Tag Archives: commercial

Spanish company completes parachute drop test of reusable first stage

The new colonial movement: A Spanish company funded by the European Space Agency (ESA) has successfully completed a drop parachute test for recovering the first stage of their smallsat rocket from the ocean.

A Chinook CH-47 helicopter lifted the 15 m long 1.4 m diameter Miura 5 demonstration first stage to an altitude of 5 km then dropped it over a controlled area of the Atlantic Ocean, 6 km off the coast of Huelva in southern Spain.

During the descent, electronic systems inside the demonstrator controlled a carefully timed release of three parachutes to slow it down until its splashdown at a speed of about 10 m/s.

A team of divers recovered the demonstrator and hoisted it onto a tugboat, which returned to the port of Mazagón. The demonstrator looks to be in good shape and will now be transported to PLD Space, in Elche, for inspection and further analysis.

They next say they will develop a vertical landing system, similar to SpaceX’s.

Honestly, this seems like a waste of money and somewhat foolish. SpaceX made it very clear almost a decade ago when they tried to recover first stages out of the ocean after using parachutes to splash down softly that the salt water did too much damage to the engines and made such recovery impractical.

I can’t help asking, why is ESA spending time and money supporting engineering tests of a design that simply won’t work? They should be doing tests now of vertical landing technology, since it does work, and in fact is what they need to compete successfully.

Maybe I am being too harsh. Maybe they want to develop vertical landing technology that will work in conjunction with these parachutes, and this is merely their first step. Maybe. Based on past ESA development projects (which are often as dysfunctional as NASA’s), I think my doubts are not unreasonable.

Share

SpaceIL to try again to land on Moon

Capitalism in space: The head of the private Israeli company SpaceIL has announced that he has found funding to build a second Beresheet lunar lander, and that they will try again.

How much funding he has gotten is not clear, but I suspect that the success his company had in getting to lunar orbit and almost landing will encourage investment capital.

Hat tip reader Andi.

Share

Stratolaunch flies!

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch’s giant two fuselage airplane Roc successfully launched on its first flight this morning.

It took off at 10 am Eastern, and as I write this the plane apparently is still in the air. Update: They have landed successfully, completing the first flight..

Below is video of the plane’s take off. This plane, the largest ever to fly, is quite impressive.

Share

SpaceX recovers Falcon Heavy fairings and will reuse them

Capitalism in space: In a tweet yesterday Elon Musk said that SpaceX had recovered both fairings from the Falcon Heavy launch and plans to reuse them later this year.

It seems that what the company has found is that catching the fairings is not necessary. Providing them parachutes and a guidance system so they land gently with the open half up, so they float literally like a boat, prevents any serious damage. The guidance system also gets them to land close enough for a quick pickup at sea.

Based on this knowledge, recovering and reusing these fairings was probably always a simple and fairly easy thing to do. No one however had had the smarts or open-mindedness to think of doing it. Moreover, from the article:

Musk told reporters last year that the fairing costs around $6 million. He said the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket comprises about 60 percent of the cost of a launch, with the upper stage responsible for 20 percent, and the fairing another 10 percent. The remaining 10 percent of the cost of a Falcon 9 mission come from charges stemming from launch operations, propellant and other processing expenses, Musk said last year.

In other words, by recovering both the first stage and the fairings, SpaceX makes their rockets about 70 percent reusable. That’s actually more reusable than the space shuttle ever was.

I must add that the section of the shuttle that was the most reusable was the section of SpaceX’s rockets that they as yet are not reusing, the upper stage. In other words, we have now tested and proven the technology for making an entire orbital rocket reusable, just never in the same vehicle. SpaceX is taking advantage of this knowledge and clearly applying it to their Super Heavy/Starship next generation rocket, which also means the likelihood of getting that to work is actually quite high and not as radical as many think.

Share

The Falcon Heavy reported by modern shoddy journalism

Yesterday’s magnificent successful launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket elicited numerous news stories from the general press, most of which were reasonably accurate if very superficial in their coverage. As a space guy who focuses on this stuff, I find that much of the reporting in the mainstream press reads as if the author has just discovered the subject, and is scrambling to come up to speed quickly.

This CNN article is typical. The journalist gets most of her facts right, but her lack of context because she hasn’t been following the subject closely causes her to not understand the reasons why the Falcon Heavy will fly less than the Falcon 9.

Falcon Heavy is not expected to fly nearly as often as its smaller counterpart, which has completed more than 20 missions since last February. Falcon Heavy only has five missions on its manifest so far.

The basic facts in this quote are entirely true, but it somehow implies that the Falcon Heavy is simply not that much in demand, which isn’t true. The reason Falcon Heavy has approximately one quarter of the missions of the Falcon 9 is because it is still new and it hasn’t yet garnered the customers. Also, as a slightly more expensive rocket than the Falcon 9 ($90 million per launch vs $60 million) fewer customers are going to buy it.

Still, the Falcon Heavy has more than five missions upcoming, with contracts for at least seven launches, by my count, and having this many contracts this quickly is remarkable, considering the rocket’s newness. It is more than the Russians are getting for their Proton rocket, around since the 1960s. And it is almost as many contracts as both Arianespace and ULA are each getting on a yearly basis.

Falcon Heavy is clearly becoming a big financial success, and will in the next few years I think routinely fly three to four times per year. There is a lot of demand for it, which will only grow with time.

This flaw in getting the background right by the CNN reporter is not really a big deal, but it does illustrate why it is better for ordinary citizens to get their news not from generalists in the mainstream press but from specialists in each field (such as myself), who understand the details more closely and can get the context right.

However, every once in awhile the mainstream press publishes a story that is so egregious and badly written that I think it necessary to give it a public pan, if only to make others aware of that this kind of bad journalism is not unusual. I also admit that it can be quite entertaining to highlight this pitifully bad journalism.

Yesterday one of Houston’s local television stations, KPRC-TV, published its own quick report on the Falcon Heavy launch. And boy, was that report a facepalm.
» Read more

Share

SpaceIL wins $1 million from X-Prize

Despite the failure of its Beresheet lunar lander to land softly on the Moon yesterday, the private company SpaceIL has been awarded a one million dollar prize by the X-Prize for its success in getting into lunar orbit and coming as close as it did to successfully landing.

“As a testament to the team’s passion and persistence, we are presenting this one million dollar Moonshot Award to the SpaceIL team at our annual Visioneering Summit in October 2019, with the hope that they will use these funds as seed money towards their education outreach or Beresheet 2.0, a second attempt to fulfill the mission,” said XPRIZE CEO Anousheh Ansari.

The article also outlines some details about the failure. The main engine cut off during descent, and though they were able to get it restarted, the spacecraft was now too close to the surface and traveling too fast to slow it down. They are now assessing their data to figure out why the engine cut off as it did.

Share

Virgin Orbit gets another launch agreement

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit has signed an agreement with the European launch services provider Exolaunch to provide launches for it appears as many as 20 smallsats.

Exolaunch, a spinoff of the Technical University of Berlin formerly called ECM-Space, has arranged launches, managed missions and integrated small satellite rideshare clusters for customers in Europe and North America. Exolaunch customers include startups, universities, scientific institutions and space agencies. In 2019, Exolaunch is under contract to send more than 60 small satellites into orbit. Forty of those satellites are scheduled to fly together on a Russian Soyuz rocket this spring or summer.

It appears that this agreement covers those 20 additional satellites, but the announcement is vague, probably because Virgin Orbit has still not completed its first launch. Until it does so, many of its launch contracts will be somewhat tentative, with its customers keeping the option to withdraw.

Share

SpaceX gets NASA launch contract

Capitalism in space: One week after dropping its protest for losing the bidding competition for the Lucy asteroid mission, SpaceX has been awarded by NASA the launch contract for its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, set for launch in June 2021.

The $61 million launch price is significantly lower than past NASA contracts for Falcon 9 launches. NASA awarded SpaceX a contract for the Sentinel-6A satellite in October 2017 for a November 2020 launch on a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg at a total cost of $97 million. The Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite will launch on a Falcon 9 in April 2021 under a contract awarded in November 2016 at a value of $112 million.

This low cost technology test mission, costing a total of $9 million, was initially going to be launch as a secondary payload. That NASA is now going to pay SpaceX for a full launch is most intriguing. It seems to me that there might be a bit of quid pro quo here. NASA wanted that protest dropped, and offered this launch to convince SpaceX to do that, as long as the launch cost was kept low. $60 million is really SpaceX’s standard price for Falcon 9 launch, using new boosters, but for NASA that is the least they’ve paid. How much more this is than what NASA would have paid to launch DART as a secondary payload is the real question.

Share

The second Falcon Heavy launch

I have embedded the live stream of Falcon Heavy launch below the fold. It does not go live until just before launch, which is now scheduled for 6;35 pm (Eastern).

The live stream is now live. I will post updates below, so refresh your screen to see them.

This is not a routine SpaceX launch, where we have become nonchalant about the company’s ability to vertically land a first stage. They admit getting the core stage back will be challenging. They also admit that this is essentially a countdown of three rockets, so they are going to be very conservative. If anything pops up during countdown, they will scrub and try another day.

They have launched.

The side boosters have successfully separated.

The center core stage has successfully separated.

Re-entry burns for the two side boosters has been completed.

Falcon Heavy core stage on drone ship

Re-entry burn on the core stage has been completed.

Both side boosters have landed.

The payload is in orbit.

The core stage has landed successfully on the drone ship.

Though the satellite has not yet been deployed, the rest of this mission is almost certainly going to go as planned, as it is essentially identical to a normal Falcon 9 launch. Update: payload successfully deployed!

Getting all three stages back is a notable achievement. They intend to recycle the two side cores and use them on the very next Falcon Heavy launch in June. The core stage will likely be reused as well but when has not yet been announced.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

4 SpaceX
4 China
4 Europe
3 Russia

The U.S. leads the pack 7 to 4 in the national rankings.

In the heavy lift launch race, SpaceX is by far in the lead in successful launches:

2 SpaceX
1 China
0 SLS (NASA)

I should add that I am being generous to include China’s Long March 5 in this heavy lift list. It really doesn’t qualify, but it remains the only other near competitor.
» Read more

Share

Beresheet landing fails

Beresheet's last image

An engine problem during landing has caused Beresheet to crash onto the lunar surface.

The image on the right was the last image beamed back by the spacecraft during the landing sequence. It looks down at the lunar surface from several thousand meters.

As Netanyahu immediately noted, “If at first you don’t succeed, you try again.”

This failure definitely slows down the effort to transition from government-controlled space exploration to a free effort by the independent citizenry of all nations. It does not stop it however. There are other private lunar missions already scheduled, and of course, there is the effort by SpaceX to build its own heavy-lift rocket to make interplanetary space travel affordable for all.

The next decade will see this effort blossom. Beresheet’s failure is an example of those first baby steps, when the ability to stand is uncertain, and sometimes results in a fall. But babies turn into adults. The future is bright indeed.

Share

Beresheet landing telecast live streaming now

They have begun the live stream of Beresheet’s landing on the moon, with the arrival of Benjamin Netanyahu in the viewer’s gallery. It is in Hebrew, and will likely mostly involve watching people sitting at computer consoles, and then standing and cheering when the spacecraft lands.

However, I have embedded it below the fold for your viewing pleasure.

UPDATE: They are including English commentary.
» Read more

Share

DARPA picks three smallsat rocket companies for launch challenge

Capitalism in space: DARPA has chosen Vector Launch, Virgin Orbit, and a third unnamed company to compete for up to $10 million in prizes in its quick launch competition.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is giving $400,000 to each of three companies chosen to compete in the “DARPA Launch Challenge” to demonstrate rapid and responsive launch of small payloads. Tucson-based Vector Launch, Virgin Orbit, and a “stealth” startup will now have the opportunity to compete for prizes up to $10 million for successfully proving they can successfully launch twice in a row within a short timeframe from being provided mission parameters, DARPA told reporters here April 10.

First, I wonder why Rocket Lab was not picked. I suspect this is because it is already launching operational missions, and so does not need this developmental boost. Also, its rocket might not meet DARPA’s criteria. The launch systems of both Vector and Virgin Orbit are designed to allow them to quickly transport their rocket to any number of launch sites and go. Rocket Lab’s Electron appears to need a more established launchpad.

Second, I wonder what that third unnamed startup is. There are more than two dozen in development right now, but I can only think of one, Exos Aerospace, that has actually done any successful test flights, albeit suborbital. Whether its reusable SARGE suborbital rocket, being used to incrementally develop an orbital version, fits DARPA’s needs is not clear.

It could also very well be that DARPA has not actually chosen a third company, but has informed several that they can get that third slot, if they can achieve certain goals in a certain time frame. It could be that both DARPA and these companies would rather keep this private competition private. For the companies, they’d rather not advertise their failure to win it. For DARPA, the goal is to help, not hurt, the companies.

Share

Beresheet lowers orbit in preparation for lunar landing on April 11

The new colonial movement: The privately built lunar lander Beresheet has lowered its orbit in preparation for its planned lunar landing on April 11, now set for between 3 and 4 pm (Eastern).

It fired its engines on April 8 for 36 seconds, lowering its orbital low point to 131 miles.

The landing will be live streamed here.

Share

ULA to fly Vulcan components on Atlas 5 flights

Capitalism in space: In order to speed the development of its next generation commercial rocket, the Vulcan Centaur, ULA will fly Vulcan components as they are developed on its Atlas 5 rocket.

The first Vulcan technology to fly on Atlas 5 will be new payload fairings from Swiss supplier Ruag built using an “out-of-autoclave” production process that enables fairing halves to be produced as one piece, a process Ruag says lowers production time and costs. “The out-of-autoclave fairings, which are manufactured by Ruag, and now in the U.S. — they are in a factory next to ours in Decatur — that’s going to fly on Atlas 5 this year,” Louradour said.

Sometime in 2020 they will then fly an Atlas 5 launch using the solid rocket boosters Northrop Grumman is building for Vulcan.

This is not really news. When ULA announced their plans to build Vulcan in 2015, they said then that they intended to transition from Atlas 5 to Vulcan over time, slowly introducing components on Atlas 5 until it was entirely replaced.

Nonetheless, it shows that ULA is adopting some of the the same common sense development procedures used by SpaceX. By taking advantage of launches as they happen, they can speed development. And they need to do this in order to keep pace with SpaceX.

Isn’t competition wonderful?

Share

Rocket Lab now building smallsats also

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab announced this week that it is now offering satellite manufacture in addition to its launch services.

The “Photon” satellite platform was developed so that customers would not have to build their own satellite hardware. “Small satellite operators want to focus on providing data or services from space, but building satellite hardware is a significant barrier to achieving this,” said Rocket Lab founder and chief executive Peter Beck, in a statement. “The time, resources and expertise required to build hardware can draw small satellite operators away from their core purpose, delaying their path to orbit and revenue. As the turn-key solution for complete small satellite missions, Rocket Lab brings space within easy reach. We enable our customers to focus on their payload and mission – we look after the rest.”

The satellites are designed for a range of Low Earth Orbit missions including technology demonstrations, risk reduction pathfinders, constellations, and hosted payloads, the company said in a statement.

This is not surprising. With their Electron rocket now operational, and about to begin monthly launches, they have the profits and margin to offer a complete launch package to smallsat customers.

Share

Falcon Heavy launch now set for tomorrow evening, April 10

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s second launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket, the world’s most powerful, has now been rescheduled for 6:36 pm (eastern) on April 10.

This will definitely be worth watching. (I will post the SpaceX live stream link when it goes up.) If all goes well, the three first stage boosters will all land themselves after first stage separation, with two coming in simultaneously on neighboring landing pads in Florida, with the third landing very shortly thereafter on its landing barge in the Atlantic.

A success here will also give the Falcon Heavy two successful launches, two more than SLS (with none), and one more than China’s Long March 5, which is half as powerful but has not launched in almost two years after it failed on its second launch attempt.

The comparison with SLS is more pertinent. Tomorrow’s launch, if successful, will once again demonstrate the complete failure of NASA’s SLS rocket. This government boondoggle has been in development since 2004 in various iterations, for a cost that is likely to exceed $25 billion, fifty times more than it cost SpaceX to develop and make operational the Falcon Heavy. SLS’s first launch, originally scheduled for 2017, is now set to launch in June 2020, but is also more likely to be delayed months, if not more. Beyond that it will likely be more years before its second launch.

Falcon Heavy meanwhile is scheduled to do its third launch in mere months, should tomorrow go off without a hitch. It also has contracts for at least seven future launches. Nor would I be surprised if it completes most of these launches before SLS flies for the first time.

At some point the dimwits in Washington will I hope finally notice the contrast, and stop wasting money on SLS. Give it time, however. They are not very smart, and aren’t really interested in the needs of the American nation.

Share

Peter, Paul and Mary – Blowing in the Wind

An evening pause: I like the commentary about this song at the youtube webpage. “Although it has been described as a protest song, it poses a series of rhetorical questions about peace, war and freedom. The refrain “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind” [is] … impenetrably ambiguous: either the answer is so obvious it is right in your face, or the answer is as intangible as the wind.

In this sense, Bob Dylan’s song really does transcend the 1960s, as does much of his work.

Hat tip John Vernoski.

Share

SpaceX drops protest against NASA launch decision

SpaceX has decided to withdraw its protest against NASA’s decision to choose ULA as the launch vehicle for its Lucy asteroid mission.

The company did not provide any reason for the withdrawal. I suspect Musk decided that it was doing SpaceX harm both publicly and privately. Publicly it threatened the launch date of Lucy, which might cause a significant and fatal delay to the mission. That did not make SpaceX look good to the general public.

Privately, I suspect that the protest was hurting SpaceX with NASA officials. They almost certainly did not say so directly, but I am certain they were able to make this clear in any number of ways. This, combined with the agency’s new willingness to consider commercial rockets, like the Falcon Heavy, for its lunar plans, probably convinced SpaceX that it was doing itself more harm than good with the protest.

Share

Smallsat rocket company Relativity gets its first launch contract

Capitalism in space: The smallsat rocket company Relativity has signed its first launch contract, even though they have yet to complete even one test flight.

Their chief executive nails the importance of this on the head:

In an interview, Tim Ellis, chief executive of Relativity, said the contract is the first customer for the Terran 1 that the company has announced. He said Relativity previously signed a contract with another customer that has yet to be announced.

“What’s really notable about this and why it’s so important for Relativity and the industry is that this is the first time that Telesat, or any major global satellite operator, has selected a completely venture-based aerospace startup for launch services,” Ellis said, noting that the companies had been in extensive discussions prior to announcing this contract. “The credibility of aligning with Telesat we believe is huge for what Relativity is developing.” [emphasis mine]

Their rocket, Terran-1, is not scheduled for its first orbital flight until the end of 2020. Yet, Telesat has given this company a contract. I suspect that contract has a variety of exit clauses, but I also wonder if it gives Telesat some interest in the company in exchange for backing it at this early stage.

Either way, the demand for launch services created by these proposed new smallsat constellations is forcing the satellite companies to make deals that they might never have considered in a less booming market.

Share

Beresheet’s first pictures of the Moon

Beresheet looks at the Moon

The new colonial movement: The privately built Israeli planetary probe Beresheet, now in lunar orbit, has released its first pictures of the Moon.

The image on the right is one of those images, cropped to post here, and was taken from about 300 miles altitude. The link has a second image showing the Moon with the Earth in the distance. The resolution of both images is quite impressive.

The landing is scheduled for April 11. Stay tuned!

Share

Falcon Heavy dress rehearsal countdown and static fire today

Capitalism in space: SpaceX hopes to complete today its standard prelaunch dress rehearsal countdown for the second Falcon Heavy launch, now likely scheduled for April 9.

The launch had previously been set for April 7.

The article provides a nice overview of the Falcon Heavy. It also included this tidbit:

Unlike most past missions, the two side boosters are already booked for a second launch. They – in addition to the brand new center core B1057 – will help launch the Air Force’s STP-2 mission, currently No Earlier Than (NET) June.

That they have already scheduled reuse of the side boosters for the next Falcon Heavy launch indicates just how confident they have become about recovering those boosters.

UPDATE: Dress rehearsal countdown and static fire have been completed. According to an Elon Musk tweet, the data looks good, but he cautioned that as this will be the first Falcon Heavy launch using Block 5 boosters, the launch date might change as they review the data.

Share

Arianespace successfully launches four commercial communications satellites

Capitalism in space: Using a Russian-built Soyuz rocket Arianespace today successfully placed four O3b communications in orbit.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

4 China
4 Europe (Arianespace)
3 SpaceX
3 Russia

The U.S. now leads China and Europe 6 to 4 in the national rankings.

Share

Telescope store sues Asian telescope manufacturers for fixing prices

A San Francisco store that sells telescopes to the public is suing two Asian telescope manufacturers — who make almost all recreational telescopes sold in the U.S. — for conspiring together to fix prices and create that monopoly.

Orion Telescopes and Binoculars, which is headquartered in Watsonville and has stores there and in Cupertino, is seeking more than $180 million in damages in a lawsuit. A federal court in Northern California said the complaint against telescope maker Ningbo Sunny, filed in 2016, can go to trial. A subsidiary of Ningbo Sunny, a Chinese company, bought Irvine telescope maker Meade Instruments in 2013.

In the complaint, Orion alleges that Ningbo Sunny and a Taiwanese telescope manufacturer, Synta Technology, shared confidential information that competitors normally would not share, including product pricing, order forecasts and credit arrangements.

My question is this: Why are no American telescope manufacturers competing in this market? Are our labor costs too high? Our government regulations too restrictive? A little bit of competition could easily end this collusion by these Asian manufacturers, assuming it is happening.

Share
1 2 3 4 5 158