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Live coverage: SpaceX counting down to overnight launch 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.

SpaceX webcast

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, he 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.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Large Chinese rocket tumbling toward toward unguided re-entry this weekend

May 7th 2021 at 19:20
A Long March 5B rocket lifts off with the Tianhe space station module. Credit: Xinhua

For the second time in a year, a large spent Chinese rocket stage intentionally left in orbit is heading for an unguided plunge back into Earth’s atmosphere Saturday or Sunday somewhere between 41.5 degrees north and south latitude.

The heavy-lift Long March 5B rocket stage took off April 28 with the Tianhe core module for China’s space station. The Long March 5B — one of the most powerful rockets in the world — tracked downrange to the southeast from the Wenchang launch base on Hainan Island, China’s southernmost province.

The launcher shed its four strap-on boosters about three minutes into the mission, but the two engines on the Long March 5B’s core stage continued firing for about eight minutes, doing all the work to place the 54.4-foot (16.6-meter) Tianhe space station module into orbit.

Most rockets have an upper stage to finish the job of deploying payloads into orbit. On those launchers, the first stage does not attain enough velocity to orbit the Earth. SpaceX recovers its first stages for reuse, while other launchers have booster stages that fall back to the ground hundreds of miles downrange from the launch site.

Many launch operators design their upper stages to reignite their engines at the end of their missions to guide the rockets to a controlled re-entry over a remote stretch of ocean. Rather than designing the huge Long March 5B core stage t0 remove itself from orbit using engines or thrusters, Chinese engineers left the rocket in space after finishing its mission.

The Long March 5B’s core stage has a mass of about 21.6 metric tons (23.8 tons) and measures about 98 feet (30 meters) long and 16 feet (5 meters) in diameter.

As of late Friday, the rocket was circling Earth in an orbit ranging in altitude between 92 miles and 145 miles (149-by-234 kilometers), according to U.S. military tracking data. The effects of aerodynamic drag from the upper layers of the atmosphere are gradually putting the brakes on the rocket’s velocity, which reduces the core stage’s altitude.

And the drag will only increase as the rocket gets closer to Earth. Some time Saturday or Sunday, the atmosphere will effectively capture the core stage when it no longer has the speed required to remain in orbit.

“The Long March 5B re-entry is unusual because during launch, the first stage of the rocket reached orbital velocity instead of falling downrange as is common practice,” the Aerospace Corp. said. “The empty rocket body is now in an elliptical orbit around Earth where it is being dragged toward an uncontrolled re-entry.”

The rocket will plunge back into atmosphere at nearly 17,000 mph (28,000 kilometers per hour), and most of the structure will burn up during re-entry. Friction generated from the rocket encountering air molecules will cause temperatures to build up to thousands of degrees.

But some fragments from the rocket could survive re-entry and fall back to Earth’s surface. While the rocket’s empty hydrogen and oxygen propellant tanks might burn up, denser components from the two main engines or strong pressure vessels could withstand the re-entry heating.

“The general rule of thumb is that 20–40% of the mass of a large object will reach the ground, but the exact number depends on the design of the object,” wrote Marlon Sorge, principal engineer at the Aerospace Corp.’s Center for Orbital and Re-entry Debris Studies. “In this case, we would expect about five to ten metric tons.

“Generally, for an upper stage, we see small and medium tanks survive more or less intact, and large engine components,” Sorge wrote. “The large tanks and the skin of this core stage are likely to come apart. We will also see lightweight material such as insulation fall out. The melting point of the materials used will make a difference in what remains.”

Exactly when and where the rocket will fall back into the atmosphere remained uncertain late Friday.

A forecast from the U.S. military’s 18th Space Control Squadron issued late Friday predicts the Long March 5B core stage will re-enter the atmosphere during a 12-hour period beginning around 11 p.m. EDT Saturday (0300 GMT Sunday).

The European Union’s Space Surveillance and Tracking Consortium said late Friday it expected re-entry of the Long March 5B between about 8:30 p.m. EDT Saturday and 8:30 a.m. EDT Sunday (0030-1230 GMT Sunday).

A map shows the expected ground tracks of the Long March 5B rocket’s core stage during the 12-hour re-entry window predicted by the European Union’s Space Surveillance and Tracking Consortium. Credit: EU SST Consortium

But uncontrolled re-entries are difficult to predict, and the forecast could change as ground-based radars continue tracking the Long March 5B rocket body in orbit. Changes in atmospheric drag and solar activity could move the time of re-entry earlier or later.

The error bars on the re-entry prediction will grow smaller as the time nears.

The rocket’s orbital track is inclined 41.5 degrees to the equator, meaning any debris from the rocket will fall in an area bounded by New York or Rome in the northern hemisphere, and Wellington, New Zealand, in the southern hemisphere.

“In this region, most part of the Earth surface is covered by ocean or uninhabited areas, so the statistical probability of an impact on the ground in populated areas is low,” the EU SST Consortium said. “These predictions however come with uncertainties as the object is uncontrolled, and a better estimation will only be possible a few hours before the actual re-entry.”

A one-minute error in predicting the re-entry time changes the location of potential falling debris by nearly 300 miles, or about 500 kilometers, according to the Aerospace Corp.

The consortium said the Long March 5B rocket stage is “one of the largest pieces of debris re-entering in the near past” and “deserves careful monitoring.”

“The probability that a piece of space debris will land on a city or a densely populated area is usually relatively small,” Sorge wrote. “What makes this re-entry particularly noteworthy is that it will occur between 41.5 deg N and 41.5 deg S latitudes, where the vast bulk of the world’s population lives.

“However, the statistical risk to any one person of being struck by falling space debris is so low that a colleague of mine jokes that if re-entry predictions put his house directly under the path, he’d go out with a camera and watch.”

The rocket’s plunge back to Earth this weekend is the second unguided re-entry of a massive Long March 5B core stage in less than a year.

The first launch of China’s Long March 5B rocket in May 2020 also left the core stage in orbit. The rocket dropped back into the atmosphere over the North Atlantic Ocean on May 11, 2020, minutes after a pass over the northern United States, including New York City.

Bits of wreckage from the Long March 5B rocket last year fell on Cote d’Ivoire, but no injuries were reported.

The Long March 5B core stage that re-entered the atmosphere last year was the most massive object to make an uncontrolled re-entry since the Soviet Union’s Salyut 7 space station in 1991, according to Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who tracks global satellite and launch activity.

The Long March 5B core stage is more massive than other notable satellites that have plunged unguided back into Earth’s atmosphere in the last decade, such as China’s Tiangong 1 space lab, Russia’s failed Phobos-Grunt Mars probe, and NASA’s UARS atmospheric research satellite. It’s about one-quarter the mass of NASA’s Skylab space station, which made headlines when it fell to Earth over Australia in 1979.

Dead satellites and old rocket stages regularly re-enter the atmosphere, but re-entering objects with masses of more than a few tons are rare.

Additional Long March 5B rockets are set to launch new modules next year to assemble China’s space station. Unless China changes the design of the rocket’s core stage, there will be more uncontrolled rocket re-entry events after those missions.

Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said in a press conference Friday that it is “common practice” for upper stages of rockets to burn up while re-entering the atmosphere. He later incorrectly referred to the Long March 5B rocket body as an upper stage, and said that “most of its parts will burn up upon re-entry, making the likelihood of damage to aviation or ground facilities and activities extremely low.”

But no other launcher in the world leaves such a massive component to fall back to Earth in an uncontrolled manner.

“Controlled re-entries, particularly for a large object, require considerable planning and will have a significant impact on the design and payload capacity of the stage,” Sorge wrote. “Nevertheless, this is a preferred approach in international standards and is rapidly becoming a global norm.”

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Bezos’s Blue Origin auctions seat on first New Shepard spaceflight with passengers

May 7th 2021 at 16:54


File photo of a New Shepard launch in 2019. Credit: Blue Origin

Blue Origin plans to begin piloted flights of its suborbital New Shepard spacecraft on July 20, the company announced Wednesday, launching the highest bidder in an online auction out of the atmosphere and into space for a few minutes of weightlessness and an out-of-this world view before returning to Earth.

Owned by Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin made the announcement on the 60th anniversary of Alan Shepard’s sub-orbit flight to become the first American in space, scheduling the company’s first piloted flight of its New Shepard spacecraft on the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

“We are selling the very first seat on New Shepard. And that flight will take place on July 20 of this year,” said Ariane Cornell, director of Astronaut and Orbital Sales for Blue Origin. “For all of you out there who have said I can’t wait to go to space, I’ve got some good news for you. The wait is over.”

The New Shepard capsule seats six, but in a Zoom meeting with reporters, Cornell would not say who else might accompany the winning bidder on the spacecraft’s first piloted flight, how much tickets might cost for seats on subsequent commercial missions or whether Bezos plans to blast off on this or any other near-term flight.

The July 20 flight will launch from Blue’s flight test facility near Van Horn, Texas. The company’s website will accept bids through May 19 when entries, hidden to that point, will be unsealed. Bidding will continue through June 12 when a live, online auction will determine the winner.

“All of this culminates on June 12, with a live online auction event where we will start the bidding at the highest pre-bid level,” Cornell said. “And then we will proceed through that auction and when there are no higher bids that are placed, we have found our first astronaut. It should be pretty exciting.”

Proceeds will be donated to the company’s foundation, “Club for the Future,” inspiring “the next generation as they go off and think about millions of people living and working in space … which is precisely what Blue Origin’s vision is.”

Credit: Blue Origin

Alan Shepard and NASA’s other Mercury 7 astronauts, all experienced test pilots, faced daunting physical and psychological testing before being selected to fly in space. Sixty years later, Blue Origin passengers will face a much more relaxed standard.

Passengers must weigh between 110 and 223 pounds, stand between 5 feet and 6-feet 4-inches tall, be able to climb seven flights of stairs in less than 90 seconds (the height of the launch gantry) and be comfortable with heights.

Other requirements include being able to spend up to 90 minutes sealed inside the capsule and be able to withstand up to three times the force of gravity during launch and 5.5 “Gs” during the descent to Earth.

“We’re going to see how this program evolves,” Cornell said. “We’re going to start at these requirements and to the extent in the future that we can open up access even further, we certainly will.”

Wednesday’s announcement heats up the on-going competition between Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, owned by entrepreneur-adventurer Richard Branson, for commercial, non-government flights to the lower edges of space carrying civilian passengers, researchers and experiments.

Virgin Galactic has built a futuristic-looking winged rocket plane that is launched from a carrier aircraft to begin its climb to sub-orbital space. Virgin has launched two piloted test flights above 50 miles with company personnel on board, but has not yet announced when it will make its first commercial flight. Whenever it flies, tickets are expected to initially cost in the neighborhood of $250,000.

Unlike Virgin’s air-launched spaceplane, New Shepard is a more traditional rocket system that launches from the ground with a single-stage booster that propels the crew capsule into the extreme upper atmosphere before falling away.

The capsule then continues upward on a ballistic trajectory, out of the discernible atmosphere and briefly into space, giving its six passengers a few minutes of weightlessness and views of the planet below through the largest windows ever built into a spacecraft.

NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Air Force consider 50 miles the lower “boundary” of space while the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, an international governing body for aviation-related sports and records, considers 100 kilometers, or 62 miles, to mark the point where the discernible atmosphere gives way to space.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard and Virgin’s spaceplane both are designed to carry passengers just beyond the 62-mile mark before falling back to Earth. Neither spacecraft has the power to reach orbital velocities.

The fully reusable New Shepard capsule features a “full envelope” abort system, a powerful rocket motor designed to propel the craft safely away from a malfunctioning booster. The abort system has been tested three times, once at ground level to simulate an on-pad abort, and twice during ascent. Overall, 15 test flights have been carried out to date.

“Safety is number one at Blue Origin, and certainly central in the design of New Shepard,” Cornell said. “That is why we have decided to test this vehicle 15 times before ever putting a person on board.”

Along with the suborbital New Shepard rockets and spacecraft, Blue Origin also is developing a powerful new engine to help boost satellites into orbit using much larger orbit-class New Glenn rockets. The engines also will be used by United Launch Alliance’s upcoming Vulcan rocket, intended to replace workhorse Atlas and Delta boosters.

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China launches four satellites on Long March 2C rocket

May 6th 2021 at 19:45
A Long March 2C rocket lifts off Thursday with four Chinese satellites. Credit: Xinhua

Three Chinese military satellites and a civilian data relay payload launched Thursday aboard a Long March 2C rocket.

The four spacecraft rocketed into a 370-mile-high (600-kilometer) orbit from the Xichang launch base, situated in a mountainous part of Sichuan province in southwestern China, with a liftoff at 1811 GMT (2:11 p.m. EDT) Thursday.

Launch occurred at 2:11 a.m. Beijing time Friday, according to the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, or CALT, the government-owned contractor that proceed the Long March 2C rocket.

Officials declared the mission a “complete success,” according to a CALT statement. U.S. military tracking data indicated the two-stage, liquid-fueled rocket delivered its payloads to the intended orbit inclined 35 degrees to the equator.

The satellites are the eighth triplet of Yaogan 30-type spacecraft since 2017 launched on Long March 2C rockets from the Xichang facility into similar orbits. The three Yaogan 30-08 satellites launched Thursday are designed for “electromagnetic environmental detection and related technological tests,” China’s state-run Xinhua news agency said.

The Chinese government uses the Yaogan name for the country’s military satellites, and the Yaogan 30 family is believed to be designed for a signals intelligence mission.

Some analysts suggested the Yaogan 30 family of satellites could be testing new electronic eavesdropping equipment, or helping the Chinese military track U.S. and other foreign naval deployments. But details about the spacecraft and their missions have not been disclosed by the Chinese government.

The other satellite launched Thursday was Tianqi 12, a small commercial data relay satellite for the Beijing-based company Guodian Gaoke.

The launch of the three Yaogan 30 satellites was the 13th orbital launch attempt from China so far this year. Twelve of the missions have been successful.

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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.

— 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.

— 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.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

China launches military observation satellite

May 4th 2021 at 13:09
A Long March 4C rocket lifts off with the Yaogan 34 military observation satellite. Credit: Xinhua

China launched an optical Earth observation satellite April 30, beginning a mission designed to provide detailed reconnaissance imagery to the Chinese military.

The Yaogan 34 spacecraft lifted off on top of a medium-class Long March 4C rocket at 3:27 a.m. EDT (0727 GMT) on Friday, April 30, according to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., or CASC, the country’s leading state-owned space program contractor.

The Long March 4C rocket took off from the Jiuquan launch base in the Gobi Desert of northwestern China, carrying the Yaogan 34 satellite to an orbit around 680 miles (1,100 kilometers) in altitude.

The three-stage, liquid-fueled Long March 4C rocket flew southeast from Jiuquan, dropping its spent booster stage and payload shroud onto Chinese territory on the way into orbit. U.S. military tracking data indicated the mission deployed the Yaogan 34 spacecraft into the expected orbit with an inclination of 63.4 degrees to the equator.

China’s state-run Xinhua news agency said Yaogan 34 is an optical remote sensing satellite that “will be used for the survey of land resources, urban planning, the confirmation of land rights, road network design, crop yield estimation, and disaster prevention and reduction.”

The Earth observation craft also has a military purpose. China uses the Yaogan name as a cover for military spy satellites.

In a post-launch statement, CASC said the Yaogan 34 satellite will provide support “for the implementation of major national strategies and the modernization of national defense.”

The launch of Yaogan 34 was the 12th orbital launch attempt from China so far this year. Eleven of the missions have been successful.

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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

SpaceX test fires a Falcon 9 rocket ahead of Starlink mission

May 2nd 2021 at 23:31

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.

Live view of pad 39A

Crew Dragon brings four astronauts back to nighttime splashdown

May 2nd 2021 at 04:18


(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

— 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.



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


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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Core of NASA’s first Artemis moon rocket towed into Vehicle Assembly Building

April 29th 2021 at 17:38
The 212-foot-long core stage for the Artemis 1 mission rolls into the Vehicle Assembly Building Thursday at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

A decade in the making, the core stage for NASA’s first Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket rolled into the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center Thursday to join up with twin solid rocket boosters and an Orion capsule for an unpiloted test flight around the moon.

Clad in orange foam thermal insulation, the 212-foot-long (64.6-meter) rocket rolled off NASA’s Pegasus barge Thursday morning on a transport cradle driven by a self-propelled mechanism that carefully drove the core stage the nearly half-mile distance from the Turn Basin to the south door of the VAB.

Ground teams took their time with the operation, moving the rocket along at a glacial pace after an issue with the self-propelled transporter delayed the start of the offload from the Pegasus barge by about three hours.

Finally, the rocket emerged at around 8:30 a.m. EDT (1230 GMT) Thursday from the Pegasus vessel, a specially-designed barge that once hauled external fuel tanks for space shuttles from their factory in New Orleans to the Florida launch site. NASA extended the length of the barge to 310 feet (94.4 meters) to fit the longer SLS core stage.

The Boeing-built core stage measures 27.6 feet (8.4 meters) in diameter, the same width as the shuttle external fuel tank. The gigantic core stage contains reservoirs that will hold more than 730,000 gallons of super-cold liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants for launch.

The SLS core stage approaches the Vehicle Assembly Building. Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

Four Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 engines are affixed to the rear of the core stage. All four engines are veterans of multiple space shuttle missions.

Engineers test-fired the four RS-25 engines for eight minutes March 18 at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, the same duration they will burn during a real launch. The hot fire was a final development test intended to iron out any glaring issues on the core stage before the first SLS test flight, known as Artemis 1.

Officials at Kennedy are eager to start working with the core stage inside the VAB. The two 177-foot-tall (54-meter) solid rocket boosters for the first SLS test flight, supplied by Northrop Grumman, are fully stacked on the rocket’s mobile launch platform in High Bay 3 inside the Vehicle Assembly Building.

With the core stage now at Kennedy, technicians will complete refurbishment of the rocket’s foam and cork insulation, which suffered some expected damage after the eight-minute RS-25 engine test-firing last month. Ground teams at Kennedy will also install ordnance to be used on the rocket’s flight termination system, which would activate to destroy the rocket if it flew off course and threatened the public during launch.

NASA aims to be ready by the end of May to rotate the rocket vertical and lift it by crane into High Bay 3. A crane operator will carefully lower the core stage in between the two SLS solid rocket boosters.

Workers will connect the core stage with each booster with braces at forward and aft attach points. Next will be stacking of the SLS upper stage, derived from the second stage used on United Launch Alliance’s Delta 4-Heavy rocket, and an adapter that will support the Orion spacecraft.

The rocket will be crowned with a mass model of the Orion spacecraft for structural resonance testing of the fully-stacked launch vehicle. Once that is complete, teams will move the real Orion spacecraft — already integrated with its launch abort system — to the VAB for attachment to the top of the Space Launch System.

The fully-assembled Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft will stand 322 feet (98 meters) tall. During launch, the rocket’s four RS-25 engines and twin solid rocket boosters will generate 8.8 million pounds of thrust. It can send about 59,500 pounds (27 metric tons) of mass to the Moon, more than any rocket operating today.

NASA plans to roll the Space Launch System out of the Vehicle Assembly Building for the first time as soon as August — but more likely in the fall — to travel to pad 39B for a countdown rehearsal. The launch team will load super-cold liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants into the rocket and practice countdown procedures.

After that is done, the rocket will return to the VAB for final checkouts and preparations, then will roll out to pad 39B again for launch.

Four Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 engines on the SLS core stage. Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s acting administrator, said Tuesday that the agency still hopes to launch the Artemis 1 test flight by the end of 2021.

But he acknowledged the schedule was “challenging” to pull off the launch this year. A delay of any major milestone would put the launch date in jeopardy and slip the Artemis 1 mission to early 2022.

A second SLS/Orion test flight in 2023 will carry three NASA astronauts and a Canadian crew member around the moon and back to Earth. That mission, Artemis 2, will be the first time humans travel beyond low Earth orbit since the final Apollo moon mission in 1972.

Future Artemis missions will send astronauts back to the moon, and eventually land the first woman and the first person of color on the lunar surface, according to NASA.

The agency says the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft are critical to the Artemis moon program, alongside a commercial human-rated lunar lander being developed by SpaceX, and a mini-space station to be placed into orbit around the moon.

But the programs, particularly the SLS, have faced years of delays and billions of dollars in cost overruns.

NASA started initial work on the Space Launch System in 2011, then eyeing an inaugural launch in 2017. As of June 2020, NASA had obligated $16.4 billion on the SLS program since its inception, according to the agency’s inspector general.

Additional photos of the SLS core stage’s offload Thursday are posted below.

Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Steven Young / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Steven Young / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
The SLS core stage approaches the Vehicle Assembly Building. Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

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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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Assembly of Chinese space station begins with successful core module launch

April 29th 2021 at 03:18
A Chinese Long March 5B rocket lifts off with the Tianhe space station core module. Credit: Xinhua

Chinese officials confirmed the successful launch of the first element of the country’s space station early Thursday, laying the keystone to a permanently-inhabited orbiting habitat that could welcome its first astronauts this summer.

The liftoff of the Tianhe core module begins the most ambitious project in the history of China’s nearly 30-year human spaceflight program, which seeks to create a national space station after being shut out of the International Space Station, led by U.S. and Russian space agencies.

China’s Tianhe space station core module rode a heavy-lift Long March 5B rocket into orbit after liftoff at 11:23:15 p.m. EDT Wednesday (0323:15 GMT; 11:23:15 a.m. Beijing time Thursday).

Ten liquid-fueled engines ignited to send the 176-foot-tall (53.7-meter) Long March 5B rocket off the launch pad at the Wenchang spaceport on Hainan Island, China’s southernmost province.

The eight kerosene-burning booster engines and twin hydrogen-fed core engines generated 2.4 million pounds of thrust at full power. The stubby, heavy-duty rocket climbed through a cloud deck over Wenchang and turned to the southeast over the South China Sea.

Chinese state-run television broadcast the launch live, showing spectacular views from on-board “rocket cams” that captured video of the Long March 5B soaring through clouds and shedding spent components on the way into orbit.

The four strap-on boosters — each powered by two engines — shut down and jettisoned nearly three minutes into the mission. Moments later, the nose cone enshrouding the Tianhe spacecraft peeled away as the rocket reached the rarefied environment of space.

The Long March 5B is a variant of China’s heavy-lift Long March 5 rocket specially designed to haul heavy elements of China’s space station into orbit. The Long March 5B flies without the Long March 5’s second stage, making room for a large spacecraft to fit inside the rocket’s payload shroud.

The Long March 5B’s main stage released the Tianhe module about eight minutes after liftoff. Around one hour into the flight, ground teams in China announced the Tianhe spacecraft extended two power-producing solar array wings.

In a speech, a Chinese military official proclaimed the launch a “complete success” and said the Tianhe spacecraft was functioning normally after riding to space on the Long March 5B.

One of the Tianhe module’s solar array wings after launch. Credit: CMSEO

The massive core module is the largest and heaviest spacecraft ever built in China, extending more than 54.4 feet (16.6 meters) long, with a maximum diameter of around 13.8 feet (4.2 meters). Fully fueled at launch, the Tianhe module weighed roughly 49,600 pounds (22.5 metric tons), according to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency.

The core module resembles the first section of Russia’s Mir space station, but the Tianhe spacecraft is longer and heavier.

Three Chinese astronauts could visit the Tianhe core module as early as June to begin a three-month stint in orbit, with future crew missions building up to stays as long as six months, officials said. But first, a cargo freighter will link up with the space station’s core module in orbit next month, delivering supplies and provisions to support the first astronauts to live on the outpost.

The launch of the Tianhe core module was the first of 11 missions before the end of 2022 to install additional elements on the space station, and ferry cargo and astronauts to the orbiting research laboratory. The remaining 10 missions to continue construction and outfitting of the space station include the launch of two more research modules, plus four Tianzhou cargo ships and four Shenzhou crew spacecraft.

The joining of the Tianhe module with the station’s two similarly-sized research labs will give the complex the shape of a T.

The Tianhe, or “Heavenly Harmony,” core module is the keystone of the China’s Tiangong, or “Heavenly Palace,” space station in low Earth orbit a few hundred miles above the planet, serving as astronaut living quarters, a command and control element, an airlock for spacewalks, and a docking port for attachment of future crew and cargo vehicles.

The module has medical equipment, a galley and dining area, sleep stations, and other accommodations for astronauts, according to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., the government-owned prime contractor for China’s space program. The Tianhe core module also has handrails to assist astronauts moving around outside the space station on spacewalks.

Chinese officials confirmed the successful launch of the first element of the country’s space station early Thursday, laying the keystone to a permanently-inhabited orbiting habitat that could welcome its first astronauts this summer.

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— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) April 29, 2021

“We will learn how to assemble, operate and maintain large spacecraft in orbit, and we aim to build Tiangong into a state-level space lab supporting the long stay of astronauts and large-scale scientific, technological and application experiments,” said Bai Linhou, deputy chief designer of the space station at the China Academy of Space Technology, a state-run spacecraft manufacturer.

Chinese officials signaled they are open to international participation in the space station program.

“The station is also expected to contribute to the peaceful development and utilization of space resources through international cooperation, as well as to enrich technologies and experience for China’s future explorations into deeper space,” Bai said, according to a report published by the Xinhua news agency.

The fully-assembled outpost will be around 66 metric tons, about one-sixth the mass of the International Space Station, and closer in size to Russia’s retired Mir station than the ISS. With cargo and crew vehicles temporarily docked, the Chinese station’s mass could reach nearly 100 metric tons, officials said.

China launched two Tiangong prototype space labs in 2011 and 2016 to test out technologies for the permanently-occupied space station.

The Tiangong 1 space lab hosted two Shenzhou crew in 2012 and 2013, and China’s most recent human spaceflight mission — Shenzhou 11 — docked with the Tiangong 2 module in 2016. In total, China has launched six astronaut missions on Shenzhou capsules since 2003.

China also launched a test flight of the Tianzhou supply ship, similar in function to Russia’s Progress or SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon capsule supporting the International Space Station. The first Tianzhou freighter took off on a Long March 7 rocket in 2017 and docked with the Tiangong 2 space lab, proving out automated docking and in-orbit refueling technology.

After the Tiangong pathfinders verified key technologies for the Chinese space station, officials are moving ahead with integrating the complex in low Earth orbit between 210 miles (340 kilometers) and 280 miles (450 kilometers) above Earth.

Artist’s illustration of the fully assembled Chinese space station. Credit: UN Office for Outer Space Affairs / China Manned Space Engineering Office

With the Tianhe module now orbit, Chinese space officials will complete preparations for launch of a Long March 7 rocket in May carrying the Tianzhou 2 resupply ship. The cargo freighter will automatically dock with the Tianhe module a few days after launch, setting the stage for liftoff of a Long March 2F from the Jiuquan space base as soon as June with the first astronaut crew to visit the nascent space station.

Chinese officials have said they have selected crew members for the Shenzhou 12 mission, and astronaut training is underway. The astronauts will carry out multiple spacewalks on their mission to link up with the Tianhe module in orbit.

Another Tianzhou cargo craft and the Shenzhou 13 crew mission will launch later this year, delivering supplies and astronauts for the first full-term six-month stay on the Tiangong space station.

The Tianhe core module has life support hardware to recycle urine, exhaled breath condensate, and carbon dioxide, Chinese officials said. That will limit how much water and oxygen needs to be packed into Tianzhou cargo ships.

Chinese officials say the space station is designed to operate for more than 10 years, and perhaps longer than 15 years with “appropriate maintenance and repairs,” Xinhua said. Once assembly is complete, the station will be able to permanently host three astronauts, with short-term stays of six astronauts possible during crew changeovers.

The core module of China’s space station undergoes a vacuum test to simulate the conditions it will see in orbit.

The core module has an internal living volume of about 1,765 cubic feet (50 cubic meters), according to Xinhua. With all three modules, the living space will grow to 3,884 cubic feet (110 cubic meters). For comparison, NASA says the International Space Station has a habitable volume of 13,696 cubic feet (388 cubic meters).

One of the two research modules scheduled for launch next year, named Wentian, will have a larger airlock than the Tianhe core module to support spacewalks, plus a robotic arm to move payloads and science experiments outside the space station.

The other research module, named Mengtian, is similar to Wentian but has a special airlock to transfer cargo and instruments between the interior and exterior of the space station, Xinhua said.

In addition to the two new modules China is readying for launches in 2022, the Tiangong space station is also due to receive two more Tianzhou cargo spacecraft and two more Shenzhou crew ships next year.

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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.