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Yesterday — May 8th 2021Your RSS feeds

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.

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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.

Upgraded Starship prototype makes first soft landing after test flight

May 5th 2021 at 17:59

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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. https://t.co/NPEygGCRNT pic.twitter.com/1HQQXcYHia

— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) May 4, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) May 4, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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.

Full story: https://t.co/qXTjVABGap pic.twitter.com/YWemXsptE7

— 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Live coverage: SpaceX launches 60 more Starlink satellites

April 28th 2021 at 17:13

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

SpaceX webcast

Live view of pad 40

SpaceX mission audio

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

First element of Chinese space station ready for liftoff

April 28th 2021 at 16:18
The core module of China’s space station undergoes a vacuum test to simulate the conditions it will see in orbit.

The core module of China’s space station is packaged inside the nose cone of a heavy-lift Long March 5B rocket for liftoff late Wednesday (U.S. time), the first of 11 launches to deliver astronauts, supplies, experiments, and new laboratory modules to build out the orbiting complex before the end of 2022.

The massive Tianhe, or “Heavenly Harmony,” core module will be the keystone of the Chinese 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 fully-assembled outpost will be around 66 metric tons, about one-sixth the mass of the International Space Station, and is closer in size to Russia’s retired Mir station than the ISS. China will add two research modules to the space station in 2022.

The launch is scheduled for a one-hour period beginning at 11 p.m. EDT Wednesday (0300 GMT; 11 a.m. Beijing time Thursday), according to publicly-released airspace warning notices. Several sources suggest the launch is scheduled for approximately 11:18 p.m. EDT (0318 GMT), although the Chinese government has not disclosed an exact liftoff time.

China has not announced any plans to broadcast the launch live on state-run television.

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

The core element of the space station will blast off on China’s most powerful launcher, the Long March 5B, with 10 engines burning liquid hydrogen and kerosene fuel. The 176-foot-tall (53.7-meter) Long March 5B rocket rolled out to its launch pad Friday at the Wenchang spaceport on Hainan Island, China’s southernmost province.

Gantry arms folded into position around the rocket to allow ground teams to finish preparations for liftoff. Liquid hydrogen, kerosene, and liquid oxygen propellants will begin loading into the Long March 5B a few hours before launch.

The fully-fueled Long March 5B rocket will weigh more than 1.8 million pounds (849 metric tons) at launch. The rocket’s liquid-fueled engines will power the launcher off the pad with about 2.4 million pounds of thrust, guiding the rocket toward the southeast from Wenchang over the South China Sea.

The Long March 5B will shed its four expendable strap-on boosters about three minutes after liftoff, and the rocket’s payload fairing will jettison about 3 minutes, 40 seconds, into the mission. The rocket’s cryogenic center stage will place the Tianhe spacecraft into orbit and deploy the space station module about eight minutes after launch.

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.

China demonstrated the Long March 5B rocket on a successful test flight in May 2020, proving the rocket’s readiness to launch components of the Chinese space station. Six Long March 5 rockets have launched in various configurations, and the last four Long March 5 missions have been successful, with five successes overall.

The Tianhe module measures more than 54.4 feet (16.6 meters) long, has a maximum diameter of around 13.8 feet (4.2 meters), and has a launch weight of roughly 49,600 pounds (22.5 metric tons), according to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency. It’s the largest and heaviest spacecraft ever built in China.

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

The Long March 5B rocket set to launch China’s Tianhe 1 module rolled out to its launch pad on Hainan Island on April 23. Credit: CASC

The 11 missions to kick off assembly of China’s space station include the the launch of three pressurized modules on Long March 5B rockets and resupply flights using Tianzhou cargo freighters launched on Long March 7 rockets from Wenchang. The flights will also include Shenzhou crew capsules launched on Long March 2F rockets from Jiuquan, an inland spaceport in the Gobi Desert in China’s Inner Mongolia region.

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.

Once the Tianhe module is in 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.

The Tianhe core module has handrails to assist astronauts moving around outside the space station on spacewalks.

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

Chinese officials say the space station is designed to operate for more than 10 years. 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 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.

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NASA barge delivers first SLS core stage to Kennedy Space Center

April 27th 2021 at 19:11
NASA’s Pegasus barge arrives in the Turn Basin at the Kennedy Space Center Tuesday evening. Credit: Steven Young / Spaceflight Now

The core stage of NASA’s first Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket arrived at the Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday evening aboard a specially-built barge, completing a voyage by sea from a test site in Mississippi to begin final preparations for the first flight of NASA’s Artemis Moon program.

The 310-foot-long (94.4-meter) transport vessel completed a nearly five-day trip from NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, delivering the SLS core stage for the Artemis 1 lunar test flight to Florida’s Space Coast after an eight-minute test firing of the rocket’s four main engines March 18.

Engineers and technicians at Kennedy will ready the rocket to launch an unpiloted Orion crew capsule on a multi-week test flight around the Moon. If the test flight goes well, the next SLS/Orion mission — Artemis 2 — will carry three NASA astronauts and a Canadian crew member on the first human mission to lunar distances since the Apollo program.

Future Artemis missions will land astronauts near the Moon’s south pole.

Under tow, the Pegasus barge arrived at Port Canaveral, transferred through locks, and then sailed up the Banana River and followed waterways to the Turn Basin at Kennedy, near the spaceport’s iconic Vehicle Assembly Building. The barge docked there just before sunset Wednesday.

NASA previously used the Pegasus barge to transport the giant orange fuel tanks used by the space shuttle. The external tank was built at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, the same location where Boeing manufactures SLS core stages.

The space agency lengthened the Pegasus barge by 50 feet (15 meters) to accommodate the longer SLS core stage. The barge will transport future Artemis Moon rockets directly from the factory at Michoud to the Kennedy Space Center.

Ground teams at Kennedy plan to unload the 212-foot-long (64.6-meter) core stage before sunrise Thursday and wheel it into the Vehicle Assembly Building on a transport cradle. The rocket measures 27.6 feet (8.4 meters) in diameter, the same width as the shuttle external fuel tank.

Officials at Kennedy are eager to start working with the core stage. 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.

“The team has been very excited to finally get the real hardware in our hands,” said Cliff Lanham, senior vehicle operations manager for Kennedy’s exploration ground systems program. “We’ve seen drawings. We’ve seen PowerPoints for the last many years, and to see the real hardware, it really gives everybody kind of a jolt of energy.”

Lanham said the core stage is the “next big piece of the puzzle.” All other components of the Space Launch System and the Orion spacecraft for the Artemis 1 mission are already delivered to Kennedy.

“Part one is getting these boosters stacked, and getting Orion prepared, and we’re working that,” Lanham said in an interview last month. “But now, with the core stage, that makes the big boosters dwarfed because now you’ve got a 212-foot stage that’s coming. That’s going to to re-energize us as well.

“We can really start saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to get there. We’re going to launch this rocket,’” Lanham said.

The core stage will enter the south door of the VAB and remain in the transfer aisle — the cavernous passageway in between the rocket assembly bays — for several weeks of work.

“The minute that barge shows up out here at the Turn Basin, we’re ready to go,” Lanham said last month. “We’ve got to take it off the barge, we’ve got to bring it into the low bay up here.”

Technicians will work on the rocket’s thermal protection system foam and begin installing pyrotechnic charges for the core stage’s range safety destruct system. Then ground crews aim to be ready by mid-May to rotate the rocket vertical and lift it by crane into High Bay 3. The 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 SLS core stage is lowered horizontal at the B-2 test stand at the Stennis Space Center earlier this month for loading into NASA’s Pegasus barge. Credit: NASA

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.

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.

“The schedule for Artemis 1 will be really challenging,” Jurczyk said in a webinar hosted by the Space Transportation Association. “If things go really, really well … we have a change to launch by the end of the calendar year. But this is the first-time flow of a vehicle at KSC. We’ll undoubtedly encounter challenges.”

Any major issues over the next few months would likely push the Artemis 1 launch into 2022.

“We don’t have a lot of schedule reserves against launching by the end of the calendar year,” Jurczyk said.

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