built by California-based Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, will allow Eutelsat to gauge how low Earth orbit satellites might augment services provided by the company’s large geostationary communications satellites.

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Live coverage: SpaceX launches 60 more Starlink satellites

April 28th 2021 at 17:13

Live coverage of the countdown and launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The mission will launch SpaceX’s next batch of 60 Starlink broadband satellites. Text updates will appear automatically below. Follow us on Twitter.

SpaceX webcast

Live view of pad 40

SpaceX mission audio

SpaceX’s live webcast will be available on this page beginning around 15 minutes before launch.

SpaceX to resume Starlink flights, stretching reused Falcon rockets to their limits

April 27th 2021 at 17:41
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket stands on pad 40 Tuesday at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The scorched first stage booster has flown to space and back six times. Credit: Steven Young / Spaceflight Now

SpaceX aims to resume launching satellites for its Starlink internet network with the liftoff of a Falcon 9 rocket Wednesday night at Cape Canaveral, and company founder Elon Musk says SpaceX will use the sizeable backlog of Starlink missions to keep pushing the envelope and find the Falcon booster’s reuse life limit.

“There doesn’t seem to be any obvious limit to the reusability of the vehicle,” Musk told Spaceflight Now in a press conference Friday after the launch of SpaceX’s third crewed flight to the International Space Station.

The launch Friday of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endeavour spaceship from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center marked the first time the company sent astronauts into space on a reused Falcon 9 booster and and a refurbished crew capsule. NASA engineers formally certified the Falcon 9’s previously-flown first stage to carry astronauts, after more than 50 successful SpaceX reused Falcon rocket flights since 2017.

“You probably don’t want to be on a life leader for a crewed mission, but it’s probably good to have a flight or two under its belt, for the booster to have flown once or twice,” Musk said. “If it was an aircraft coming out of the factory, you’d want the aircraft to probably have gone through a test flight or two before you put passengers on.

“So I think that’s probably a couple of flights is a good number for a crew booster, and in the meantime, we’ll keep flying the life leader,” Musk said. “We’ve got nine flights on one of the boosters. We’re going to have a 10th flight soon with a Starlink mission.”

After a brief pause in Starlink launches to focus on the Crew Dragon mission, SpaceX is poised to send another 60 internet satellites into orbit with a late-night blastoff Wednesday from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The booster on Wednesday’s night’s mission — tail number B1060 — has flown six times since last June.

The instantaneous launch opportunity Wednesday is set for 11:44 p.m. EDT (0344 GMT Thursday). Another Falcon 9 launch with the next batch of Starlink satellites is scheduled as soon as next week from pad 39A from the Kennedy Space Center.

With Wednesday’s launch, SpaceX will have delivered 1,505 Starlink satellites to space, including prototypes and failed spacecraft that have dropped out of orbit and burned up in the atmosphere. Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer and expert tracker of spaceflight activity, says 1,374 Starlink satellites are currently in orbit, with the next 60 launching Wednesday.

The Federal Communications Commission has authorized SpaceX to deploy some 12,000 Starlink satellites operating at Ku-band, Ka-band, and V-band frequencies, and at a range of altitudes and inclinations in low Earth orbit. The satellites are already beaming low-latency, broadband signals to users who have signed up for Starlink beta testing.

SpaceX officials have previously said the most recent version of the Falcon 9 booster can make 10 flights with only inspections and minor refurbishment in between missions. With an overhaul, the Falcon 9 boosters could fly 100 missions, SpaceX said when the new Block 5 booster design debuted in 2018.

Musk said Friday that SpaceX plans to keep reusing Falcon 9 boosters until they break, likely exceeding the 10-flight milestone.

“We do intend to fly the Falcon 9 booster until we see some kind of a failure with the Starlink missions, obviously, just to have that be a life leader,” Musk said.

File photo of a Falcon 9 booster returning to Port Canaveral in June 2020. Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

SpaceX has been using its fleet of Falcon 9 boosters to launch Starlink missions at an average pace of more than twice per month so far this year. On some of those missions, SpaceX has used reused first stages that set new records for their number of flights.

The most-flown Falcon 9 booster currently in SpaceX’s inventory has logged nine launches and landings, either onshore or on the company’s floating ocean-going drone ship, depending on mission requirements.

Last year, a SpaceX manager said it costs less than $30 million to fly a Falcon 9 rocket with reused parts, such as the booster and payload fairing, the clamshell-like aero-structure that protects sensitive satellite payloads during the climb through the atmosphere.

Although SpaceX has proven it can safely reuse first stages, payload shrouds, and Dragon capsules, the Falcon 9 rocket’s upper stage remains a single-use component. None of SpaceX’s competitors in the commercial launch industry have successfully re-flown an orbital-class booster. Some companies, like Blue Origin and Rocket Lab, plan to eventually recover and reuse their rocket boosters.

Repeating a mantra he’s consistently said for decades, Musk said last week that reusing rockets is a “fundamental holy grail breakthrough” needed to revolutionize access to space.

“To make humanity a truly space-faring civilization, we must have a fully and rapidly reusable rocket,” Musk said in a webcast Thursday hosted by the X Prize Foundation. “We’ve made some progress in that direction with Falcon 9, where the booster is reusable, and the Dragon spacecraft — the upper portion — is reusable. But the Falcon 9’s second stage and Dragon’s unpressurized trunk are not reusable.

“And I would not say the Falcon booster, spacecraft, and fairing, they aren’t rapidly reusable,” Musk said. “It takes a fair bit of effort, much less effort than the space shuttle took.”

He said SpaceX refurbishment teams at Cape Canaveral can reduce the turnaround time between Falcon 9 booster flights to less than a month.

“But landing out to sea, and then having to bring it back, and then taking a month or so to get it ready for launch, I wouldn’t call that rapid by aircraft standards,” Musk said.

Sixty Starlink satellites prepare for deployment from a Falcon 9 rocket upper stage during a launch last month. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX’s next-generation Starship vehicle is designed to be fully and rapidly reusable, further driving down launch costs, according to Musk.

The first stage booster, known as the Super Heavy, will land back on the ground minutes after launch, similar to the profile pioneered by the Falcon 9 rocket. The Starship will propel itself into Earth orbit, and eventually to destinations in deep space, then re-enter the atmosphere at the end of its mission for a vertical rocket-assisted landing.

The entire Starship rocket stack will stand nearly 400 feet (120 meters) tall, with 28 methane-fueled Raptor engines on the first stage and six more Raptor powerplants on the Starship upper stage.

NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract April 16 to develop a derivative of the Starship vehicle to land the next astronauts on the Moon through the agency’s Artemis exploration program.

A NASA-owned Orion crew capsule launched on top of the space agency’s powerful Space Launch System rocket will transport the astronauts between the Earth and lunar orbit, where the crew will dock with the waiting unoccupied Starship to head to the surface of the Moon.

Under NASA’s flight plans, the Starship will launch the astronauts back into space to meet with the Orion capsule for return to Earth.

Despite using engines flown on NASA’s retired reusable space shuttles, each of NASA’s SLS rockets is designed for one flight. NASA plans to refurbish and reuse Orion crew capsules after splashing down at sea.

But the lunar mission is just part of SpaceX’s ambition for the Starship program. The rocket could launch massive clusters of small satellites, such as Starlink spacecraft, loft huge space telescopes, and carry large numbers of people to space. SpaceX says it can deliver payloads of more than 100 metric tons, or 220,000 pounds, or low Earth orbit.

“With Starship, we’ll hopefully reuse the whole thing,” Musk said. “This is a hard problem for rockets, that’s for sure. It’s taken us, we’re like 19 years in now. I think the Starship design can work. It’s just, it’s a hard thing to solve, and the support of NASA is very much appreciated in this regard. I think it’s going to work. I think it’s going to work.

“I’d say it’s only recently though that I feel that full and rapid reusability can be accomplished,” Musk said. “I wasn’t sure for a long time, but I am sure now.”

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Return of SpaceX crew capsule delayed by high winds

April 26th 2021 at 19:55
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft during a port relocation maneuver outside the International Space Station on April 5. Credit: NASA

High winds predicted off the coast of Florida this week will keep SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft and its four-person crew in orbit until Saturday, three days after their previously scheduled return to Earth from the International Space Station.

NASA announced Monday that the return of the Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft would be delayed.

The mission, known as Crew-1, was supposed to undock from the space station and re-enter the atmosphere Wednesday, targeting a parachute-assisted splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of the Florida Panhandle.

In a statement, NASA said its teams and SpaceX managers agreed to move the Crew-1 mission’s undocking and return to Earth after reviewing weather forecasts in the Crew Dragon splashdown zones off the Florida coast. Forecasters currently predict wind speeds above safety criteria for splashdown.

NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, and Japanese mission specialist Soichi Noguchi are now scheduled to wrap up their mission with a splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida, at 11:36 a.m. EDT (1536 GMT) Saturday.

The astronauts will board their Crew Dragon Resilience capsule Friday and close the hatch leading to the space station at about 3:50 p.m. EDT (1950 GMT) Friday. After a final check of forecast weather conditions in the splashdown zone, mission control will give a “go” for undocking of the Dragon capsule at 5:55 p.m. EDT (2155 GMT).

NASA said ground teams will continue monitoring weather conditions off the coast of Florida ahead of the Dragon spacecraft’s planned undocking Friday.

The automated departure maneuvers will carry the Dragon spacecraft a safe distance away from the space station, setting the stage for a retrograde braking burn to allow the ship to drop out of orbit for a scorching re-entry back into the atmosphere Saturday.

After descending to the sea under four parachutes, the astronauts will be helped out of their spaceship by SpaceX recovery teams. They will undergo preliminary medical checks before returning to shore by helicopter, then the crew will travel by airplane to their home base at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Assuming Hopkins and his crewmates come back to Earth on Saturday, they will be wrapping up 166 days off the planet since their Nov. 15 liftoff from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Approximate landing zone locations off the coast of Florida for the SpaceX Crew Dragon when it returns to Earth are pictured in this map. Credit: NASA

SpaceX and NASA have seven splashdown zones available off the coast of Florida, with locations in the Gulf of Mexico near Pensacola, Panama City, Tallahassee, and Tampa. Three sites in the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Cape Canaveral, east of Daytona beach, and northeast of Jacksonville are also options.

The weather criteria for splashdown of a Crew Dragon spacecraft include wind speeds no greater than 12 mph, or about 10.5 knots. Managers also want the right mix of wave heights and wave periods, and a low probability of lightning.

The Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft is in the final stretch of its first space mission. The Crew-1 flight is the first of six regular crew rotation missions to the International Space Station planned by SpaceX under a multibillion-dollar contract with NASA.

The Crew-1 astronauts are being replaced by four fresh crew members who docked at the space station Saturday aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft. The docking marked the first time two U.S. crew spaceships have been attached to the space station at the same time.

Crew-2 commander Shane Kimbrough, pilot Megan McArthur, Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, and European Space Agency mission specialist Thomas Pesquet will remain on the space station more than six months before the Crew-3 astronauts arrive at the space station in October.

Walker will hand over command of the space station’s Expedition 65 crew this week ahead of her return to Earth on the Crew Dragon Resilience capsule.

Crew-1 commander Mike Hopkins, Japanese mission specialist Soichi Noguchi, NASA astronaut Shannon Walker, and pilot Victor Glover on-board the International Space Station in February. Credit: NASA

The Crew-1 mission’s flight back to Earth will conclude a busy month of crew rotations at the space station.

On April 9, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with two Russian cosmonauts and one NASA astronaut. They replaced an outgoing crew of two Russians and one American, who landed on their Soyuz descent craft April 17.

Until the Crew-1 mission departs, the crew on the space station will have to be creative in finding sleeping quarters for the 11 astronauts and cosmonauts. The station has typically had six long-term crew members at a time, but the start of SpaceX crew missions allowed NASA to raise that to a full-time staff of seven.

The 11-person crew complement is the highest short-term staffing level on the space station since the penultimate space shuttle mission in 2011. The record number of crew members on the orbiting outpost at one time is 13 people, a level reached when shuttle astronauts joined long-term space station residents for one-to-two weeks at a time.

Joel Montalbano, NASA’s space station manager, said earlier this month that the space station’s life support systems could support the 11 residents for up to 20 days, if necessary. The limitations include the station’s oxygen generator and carbon dioxide removal system, he said.

“We have to fly some additional consumables for the extra crew members,” Montalbano said. “Of course, you have to look at sleeping arrangements. We’ll have some temporary sleeping arrangements for the crew members because we’ll have so many people.”

Some of the astronauts planned to sleep inside their Crew Dragon capsules, which serve as lifeboats during long-term stays at the space station.

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OneWeb adds 36 more satellites to internet network

April 26th 2021 at 00:21

A Soyuz rocket lifted off Sunday from Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East with 36 internet satellites built on Florida’s Space Coast for OneWeb, bringing the company’s fleet to 182 spacecraft, more than a quarter of the way to building out a constellation of nearly 650 orbiting relay nodes.

The 151-foot-tall (46-meter) Soyuz rocket climbed off its launch pad at Vostochny, Russia’s newest spaceport, with nearly million pounds of thrust. Arcing toward the north, the Soyuz-2.1b rocket dropped its four first stage boosters about two minutes after liftoff.

Live views from rocket-mounted cameras showed the boosters peeling away from the Soyuz core stage, followed moments later by separation of the payload shroud that protected the 36 OneWeb satellites during the initial ascent through the atmosphere.

Nearly five minutes into the mission, the Soyuz core stage shut down and jettisoned as the rocket’s third stage engine ignited. A Fregat upper stage separated and ignited about 10 minutes after liftoff to place the 36 OneWeb satellites into a preliminary transfer orbit. A second Fregat main engine burn an hour later injected the satellites into a targeted 279-mile-high (450-kilometer) orbit.

The satellites deployed from a dispenser four at a time, with the Fregat’s control thrusters firing between each separation to ensure proper spacing between the spacecraft. The Fregat upper stage released the final satellite quartet nearly four hours after launch.

Arianespace, which provides launch services for OneWeb, confirmed the successful separation of all 36 satellites from the Fregat stage.

“Congratulations to all the teams who made this latest mission from the Vostochny Cosmodrome a success,” said Stéphane Israël, CEO of Arianespace. “This launch again confirms Arianespace’s ability to deploy the OneWeb constellation through the use of three different Soyuz launch sites — in French Guiana, Kazakhstan and Russia.”

A Soyuz-2.1b rocket lifts off with 36 OneWeb satellites. Credit: Roscosmos

In a post-launch statement, OneWeb said its ground team acquired signals from all the satellites, confirming the spacecraft were alive and functioning after deployment in orbit.

Each spacecraft will deploy power-generating solar panels and switch on xenon-fueled plasma thrusters to reach an operational altitude of 745 miles (1,200 kilometers) in the coming months. The 36 satellites — each about the size of a mini-fridge — were built in Florida near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center by a joint venture between OneWeb and Airbus.

With Sunday’s launch, OneWeb’s fleet has 182 spacecraft of a planned constellation of 648 satellites relaying broadband internet signals around the world.

London-based OneWeb said the launch Sunday is the third of a set of five Soyuz missions that will enable the network to provide initial connectivity to users north of 50 degrees latitude. The five launches began in December — after OneWeb emerged from bankruptcy proceedings last year — followed by another Soyuz flight March 25. The next two OneWeb launches after Sunday are tentatively scheduled for May 27 and July 1 from Vostochny, according to Russian media reports.

“OneWeb’s ‘Five to 50’ programme aims to connect broadband data users in the northern hemisphere, with services covering the United Kingdom, Alaska, Northern Europe, Greenland, Iceland, the Arctic Seas and Canada,” OneWeb said in a statement. “Service will be ready to start by the end of year, with global service available in 2022.”

Four Soyuz launches for OneWeb are scheduled from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan later this year, each carrying more than 30 satellites.

The rapid-fire launch schedule follows the first three Soyuz/OneWeb launches in February 2019, February 2020, and March 2020. The launch Sunday was sixth of 19 dedicated Soyuz missions to build out OneWeb’s fleet.

“I want to sincerely thank OneWeb for its trust,” Israël said. “I am delighted that our company has contributed — for the sixth time — to this client’s ultimate ambition of providing Internet access to everyone, anywhere, at any time.”

Artist’s concept of a OneWeb satellite. Credit: OneWeb

OneWeb filed for bankruptcy last year after running into fundraising trouble. The UK government and the Indian mobile telecom operator Bharti Global purchased OneWeb, which is headquartered in London and has satellite operations centers in Britain and Virginia.

OneWeb bought the Soyuz launches from Arianespace, which oversees Soyuz flights from the Guiana Space Center in South America. Through its subsidiary Starsem, Arianespace also manages commercial Soyuz launch services from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and from Vostochny.

The busy string of launches planned by OneWeb is outpaced by only SpaceX, which is deploying a network of thousands of Starlink satellites to provide global internet services. Other companies, such as Amazon and Telesat, are developing their own satellite internet constellations, but neither has started deploying operational spacecraft. So far, SpaceX is closest to entering commercial service, followed by OneWeb.

The commercial ventures are designed to beam internet signals to underserved communities, commercial and military ships and aircraft, and other remote customers.

SpaceX’s early focus has been on the consumer broadband market, but the U.S. military has tested out Starlink services. OneWeb’s has emphasized selling services to governments and companies, and the company said it recently also demonstrated its internet connectivity to the U.S. military.

Using its own fleet of reusable Falcon 9 boosters, SpaceX has jumped far ahead of OneWeb in launching satellites. SpaceX has put up 1,445 Starlink satellites to date, including prototypes and failed spacecraft. The company says it has more than 1,300 active satellites in its constellation.

The design of SpaceX’s Starlink network, which flies closer to Earth, requires more satellites to provide global service than OneWeb’s fleet. SpaceX says placing its satellites at lower altitudes reduces the risk of the spacecraft becoming a long-term source of space junk.

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