SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket launches the Space Force’s X-37B

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket tonight successfully launched one of the two X-37B reuseable mini-shuttles in the Space Force’s fleet, lifting off from Cape Canaveral.

This was the seventh X-37B flight. It is not clear which of the two vehicles was flying, and how many flights it has completed previously. The previous X-37B flight stayed in orbit for a record 908 days, landing safely in November 2022.

The two side boosters completed their fifth flight, landing safely back at Cape Canaveral. The center core was treated as expendable, and was not recovered.

The leaders in the 2023 launch race:

95 SpaceX (with another launch scheduled later tonight)
65 China
19 Russia
8 Rocket Lab
7 India

American private enterprise now leads China in successful launches 109 to 65, and the entire world combined 109 to 102. SpaceX in turn trails the rest of the world (excluding other American companies) 95 to 102.

Launch of Intuitive Machines Nova-C lunar lander delayed until February

South Pole of Moon with landing sites

Because of scheduling conflicts impacting other SpaceX launches now, SpaceX and Intuitive Machines have delayed the launch of the latter’s Nova-C lunar lander from a mid-January to a mid-February launch window.

The conflict involves the use of the launchpad, that the Falcon Heavy also uses. Technical issues had forced SpaceX to reschedule its next launch to December 28, 2023, leaving little time afterward to reconfigure the pad for the Falcon 9 Nova-C mid-January launch window. Any Falcon Heavy launch delays due to weather would likely make that mid-January window impossible, so the companies have decided better to reschedule now.

Nova-C is targeting a crater rim near the Moon’s south pole, as shown on the map to the right. The floor of that crater is thought to be permanently shadowed, but Nova-C does not have the capability to enter it. This mission is mostly an engineering test mission, to prove Intuitive Machine’s design. If it works, it will operate on the Moon surface for one lunar day, about two weeks. The company then has two more lunar missions contracted with NASA, with the next mission aiming to fly in 2024 as well.

The scrub of this week’s Falcon Heavy launch of X-37B

In what has become quite rare, SpaceX was forced to scrub its December 11, 2023 launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket, carrying one of the Space Force’s X-37B spacecraft, due to technical problems.

Initially, the cause of the scrub was linked to a problem with the company’s ground systems, not the rocket itself. This in itself is significant, because of the almost hundred launches SpaceX has done this year, almost none have been scrubbed, and the few that have been scrubbed were almost always because of weather conditions. The company has gotten its launch ground systems and rockets working like clockwork, so to have a problem with the ground systems on this Falcon Heavy launch was quite unusual.

SpaceX officials initially thought they would be able to fix the problem and launch after only one or two days delay. However, shortly thereafter unstated additional problems were identified that required the company to roll the rocket back to its assembly building for more work.

As a result, the launch date is now to be determined, and could even be delayed to early next year. The article at the link focuses on how this rescheduling could impact two other launches that carry commercial lunar landers. This I think is unlikely, since both work under much more restrictive launch windows, for this reason are almost certain to get priority in scheduling.

More important is the question as to what caused the initial scrub and then the need to roll the rocket back for more checkouts. Are the problems with the Falcon Heavy or with the X-37B spacecraft, or with some issue involving both? Neither SpaceX nor the Space Force would release any details. The fact that SpaceX now so rarely has technical issues at launch suggests some problem with the X-37B, but that conclusion is pure speculation.

Musk touts SpaceX’s gigantic lead in sending mass to orbit in 2023

The mass sent to orbit in 2023
Click for original image.

In a tweet Elon Musk sent out yesterday, he noted that “SpaceX is tracking to launch over 80% of all Earth payload to orbit this year.”

The graphic to the right was included in Musk’s tweet. Despite the delays in developing its heavy-lift Starship/Superheavy rocket, mostly caused by government red tape since the arrival of Joe Biden in the White House, the company’s smaller Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets have still been able to launch more than fifteen times the mass into orbit that its nearest competitor, the nation of China.

I count launches by company or nation as a indicator of rocketry success. The mass-to-orbit metric is as important, if not more so, though the two are without doubt linked. Both measure the success of those trying to become major players in the launch market.

And in both metrics, SpaceX is wiping the floor with its competition.

Space Force awards SpaceX and ULA new launch contracts worth $2.5 billion

Space Force yesterday awarded both SpaceX and ULA new launch contracts worth $2.5 billion and totaling 21 launches over the next two to three years.

The final batch of assignments were split almost evenly, according to Col. Doug Pentecost, the deputy program executive officer of the Space Force’s Space Systems Command. ULA received 11 missions, valued at $1.3 billion, and SpaceX received 10 missions, valued at $1.23 billion.

Space Systems Command said the missions are scheduled to launch over the next two to three years. ULA, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, will use its soon-to-debut Vulcan rocket for the 11 missions, while SpaceX will fly seven missions with its Falcon 9 rocket and three missions with its Falcon Heavy rocket.

For SpaceX this award is no surprise. The ULA contract is more puzzling. Supposedly the Space Force was not going to award any launch contracts for ULA’s new Vulcan rocket until it successfully launched twice and was certified by the military as operational. Yet, it has now awarded ULA this contract for Vulcan launches. Has the military awarded the contract on a contingency basis? What happens if Vulcan has a failure on one of its first two launches?

The Space Force’s present arrangement limits bidding for launches to just these two companies. If Vulcan fails will it open bidding to other companies, or will it transfer launches to SpaceX?

Falcon Heavy successfully launches Psyche asteroid mission

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket this morning successfully launched the Psyche mission to the metal asteroid Psyche, lifting off from Cape Canaveral.

The two side boosters successfully landed at their landing zones at the cape, each completing their fourth flight.

Psyche will now spend the next six years traveling to the asteroid Psyche, first flying by Mars in 2026 to gain some speed to get there. It will then go into orbit around the asteroid for almost two years.

The leaders in 2023 launch race:

72 SpaceX
45 China
13 Russia
7 Rocket Lab
7 India

American private enterprise now leads China in successfully launches 84 to 45, and the entire world combined 84 to 73. SpaceX by itself only trails the entire world combined (excluding American companies) 72 to 73.

Launch of Psyche asteroid mission delayed by weather

NASA and SpaceX today scrubbed the launch of the Psyche asteroid mission because of poor weather, rescheduling the Falcon Heavy launch to tomorrow, October 13, 2023 at 10:19 am (Eastern).

“For our first backup window, Friday morning, 50% chance for go conditions, with our concerns still being associated with storms in the area, where we have anvil clouds, some thick clouds, which are layered clouds, as well as cumulus clouds we get associated with storms,” Moses explained during the briefing.

“Looking at Saturday morning, a third backup window, there is still about the same probability, about 50% chance of go, and fairly similar conditions here, where there may be some storms around, but we expect most of any storms to be after our morning launch window,” she added.

The launch window for the mission closes on October 25, after which a major mission rescheduling will be required to get the probe to the asteroid Psyche, likely causing a year delay.

October 12 Falcon Heavy launch of Psyche probe faces bad weather

At present there is only a 20% chance that the Falcon Heavy launch of NASA’s Psyche asteroid probe will occur on October 12, 2023 at 10:16 am (Eastern) as planned out of Cape Canaveral.

The launch window only extends until October 25, 2023, after which the entire project would have to be redesigned, requiring a significant delay.

SpaceX has become very adept at threading the needle when weather restricts its Starlink launch abilities, but it has less flexibility with Psyche. To increase its chances it has scrubbed a planned Starlink launch this week from Cape Canaveral in order to give the Falcon Heavy launch more launch opportunities.

Regardless, the live stream can be accessed here.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy successfully launches the heaviest geosynchronous communications satellite ever

SpaceX tonight successfully used its Falcon Heavy rocket to place a Hughes geosynchronous communications satellite into orbit, the heaviest ever, lifting off from Cape Canaveral.

The two side boosters successfully completed their third flight, landing back at Cape Canaveral only a few seconds apart. The rocket’s two fairing halves completed their fifth and sixth flights. The center core stage was not recovered as planned.

The leaders in the 2023 launch race:

51 SpaceX
30 China
9 Russia
6 Rocket Lab

American private enterprise still leads China in successful launches 58 to 30, and the entire world combined 58 to 49, with SpaceX by itself leading the entire world (excluding American companies) 51 to 49.

Viasat drops launch contract with Ariane-6

With SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy having just completed the first of three launches for Viasat’s new geosynchronous constellation of communication satellites, the satellite company has announced that it is cancelling its launch contract with Ariane-6 for the third launch.

The decision means the launch contract is up for grabs for the third ViaSat 3 internet satellite, the last of a three-satellite constellation Viasat is deploying to provide global broadband connectivity from space.

Viasat announced in 2018 it selected SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, and Arianespace to each launch one ViaSat 3 satellite, awarding launch contracts to three industry leaders.

The ULA launch, on its Atlas-5 rocket, is still scheduled for either late this year or early next.

The development of Ariane-6 however is years behind schedule. Furthermore, Arianespace has given priority on Ariane-6 to all of the ESA launches that formerly were going to be launched on Russian Soyuz rockets, further delaying Viasat’s launch.

For Viasat, the delays have become unacceptable, and it has now opened that third launch to bidding. Though both ULA’s Vulcan and Blue Origin’s New Glenn rockets could do the job, neither is operational either. It appears SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is the only rocket available and is therefore almost certain to get the contract, a conclusion further confirmed by the timing of this announcement, just prior to that successful Falcon Heavy launch.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy completes second launch in 2023

SpaceX today successfully placed a Viasat communications satellite into geosynchronous orbit using its Falcon Heavy rocket, completing its second launch in 2023. Also on board were two smallsats.

The company did not recover either side booster or the core stage in order to give the rocket the maximum lift to put Viasat’s satellite into its proper orbit. With this flight, the two side boosters had successfully completed eight and three missions during their lifespan.

The leaders in the 2023 launch race:

28 SpaceX
16 China
6 Russia
3 Rocket Lab
3 India

American private enterprise now leads China 31 to 16 in the national rankings, and the entire world combined 31 to 28. SpaceX by itself trails the entire world, including American companies, 28 to 31.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy successfully launches Space Force satellites

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket today successfully launched a Space Force communications satellite plus a secondary military payload.

The two side boosters completed their second flight, landing at Cape Canaveral. The core stage was not recovered, as planned. Actual deployment of the satellites will not occur for another six hours.

At this moment China leads SpaceX 5 to 3 in the 2023 launch race. No one else has as yet launched successfully.

Delays threaten Europa Clipper mission

A variety of issues delaying completion of the science instruments on the Europa Clipper mission are now threatening to prevent the spacecraft from meeting its 2024 launch date.

[W]ith less than two years to go before launch, only three of those instruments have been installed on the main spacecraft body, and five haven’t yet arrived at JPL.

Some context: Europa Clipper has been under development since 1997, though actual design work did not begin until 2013, nine years ago. It presently has a budget of $4.25 billion (more than double its first proposed budget of $2 billion). Yet now, less than years from launch, seven of ten instruments are behind schedule?

What is really disgusting about this story is that it is par for the course for NASA, which almost never finishes anything on time or on budget.

Falcon Heavy launches successfully for 1st time since 2019

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today successfully put a military reconnaissance satellite using its Falcon Heavy rocket, its first launch since 2019.

The two side boosters and core stage all made their first flight. The core stage was intentionally not recovered, as it needed to use all its fuel for getting the satellite to its orbit. The two side boosters successfully landed at SpaceX’s two landing sites at Cape Canaveral.

The leaders in the 2022 launch race:

50 SpaceX
47 China
18 Russia
8 Rocket Lab

American private enterprise now leads China 70 to 47, though it still trails the rest of the world combined 74 to 70.

This year’s 70 successful launches ties the previous high for the United States in a single year, set in 1966. With two months still left in the year, it looks like that record will be broken, by a lot.

Falcon Heavy to finally launch again?

After three years of delays due to payload issues, it now appears that the next Falcon Heavy launch will likely occur near the end of October.

The tentative date is October 28th, but this is not yet confirmed. Though a manifest of a half dozen Falcon Heavy launches has existed since 2019, and most were originally scheduled for launch in 2020-2021, none has taken place, all supposedly because of payload delays not issues with the rocket itself.

SpaceX officials are now saying that it plans to complete six Falcon Heavy launches within the next twelve months. Two are for the military, three for commercial communications companies, and the last is the Psyche mission for NASA. This last launch is delayed because of software issues discovered in June, only a few weeks before launch. Whether it can fix these issues in time for a new July 2023 launch window remains questionable.

NASA awards SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch contract for Roman Space Telescope

Capitalism in space: NASA yesterday awarded a contract to SpaceX to use its Falcon Heavy rocket to launch the Roman Space Telescope in October 2026.

. The total cost for NASA to launch the Roman telescope is approximately $255 million, which includes the launch service and other mission related costs. The telescope’s mission currently is targeted to launch in October 2026, as specified in the contract, on a Falcon Heavy rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

SpaceX’s normal launch price for the Falcon Heavy is $100 million. This higher price in probably because NASA has imposed additional requirements. It is also likely because SpaceX has no comparable competitor, and can raise its price in certain situations — such as when the government is buying — because no one can undercut it.

That launch by the way will not happen in ’26. Roman is certain to be delayed further. It was proposed in 2011 as a major astronomy project for that decade. Instead, as expected it has become a two-decade long jobs program like Webb.

Delay in Psyche launch wrecks smallsat asteroid mission

The two month delay in the launch of NASA’s Psyche asteroid mission because of software issues has apparently wrecked a smallsat asteroid mission that was to launch as a secondary payload on the Falcon Heavy rocket.

Janus, a NASA smallsat mission selected in 2019, will launch two identical spacecraft as secondary payloads on the Falcon Heavy rocket whose primary payload is Psyche. After a series of Earth flybys, each Janus spacecraft was to fly by different binary asteroids, designated 1996 FG3 and 1991 VH.

However, the mission’s principal investigator said June 8 that mission plan is no longer possible. Speaking at a meeting of NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG), Dan Scheeres of the University of Colorado noted that mission plan assumed Psyche launched in August of this year as previously planned. NASA announced May 23 that the mission’s launch had been delayed to no earlier than Sept. 20 to provide more time for testing the spacecraft’s software.

With the revised launch date, he said it’s no longer possible for the spacecraft to perform those Earth flybys with the existing spacecraft design. “Those flybys were essential for setting up our flybys of our target binaries, 1991 VH and 1996 FG3,” he said.

The Janus team are right now scrambling to see if they can find other asteroids the spacecraft can reach, based on the new launch date. Their work however is badly hampered by the uncertainty of that date, which could still change for many reasons.

The heart of the problem, as Scheeres notes, is its status as a secondary payload.

“We have no ability to influence the launch dates or the targeting of the launch vehicle, and that arises from our status as a rideshare,” he said.

The article also describes two other NASA interplanetary smallsat missions that have been badly hindered because of their status as secondary payloads. All three stories strongly suggest that in the future it will make much more sense to put such missions on its own rocket, as the primary payload. This is what NASA did with its CAPSTONE smallsat mission to the Moon, which will launch on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket sometime before the end of the month.

Software issues delay Psyche launch seven weeks

Engineers preparing to stack the Psyche probe on top of its Falcon Heavy rocket for an August 1, 2022 launch have been forced to delay that launch at least seven weeks until September 20th at the earliest because of a software issue.

Technicians unboxed the Psyche spacecraft and moved it to a handling fixture for a series of hardware and software tests to make sure the probe survived the cross-country trip from California.

But a technical issue interrupted the test campaign, and will delay the launch of the Psyche mission at least seven weeks.

“An issue is preventing confirmation that the software controlling the spacecraft is functioning as planned,” NASA said in a written statement, responding to questions from Spaceflight Now. “The team is working to identify and correct the issue.”

Assuming no further delays, the spacecraft will still reach Psyche in January 2026.

SpaceX proposes new launchpads for Starship at Kennedy

Long term Land Use map for Kennedy Space Center
From NASA’s long term road map for Kennedy,

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has submitted a new proposal for building several launchpads at the Kennedy Space Center for its Starship heavy lift rocket, including rebuilding one old pad (LC-39A) and building another at a new site (the never used LC-49).

The project for LC-49 comes in addition to the previously announced work that SpaceX began within the perimeter of Launch Complex 39A, the K Environmental Program Office said. In September 2019, an environmental assessment was completed and a finding of “no significant impact” was issued.

Musk confirmed via Twitter on Dec. 3 that construction of SpaceX’s Starship orbital launch pad at LC-39A was underway. “Construction of Starship orbital launch pad at the Cape has begun”.

The KEP [Kennedy Environmental Program] office noted that this new proposed expansion would allow for not only redundancy with launches of Starship, but also “allow SpaceX to increase the flight rate of Starship and minimize potential disruptions to Falcon, Falcon Heavy and Dragon missions at LC-39A.”

LC-49 is a 175 acre area just north of LC-39B, the launchpad NASA plans to use for its SLS rocket.

It also appears that SpaceX plans on creating a new Starship orbital launchpad at LC-39A that will not impact the use of that site by Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, though in the long run launches of those latter rockets will decrease as Starship becomes operational.

All these plans will need a full environmental assessment, but according to the article at the link, the process will be different than at Boca Chica in Texas.

The [environmental assessment]process likely won’t involve live discussions with the public, according to [Don Dankert, the technical lead for the Kennedy Environmental Planning Office], but the public will get comparable information, like with an EIS [Environmental Impact Statement]. “We will put out the same information,” Dankert said. “We’ll put out an informational packet with a .PDF chart, a description of the project and instructions on how to provide comments back to us and SpaceX.”

Engler said there may also be some lessons learned from the process of getting the launch facilities at Starbase approved for an orbital launch, but how that crossover would work has yet to be determined.

Sounds to me that this is all a pointless paperwork dance. The construction will be approved, no matter what, because Florida and Cape Canaveral desperately wants this new business and the jobs and tax dollars it will bring to the state.

SpaceX begins construction of Starship launchpad in Florida

Capitalism in space: Elon Musk yesterday announced that SpaceX has begun the construction of a Starship launchpad at its facility at Cape Canaveral, though no launch scheduled was revealed.

Musk implied that the Starship orbital launchpad is being built at Launch complex 39A. If so, it will pose some scheduling issues for SpaceX, as the company also uses that site for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches. In fact, it is the only one it uses for Falcon Heavy.

Falcon Heavy gets another contract

Capitalism in space: With the announcement on October 30th that the Space Force has added a third military Falcon Heavy launch for ’22, the rocket is now scheduled to fly five times next year.

The addition of a third national security mission for Falcon Heavy will make for quite a scheduling challenge for SpaceX’s three-core rocket that also is projected to launch in 2022 a Viasat-3 commercial broadband satellite with an Astranis communications satellite as a secondary payload, as well as NASA’s Psyche planetary science mission.

The Space Force missions USSF-44 and USSF-52 both were scheduled to fly in 2021 but have been delayed by payload readiness and range scheduling issues. No target launch dates have been announced yet although the Space Force said they would happen in 2022. Falcon Heavy rockets lift off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

It increasingly looks like 2022 will be a major record-setting year for rocketry.

Hubble data detects persistent water vapor on one of Europa’s hemispheres

Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope spanning sixteen Earth years, scientists have detected the presence of water vapor on Europa, but strangely spread only across one of the moon’s hemispheres.

Previous observations of water vapor on Europa have been associated with plumes erupting through the ice, as photographed by Hubble in 2013. They are analogous to geysers on Earth, but extend more than 60 miles high. They produce transient blobs of water vapor in the moon’s atmosphere, which is only one-billionth the surface pressure of Earth’s atmosphere.

The new results, however, show similar amounts of water vapor spread over a larger area of Europa in Hubble observations spanning from 1999 to 2015. This suggests a long-term presence of a water vapor atmosphere only in Europa’s trailing hemisphere – that portion of the moon that is always opposite its direction of motion along its orbit. The cause of this asymmetry between the leading and trailing hemisphere is not fully understood.

First, it must be emphasized that the amounts of atmospheric water being discussed are tiny, so tiny that on Earth we might consider this a vacuum.

Second, that the water vapor is only seen on the trailing hemisphere suggests there is some sort of orbital influence involved, though what that influence is remains unknown.

Hopefully when Europa Clipper finally arrives in orbit around Jupiter in 2030, with a path that will fly past Europa fifty times, we will some clarity on these questions.

Space Force payload problems force delay until ’22 of next Falcon Heavy launch

Capitalism in space: The Space Force has announced that because more time is needed to prepare its military payload, the next Falcon Heavy launch, scheduled later this month, will be delayed until ’22.

This is not the first time payload issues have delayed the launch, which had been previously scheduled for July. The Space Force has not announced a new launch date, nor was it very specific in describing the issues that has forced this delay.

As for the Falcon Heavy, though there has been a long delay since its last flight in June 2019, it appears that SpaceX has four launches scheduled for ’22, with another six already contracted and scheduled for later.

SpaceX wins contract to launch Europa Clipper to Jupiter

Capitalism in space: NASA today awarded SpaceX a $178 million contract to use its Falcon Heavy rocket to launch Europa Clipper to Jupiter.

If all goes according to plan, Clipper will lift off in October 2024 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and arrive in orbit around Jupiter in April 2030. The probe will then study Europa in depth during nearly 50 close flybys of the moon over the course of about four Earth years, mission team members have said.

The award is not really a surprise. Falcon Heavy is really the only operational rocket with the power capable of launching this mission. Because for years Congress had mandated Europa Clipper be launched on SLS, it was designed with more mass than normal for such planetary missions. Delays in the SLS program however finally forced Congress to relax that mandate, but that left NASA with a payload too heavy for all operational rockets except Falcon Heavy, and even that requires this six year flight, with flybys of the Earth and Mars to get it to Jupiter.

The price for the launch is significantly greater than SpaceX normally charges for its Falcon Heavy, but since it was the only game in town, I suspect SpaceX drove a hard bargain.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy wins launch contract for VIPER lunar rover

Capitalism in space: Astrobotic, the company building the lander to place NASA’s VIPER lunar rover on the Moon, has picked SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy as the rocket to launch the package.

This mission is part of a fleet of landers being sent to the Moon in the next two years, as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program to hire private companies to do this rather than NASA.

Intuitive Machines, which won CLPS task orders for two lander missions, will launch each on Falcon 9 vehicles late this year and in 2022. Masten Space Systems selected SpaceX to provide launch services for its XL-1 lander mission, which won a CLPS award for a late 2022 mission.

Astrobotic will launch its first CLPS mission, a smaller lunar lander called Peregrine, on the inaugural launch of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur currently scheduled for late this year. Firefly Aerospace, which won the most recent CLPS award in January, has not selected a launch provider yet for its Blue Ghost lander, but noted the lander is too large to launch on the company’s own Alpha rocket.

That’s five American lunar missions, all built and owned by private companies. Nor will these be the only unmanned lunar missions, when you include the UAE rover targeted for a ’22 launch, along with additional planned Indian, Chinese, and Russian missions. Almost all are aimed at the Moon’s south polar regions.

It is going to get both crowded and busy on the Moon in the next few years.

Europa Clipper to fly on commercial rocket, not SLS

NASA managers have now decided unequivocally to not use SLS to launch Europa Clipper, and will instead choose a commercial rocket in about a year.

During a Feb. 10 presentation at a meeting of NASA’s Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG), leaders of the Europa Clipper project said the agency recently decided to consider only commercial launch vehicles for the mission, and no longer support a launch of the spacecraft on the SLS.

“We now have clarity on the launch vehicle path and launch date,” Robert Pappalardo, project scientist for Europa Clipper at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said. That clarity came in the form of a Jan. 25 memo from NASA’s Planetary Missions Program Office to “immediately cease efforts to maintain SLS compatibility” and move forward with a commercial launch vehicle, or CLV, he said.

Though this decision was expected following the approval of the most recent congressional budget for NASA, which contained language allowing NASA to abandon SLS if it thought it wise, this decision continues the string of recent stories that all point toward the eventually abandonment of SLS itself.

At the moment the rocket most likely to win the contract is the Falcon Heavy.

Starship prototype #8 passes tank tests; engine installation next

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s eighth Starship prototype has passed its tank, thruster, and even fin tests, setting it up for the installation of its three Raptor engines.

Once installed, they will perform several static fire tests, on the launchpad. If those tests are successful, the company will then proceed with a full 50,000 foot test flight. Based on the pace of operations, my guess is that this hop will occur in about two to four weeks.

I’ve embedded one of the videos at the link below the fold, showing a variety of activity at the site.

In other SpaceX news, the Tesla that was put in solar orbit on the first Falcon Heavy test launch has just made its first “fly-by” of Mars, getting to within 5 million miles of the red planet. At that distance the planet really isn’t very close, which is why I put the word fly-by in quotes. That Tesla’s future:

The Roadster will eventually barrel into either Venus or Earth, likely within the next few tens of millions of years, a 2018 orbit-modeling study determined . But the chances of an Earth or Venus impact in the next million years are just 6% and 2.5%, respectively.

» Read more

NASA considering consolidating two Gateway launches into one

Capitalism in space: NASA’s Artemis program is now considering using a single launch to place two different Gateway modules into space, rather than two separate launches.

Originally, NASA wanted to launch the PPE and HALO modules – together representing the absolute bare minimum needed to build a functional Gateway – on separate commercial rockets in 2022 and 2023, respectively. Now, according to NASA associate administrator Doug Loverro, the space agency has made the decision to launch both modules simultaneously on the same commercial rocket.

This decision was made in large part because it makes sense from a technical simplicity and overall efficiency standpoint but also because several commercial launch vehicles – either currently operational or soon to be – are set to debut extremely large payload fairings. As a combined payload, the Gateway PPE and HALO modules would be too big for just about any existing launch vehicle, while the tiny handful it might fit in lack the performance needed to send such a heavy payload to the Moon.

Falcon Heavy apparently has the performance needed, as NASA used the rocket and a new stretched fairing developed by SpaceX for military customers as a baseline to determine whether PPE and HALO could launch together. Given that NASA could have technically used any of the vehicles expected to have large payload fairings for that analysis, the explicit use and mention of Falcon Heavy rather strongly suggests that the SpaceX rocket is a front runner for the new combined launch contract. This isn’t exactly surprising, given that the massive rocket has already completed three successful launches and will attempt at least another four missions between now and 2023.

Note the rocket that is not mentioned: SLS.

My regular readers know my consistent opposition to Gateway. That opposition was based on its initial design, depending for launch and operations entirely on NASA’s SLS rocket, and requiring it to be built before we landed on the Moon. Based on the SLS program’s track record, I believed Gateway would become, like SLS, nothing more than a pork barrel project accomplishing nothing but funneling government payroll to congressional districts while failing to launch any missions into space.

If NASA however is shifting gears, and aiming to allow private enterprise to build, launch, and operate Gateway, for considerably less cost and time, than Gateway might actually be of some value, mostly because there is actually a chance it might really be built, within a few short years.

I remain skeptical however. I still have questions about this lunar station’s utility, at this time. We might be spending a lot of money for a space station that won’t get us anywhere. Or maybe if NASA rethinks it properly it could provide us the real opportunity to test construction of an interplanetary spaceship, in lunar orbit.

We will have to see how this plays out. This story does appear encouraging however.

NASA awards SpaceX deal to provide cargo to Gateway

Capitalism in space: Should NASA ever decide to build its proposed Gateway space station in orbit around the Moon (the odds of which have gone down recently), it announced today that it has signed a deal with SpaceX to use its Falcon Heavy rocket and an upgraded larger version of its Dragon capsule to ship cargo to that station.

The deal calls for at least two missions, and is SpaceX’s first deal in NASA’s Artemis program.

This deal is a major blow to SLS and Boeing, which up to now had a monopoly on all launches to supply and launch Gateway. In fact, Gateway was invented by Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and NASA (not Congress) in order to justify SLS’s existence. That NASA has now decided it is better off using the much cheaper and already operational Falcon Heavy for some Gateway missions suggests that SLS is increasingly vulnerable to cancellation. NASA is making it obvious that other commercial options exist. No need to wait years and spend billions for SLS, when they can go now, for much less.

Falcon Heavy wins launch contract for NASA’s Psyche asteroid mission

Capitalism in space: NASA today awarded the launch contract for its Psyche asteroid mission, set to launch in July 2022, to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket.

The total bid price was $117 million, which according to the release includes “the launch service and other mission related costs.” Though this is higher than the normal price SpaceX charges for a Falcon Heavy launch ($100 million), it is far lower than the typical price of a ULA launch. Furthermore, Falcon Heavy has more power, so it can get the spacecraft to the asteroid faster.

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