Tag Archives: SpaceX

SpaceX wins another Air Force launch contract

The competition heats up: SpaceX has been awarded a $96.5 million contract to launch an Air Force GPS satellite.

This price is about $14 million more than the last SpaceX Air Force launch contract. That’s probably because SpaceX was trying to undercut ULA’s price by as little as possible so that they could increase their profit. Until there are others in the business who can compete with SpaceX’s prices, the company is sitting pretty in any competitive bidding situation. Their costs are less, so they can always beat everyone else’s prices, while maximizing their profits.

New commercial proposals for launching almost 15,000 satellites

The competition heats up: New applications filed by SpaceX and OneWeb with the FCC propose augmenting both companies’ previously proposed satellite constellations and raising the number of total satellites to be launched to almost 15,000 total.

SpaceX has filed a new application with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for approval to launch a constellation of 7,518 satellites to provide communications in the little used V band. The system is in addition to another constellations of 4,425 satellites (plus orbital spares) SpaceX proposed in November that would operate in the Ku and Ka bands. In total, the two constellations would have 11,943 spacecraft plus spares. “When combined into a single, coordinated system, these ‘LEO’ and ‘VLEO’ constellations will enable SpaceX to provide robust broadband services on a full and continuous global basis,” SpaceX said in its application.

Competitor OneWeb has submitted a new application that would add an additional 2,000 satellites capable of operating in the V-band to its planned constellation of 720 satellites.

These are all smallsats, which means they can be launched in bunches. Still, even if they are launched in groups of 100, it will still take 150 launches to get them all into orbit. That is a lot of business for the launch industry.

SpaceX loses 89 smallsats due to delays

Spaceflight, a company that specializing in scheduling secondary payload launches for smallsat companies, this week pulled 89 satellites from SpaceX because of that company’s launch delays.

For more than a year, Seattle-based Spaceflight has been waiting to launch an array of 89 miniaturized satellites aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and deploy them in orbit from its innovative SHERPA carrier.

Now the launch logistics company isn’t waiting any longer. All 89 satellites have been rebooked due to schedule concerns, Spaceflight’s president, Curt Blake, reported today in a blog posting. “We found each of our customers an alternative launch that was within the same time frame,” Blake wrote. “It took a huge effort, but within two weeks, the team hustled to have all customers who wanted to be rebooked confirmed on other launches!”

The SHERPA carrier had been slated as a secondary payload on the launch of Taiwan’s Formosat-5 satellite. It was put on SpaceX’s manifest since 2015, but the launch has been repeatedly delayed, in part due to the Falcon 9 rocket mishaps that occurred in mid-2015 and last September.

What is good about this is that the competition in the launch industry is now robust enough that these smallsats can find alternatives, and do it quickly. As good as SpaceX might be at some things, if the company doesn’s start fulfilling its promised launch schedule it will start to bleed customers more and more.

Unfortunately, the article doesn’t say which launch companies have now gotten this business. If I had to guess, I would bet that India got the contracts, based on their recent PSLV launch that put 103 smallsats into orbit. In arranging that launch ISRO had been very mobile, adding new smallsats to it quickly and very late in the launch schedule.

Heading Home

Today we completed our last caving trip in Belize. I and many of the expedition’s participants head home tomorrow.

Because our cave trips take so much time, I have not had time to post anything these last few days. I will try to post tomorrow during my return home, but expect full posting to resume on Thursday.

Also, though I will comment then in greater length about SpaceX’s announcement on Monday that they plan on sending two tourists around the Moon by 2018, I want to note here that this announcement is clearly Elon Musk’s response to the effort by NASA to delay the launch of commercial crew because of so-called safety issues so that SLS/Orion might fly first. Musk is telling the world that NASA’s safety concerns are crap (to which I generally agree) and he intends to prove this with his own lunar manned mission.

Dragon safely berths at ISS one day late

As expected, SpaceX’s Dragon freighter safely berthed at ISS today, one day late.

French astronaut Thomas Pesquet steered a 58-foot robotic arm to snare the unmanned Dragon at 5:44 a.m. EST, as the two spacecraft flew 250 miles above northwestern Australia. “Looks like we got a great capture,” radioed Shane Kimbrough, commander of the six-person Expedition 50 crew, to flight controllers in Houston.

The freighter will remain docked at ISS for a month while they off load it and load it with experiments being sent home.

Dragon aborts berthing with ISS

Because the spacecraft had apparently rendezvoused with ISS about 15 minutes early today, the computers on Dragon aborted the berthing, backing off to try again tomorrow.

No explanation as to why the spacecraft arrived so much earlier than expected, though it is reported to be in excellent shape.

Posted above the Gulf of Mexico, which appears very calm today.

SpaceX delays first Dragon Mars mission to 2020

SpaceX has decided to delay its first Dragon flight to Mars from 2018 to 2020 so as to focus on more immediate priorities.

Instead of aiming for the 2018 deadline, SpaceX will now try to launch a robotic mission to Mars — known as its Red Dragon mission — two years later, in 2020, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said during a press conference Friday.

This delay will allow the company to refocus on other more, earthly ambitions in the near term before setting its sights on Mars down the road. “We were focused on 2018, but we felt like we needed to put more resources and focus more heavily on our crew program and our Falcon Heavy program, so we’re looking more in the 2020 time frame for that,” Shotwell said.

They need to fly the Falcon Heavy several times first, and the delays caused by last year’s September 1 launchpad explosion, has pushed the first Falcon Heavy launch back from late in 2016 to the summer of 2017.

SpaceX launches Dragon and lands first stage

The competition heats up: SpaceX today successfully launched from Florida a Dragon capsule into orbit while also landing the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket.

This launch initiates use of the company’s new launchpad at Cape Canaveral, as well as their effort over the coming months to hold launches every two weeks or so.

Killing both commercial space and American astronauts

This all reeks of politics: A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released yesterday says that NASA it should not permit Boeing and SpaceX to fly humans on their capsules and rockets until they fix certain issues and test both repeatedly on unmanned flights before the first manned flights to ISS.

This GAO report was mandated by Congress, and it requires NASA to certify that both Boeing and SpaceX have met NASA’s requirements before allowing those first manned flights. While the technical issues outlined in the report — to which NASA concurs — might be of concern, my overall impression in reading the report, combined with yesterday’s announcement by NASA that they are seriously considering flying humans on SLS’s first test flight, is that this process is actually designed to put obstacles in front of Boeing and SpaceX so as to slow their progress and allow SLS to launch first with humans aboard.

For example, the report lists three main problems with the commercial manned effort. First there is the Russian engine on the Atlas 5. From the report itself [pdf]:
» Read more

SpaceX successfully completes Falcon 9 static fire test

SpaceX on Sunday successfully completed the launch dress rehearsal countdown and static fire test for its next Falcon 9 launch, which will loft a Dragon capsule to ISS and is set now for February 18.

The article at the link as well as a lot of other news organizations are making a big deal about the fact that this launch is taking place at the LC-39A launchpad, used during the Apollo program as well as by the shuttle. While the historic background is interesting, of more significance to me is that this test brings SpaceX closer to having two operational pads in Florida, one of which (LC-39A) is configured for Falcon Heavy launches.

Congressional report worries over Falcon 9 engine cracks

A forthcoming congressional report, reported by the Wall Street Journal, reveals that NASA is concerned about cracks that occur in the turbopumps of SpaceX’s Merlin engines.

The newspaper says the report has found a “pattern of problems” with the turbine blades within the turbopumps, which deliver rocket fuel into the combustion chamber of the Merlin rocket engine. Some of the components used in the turbopumps are prone to cracks, the government investigators say, and may require a redesign before NASA allows the Falcon 9 booster to be used for crewed flights. NASA has been briefed on the report’s findings, and the agency’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, told the newspaper that he thinks “we know how to fix them.”

A spokesman for SpaceX, John Taylor, said the company already has a plan in place to fix the potential cracking issue. “We have qualified our engines to be robust to turbine wheel cracks,” Taylor said. “However, we are modifying the design to avoid them altogether. This will be part of the final design iteration on Falcon 9.” This final variant of the Falcon 9 booster, named Block 5, is being designed for optimal safety and easier return for potential reuse. According to company founder Elon Musk, it could fly by the end of this year.

Here’s the real scoop: SpaceX initially built the engines to fly once, just as every single rocket company has done in the entire history of space, excluding the space shuttle. Under these conditions, the cracks could be considered an acceptable issue, which is what they mean when they say “We have qualified our engines to be robust to turbine wheel cracks.” My guess is that they tested the engines, found that the cracks were not a significant problem for a single flight, especially because the Falcon 9 rocket uses nine Merlin engines on the first stage and thus has some redundancy should one fail. And based on SpaceX’s flight record — no launch failures due to failed engines — that conclusion seems reasonable.

SpaceX is now redesigning to eliminate the cracks, however, because such cracks are not acceptable for engines that will fly multiple times on reused first stages.

Thus, this story, as leaked, appears to me to be a hit job by powers in Congress who dislike the competition that SpaceX poses to big government rockets like SLS. SLS will use salvaged shuttle engines, designed initially for many reuses, and thus are superior in this manner to SpaceX’s Merlin engines. The shuttle engines however were also built by the government, which didn’t care very much about the cost of development, or making any profits. The comparison thus is somewhat bogus. Moreover, I suspect these cracks were only discovered after SpaceX successfully landed and recovered some first stages. To put them on trial in the press now for doing good engineering research and redevelopment seems somewhat inappropriate.

The report itself has not yet been released, though it does also note lingering issues with the parachutes being developed for Boeing’s Starliner capsule.

Overall, both companies are struggling to start their operational flights by 2019. For Congress or NASA to try to put more roadblocks up in that development seems most counterproductive.

SpaceX gets an eighth Iridium launch

The competition heats up: SpaceX has won a new launch contract, this time by launching both Iridium’s five satellites as well as the NASA/German Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) mission.

Both NASA and Iridium will save money by sharing the ride, while SpaceX gets more business.

Recovered Falcon 9 first stage prepped for launch

The competition heats up: SpaceX on Tuesday revealed that last week it has completed the standard static fire testing of the recovered Falcon 9 first stage that it plans to relaunch in March.

A March launch would mean an 11-month turnaround, which is far from optimal, but understandable for the first time. SpaceX’s founder and chief executive, Elon Musk, has acknowledged the company must do better in the future if resuable flight is to become economically viable. He says the next—and likely final—iteration of the Falcon 9 rocket will be optimized for reuse. “Block 5 is the final upgrade of the Falcon architecture,” he tweeted earlier this year. “Significantly improves performance & ease of reusability. Flies end of year.”

It now seems likely that SpaceX will fly the landed boosters it currently has, at most once or twice, before retiring them, instead of multiple times. Although the company hasn’t elaborated on the problems with the engines, booster structure, or composite materials that have shown wear and tear after their orbital launches and returns, Musk is confident that changes to the Block 5 version of the rocket will solve the problem. “I think the F9 boosters could be used almost indefinitely, so long as there is scheduled maintenance and careful inspections,” he has said.

In other words, SpaceX has had — for the first time in history — the opportunity to inspect a number of used first stage rockets, and that precious knowledge is making it possible for them to upgrade the stage design to make future stages more hardy. In fact, those future stages won’t be stages, but reusable vessels that SpaceX could even name if it wished.

SpaceX to double leased space at Los Angeles port

The competition heats up: SpaceX has requested a doubling of its leased space the port of Los Angeles in order to facilitate the return of first stages launched from Vandenberg.

The Board of Harbor Commissioners will vote at its Thursday morning meeting on a deal to enlarge Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s footprint at San Pedro’s outer harbor. The company hopes to lease 4.6 acres of land and water area along Berths 51 to 53 for $23,735 a month, plus insurance and any incidental costs.

In addition to extra space, the lease agreement allows the company to have berthing rights, install a chain-link fence around the property, build a concrete rocket-support pedestal, and add an office trailer, guard shack and portable restrooms, according to a staff report prepared for the commission.

According to the article, the increased space is needed because of the company’s plans to launch every two weeks from its pads at Kennedy and Vandenberg.

Next Falcon 9 launch delayed as SpaceX rearranges manifest

Because the launchpad at Kennedy is not quite ready for the planned February 3 launch of a commercial satellite, SpaceX has rearranged its launch manifest to switch that launch with the next Dragon mission to ISS, essentially delaying their next launch by two weeks.

With [launchpad] 39A still not ready to debut in its new role with SpaceX, the first mission set to launch from this pad – the Falcon 9 launch with EchoStar 23 – was pushed to the right a number of times. Although 39A is very close to being ready to conduct launches, EchoStar 23’s launch date was deemed to be too close to the mid-February target for the CRS-10 Dragon mission.

SpaceX and NASA discussed the situation on Friday night, before deciding it would be prudent to place EchoStar 23’s launch after CRS-10, allowing engineers to finalize modification and checkout work on the famous pad and simultaneously avoid a potential delay to the important Dragon mission to the Station.

The real problem here is that SpaceX had planned to have two working launchpads by this time, but doesn’t because their first pad was damaged in the September 1 Falcon 9 launchpad explosion. The consequences is that, for at least the next month, they will not be able to set a pace of a launch every two weeks.

SpaceX prepares used 1st stage for February launch

The competition heats up: Even as SpaceX moves forward on an intense launch schedule, with launches planned for January 26 and February 8, it has begun preparations for a late February commercial launch that will be the first to reuse a first stage.

The first stage assigned to SES 10’s launch first flew April 8, 2016, with a Dragon supply ship on a logistics launch to the International Space Station. After detaching from the Falcon 9’s second stage, which continued into orbit, the 15-story first stage booster descended to a vertical landing on SpaceX’s offshore platform a few minutes after liftoff, making the first time the company recovered a rocket intact at sea.

The landing on SpaceX’s barge, or drone ship, last April came four months after the first-ever touchdown of a Falcon 9 first stage on land at Cape Canaveral. That vehicle is now on display outside SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

This pace is calling for a launch every two weeks. It will spectacular if SpaceX can keep that up, but such a pace is not really unprecedented. The Soviets at their height managed it at times quite successfully.

SpaceX is flying again

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has successfully launched 10 Iridium satellites, and its first stage has also successfully landed on the barge.

The live view of the first stage landing was especially thrilling, using a camera on the stage, looking down to the Pacific Ocean. While there were a few dropouts, the picture stayed live for the entire descent.

SpaceX to land both Falcon Heavy first stages and Dragon at Cape Canaveral

An environmental report, prepared by SpaceX, describes in detail their plans to build landing facilities for their Dragon capsule as well as two more landing pads to facilitate the vertical landing of all three Falcon Heavy first stages at Launch Complex 13 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

It is not clear when this work will go forward, though I suspect it will not be too far in the future.

FAA okays SpaceX launch on Monday

As I expected, after several days of hemming and hawing, the FAA has granted SpaceX a launch license for its planned Monday launch.

The FAA license approved Friday covers all seven Falcon 9 launches planned for the Iridium Next constellation, along with landings of the Falcon 9 first stage on a barge positioned downrange in the Pacific Ocean. The $3 billion Iridium Next program aims to replace all of the company’s existing satellites, which were launched in the late 1990s and early 2000s and are now operating well beyond their design lives.

What SpaceX clearly did here was to move ahead, daring the FAA to challenge their desire to launch quickly. Government bureaucrats don’t like that, but to call SpaceX’s bluff and block the launch would have caused these bureaucrats even more problems. SpaceX knew this, and gambled that the FAA would back down. It did, and thus the launch license was issued.

Arianespace wins two contracts, aims for a dozen launches in 2017

The competition heats up: Arianespace announced yesterday that it has won two new commercial launch contracts, and will aim in 2017 to tie its own record for yearly launches at 12.

Arianespace will also seek to tie its record number of launches with 12 missions planned this year. The company first reached this cadence in 2015, and was on track to tie it again last year were it not for a shipping issue that delayed the launch of DSN-1, a Japanese X-band military communications satellite damaged en route Europe’s Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana.

I suspect that one reason Arianespace is getting these contracts, despite charging significantly more than SpaceX, is that they are successfully getting their customer’s payloads into orbit. SpaceX has a gigantic backlog of launches, so it makes no sense to give them more work as the launches will certainly not occur when these satellite companies need them to occur. This fact only ups the pressure and the competition. SpaceX has got to start getting that backlog into orbit, or else its business model will suffer significantly.

SpaceX launch delayed until Monday

One local news source now reports that SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch has been delayed one day until Monday.

While officials announced at the start of week their plans to aim for a 10:28 a.m. Sunday departure, notices warning boaters and pilots of an upcoming launch now say the mission is targeting Monday, Jan. 9. The one-day delay means the launch time is expected to be a few minutes earlier to ensure the satellites are placed where needed in space.

This news has not yet been confirmed. The delay is now official.

SpaceX plans Jan 8 launch

SpaceX today released its final investigation results on the September 1 Falcon 9 launchpad explosion, and announced that they have now scheduled their next launch for January 8 out of Vandenberg Air Force Base.

As expected, the cause is the accumulation of solid oxygen in the wrappings of the helium bottle tank (COPV) inside the oxygen tank of the first stage. The following is their announced solution:

The corrective actions address all credible causes and focus on changes which avoid the conditions that led to these credible causes. In the short term, this entails changing the COPV configuration to allow warmer temperature helium to be loaded, as well as returning helium loading operations to a prior flight proven configuration based on operations used in over 700 successful COPV loads. In the long term, SpaceX will implement design changes to the COPVs to prevent buckles altogether, which will allow for faster loading operations.​

Their vagueness in describing the “prior flight proven configuration” is likely to protect proprietary information, but the overall solution suggests that their fuel loading operations will take longer.

The January 8 launch date was simultaneously announced on twitter.

U.S. wins launch scorecard for 2016

Doug Messier today has compiled a list showing the launch totals worldwide for 2016, showing that though the U.S. and China tied for first with the most launches, 22, the U.S. won the race with fewer launch failures. Russia fell to third, almost entirely because its Proton rocket has been grounded since June.

What I find interesting is that, very slowly, the competing American companies are beginning to compile launch numbers that match those of whole nations. ULA completed 12 launches, which beat everyone but the U.S., China, and Russia. SpaceX, despite no launches after its September 1 launchpad explosion, still beat India and Japan, long considered established space powers, and finished only one launch total behind Europe.

Eventually, I believe SpaceX is going to get its technical problems ironed out. When that happens, the competition between them and ULA could have both companies producing numbers that beat out the national programs of Russia and China. In fact, I expect this to happen within three years, but more likely sooner.

SpaceX preps for next launch

SpaceX has begun placing the ten Iridium satellites inside their Falcon 9 housing in preparation for its next launch, now planned for no earlier than January 7.

The first 10 satellites for Iridium’s next-generation mobile voice and data relay network have been fueled, joined with their deployment module and encapsulated inside the clamshell-like nose cone of a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster for launch as soon as next week from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. SpaceX and Iridium have not announced a target launch date, but engineers are aiming to have the mission ready for liftoff by Jan. 7. That schedule is still very preliminary.

An official target launch date is pending the Federal Aviation Administration’s approval of the SpaceX-led investigation into the explosion of a Falcon 9 rocket on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral on Sept. 1, which destroyed the Israeli-owned Amos 6 communications satellite awaiting liftoff a few days later.

The article also has this interesting tidbit:

After the Falcon 9 rocket completes its pre-flight “static fire” test on the launch pad — the same test that resulted in the explosion in Florida on Sept. 1 — the 10 Iridium Next satellites will be mated with the booster for liftoff.

This suggests that SpaceX is changing its launch procedures, whereby before it would do the static fire dress rehearsal with the payload already loaded on the rocket. For this launch at least they are going to do that dress rehearsal before installing the payload on the rocket.

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