Tag Archives: SpaceX

SpaceX has confirmed that it plans to begin vertical take-off and landing tests of a full scale Falcon 9 first stage.

The competition heats up: SpaceX has confirmed that it plans to begin vertical take-off and landing tests of a full scale Falcon 9 first stage.

The tests would be in New Mexico’s spaceport, and are essentially a scaled up version of the Grasshopper tests the company has been doing in Texas. It appears they are going to do these ground-up tests in conjunction with attempts on each future Falcon 9 launch to land the first stage.

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SpaceX has signed a contract with MDA to launch all three of Canada’s next generation Radarsat satellites.

The competition heats up: SpaceX has signed a contract with MDA to launch all three of Canada’s next generation Radarsat satellites.

MDA’s willingness to go with SpaceX prior to the September 5 launch of its Cassiope satellite on the Falcon 9 illustrates again the confidence they have in SpaceX. At the same time, this contract is for launches expected to occur around 2018, which is a long way away. Much can happen till then, including the possibility that SpaceX will go bust.

In other words, right now it is the successful launch of Falcon 9 that is of significance, not these new contracts. Only if those launches succeed will these contracts then become really significant.

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SpaceX has begun assembly of the upgraded Falcon 9 rocket that will launch its first commercial payload in early September.

The competition heats up: SpaceX has begun assembly of the upgraded Falcon 9 rocket that will launch its first commercial payload in early September.

This launch has been significantly delayed because the company was testing the actual engines to be used in the rocket, and had a series of engine aborts during testing (as outlined in the article above). Once the engines completed a full duration burn last week, however, the way was cleared for launch.

The article is very detailed, and also outlines the other new features of the upgraded Falcon 9 rocket to be flown for the first time in September. I must admit that this list makes me nervous. A lot rides on the success of this launch, both for SpaceX and for the entire new commercial space industry.

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With Proton rocket’s most recent launch failure, Inmarsat looks for alternatives.

The competition heats up: With Proton rocket’s most recent launch failure, Inmarsat looks for alternatives.

The failure and its spectacular nature, all caught on video — oscillating trajectory on liftoff before tipping over, bursting into flames and then crashing — cast a harsh light on Inmarsat’s sole-source decision for the Global Xpress satellites. The company’s stock tumbled on the London Stock Exchange but has since recovered as details emerged about the relatively easily addressed causes of the rocket’s failure.

Inmarsat officials said at the time of the ILS contract award that they received an exceptionally low price in return for booking all three launches on Proton and that the vehicle’s record justified the choice not to include a second vehicle in the Global Xpress mix.

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The Russians admitted today that, due to the Proton launch failure two weeks ago, only five more Proton launches can occur this year.

The Russians admitted today that, due to the Proton launch failure two weeks ago, only five more Proton launches can occur this year.

Before the crash they had hoped to get in about nine launches, more than one per month, all of which were commercial in nature. It was my impression that this launch rate was an effort to provide service to their customers as fast as possible, in order to hold on to them. The crash, like the previous Proton failures in the past few years, has given their competitors a window of opportunity to grab the Russian market share. If SpaceX is successful in its first commercial launch in September the competition in this industry will certainly heat up.

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SpaceX has renegotiated its lease with the city of McGregor, Texas, in order to begin testing the Falcon Heavy rocket.

The competition heats up: SpaceX has renegotiated its lease with the city of McGregor, Texas, in order to begin testing the Falcon Heavy rocket.

What I found stunning about this article is this quote:

The Falcon Heavy will have commercial, civil and national security applications, Ra said, adding that customers will pay $81 million to $135 million per launch, depending on the weight of the payload and the rocket’s destination. That is about twice the price of a Falcon 9 launch.

These prices for the Falcon Heavy are actually comparable or cheaper than that charged by most other rocket companies for geosynchronous launches. If SpaceX succeeds in doing this — launching Falcon Heavy at these prices — they will certainly open deep space to private enterprise. And even if their prices end up being twice this, those prices will still be anywhere from one fourth to less than a tenth of what it will cost NASA to launch its SLS rocket.

Which should make us all wonder: Why is anyone in Congress still voting to fund SLS?

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SpaceX has successfully completed a full duration test firing of 9 upgraded Merlin engines.

The competition heats up: SpaceX has successfully completed a full duration test firing of 9 upgraded Merlin engines.

The full mission duration firing of the next generation Falcon 9 booster was completed on Sunday. The booster’s nine Merlin 1D engines fired for approximately three minutes, simulating what the booster may experience in flight before stage separation.

With this success, I suspect they are finally ready to begin their commercial launches. The first is presently scheduled for September 5.

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Both SpaceX and Boeing say that they are on schedule to make their first test flights of their manned capsules before 2016.

The competition heats up: Both SpaceX and Boeing say that they are on schedule to make their first test flights of their manned capsules before 2016.

Boeing claims they will be able to make their first manned flight in 2016. SpaceX says it will fly manned by 2015.
» Read more

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Orbital Sciences is scrambling to find a reliable long term first stage engine for its Antares rocket.

Orbital Sciences is scrambling to find a reliable long term first stage engine for its Antares rocket.

The NK-33 engine that powered Antares’ first flight was built decades ago by Russia’s Kuznetsov Design Bureau and is no longer in production. Further, Orbital is uncertain about the quality of Aerojet’s remaining stockpile of 23 NK-33s, beyond those set aside for NASA’s CRS-1. Aerojet Rocketdyne is Orbital’s primary subcontractor and overhauls the old NK-33 engines into a configuration for Antares, dubbed AJ-26. Orbital officials say its only current alternative is the RD-180 engine made in Russia by NPO Energomash. But the United Launch Alliance (ULA), which operates the U.S. Air Force’s Atlas V and Delta IV fleets, holds exclusive rights in the U.S. to buy the RD-180.

Over the last four years, Orbital has inquired about purchasing the RD-180 from ULA, RD Amross and Energomash. “We could never get to first base on that,” says Michael Hamel, the company’s senior vice president of corporate strategy and development. Requests for support from the Air Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense and Congress were also met with silence, company officials say.

What I find disturbing about this story is the complete lack of effort by Orbital, Aerojet, or ULA to build their own engines. Even if new NK-33 engines are made by Aerojet, they will be manufactured in Russia, as are ULA’s engines. Why can’t they do what SpaceX has done and make their own engines?

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Europe admits that its planned accelerated upgrades to Ariane 5 are intended to counteract the competition from both Russia’s Proton and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets.

The competition heats up: At a briefing at the Paris Air Show this week Arianespace admitted that its planned accelerated upgrades to Ariane 5 are intended to counteract the competition from both Russia’s Proton and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets.

I love competition. It energizes everything.

Update: This long article specifically discusses how Arianespace is scrambling to meet the competition. Key quote:
» Read more

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If you are hoping to buy stock in Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, Musk now says you will have to wait until they have begun regular missions to Mars.

If you are hoping to buy stock in Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, Musk now says you will have to wait until they have begun regular missions to Mars.

This is a change from earlier comments by Musk, which to me suggests that the company’s recent successes and sales has made it profitable enough that he’d rather maintain control than get cash from an IPO. By keeping the company private, Musk can avoid being beholden to stockholders. He can do what he wants.

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The delays in SpaceX’s commercial launch schedule appear caused by a series of problems testing the first stage’s upgraded engines.

The delays in SpaceX’s commercial launch schedule appear caused by a series of problems testing the first stage’s upgraded engines.

The article also provides this updated scheduling information:

A successful test will be key for several of SpaceX’s future ambitions, not least their upcoming increase in launch frequency, with the next Falcon 9 – the debut of the v1.1 – set to loft Canada’s space weather satellite, CASSIOPE, out of Vandenberg Air Force Base. This mission has officially slipped to August, with the likelihood it will be re-targeted to September. Focus will then switch to Cape Canaveral, with two satellite missions, the first carrying SES-8, to be followed by the Thaicom 6 launch.

I had suspected the delays were related to the upgrades to Falcon 9. This article confirms this.

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Russia’s Proton rocket successfully launched a commercial satellite today.

The competition heats up: Russia’s Proton rocket today successfully launched another commercial communications satellite.

The troublesome Briz-M upper stage still has to get the satellite to its proper orbit, so stay tuned. Nonetheless, this launch, only a few weeks after their last commercial Proton launch, suggests they were serious about launching nine more commercial launches this year.

Meanwhile, we wait for SpaceX’s first commercial launch by the Falcon 9 rocket. Their launch manifest still claims there will be three such launches before the next Falcon 9/Dragon mission to ISS later this year, but two of those launches were supposed to have occurred already. The non-occurrence of the March MDA/Cassiope launch out of Vandenberg is especially puzzling, as there are few scheduling conflicts at that rarely used spaceport.

The Falcon 9 delays at this point are beginning to be worrisome, and suggest the skepticism of some about SpaceX’s ability to compete might have merit. SpaceX has got to launch a commercial satellite soon in order to quell those doubts.

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The Russians announced that they plan nine more Proton rocket launches in 2013, for a total of twelve.

The competition heats up: The Russians announced today that they plan nine more Proton rocket launches in 2013, for a total of twelve.

I note this to give some context to what SpaceX will do with Falcon 9 this year. SpaceX has just updated its launch manifest schedule, and if the American company does what it says, it should have at least six more Falcon 9 flights this year, for a total of seven.

Should these predicted launches all take place, it will clearly demonstrate that SpaceX has grabbed a significant share of the launch market, but that the Russians are also holding their own.

Note also that the updated launch manifest still includes the first test flight of Falcon Heavy in 2013. Very interesting.

Update: The Russians are also preparing to launch their new Angara rocket family, which will replace their older rockets and allow them to launch from their new spaceport.

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SpaceX is about to finalize a deal with the Air Force to launch satellites on both its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.

SpaceX is about to finalize a deal with the Air Force to launch satellites on both its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.

For the Dscovr mission, scheduled for late 2014, a Falcon 9 will be used to launch an Earth and space weather satellite to the Sun-Earth Lagrange point L1, a location approximately 930,000 mi. from Earth. The Dscovr program, which will provide warning of space weather events, is a joint effort between the Air Force, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The STP-2 mission, which is targeted for launch on a Falcon Heavy in mid-2015, includes two space vehicles: the Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere and Climate-2 (Cosmic-2), designed to monitor climate behaviors; and the Demonstration and Science Experiments (DSX), which will conduct radiation research. [emphasis mine]

The big story here is that even before it has flown the Falcon Heavy once SpaceX already has a customer for it.

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SpaceX is moving its Grasshopper test program to New Mexico’s spaceport.

SpaceX is moving its Grasshopper test program to New Mexico’s spaceport.

The move confirms big plans for the test bed. Flights to date have been conducted at SpaceX’s engine test site in McGregor, Texas. SpaceX received a waiver from the FAA to fly Grasshopper up to 11,500ft from McGregor, but Spaceport America is an FAA-certified spaceport where no where no waivers are required. “Spaceport America offers us the physical and regulatory landscape needed to complete the next phase of Grasshopper testing,” says SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell.

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NASA has indicated that the first manned launch using a commercial space carrier has slipped by a year.

NASA has now indicated that the first manned launch using a commercial space carrier has slipped by a year.

The reasons are as yet unclear, though it is suspected that the main cause is the decision by the Obama administration to cut the funds of this program under sequestration. As Clark Lindsey notes, however, there is no reason that some of these private companies won’t go forward and fly other passengers on their spaceships, ahead of the NASA flights. Specifically, SpaceX and its Dragon capsule should easily be ready to go well ahead of 2017, and will likely be earning enough cash from its commercial launches to pay for development even if the NASA subsidies get delayed.

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Elon Musk confirms that on future Falcon 9 launches they will do tests of a powered return of the first stage.

The competition heats up: Elon Musk confirms that on future Falcon 9 launches they will do tests of a powered return of the first stage.

For the upcoming flight, after stage separation the first stage booster will do a burn to slow it down and then a second burn just before it reaches the water. In subsequent flights they will continue these over-water tests. He repeatedly emphasized that he expects several failures before they learn how to do it right. If all goes well with the over-water tests, they will fly back to launch site and land propulsively. He expects this could happen by mid-2014.

These tests are an extension of the Grasshopper tests, only this time they will take place during an actual launch.

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ILS, the company that launches the Russian Proton rocket, has lowered its prices.

The competition heats up: ILS, the company that launches the Russian Proton rocket, has lowered its prices.

The reason they have given is that the insurance rates to use their rocket have risen due to the three Proton rocket failures in the past two years and that they want to offset that cost for their customers. I suspect a second reason is the price pressure that the Falcon 9 is placing on them.

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Grasshopper flies again, but even higher.

The competition heats up: Grasshopper flies again, but even higher.

SpaceX’s Grasshopper doubled its highest leap to date to rise 24 stories or 80.1 meters (262.8 feet) today, hovering for approximately 34 seconds and landing safely using closed loop thrust vector and throttle control. Grasshopper touched down with its most accurate precision thus far on the centermost part of the launch pad. At touchdown, the thrust to weight ratio of the vehicle was greater than one, proving a key landing algorithm for Falcon 9.

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Dragon has been successfully berthed with ISS.

Dragon has successfully berthed with ISS.

The naysayers will focus on the thruster problems on Friday. The yaysayers will focus on the fix and berthing today. The bottom line, however, is that this mission once again proves that SpaceX is a real player in the space business. Every other company has to match its achievements, most especially in price. The result will be the eventually lowering in the cost to low Earth orbit, which will then make all things possible.

And in fact, we are already seeing this, with the appearance of many new private companies or organizations, proposing all sorts of new space efforts, such as mining asteroids or sending people to Mars. The lower cost allows dreamers to consider their wild new ideas more doable. And they then go ahead and try to do it.

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