Tag Archives: SpaceX

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.

What happened at SpaceX the first time they landed a first stage

Cool image time! The National Geographic Mars series is combining fiction with high quality documentary footage of real events. The clip below shows the first ever vertical landing of a used rocket first stage in December 2015, and includes footage taken of SpaceX engineers and Elon Musk during that launch and landing. The landing ranks as one of the most important events in space history. And it still gives me goosebumps. Seeing that it also caused goosebumps to those who made it happen only emphasizes the significance of the moment.

Back from Vandenberg

In my trip to Vandenberg Air Force Base yesterday to give a lecture to their local AIAA chapter, I got a quick drive around the southern parts of the base where the Atlas 5, Delta, and SpaceX launchpads are located. This is the same area I toured when I last visited the base back in March 2015.

I had been curious to see the fire damage from the fall wildfires. Unfortunately, a fog bank had rolled in and made it impossible to see the hills behind the launchpads where the fires had raged. I did see some fire damage within several hundred feet of a liquid nitrogen storage facility, but otherwise the clouds prevented me from seeing any of the wildfire damage.

The one item of interest that I did see was at the SpaceX launchpad. While we could not enter the facility, we could see in plain sight the first stage of the next planned Falcon 9 launch. They had hoped to lift off this week, but delayed the launch last week until January to complete the investigation into the September 1 launchpad explosion. Nonetheless, the first stage was there, lying horizontal out in the open air. Several nozzles were removed from the engine array at the stage’s base. Whether they were removed as part of the investigation, or as part of standard maintenance, I do not know.

NASA begs out of first SpaceX’s Mars mission

NASA has decided to hold off contributing any science instruments for SpaceX’s first Dragon mission to Mars.

NASA wants to wait until SpaceX proves it can pull off a soft landing on the Red Planet before committing millions of dollars’ worth of equipment to the spaceflight company’s “Red Dragon” effort, said Jim Green, head of the agency’s Planetary Science Division. “Landing on Mars is hard,” Green said during a talk Tuesday (Dec. 13) here at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). “I want to wait this one out.”

SpaceX pushes back first manned Dragon flight

The first flight of a manned Dragon capsule has been delayed about six months to May 2018.

SpaceX is now targeting a test flight taking two astronauts to the ISS in May of 2018 — about six months later than previously planned, but three months before Boeing aims to fly a similar test in its CST-100 Starliner capsule. The test flight with a crew will be preceded by an orbital flight without one that SpaceX now hopes to fly next November, again a six-month slip. Boeing plans its uncrewed test flight in June 2018

This delay had been expected. The key is to get both of these capsules operational before 2019, when our contract with the Russians to use their Soyuz capsule will expire completely.

SpaceX’s loses launch contract due to scheduling delays

Because of SpaceX’s decision to delay its next launch into early January, Inmarsat today decided to switch launch companies for a mid-2017 satellite, dropping SpaceX and signing a contract with Arianespace.

Inmarsat is not abandoning SpaceX, only switching to Arianespace for one satellite. Nonetheless, this decision, coming only one day after SpaceX confirmed the delay, explains to me why SpaceX has been saying for months it intended to resume launches before the end of 2017. Inmarsat had probably told the company that if they delayed into January, they would lose this launch. When SpaceX finally admitted they couldn’t meet the 2016 launch deadline, Inmarsat made the switch.

SpaceX confirms its next launch will be in early January

In an update today on SpaceX’s September 1 Falcon 9 launchpad explosion investigation webpage, the company announced that its next launch will take place in early January, not mid-December as indicated in recent weeks.

We are finalizing the investigation into our September 1 anomaly and are working to complete the final steps necessary to safely and reliably return to flight, now in early January with the launch of Iridium-1. This allows for additional time to close-out vehicle preparations and complete extended testing to help ensure the highest possible level of mission assurance prior to launch.

Apparently they wish to do more testing to make sure they understand exactly what they need to do to avoid the conditions that caused the September 1 explosion. At the same time, they also think that an extra few weeks will be sufficient.

SpaceX to delay December 16 launch

I have absolutely no details at this moment, but I have found out through sources at Vandenberg Air Force Base, where I have been scheduled to give a lecture next Wednesday, December 14, that the December 16 SpaceX launch there has been delayed.

If the launch was still on they wanted to delay my talk because too many people would miss it, working instead on the launch. My lecture is now on, as the launch has been cancelled.

This is not in the news yet. Stay tuned for more details.

U.S. and China top Russia for most launches in 2016

The competition heats up: In 2016 it appears that the United States will complete the most rocket launches, at 20, followed by China with 19 and Russia with 18.

For the past two decades Russia has generally been the yearly leader in launches, but recent competition from the U.S. private sector and China’s surging government program, combined with lagging quality control problems and budget shortages in Russia, has had their launch rate decline to third. I also fully expect the U.S. lead to grow in the coming years as a range of low cost new companies come on line.

SpaceX to launch EchoStar satellite in early January

It appears that SpaceX has definitely scheduled a launch of an EchoStar communications satellite for either January 8 or 9, and that this launch will follow the launch of 10 Iridium satellites in December.

If this schedule happens has now indicated, SpaceX will launch a lot of rockets over the next two months.

SpaceX wins NASA satellite launch contract

The competition heats up: NASA has awarded SpaceX the contract to launch its Earth science satellite, Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT).

This sentence from the press release is puzzling:

The total cost for NASA to launch SWOT is approximately $112 million, which includes the launch service; spacecraft processing; payload integration; and tracking, data and telemetry support.

Since SpaceX touts a launch price for its Falcon 9 rocket as $62 million, I wonder why this launch will cost NASA almost twice as much. Was there so little competition in the bidding that SpaceX could bid higher and thus get more money? Or is NASA so disinterested in saving money that it left itself open to overpaying for something that everyone else gets for far else?

Explosion at SpaceX test site part of launchpad investigation

An explosion yesterday at SpaceX’s Texas test facility appears to have been planned and is part of the company’s investigation into the September 1 Falcon 9 launchpad explosion.

“The sound heard by residents was actually the result of a pressurization test at the McGregor Rocket R&D facility. These tests take place periodically at the site, and this particular test was part of the ongoing testing being conducted by our Accident Investigation Team,” SpaceX spokesman Phil Larson said in an email response to questions. “The volunteer fire department responded as a matter of procedure, but there was no damage to the site or injuries to any personnel.”

I would guess that they are trying to see if they can precisely duplicate the conditions that produced the September 1st explosion, including triggering new explosions in a reliable manner. If so, they would then know precisely what to avoid doing to trigger future tank failures.

Meanwhile, this story notes the successful first pressure tests of the carbon fiber tank that SpaceX is developing for its interplanetary spaceship. Not much information, though SpaceX has released some cool images of the tank being prepped for the test.

SpaceX files FCC application for 4000+ internet satellite constellation

The competition heats up: SpaceX today filed an FCC application for the construction and launch of a 4,425-satellite constellation designed to provide internet access worldwide.

In the technical information that accompanied its application, SpaceX said it would start commercial broadband service with 800 satellites. That service would cover areas of the globe from 15 degrees north to 60 degrees north, and from 15 degrees south to 60 degrees south. That leaves out some portions of Alaska, which would require a temporary waiver from the FCC.

Eventually, the network would grow to 4,425 satellites, transmitting in the Ku and Ka frequency bands. “Once fully deployed, the SpaceX system will pass over virtually all parts of the Earth’s surface and therefore, in principle, have the ability to provide ubiquitous global service,” SpaceX said.

When Musk first proposed this last year, he said it would take about $10 billion and five years to get it built. So, don’t expect these satellites to fly tomorrow. A lot of other things must happen first before this new plan takes flight.

Musk predicts mid-December return to flight

In a cable news interview today, Elon Musk reiterated recent reports that SpaceX expects to resume launches by the middle of December.

That the head of Inmarsat, one of SpaceX’s satellite customers, has confirmed this plan and appears to have no problem with it, suggests to me that SpaceX is on solid ground and that they have pinpointed a solution to the launchpad explosion that will not require any major re-engineering.

SpaceX may lose a customer payload

Because of the launch delays at SpaceX, Inmarsat is considering finding another rocket company to launch its fourth Global Xpress satellite.

Inmarsat is worried that even after SpaceX resumes launches with the Falcon booster, it may not be able to make up lost time to assure its satellite is placed on orbit as scheduled. Alternatives the London-based company is considering include flying the spacecraft on the European Ariane 5 rocket, Lockheed Martin Corp.’s Atlas V, or the Russian Proton booster. Mr. Pearce said Inmarsat could stick with SpaceX if it can get an earlier launch slot.

This is all part of the competitive game. Inmarsat needs to get its satellite in orbit in order to better compete in the communications market, and the delays at SpaceX because of the September 1 launchpad explosion are not helping. This announcement puts pressure on SpaceX to move them to the front of the line or else lose the launch. It also increases their chances of finding an alternative should SpaceX not be able to do that.

SpaceX update on Sept 1Falcon 9 launchpad explosion

SpaceX today released an update on its investigation of the September 1 Falcon 9 launchpad explosion.

Previously, we announced the investigation was focusing on a breach in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank. The root cause of the breach has not yet been confirmed, but attention has continued to narrow to one of the three composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) inside the LOX tank. Through extensive testing in Texas, SpaceX has shown that it can re-create a COPV failure entirely through helium loading conditions. These conditions are mainly affected by the temperature and pressure of the helium being loaded.

SpaceX’s efforts are now focused on two areas – finding the exact root cause, and developing improved helium loading conditions that allow SpaceX to reliably load Falcon 9. With the advanced state of the investigation, we also plan to resume stage testing in Texas in the coming days, while continuing to focus on completion of the investigation.

The report suggests that they are starting to pin down the very specific temperature and pressure conditions during loading of the helium tank that cause the problem, which also suggests they will soon also be able to adjust their procedures to avoid those conditions. This also suggests that they repeated assurances that they will be able to fly before the end of the year are not unreasonable.

SES financial report

In releasing its year-to-date and third quarter financial report (which showed significant growth), the satellite company SES also revealed that the launch of its SES-10 satellite will use a recovered Falcon 9 first stage, and that right now it is expected to occur in the first quarter of 2017.

Musk answers questions on reddit

In a reddit Q&A session yesterday, Elon Musk answered a host of questions about his Mars mission plans.

Key takeaway: They are far away from actually flying this rocket. The engine needs tests, its giant tanks need a great deal of development, and they are only beginning the concept work for the ship itself.

His comments on Falcon 9 re-usability, however, were somewhat more interesting, and far more grounded in present reality.

Musk did not answer any questions submitted about the status of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket, grounded since a Sept. 1 explosion during preparations for a static-fire test destroyed a Falcon 9 and its Amos-6 satellite payload. He did, though, briefly address an upcoming, and “final,” version of the rocket, which he called Block 5, that is designed for frequent reusability. “Falcon 9 Block 5 — the final version in the series — is the one that has the most performance and is designed for easy reuse, so it just makes sense to focus on that long term and retire the earlier versions,” he wrote. That version includes many “minor refinements” but also increased thrust and improved landing legs, he said.

The first of the Block 5 Falcon 9 vehicles will begin production in three months, with an initial flight in six to eight months. With its entry into service, he said he doesn’t expect recovered first stages from the older Block 3 and Block 4 versions of the rocket to be reused more than a few times.

In a speech earlier this month, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said she believed the updated version of the Falcon 9 could be reused up to 10 times. Musk, though, was more optimistic. “I think the F9 boosters could be used almost indefinitely, so long as there is scheduled maintenance and careful inspections,” he said.

Did fueling procedures cause Falcon 9 launchpad explosion?

This Wall Street Journal article today speculates that “problematic fueling procedures” might have caused the September 1 Falcon 9 launchpad explosion.

Company officials have said it is too early to arrive at definitive answers, though one person familiar with the investigation said initial concerns about potentially substandard welds have been relegated to a low priority. If testing bears out early findings focusing on problematic fueling practices instead of hardware flaws, SpaceX likely will avoid a major redesign effort or extensive quality-control checks that could drag on for months.

Caution must be exercised here. The article depends on unnamed sources, and does not provide any details describing how fueling procedures could have caused the explosion.

New comments by Musk on Sept 1 launchpad explosion

Unconfirmed and leaked statements made by Elon Musk at a National Reconnaissance Office presentation on October 13 suggest that the investigation is getting close to identifying the cause of the September 1 Falcon 9 launchpad explosion.

“It might have been formation of solid oxygen in the carbon over-wrap of one of the [helium] bottles in the upper stage tanks,” according to an excerpt of Musk’s remarks. “If it was liquid, it would have been squeezed out. But under pressure it could have ignited with the carbon. This is the leading theory right now, but it is subject to confirmation.”

Musk’s is also reported to have said that they found they could “…exactly replicate what happened on the launch pad if someone shoots the rocket.” He also dismissed this as a likely cause, though it has forced them to review their future launch security measures.

The article provides some very good additional analysis of the solid oxygen theory above. It suggests that though much of this technology has been used somewhat routinely in the launch industry for years, the specific environment used by SpaceX in its Falcon 9 rocket might have produced a new situation that caused the failure.

Used Dragon to fly in 2017

The competition heats up: SpaceX has confirmed that they will reuse a Dragon capsule to bring cargo to ISS in the spring of 2017.

This plan had already been revealed earlier. The news here is simply that NASA and SpaceX have finalized the decision and picked the actual schedule cargo mission that will use a Dragon capsule. What is more significant is this:

SpaceX plans to reuse Dragon spacecraft through the remainder of its current CRS contract, which runs through SpX-20. [Benjamin Reed, SpaceX director of commercial crew mission management] did not discuss how many Dragon spacecraft are available to be reused, or how many times SpaceX believes a Dragon capsule can be flown.

If successful, Reed said it would allow SpaceX to end production of the cargo Dragon spacecraft. “We’ll be reflying Dragons going forward, and be able to close down the Dragon 1 line and move all the way into Dragon 2,” he said, referring to the next-generation version of the Dragon being developed for commercial crew missions.

In other words, their goal is to transition very quickly from disposable capsules to a fleet of capsules that they fly over and over again.

No more manned Soyuz purchased by NASA after 2019

The competition heats up: Both Boeing and SpaceX better get their manned capsules working by 2019, because NASA at this point has no plans to buy more seats on Russian Soyuz capsules after the present contract runs out.

Even as the commercial crew schedules move later into 2018, NASA officials say they are not considering extending the contract with Roscosmos — the Russian space agency — for more launches in 2019. The last Soyuz launch seats reserved for U.S. astronauts are at the end of 2018.

It takes more than two years to procure components and assemble new Soyuz capsules, so Russia needed to receive new Soyuz orders from NASA by some time this fall to ensure the spacecraft would be ready for liftoff in early 2019.

The second paragraph above notes that even if NASA decided it needed more Soyuz launches, it is probably too late to buy them and have them available by 2019.

SpaceX offers 10% discount for satellites launched on reused 1st stages

In interview today for Space News, SpaceX’s president Gwynne Shotwell revealed that the company is only offering a 10% launch discount for any satellite launch that uses a reused Falcon 9 first stage, not the 30% price break she had indicated in March.

Though the interview also touched upon SpaceX’s September 1 launchpad investigation, it did not include anything significantly new. Shotwell readily admitted that the company did consider sabotage as a possible cause, but always considered it unlikely and right now has pretty much dismissed it. She also remains confident that the company will resume launches this year.

Space letter wars in Congress!

Turf war! A bi-partisan group of Congressmen, in response to an earlier letter by ten Republican senators questioning SpaceX’s ability to complete a thorough investigation of its September 1st launchpad explosion, have issued their own letter of support for the company.

In a letter to the heads of the Air Force, NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration, 24 members of Congress said that it was proper that SpaceX was leading the investigation. “Accidents are unfortunate events, and accident investigations should not be politicized,” wrote the bipartisan group led by Rep. Bill Flores (R-Tex.). “We encourage you to reject calls for your organizations to abandon established, well-considered and long-standing procedures.”

Ain’t democracy wonderful? It seems that SpaceX might have rounded up its own crony Congressmen to battle ULA’s crony Congressmen.

Not sabotage!

This closer look at the circumstances behind the September 1 Falcon 9 launchpad explosion outlines why sabotage by a sniper is almost certainly not the cause of the explosion.

The rocket was destroyed about eight minutes before it could start its engines for the static test fire. The supposed sniper could have waited until first-stage engine ignition, which would have covered the sound of a shot. Even a suppressed rifle can be quite loud, and the passage of the bullet through the air would have generated a distinctive sound. As Elon Musk wrote on Twitter a while ago, his team did not come to that conclusion. “Particularly trying to understand the quieter bang sound a few seconds before the fireball goes off,” Musk tweeted. “May come from rocket or something else.”

The .50-caliber Barrett rifle has a maximum effective range of little over a mile. It would be extraordinarily difficult (albeit not impossible) for a trained sniper to get within rifle range of the launch pad, given the tight security at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The article also notes that fuel tanks simply don’lt explode when you fire a bullet into them. Moreover, the problem came from the rocket’s second stage helium tank, and it would have been easier for a sniper to fire at the rocket’s first stage.

It was necessary for the investigation to look into this possibility, but it is also necessary to put the suspicion aside when it is found to be invalid. SpaceX had a rocket failure of significant importance on September 1st, and they need to uncover its actual cause in order to prevent it from happening again. Getting distracted by theories that don’t work will prevent them from doing that.

A detailed look at SpaceX’s Raptor engine

Link here. This story confirms for me a thought I had had while I watched Elon Musk’s talk last week outlining his proposed Interplanetary Transport System: SpaceX is still a good long way from actually building this rocket, since they have barely begun developing the rocket engine. They have made excellent progress in engine development, but they have a lot to do, with many pitfalls certain.

I therefore think that the company will be relying on its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, with their Merlin engines, for many more years to come.

Sabotage?

The competition really heats up: The SpaceX investigation into the September 1 Falcon 9 launchpad explosion has apparently also included looking into the possibility that sabotage could have played a part.

As part of the investigation, SpaceX officials had come across something suspicious they wanted to check out, according to three industry officials with knowledge of the episode. SpaceX had still images from video that appeared to show an odd shadow, then a white spot on the roof of a nearby building belonging to ULA, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing. The SpaceX representative explained to the ULA officials on site that it was trying to run down all possible leads in what was a cordial, not accusatory, encounter, according to the industry sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.

The building, which had been used to refurbish rocket motors known as the SMARF, is just more than a mile away from the launchpad and has a clear line of sight to it. A representative from ULA ultimately denied the SpaceX employee access to the roof and instead called Air Force investigators, who inspected the roof and didn’t find anything connecting it to the rocket explosion, the officials said.

To quote Sherlock Holmes, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” In this case, it appears that they have eliminated this impossibility, though it is interesting that SpaceX felt compelled to consider it.

SpaceX targets November 17 as next launch date

Though its investigation into the September 1 Falcon 9 launchpad explosion is not yet complete, and no launch has actually been scheduled, SpaceX and the Air Force 45th Space Wing that supervises the launch range at Cape Canaveral have penciled November 17 as the target date for SpaceX’s next launch.

The date has been chosen merely for “planning purposes” and I would not be surprised it no launch happens.

Republican Congressmen question SpaceX’s investigation

The knives are out: Ten Republican House members have sent a letter to the Air Force, FAA, and NASA questioning whether SpaceX should lead the investigation into its September 1 launchpad explosion.

The Congress members said the investigation responses raised “serious concerns about the authority provided to commercial providers and the protection of national space assets…. Although subject to FAA oversight, it can be asserted the investigation lacked the openness taxpayers would expect before a return-to-flight,” the letter says. “We feel strongly that the current investigation should be led by NASA and the Air Force to ensure that proper investigative engineering rigor is applied and that the outcomes are sufficient to prevent NASA and military launch mishaps in the future.”

…The letter also includes a list of questions for each agency including whether the Air Force will reconsider certification of the Falcon 9 rocket for national security launches; whether NASA will reevaluate the use of the Falcon 9 rocket for its commercial resupply and upcoming commercial crew missions; and whether the FAA would reconsider issuing licenses to SpaceX after its September launch pad explosion.

More details here, including the letter’s full text. Congressman Mike Coffman (R-Colorado), whose district interestingly includes ULA’s headquarters, is heading this attack.

I find this a typical example of why conservatives are disgusted with the Republican Party. It claims it stands for private enterprise and less regulation, but the first chance these guys get, they demand more government control in order to benefit the crony companies they support. Nothing in this letter will make SpaceX’s operations safer. The only thing any of its demands will accomplish if enforced will be to damage the company, thus aiding its competitor ULA.

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