A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket stood atop historic launch pad 39A Saturday afternoon as teams counted down to liftoff with 52 more Starlink internet satellites and two hitchhiker payloads.
Weather permitting, the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) launcher was set for liftoff at 6:54 p.m. EDT (2254 GMT) on SpaceX’s 15th Falcon 9 flight of the year. The mission will mark the 118th flight of a Falcon 9 rocket since 2010, and SpaceX’s 35th launch from pad 39A since leasing the Apollo-era facility from NASA.
The launch Saturday will be the 28th Falcon 9 flight with a primary goal of deploying Starlink satellites. It will be the fourth Starlink flight to carry rideshare payloads from other customers.
On this mission, SpaceX will launch 52 satellites for its own Starlink internet network, plus a commercial radar Earth-imaging satellite for Capella Space and a small spacecraft for Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems.
The Falcon 9’s upper stage will aim to deploy the 54 satellites into an orbit with an average altitude of 357 miles (575 kilometers), and an inclination of 53 degrees to the equator.
The first stage booster, seen here with scorch marks from previous missions, has launched and landed seven times. The booster — designated B1058 — first launched May 30, 2020, with the inaugural flight of a Crew Dragon capsule with astronauts on-board.
The booster will try to land again Saturday on a SpaceX drone ship positioned several hundred miles northeast of Cape Canaveral.
The payload shroud on top of the rocket consists of two aerodynamic shells, each veterans of one previous launch and recovery. The fairing halves descend under parachutes for recovery from the Atlantic Ocean.
These photos show the Falcon 9 on pad 39A Saturday afternoon.
Live coverage of the countdown and launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The mission will launch SpaceX’s next batch of Starlink broadband satellites. There are 52 Starlink satellites on this mission, plus two rideshare payloads from Capella Space and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems. 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.
An innovative commercial Capella radar observation spacecraft with night vision and a small payload from the California-based smallsat manufacturer Tyvak are set to ride into orbit from Florida’s Space Coast Saturday with 52 more Starlink internet satellites on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
SpaceX will attempt to fly its fifth Falcon 9 rocket in 22 days Saturday, following the launch of a Crew Dragon mission April 23 that carried four astronauts to the International Space Station, and three more launches — each with 60 Starlink satellites — from Florida on April 28, May 4, and May 9.
The launch Saturday is set for 6:54 p.m. EDT (2254 GMT) from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. It will be SpaceX’s 15th Falcon 9 launch so far in 2021, and SpaceX’s 33rd Falcon 9 flight since this time last year.
The mission will bring the total number of Starlink internet satellite launched to 1,677 spacecraft, including prototypes and failed platforms that have been decommissioned and deorbited.
An analysis by Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer and respected tracker of spaceflight activity, suggests SpaceX currently has 1,526 working Starlink satellites in orbit, with 886 operational spacecraft, plus hundreds more maneuvering to their final locations in the constellation.
The Starlink network is the largest satellite fleet in history, and SpaceX is adding more spacecraft to expand the constellation to provide global internet service. SpaceX is currently providing interim internet services through the Starlink satellites to consumers in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, and New Zealand.
The company, founded and led by billionaire Elon Musk, announced earlier this month it is expanding the Starlink beta testing program to customers in France and Austria.
SpaceX’s launch Saturday will use a Falcon 9 first stage booster that has flown to space on seven prior missions. The booster — designated B1058 — first launched May 30, 2020, with the inaugural flight of a Crew Dragon capsule with astronauts on-board.
The booster will try to land again Saturday on a SpaceX drone ship positioned several hundred miles northeast of Cape Canaveral. SpaceX said officials are monitoring conditions in the booster recovery zone. Forecasters from the U.S. Space Force say there is a moderate risk of weather in the landing zone violating safe criteria for the booster’s descent.
There is a 70% chance of good weather at the launch site in Florida, the Space Force said. The primary weather concerns for liftoff are with cumulus clouds and ground winds.
The Falcon 9 launch Saturday is one of two missions ground teams at Cape Canaveral are preparing for launch in the next few days.
United Launch Alliance is set to launch a U.S. military infrared surveillance satellite Monday at 1:35 p.m. EDT (1735 GMT). An Atlas 5 rocket will take off from pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station — a few miles south of pad 39A — to boost the satellite into orbit on a mission to detect missile launches that could threaten U.S. and allied military forces.
If SpaceX does not launch its Falcon 9 rocket Saturday, there’s a backup opportunity available on the Space Force’s Eastern Range at 6:33 p.m. EDT (2233 GMT) Sunday. The Atlas 5 could still launch Monday, even if the Falcon 9 launch is delayed a day, officials said.
The launch Saturday will be the 28th Falcon 9 flight with a primary goal of deploying Starlink satellites. It will be the fourth Starlink flight to carry rideshare payloads from other customers.
SpaceX sells capacity on its Starlink missions for small satellites. Engineers can adjust the number of Starlink spacecraft on a given mission to make room for rideshare payloads.
The company has published pricing information for its smallsat rideshare service. According to SpaceX’s website, it charges $1 million to launch a 440-pound (200-kilogram) satellite on a rideshare mission — and less for smaller payloads — significantly lower than published prices from other launch service providers.
Capella Space’s fourth commercial radar imaging satellite will hitch a ride on Saturday’s mission. The spacecraft, with a launch weight of roughly 220 pounds (100 kilograms), will join three other operational Capella radar remote sensing satellites.
One of the Capella satellites lifted off on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket last year, and two more rode a Falcon 9 rocket into a polar sun-synchronous orbit on a dedicated rideshare mission in January. Capella launched an earlier test satellite in 2018.
Based in San Francisco, Capella is one of several companies developing fleets of radar imaging satellites. After launch, Capella’s spacecraft will unfurl its radar reflector antenna to a diameter of about 11.5 feet (3.5 meters) and begin collecting imagery.
Capella already has contracts with the National Reconnaissance Office, the U.S. Air Force, and the U.S. Navy to study military uses of commercial radar satellite imagery. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement, or CRADA, last year to allow researchers from the U.S. government’s intelligence community to assist Capella.
Capella’s planned constellation of small satellites will enable rapid revisit, allowing the company’s orbiting radar observers to collect imagery of the same locations multiple times per day. That will allow government and commercial customers to detect changes in the environment.
Other remote sensing companies have similar business plans.
Planet, another San Francisco-based company, operates a fleet of around 150 small optical Earth observation satellites. BlackSky is also deploying a constellation of optical remote sensing spacecraft.
But Capella’s satellites use synthetic aperture radar technology, allowing imagery collection night and day and in all weather conditions. Optical satellites are limited to observations in daylight and in cloud-free skies.
Capella is initially deploying a fleet of seven radar remote sensing satellites. That could be scaled up given sufficient demand, the company says.
Capella has a license from NOAA, which regulates space-based remote sensing by U.S. companies, for a constellation of 36 small radar surveillance satellites. The company says it also has permission from U.S. regulators to sell high-resolution radar images globally.
Another small satellite named Tyvak 0130 will accompany the Starlink and Capella spacecraft into orbit Saturday.
The satellite was built by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, a small spacecraft manufacturer in Irvine, California. SpaceX did not disclose details about the Tyvak 0130 spacecraft, and Tyvak has not listed the mission on its website.
A regulatory document posted on a NOAA website says the federal agency, which oversees licensing of U.S. remote sensing satellites, granted approval to Tyvak in 2019 to “operate a private, space-based, remote sensing system named Tyvak 0130.”
The document describes Tyvak 0130 as an “optical spectrum astronomy observation satellite.”
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket will head northeast from the Kennedy Space Center on Saturday’s mission. After releasing its first stage two-and-a-half minutes into the flight, the Falcon 9’s upper stage will fire its main engine two times to place the 52 Starlink satellites and two rideshare payloads in a nearly circular orbit with an average altitude of 357 miles (575 kilometers), according to preflight orbit predictions.
The target orbit is inclined 53 degrees to the equator, the same type of orbit used by most of the satellites currently in the Starlink constellation.
The Tyvak 0130 spacecraft will separate from the Falcon 9’s upper stage at T+plus 56 minutes, 53 seconds, followed by deployment of Capella’s satellite at T+plus 60 minutes, 23 seconds.
The 52 Starlink satellites, built by SpaceX in Redmond, Washington, will separate from the rocket about 98 minutes into the mission.
The 573-pound (260-kilogram) flat-panel Starlink satellites will release from the rocket all at once, and begin drifting apart to use their ion thrusters to maneuver into a slightly lower orbit 341 miles (541 kilometers) above Earth, where they will enter operational service in SpaceX’s internet network.
A senior SpaceX official said this week that “heat damage” led to the failure of a Falcon 9 booster during a landing attempt Feb. 15, but the company will press on with more launches and will likely surpass the 10-flight threshold on one of its reusable rockets soon. The next Falcon 9 launch, using a booster flying on its eighth mission, is scheduled for liftoff from Florida with 60 more Starlink internet satellites Sunday night.
The Falcon 9 booster on SpaceX’s most recent mission Feb. 15 successfully shot its payload of 60 Starlink satellites toward orbit. But the 15-story rocket stage faltered during descent, and it missed its landing target on a SpaceX drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean several hundred miles northeast of Cape Canaveral.
Video streaming from an on-board camera appeared to show an unusual flare or plume at the end of the rocket’s entry burn, which was programmed to use three of its nine Merlin 1D engines during a supersonic through the atmosphere. The entry burn, followed by a single-engine landing burn, was supposed to guide the rocket in for landing on the floating platform.
Imagery from the drone ship itself later showed an orange glow in the distance, presumably from the rocket just before it impacted the sea.
Engineers analyzing the failed landing have narrowed the cause of the accident to “heat damage,” said Hans Koenigsmann, a senior advisor at SpaceX and the company’s former vice president of build and flight reliability.
“We’re really close to nailing it down and then taking corrective actions,” Koenigsmann said in a panel discussion Tuesday at the 47th Spaceport Summit. “It’s related to heat damage, and that’s all I can say at this point in time,” he said, adding that the investigation into the accident is ongoing.
The Falcon 9’s landing accident did not affect the primary mission. The rocket’s upper stage place its Starlink payloads into an on-target orbit.
There was an unusual signature at the end of the Falcon 9 booster’s entry burn tonight, followed seconds later by the end of telemetry from the rocket.
Wayne Monteith, associated administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration, characterized the landing mishap as a “successful failure.”
“This one, in particular, failed within the safety regime, and they protected the public, they protected public property,” Monteith said Tuesday. “So for us, even when a system does not meet all mission goals, as long as it fails safely, in many respects that’s positive because each of these flights demonstrates something new and allows the industry to move forward.”
The landing failure occurred after 24 straight successful recoveries of SpaceX boosters since March 2020. SpaceX has recovered Falcon booster cores 74 times since 2015.
The booster flown on the Feb. 15 mission — designated B1059 — was on its sixth trip to space. SpaceX officials have said the most recent version of the Falcon 9 booster can make 10 flights with only inspections and minor refurbishment in between missions. With an overhaul, the Falcon 9 Block 5 boosters could fly 100 missions, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has said.
Koenigsmann said Tuesday he believes the 10-flight limit is not a “magic number.”
“We’ve learned a lot about refurbishment,” he said. “We’re learning … what to pay attention to and maybe some of these are obvious. We want to take care of the heat shield. There are some engine components that need, on a regular basis, a degree of inspection to make sure the seals are working, and so on and so forth. So we’ve been learning with every single landing.”
SpaceX’s next launch, set for Sunday at 8:37 p.m. EST (0137 GMT Monday), will fly with a first stage booster known as B1049. This rocket will be making its eighth launch, tying another booster in SpaceX’s fleet for the most flights.
Koenigsmann said SpaceX will fly a booster on a ninth flight in a “few weeks.”
The 60 flat-panel Starlink satellites set for launch Sunday from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center will add to SpaceX’s fleet of more than 1,000 broadband relay stations in low Earth orbit. With the newest batch launching this weekend, SpaceX will have placed more than 1,200 Starlink satellites in orbit, including prototypes no longer in service.
SpaceX is moving closer to providing commercial internet service with the Starlink network, eyeing a commercial rollout later this year. The company is already providing connectivity to thousands of users on a test basis.
The Starlink network is driving SpaceX’s high tempo launch cadence. According to Koenigsmann, SpaceX will soon reach the 10-flight mark with one of its Falcon 9 boosters.
“I’m pretty sure we will get to 10 flights soon, and then we will continue to look at the booster and make an assessment (whether) we can move forward with it,” he said. “My personal opinion is that we will probably continue until we see more damage on the booster.”
Koenigsmann said SpaceX will look at data rather than specifying a certain number of flights for each booster.
“We will inspect them regularly, at regular intervals” he said. “And the next time you check that the engine held up and see if there’s any damage there. To me, it is an engineering problem. I don’t think the number of 10 is a magic number.
“Also, for example, we could start phasing in new components at some point in time and actually extend the life of the booster,” Koenigsmann said.
Koenigsmann said SpaceX is well-equipped for its projected flight rate from Florida’s Space Coast. Last year, SpaceX launched 26 Falcon 9 rockets, with 25 of those missions originating from Florida.
Musk has previously said the company aims to launch more than 40 Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy missions in 2021. Most of the flights will again take off from SpaceX’s two launch pads at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station or at neighboring Kennedy Space Center.
“We have a pretty sweet set up right now,” Koenigsmann said. “We have two launch pads (in Florida). One of them is primarily useful for the crew … and the other one is mostly commercial launches and some of the other launches. In general, I feel we are pretty well set up for the current launch rate going forward.”
One area SpaceX is focusing on is infrastructure to move rockets between facilities at the spaceport — from the drone ship dock at Port Canaveral to a refurbishment facility at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, then to one of the company’s two Florida launch pads.
“All of that activity will be increasing,” Koenigsmann said. “From the range’s side, I think it’s mostly deconflicting in terms of scheduling and making sure this can all be done safely. I feel like, from an infrastructure logistical point of view, we’re pretty much at a great spot right now. If the launch rate goes significantly higher, then we have to streamline the operations on the pad itself.”
The fastest turnaround for SpaceX launches from the same pad has been less than 10 days.
“Sometimes it boils down to crew rest,” Koenigsmann said.
The Space Force’s Eastern Range, which oversees launch operations at Cape Canaveral, has said it can accommodate two SpaceX launches within as little as five hours. The rapid turnaround between launches is primarily enabled by SpaceX’s use of an autonomous flight termination system on all of its Falcon 9 missions. The automated system replaces the more labor-intensive traditional human-in-the-loop flight termination systems, which are designed to destroy the rocket it it veers off course and threatens the public.
“We have not had a case that we will launch two vehicles on one single day, but we came very close,” he said. “I think … this will happen in the near future, that we launch two vehicles from two pads on the same day, and then it will only increase from there on.”
A Northrop Grumman Cygnus supply ship — named the S.S. Katherine Johnson for the trailblazing NASA mathematician portrayed in “Hidden Figures” — was loaded with time-sensitive cargo Friday at a launch pad in Virginia for a midday blastoff Saturday toward the International Space Station.
The final few items were sealed inside the Cygnus cargo freighter Friday afternoon at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, a facility owned by the state of Virginia co-located with NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. With the last cargo loaded, ground crews planned to close the Cygnus catch, re-install the Antares rocket’s payload shroud, and raise the launcher vertical on pad 0A at Wallops.
The final preparations overnight will also include the attachment of the Antares rocket’s liquid oxygen loading line, and the arming of pyrotechnic ordnance before the start of the five-hour countdown leading to liftoff at 12:36:50 p.m. EST (1736:50 GMT) Saturday.
The 139-foot-tall (42.5-meter) Antares rocket has a five-minute launch window to take off Saturday. Forecasters at Wallops predict a 75% chance of favorable weather for launch, and the primary weather concerns are the potential for winds and clouds to violate flight criteria.
The mission, officially designated NG-15, will be Northrop Grumman’s 15th operational resupply launch to the space station since 2014. It will be the 14th flight of an Antares rocket.
Two Russian-made RD-181 rocket engines will power the Antares launcher off the pad with 864,000 pounds of thrust. The kerosene-fueled engines will steer the rocket toward the southeast from Wallops Island, Virginia, to align with the orbital path of the space station.
At about T+plus 3 minutes, 24 seconds, the Antares will shed its liquid-fueled first stage, followed soon after by separation of the rocket’s payload fairing and interstage adapter. A solid-fueled Castor 30XL upper stage will ignite at about T+plus 4 minutes, 7 seconds, for nearly three minutes to inject the Cygnus supply ship into a preliminary orbit in pursuit of the space station. The Cygnus cargo craft is scheduled to deploy from the Antares second stage at about T+plus 8 minutes, 52 seconds.
The Cygnus will unfurl its two fan-shaped solar panels within a couple of hours after liftoff, allowing the spacecraft to start charging batteries for the day-and-a-half trip to the space station. Astronaut Soichi Noguchi aboard the research complex will use the lab’s Canadian-built robotic arm to capture the commercial resupply vessel around 4:40 a.m. EST (0940 GMT) Monday, assuming an on-time launch Saturday.
Northrop Grumman names its Cygnus supply ships after pioneers in spaceflight. The Cygnus flying on the NG-15 mission is named for Katherine Johnson, a mathematician whose trajectory calculations were critical to the success of NASA’s earliest space missions.
“It’s our tradition to name each Cygnus after an individual who’s played a pivotal role in human spaceflight, and Mrs. Johnson was selected for her hand-written calculations that helped launch the first Americans into space, as well as her accomplishments in breaking glass ceiling after glass ceiling as a Black woman,” said Frank DeMauro, vice president and general manager for tactical space at Northrop Grumman.
The NG-15 mission’s cargo load adds up to 8,399 pounds, or 3,810 kilograms, including packaging and unpressurized equipment to assist in the deployment of several CubeSats at the end of the flight. That’s more than any previous commercial cargo mission to the space station.
NASA has contracts with Northrop Grumman, SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada Corp. for resupply flights to the station. SpaceX has launched 21 operational Dragon cargo missions to date, and the record cargo payload for a Dragon capsule is 6,913 pounds, or 3,136 kilograms, on a mission launched April 2016.
Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser spaceplane has not flown in space yet. Its first cargo mission to the space station is scheduled for 2022.
Here is a breakdown of the cargo on the NG-15 mission:
A few minutes after releasing the Cygnus spacecraft to fly to the space station, the Antares rocket will deploy 30 tiny student-built “ThinSats” from containers on the second stage. Each ThinSat is about the size of a slice of bread, and were integrated with sensors, transmitters, and circuit boards by students ranging in age from 4th grade to college from 13 states and the District of Columbia.
The ThinSat program is a partnership between the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, which runs the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, Northrop Grumman, Twiggs Space Lab, NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, and NearSpace Labs. The program is aimed at promoting education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, or STEM, fields.
The first 63 ThinSats launched on an Antares rocket in 2019. By releasing the tiny satellites in a low-altitude orbit, engineers can ensure the ThinSats naturally re-enter the atmosphere and burn up within a few days, minimizing their risk of becoming space junk.
Astronauts aboard the International Space Station will enter the Cygnus spacecraft within hours of its arrival Monday. They will unpack the experiments and supplies inside the cargo craft’s pressurized compartment, built by Thales Alenia Space in Italy.
The Cygnus will deliver a brine processor assembly for the space station’s water recycling system, which converts urine into fresh drinking water. NASA says the new brine processor will demonstrate an ability to recover more water from urine brine than feasible with current space station equipment, helping close the gap to meet requirements for long-duration human exploration missions to the moon and Mars.
The brine processor works by using special membranes to separate contaminants from the brine and allow water vapor to pass into the cabin atmosphere, where a condensing heat exchanger captures and delivers it to the station system that generates fresh water.
“Long-duration crewed exploration missions require about 98% water recovery, and there is currently no state-of- the-art technology in brine processing that can help achieve this goal,” NASA officials wrote in a fact sheet. “This brine processor system plans to close this gap for the urine waste stream of the space station.”
The Cygnus mission will also carry a new sleeping quarters for the space station’s seven-person crew. There are currently five crew members on the space station’s U.S. segment, with four astronauts who flew to the outpost on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule in November, and astronaut Kate Rubins, who arrived in October on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
But the U.S. segment only has four sleep stations. Astronaut Mike Hopkins, commander of the Crew Dragon mission, has slept inside the SpaceX capsule docked to the space station.
Other hardware inside the Cygnus supply ship includes spare parts and support equipment for the space station’s toilets, and tanks of air to recharge the breathable atmosphere inside the space lab.
One of the research experiments on the NG-15 mission will investigate how microgravity affects the manufacturing of protein-based artificial retinas. Led by a Connecticut-based startup company named LambdaVision, the experiment is a follow-up to an investigation flown to the space station in 2018 that produced “very encouraging” results, according to Nicole Wagner, president and CEO of LambdaVision.
The company uses a “layer-by-layer” process to manufacture artificial retinas, which could be implanted in patients suffering from retinal degenerative diseases.
“This is the second of what we expect to be many, many flights (to the space station),” said Jordan Greco, chief scientific officer at LambdaVision. “This particular layering trial allows allow us to continue to gather critical information on the design of the system and to continue to probe the influence of microgravity on this layering process.”
“The work that we’re sending on NG-15 is we’re sending the protein materials, and we’re actually going to manufacture the artificial retina on the ISS. So we’re doing this layer by layer process on-board the International Space Station, and then those films will then be returned back to Earth for analysis,” Wagner said.
With funding support from NASA, LambdaVision is looking at extending the layer-by-layer manufacturing process to other applications besides artificial retinas, Wagner said.
The retina implants being developed by LambdaVision can restore “high-resolution vision” to patients by replacing the function of light-sensing rods and cones inside the eye, according to Wagner. The artificial retinas consist of a light-activated protein.
“We are just thrilled to have a chance to establish a foundation for producing products in low Earth orbit with true clinical benefits to patients, and in our casem for patients that are blinded by this devastating retinal degenerative disease,” Greco said.
Another experiment on the NG-15 mission will measure muscle strength in multiple generations of worms, including animals reared in space. Humans lose strength during long-duration space missions, but scientists want to better understand the biological changes caused by microgravity.
“To understand the biology, our project is focused on taking these … worms and looking at how the strength of these worms is changing,” said Siva Vanapalli, a professor of chemical engineering at Texas Tech University, and principal investigator of the experiment.
The experiment will launch with 1,000 worm larvae that will grow during the mission. The worms will produce offspring several times in space, according to Vanapalli.
A new device, called NemaFlex, will measure the worms’ muscle forces continuously. “If we do observe that our device is able to record these changes in strength, that opens up tremendous opportunities in conducting experiments on different drugs and figuring out how to maintain and improve the health of astronauts,” Vanapalli said.
The Cygnus will deliver to the space station a high-performance commercial off-the-shelf computer from Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Engineers will test the computer’s ability to process scientific data in space, potentially enabling researchers to produce quicker results from their experiments, according to NASA.
The cargo mission also carries a radiation detector that will fly on NASA’s Orion spacecraft. A successful test of the radiation monitor on the space station would validate the unit to fly on the first crewed Orion mission, Artemis 2, to the moon in 2023, NASA said.