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SpaceX launches 23 Starlink satellites

SpaceX last night successfully launched another 23 Starlink satellites into orbit, its Falcon 9 rocket lifting off from Cape Canaveral.

The first stage completed its seventeeth flight, landing on a drone ship in the Atlantic. That SpaceX now has several first stages that have been reused this much and it isn’t considered news is in itself a story. The company has actually gotten this rocket to perform like an airplane, a goal that Elon Musk aspired too more than a decade ago.

The leaders in the 2023 launch race:

87 SpaceX
53 China
15 Russia
7 Rocket Lab
7 India

American private enterprise now leads China 99 to 53 in successful launches, and the entire world combined 99 to 84. SpaceX meanwhile widens its lead over the rest of the world (excluding American companies) 87 to 84.

As a number of my readers have noted, the U.S. lead this year is entirely due to SpaceX, indicating a dominance that is actually unhealthy. Other American companies need to come forward and challenge it, because the competition will spark innovation and better rocketry. With no competition, it is inevitable that even SpaceX could get lazy.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

 
The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit. If you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and the author gets a bigger cut much sooner.


The audiobook is also available at all these vendors, and is also free with a 30-day trial membership to Audible.
 

"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs."--San Antonio Express-News

12 comments

  • geoffc

    So not counting Starship launches, that was 9 launches in November. 10 in December seems possible. (Holiday scheduling notwithstanding). That would get them to 98 possibly and SpaceX will no doubt differ with Bob on the counting of the two Starship attempts, and 100 in a year looks really possible. Wild days.

  • Dick Eagleson

    Assuming the launch of a non-Starlink payload from Vandenberg currently scheduled for Wednesday goes off as planned, SpaceX will have launched 10 Falcons in November. To get to 100 for the year would require 12 Falcons to launch in December. That is possible, but only if SpaceX can launch four times from Vandy and seven times from SLC-40 at Canaveral in addition to the Falcon Heavy that is due to carry an X-37B into orbit from LC-39A. Doing this would require SpaceX to repeatedly match its best-ever pad turnarounds at both Vandy and Canaveral over the entire month of December. Doing so would yield a cadence SpaceX hopes to average each month in the coming year. In less than five weeks the tale of SpaceX’s Falcon launch total for 2023 – whatever it turns out to be – will be told.

  • Dick Eagleson: That launch has been delayed to December 1st due to weather.

  • Surly

    Perhaps ‘…Elon Musk aspired to…”.

    I know I should comment on something substantive but my OCD focuses on the minutiae. :(

  • Cotour

    Q: When will there be seen on BTB an exclusive interview with the Zman and Elon Musk?

    Seems like a natural to me.

  • Richard M``

    Other American companies need to come forward and challenge it, because the competition will spark innovation and better rocketry. With no competition, it is inevitable that even SpaceX could get lazy.

    Vulcan might not be the toughest competition, but hey, at this point . . . well, their Christmas Eve launch date looks pretty solid. The real question is what kind of cadence they can manage after that, given the achingly slow production rate of BE-4 engines.

    Rocket Lab, at least, seems to be going full tilt on development of their medium-lift launcher, Neutron. I am cautiously optimistic that it will reach a launch pad on schedule (allegedly, late next year).

    Blue Origin recently allowed a view of a first stage of New Glenn, sans engine section. They are clearly making *some* progress with actual hardware, and they insist that it will launch in late 2024 . . . but obviously given their track record, some serious caution is order in taking any of their promises of getting to orbit at face value.

    It is difficult to make any assessment of where Relativity, Northrop, Firefly and Stoke are in their development programs. No one else is really worth mentioning.

    I think we’ll see competition before too long; though mainly, it will really be for the “non-SpaceX” slot in the medium/heavy launch market. At most, these players might only keep SpaceX from jacking up their prices any higher. SpaceX just has an enormous first mover advantage, and they are only stomping ever harder on the gas pedal.

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “With no competition, it is inevitable that even SpaceX could get lazy.

    The way I see it, SpaceX is unlikely to work hard to compete in the medium lift (Falcon 9) and the heavy lift (Falcon Heavy) launch market but will likely focus closely on the super heavy lift market. With the coming of commercial space stations and commercial exploration of the solar system, Starship is likely to be busy.

    SpaceX may begin to focus on other areas of space, such as colonization of Mars, in which case it is most likely to make some optimizations to Starship then focus on its other projects. This would give the competition a stationary target to shoot for, and that may make it much more worth developing their own super heavy launch vehicles to help cover the growing market.

    So, my question is: will SpaceX then focus on Starlink and space exploration and let the other launch companies improve on Starship, or will SpaceX continue optimizing their own super heavy launch vehicles?

  • Chris

    So space engineers – a question:

    Does a rocket design need to be different or even radically different to be used for heavy lift to LEO versus for the moon or Mars trips?
    I.e. Is Starship giving up an optimization for LEO lift by being also able to provide the moon or Mars as a target?

  • Edward

    Chris asked: “Does a rocket design need to be different or even radically different to be used for heavy lift to LEO versus for the moon or Mars trips? I.e. Is Starship giving up an optimization for LEO lift by being also able to provide the moon or Mars as a target?

    Starship, a super-heavy lift vehicle, ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Launch_vehicle#Mass_to_orbit ) makes several compromises. Part of it is the nature of being a general purpose upper stage, part is going to planetary destinations (so the short answer is: “yes, Starship is suboptimal for some of its proposed missions”), part is that SpaceX wants to develop something untried in a quick and relatively inexpensive manner, and there may be additional reasons for compromise.

    Starship keeps its nosecone all the way to orbit, which presents a capacity penalty. Another company may choose to separate fairings as usual (reusing them as with the Falcons) and find a different way to reenter the atmosphere for a reusable upper stage, As SpaceX had pondered doing for the Falcons, a decade ago. Starship is currently made of steel, but SpaceX may later choose to optimize with carbon composite, as Rocket Lab and ESA’s Phoebus are trying. The lunar version of Starship does not really need an aerodynamic nosecone by the time of stage separation, so SpaceX conceivably could jettison its nosecone as a fairing.

    Ultimately, it may be most efficient to have optimized shuttles between Earth’s surface and low Earth orbit (LEO), different optimized spacecraft shuttling between LEO and lunar orbit or Mars orbit, and other optimized shuttles between lunar orbit and the lunar surface as well as martian orbit and the martian surface.

    Another example is the Saturn V, another super-heavy lift vehicle, which lifted Skylab to LEO and Apollo to lunar orbit and the lunar surface. Apollo used a concept called lunar orbit rendezvous, in which a mother ship (the Apollo Command-Service module) released a daughter ship to descend to the Moon’s surface then rendezvous again in lunar orbit for return to Earth.

    SpaceX is using a concept that Apollo had pondered using, called Earth orbit rendezvous, in which the ship that travels to the destination is lifted to LEO and refuel with another tanker ship. I keep wondering how much more Apollo could have taken to the lunar surface had they used a combination of both concepts.

  • Chris

    Thanks Edward

    On the steel fabrication of Starship I thought I remembered a B-t-B video of Musk touting the a specific Stainless Steel material as better than composite, – can’t find it right now.

    I would also wonder on the size of fuel capacity and volume as it takes up space and design consideration within the overall rocket design.. If the target is a specific LEO, or all LEO ranges then a specific fuel capacity would be needed. (I assume the density of the payloads to be somewhat consistent – perhaps misguided). I wonder if this refinement is worth the design decision to loose the other possibilities of the rocket performance?

    In addition to the flight performance I would also assume there would be refinements in the handling of the payloads, docking and LEO maneuvering – and many things I don’t even know how to contemplate are needed. Fully automated/robotic flight would be a large advantage I assume.

    To my mind when we start to see the optimization decisions start to take place in the designs for more specificity of purpose to meet a specific goals then space will not just be being explored but then will be exploited. We’re still in the very early days…

    Thanks again

  • Edward

    Chris,
    You wrote: “On the steel fabrication of Starship I thought I remembered a B-t-B video of Musk touting the a specific Stainless Steel material as better than composite, – can’t find it right now.

    I remember something similar. You are now getting into minutia and details, but yes, material selection is all important. Steels have advantages over composites in some applications and composites have advantages in others. One advantage of steel is its ability to withstand higher temperatures, which helps during reentry. Steel may also do better in compression than many fiber composites, but the composites may perform better in tension. Composites have properties that differ in the direction of the application of the forces, but metals tend to be homogeneous, greatly simplifying the calculations and the mental conceptualization for the engineer, but when those different properties come in handy, they can really come in handy!

    On fuel capacity, any given launch vehicle can carry a certain mass to low Earth orbit, but too much more mass and it cannot reach orbit at all. If the payload is light enough, then escape velocity to destinations away from Earth (e.g. the Moon or Mars) become possible for many launch vehicles.

    Care must be taken to not have too much propellant on board. More is not always better. Too much in the first or second stage can prevent the booster from getting the rocket high enough and fast enough for the less powerful upper stage to continue climbing. The same goes for the payload’s propellants. If it doesn’t get into orbit after the upper stage runs out, the payload may not have the thrust to go the rest of the way. If the payload ends up in an orbit that is too low, it needs to use stationkeeping propellants to go higher, and that reduces the lifetime of the mission.

    Spacecraft densities vary. A cubesat is allowed to be up to the density of water (10cm cubed = 1 liter, and it can be up to 1 kg) for standard release mechanisms. The communication satellites I worked on might be closer to or less than 1/4 of the density of water, fully fueled.

    I wonder if this refinement is worth the design decision to loose the other possibilities of the rocket performance?

    When SpaceX chose to design the Falcon 9, they did so based on the needs of the commercial satellite market, not the government satellite market. ULA had a lock on government satellites, so competition there could be problematic. As it turned out, certain government needs could be satisfied with the Falcon 9 design, especially for the price SpaceX charged. Falcon 9 and its Merlin engines run on kerosene, even on the upper stage. More optimized upper stages use hydrogen, as it gives better performance, more thrust per pound of propellant burned, but it also tends to cost more to handle. SpaceX optimized for cost to orbit rather than mass to orbit. That choice has paid off well, overall, but some payloads need a better performing launch vehicle. The Falcon Heavy is one that can lift more, despite the same limitation of a kerosene upper stage.

    Many new launch vehicles, such as Starship, are opting for methane fuel as a compromise between the performance of hydrogen and the lower cost of not using hydrogen. My recollection is that only one methane launch vehicle has achieved orbit, so far, but these rockets have only been trying for about a year. More should start succeeding next year.

    Different missions require different flight performances. Ion thrusters have high thrust to propellant weight ratios, but they tend to be low thrust engines, making navigation more complex than is covered by the usual grad-level orbital-mechanics classes. Automation has always been preferred, just to reduce the load for controllers on the ground for Earth orbiting satellites, or to allow for more travel for Mars rovers. Automation allows the ground controller to point the rover to a destination, and the rover figures out how to avoid the big rocks. Otherwise the ground controller has to give detailed driving instructions and a couple days can elapse to maneuver around a rock.

    It is difficult to design one spacecraft to perform many missions. It is like a car, one design is not enough, but it we could only choose one, then the pickup truck may be the most versatile, suboptimal for most purposes but capable of many uses. I see Starship as an early space pickup truck. The Space Shuttle was similar, except it was too expensive and flew too infrequently to be of much use.

    To my mind when we start to see the optimization decisions start to take place in the designs for more specificity of purpose to meet a specific goals then space will not just be being explored but then will be exploited. We’re still in the very early days…

    I see it a little differently. We have already met specific goals, but most have been goals that government agencies specified. I see commercial space as having different goals, profitable goals that do even more to help we earthlings than mere weather prediction or turn-by-turn driving directions. One company, Varda, has succeeded in manufacturing in space, which I see as a major benefit, but government regulators have stifled its early attempt at demonstrating just how useful space can be to we earthlings:
    https://behindtheblack.com/behind-the-black/points-of-information/blocked-by-its-own-american-government-varda-now-looks-to-australia/

    With access to space becoming more frequent and less expensive, I see that we will get many more benefits from space once manufacturing becomes commonplace and once more companies are able to test out their own ideas for using space. It is a real shame that Bigelow Aerospace stopped being an enterprise. Had it survived, we most likely would already have a commercial space station orbiting Earth, providing commercial experiments and maybe even a space-produced product or two.

  • Edward

    I was just looking over the rockets displayed in one of the figures of the Wikipedia article I linked, in order to give the classifications of launch vehicles based upon mass capacity to low Earth orbit (LEO). The figure does not include Blue Origin’s New Glenn launcher.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Space_Launchers.png

    The figure includes current launch vehicles as well as retired vehicles and vehicles under development, but they slighted Blue Origin.

    In my opinion, New Glenn will be an important launch vehicle. Not only does it have an impressive launch capability, the upper end of the heavy launch category, but it is designed to be reusable. Similar to the Falcons, and similar to Rocket Lab’s plan for reusing Electron and Neutron, a reusable vehicle should be able to launch often, resulting in an increased access to space.

    In the olden days, less than a decade ago, a spacecraft operator would have to order a launch vehicle two or three years in advance, giving the launch company enough time to build a launcher specifically for that spacecraft. These days, SpaceX already has a fleet of launchers, so all the operator has to do is order a launch far enough in advance for SpaceX to put a launch on its schedule. Right now, the only inconvenience is that SpaceX may have to delay one of its own Starlink launches. People are rooting for SpaceX to get in 100 Falcon launches this year, and SpaceX wants to launch 144 orbital launches next year. Even this year, SpaceX alone will launch more times than the entire world had launched annually between 1991 through 2017, before the reusable Falcon made LEO so easily accessible.

    Think of the access to space once we have six launch vehicles capable of launching a hundred times a year: Electron, Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, Neutron, New Glenn, and Starship. The other countries are going to have to adapt to reusable rockets, too, because right now other individual rocket models are limited in ability to launch around a dozen times a year (even Falcon 9 did not launch more than a dozen times a year until after it started reusing boosters in 2017), yet Falcon 9 has reached ten times that rate and aspires to 12 times that rate. What an advantage commercial space has over centrally controlled government-run space companies.

    (All that commentary, just because Wikipedia left New Glenn off a comparison of launch vehicles)

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