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SpaceX changes the game with 100th rocket launch

Ending exactly five months of delays, SpaceX has completed the first polar launch from Florida in more than half a century, potentially changing the game for the US launch industry.

Coincidentally SpaceX’s 100th launch ever, the SAOCOM 1B mission’s success could significantly redefine what current and future US launch providers are able to achieve with a single launch pad. To pull it off, SpaceX managed to thread the needle between Florida storm cells, avoiding the same fate as the Starlink-11 mission that was scrubbed by inclement weather earlier today. Prior to that delay, SpaceX was targeting – and, based on past performance, would have likely achieved – two orbital Falcon 9 launches and landings in less than ten hours, what would have easily been the quickest back-to-back commercial missions in history.

At 7:18 pm EDT (UTC-4), Falcon 9 booster B1059 lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) Launch Complex 40 (LC-40) for the fourth time in nine months. The rocket performed perfectly, sending an expendable Falcon 9 second stage (S2), a payload fairing, SAOCOM 1B, and two rideshare payloads on their way to orbit. Eight minutes after launch and roughly six minutes after stage separate, B1059 successfully returned to SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral Landing Zone (LZ-1) for a soft landing, becoming the first booster to do so in almost six months.

Falcon 9 B1059’s titanium grid fins slice through the humid Florida air shortly before touchdown. (Richard Angle)

A brisk four minutes after Falcon 9’s first second stage engine cut-off (SECO) and orbital insertion, the rocket gently deployed the ~3000 kg (~6600 lb) SAOCOM 1B satellite. The Argentinian spacecraft extended its own solar arrays and began generating power just a few minutes later.

More than an hour after launch, rideshare payloads GNOMES-1 and Tyvak-0172 deployed as planned, officially completing the Falcon family’s 93rd fully-successful launch. Falcon 9 B1059’s fourth landing was also SpaceX’s 58th since the first successful booster recovery in December 2015.

Falcon 9 deploys SAOCOM 1B. (SpaceX)
(Richard Angle)
SpaceX Falcon 9 booster B1059 lands at LZ-1, backlit by Blue Origin’s unfinished orbital launch pad. (SpaceX)

While an otherwise routine and unexceptional mission, SpaceX has now proven that it’s possible for commercial launch providers to fly to polar orbits – orbits centered around Earth’s poles – from the East Coast. Since 1969, Cape Canaveral (and, far less often, Virginia’s Wallops) launch facilities have offered access to low Earth orbits, geostationary orbits, medium Earth orbits, lunar orbits, and interplanetary trajectories – just shy of anything but polar or sun synchronous orbit (SSO). To reach those orbits, launch providers have traditionally built entirely separate launch facilities on the US West Coast, mostly limited to California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) or, much less often, Kodiak, Alaska.

Building launch pads from scratch – or even reusing portions of old pads – is an extremely expensive and time-consuming endeavor, often taking at least 12-24 months and tens to hundreds of millions of dollars. Blue Origin, for reference, is likely spending $500 million to $1 billion or more to build a Falcon Heavy-class launch pad from scratch for its first orbital rocket, New Glenn. While much smaller rockets from startups like Firefly and Relativity need proportionally smaller and cheaper launch pads, pad construction still end ups being a major expense and hurdle for new entrants. Both Firefly and Relativity have already publicized plans to build two separate launch facilities at Vandenberg and Cape Canaveral.

(Richard Angle)
(Richard Angle)
Vulcan, New Glenn, and Falcon 9 could all benefit immensely from a reopened Eastern polar launch corridor. (Teslarati – ULA/NGIS/Blue Origin/SpaceX)

Now, given enough excess performance for any given payload, it may well be possible for companies like them – particularly Relativity – to move directly to Florida without having to sacrifice polar and SSO launch capabilities that are most commonly used by small satellites. For Blue Origin, it could potentially save the company years of work and hundreds of millions of dollars if it can avoid having to build a second New Glenn launch pad in California. ULA has already expressed interest in exploring East Coast polar launches for its next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket, potentially preventing the need for expensive changes to one of its California launch pads.

It remains to be seen if the US military will ultimately certify the new Eastern polar launch corridor for its high-value payloads and it’s unclear if the new corridor has any major inclination or cadence restrictions, but it’s safe to say that existing providers are going to eagerly take advantage of this new capability.

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SpaceX launches Argentine radar satellite, rideshare smallsats on Falcon 9 rocket

WASHINGTON — SpaceX completed its first Cape Canaveral polar launch Aug. 30, delivering an Argentine radar satellite and two smallsats into low Earth orbit using a Falcon 9 rocket. 

Falcon 9 lifted off at 7:19 p.m. Eastern, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, overcoming a 60% chance of a weather delay from extensive cloud cover. The rocket deployed the Saocom-1B synthetic aperture radar satellite for the Argentine space agency CONAE approximately 14 minutes after liftoff, followed by the Tyvak-0172 smallsat and PlanetiQ’s Gnomes-1 commercial weather smallsat about an hour after liftoff. 

SpaceX was waiting to launch until after United Launch Alliance completed the Delta 4 Heavy launch of the National Reconnaissance Office’s NROL-44 satellite, also from Cape Canaveral. However, a ULA mission abort triggered three seconds before liftoff Aug. 29 delayed that mission by a minimum of seven days, creating an opportunity for SpaceX to launch first. 

SpaceX landed the Falcon 9’s first-stage booster on land at Cape Canaveral’s Landing Zone 1, recovering that booster for a fourth time. The company plans to recover the rocket’s payload fairing halves out of the Atlantic Ocean, since SpaceX’s usual fairing recovery ships were deployed in different locations for a since-scrubbed Starlink Falcon 9 mission. 

SpaceX was attempting to launch two Falcon 9 missions from Cape Canaveral Aug. 30, starting with a batch of its own Starlink broadband satellites at 10:12 a.m. Eastern, but inclement weather delayed that mission until at least Sept. 1.

SpaceX intended to launch Saocom-1B in March, but was delayed at CONAE’s request because of the coronavirus. Synthetic aperture radar startup Capella Space planned to launch a satellite on that mission as a rideshare, but shifted its satellite to a dedicated flight on a Rocket Lab Electron because of that delay. Capella Space’s Sequoia satellite is scheduled to launch no earlier than Aug. 30 at 11:05 p.m. from Rocket Lab’s New Zealand launchpad. 

SpaceX’s Saocom-1B mission marks the first polar launch from Cape Canaveral since 1969. 

Brig. Gen. Doug Schiess, commander of the 45th Space Wing, which oversees Florida space coast launch ranges, said Aug. 25 during a video call with reporters that SpaceX requested to launch Saocom-1B on the polar trajectory from the Cape instead of from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, as originally planned. 

“Some of their processing was here and it made more sense,” Schiess said. 

Polar orbits are popular for weather and remote sensing satellites to enable coverage of the Earth’s full surface. SpaceX launched the first Saocom satellite, Saocom-1A, into a polar orbit from Vandenberg in October 2018 on a Falcon 9. 

The Aug. 30 launch of Saocom-1B completes Argentina’s Saocom system, comprised of twin 3,000-kilogram satellites equipped with L-band phased array antennas that can image day and night and through clouds. 

The Saocom satellites are designed to detect soil moisture and strengthen Argentina’s agricultural sector. 

CONAE signed its launch contract with SpaceX for the Saocom satellites in 2009, for launches expected in 2012 and 2013, but the Saocom program experienced setbacks that prevented meeting those launch targets. 

In an interview, Raúl Kulichevsky, technical director at CONAE, said the Saocom satellites proved more difficult to build than expected for INVAP, Argentina’s state-owned satellite manufacturer, since the company had never built a radar satellite before. 

“It was a more challenging mission than we expected at the beginning,” he said. 

The Saocom satellites collectively cost $600 million, covering manufacturing, two Falcon 9 launches and a new ground station, Kulichevsky said. Financing the program was also difficult at times, he said. 

The Argentine government, which sought to avoid a default on its ballooning national debt during the 2010s, didn’t always fund the Saocom program “exactly at the time that we needed it,” Kulichevsky said. 

One of the most challenging technical parts of the program was building an L-band phased array antenna for each satellite, Kulichevsky said. CONAE was in charge of developing the antenna, and partnered with the National Atomic Energy Commission of Argentina to work together on the element. 

“They have a very strong research and development branch on materials,” Kulichevsky said of the National Atomic Energy Commission. “When we started the design of the antenna, we signed an agreement with them” to test new materials and evaluate some component mechanics.

Gabriel Cristian Absi, vice president of INVAP’s aerospace division, said radar imagery collected from Saocom-1A shows the antenna works as expected. 

“The quality of the image that we obtained with the Saocom-1A is very amazing,” he said. “There are a lot of companies and governmental [entities] in Argentina that are very interested in the information that Saocom can provide to them.”

Absi said INVAP will seek to sell synthetic aperture radar satellites outside of Argentina to retain its knowledge of how to build such satellites. He said government customers are interested in X-band synthetic aperture radar satellites for border monitoring and defense applications. 

In addition to domestic use, Argentina uses the Saocom satellites as part of the Italian/Argentine satellite system for emergency management, or SIASGE, which pairs CONAE’s two Saocom satellites and Italy’s four Cosmo-Skymed first-generation satellites, enabling more rapid imagery collection of fires, earthquakes and other natural disasters. 

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SpaceX to attempt first East Coast polar launch in half a century as storms loom

Despite bad weather that forced SpaceX to stand down from a Starlink launch planned earlier this morning, the company is still on track to attempt the first East Coast polar launch in half a century later this evening.

Known as SAOCOM 1B, the Argentinian spacecraft scheduled to launch on Falcon 9 is the second in a pair of large Earth observation radar satellites, using an advanced form of radar to analyze vast swaths of the planet’s surface. SpaceX launched SAOCOM 1A in October 2018.

Originally scheduled to launch as early as March 30th, 2020, SAOCOM 1B has suffered extensive delays as a result of coronavirus-related travel and work restrictions. At long last, the 1600 kg (~3500 lb) satellite is vertical at the LC-40 launch pad atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, but Florida’s temperamental summer weather threatens to delay the mission into September.

Falcon 9 B1059 stands vertical with SAOCOM 1B ahead of a long-delayed launch attempt. (SpaceX)

Per the 45th Space Wing tasked with range support for all Cape Canaveral launches, the forecast for SpaceX’s SAOCOM 1B launch predicts conditions will be just as bad as the weather that forced SpaceX to scrub its 10:12 am EDT Starlink-11 launch attempt. Said forecast shows a 60% chance of weather constraint violation (40% GO) due to cumulus and anvil cloud (i.e. thunderstorm) formation, among other concerns. While somewhat unrelated, photographers were unable to set up cameras on time due to a massive, hours-long lightning storm over Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) and Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

With any luck, though, SpaceX will be able to thread the needle between prevailing weather conditions and safely launch SAOCOM 1B. Historically, the company has managed to successfully launch in spite of very discouraging weather forecasts, which is why it almost never aborts launch attempts until the last minute when weather is a concern – conditions can very quickly change.

Falcon 9 B1059 (left) is still on track for a ~7pm August 30th launch attempt, while Starlink-11 (right) was scrubbed for the day by weather and Starship SN6 battles high winds for a hop attempt in South Texas. (Richard Angle; NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

SAOCOM 1B is the first polar launch attempt from the US East Coast in more than half a century after debris from a failed rocket struck and killed a cow on Cuban land in 1969. By adding a ‘dogleg’ maneuver to tweak its trajectory mid-flight, Falcon 9 will theoretically be able to minimize the risk of a similar accident occurring while still recovering the rocket booster and (perhaps) its payload fairing halves.

After liftoff, Falcon 9 booster B1059 will attempt to return to Cape Canaveral to land at one of SpaceX’s land-based Landing Zones for the first time in almost six months. Fairing recovery ship Ms. Chief is on site to attempt to catch and recover one or both halves of the SAOCOM 1B mission’s Falcon fairing, while twin ship Ms. Tree is several hundred miles north to attempt the same feat after SpaceX’s Starlink-11 launch (now NET September 1st).

SAOCOM 1B is scheduled to launch no earlier than (NET) 7:18 pm EDT (UTC-4) on August 30th. An official webcast will begin around 7 pm.

Check out Teslarati’s newsletters for prompt updates, on-the-ground perspectives, and unique glimpses of SpaceX’s rocket launch and recovery processes.

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SpaceX Falcon 9 doubleheader still on track after fiery ULA launch abort

As previously reported by Teslarati, SpaceX announced intentions to launch two Falcon 9 missions from two Florida launchpads on Sunday, August 30th. However, the ambitious goal was left in limbo.

The record-breaking doubleheader was believed to hinge upon the Saturday morning launch of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket with a classified spy satellite. However, that is apparently no longer the case.

Instead of launching on time, ULA’s infrequently-flown heavy-lift rocket was hit by 72 hours of delays to rectify minor pad hardware bugs. Around 2 am EDT (UTC-4) on August 29th, Delta IV Heavy made it just seconds away from liftoff before the rocket’s autonomous flight computer detected an anomaly with pad hardware and aborted the launch. As a result, the three cores’ three Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-68A engines were forced to shut down after ignition – an uncommon Delta IV launch abort scenario that has historically required at least a week of work to recycle for another launch attempt.

The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy pictured at sunset ahead of its ultimately scrubbed launch attempt on Friday, August 28 from Space Launch Complex – 37B in Florida. (United Launch Alliance)

ULA ultimately determined that it was not possible to recycle the countdown for another attempt although enough time remained in the launch window to do so. The launch vehicle was safed and a scrub was announced.

In a statement provided by ULA confirmed that the early shutdown was “due to an unexpected condition during the terminal count at approximately three seconds before liftoff.” ULA also confirmed that “the required recycle time prior to the next launch attempt is seven days minimum.”

ULA has to fly before SpaceX, right?

With a minimum of seven days required to recycle the ULA Delta IV Heavy for another launch attempt, it was unclear what that meant for the fate of the SpaceX SAOCOM-1B mission.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 pictured prior to liftoff from Space Launch Complex-40. (Richard Angle)

It was previously understood that in order for SpaceX to launch the SAOCOM-1B mission from nearby Space Launch Complex-40 (SLC-40), the ULA Delta IV Heavy would have to successfully launch first. The southern polar launch trajectory of the SAOCOM-1B’s mission is one that hasn’t been flown from Cape Canaveral, FL in nearly six decades. This particular flightpath includes launch hazard zones that inch ever so close to the launchpad of the Delta IV Heavy, which is currently still on its launchpad stacked with a classified payload for the U.S. government.

It was assumed that the Falcon 9 would suffer the same minimum delay of seven days, if not longer. However, on Saturday afternoon, August 29 a SpaceX media representative confirmed that the company was still targeting the historic double header launches on Sunday, August 30.

Double the launches, double the recoveries

If SpaceX can pull it off, Sunday is set to be a stellar day for Falcon 9 launches and landings. The SAOCOM-1B mission will feature a Return To Launch Site (RTLS) landing attempt of the expended Falcon 9 booster while the Starlink Falcon 9 booster is expected to land aboard the autonomous droneship “Of Course I Still Love You” currently stationed off the coast of South Carolina.

In an unusual move, SpaceX split up the fairing catching vessels. Initially, both vessels left Port Canaveral and headed south to a catch zone located between The Bahamas and Cuba in an attempt to catch both fairing halves of the SAOCOM-1B mission. Then, GO Ms.Tree did an about-turn and met up with the booster recovery vessels off the coast of South Carolina.

At the time of publishing, the two Sunday Falcon 9 launches are expected to occur just nine hours apart. The Starlink V1.0-L11 mission is slated to occur at 10:12am ET (1412 UTC) from Launch Complex 39-A at Kennedy Space Center while the SAOCOM-1B mission is set to launch at 7:18pm ET (2318 UTC) from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. As usual, SpaceX will host official launch webcasts live, typically beginning around 15 minutes before liftoff.

Check out Teslarati’s newsletters for prompt updates, on-the-ground perspectives, and unique glimpses of SpaceX’s rocket launch and recovery processes.

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SpaceX, Rocket Lab, ULA all have rocket launches planned this weekend

The final weekend of August 2020 is shaping up to be an exciting one in the world of rocket launching. United Launch Alliance (ULA) looks to kick off weekend activities early on Saturday morning with the launch of its Delta IV Heavy rocket carrying a classified satellite payload for the National Reconnaissance Office at 2:04 am EDT (0604 UTC) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 37. Following a successful ULA launch, the weekend’s activity will kick into high gear. Even SpaceX founder and CEO, Elon Musk, agrees that this weekend could be “intense” as stated in a post to his Twitter account Friday, August 28.

According to weather Launch Mission Execution Forecasts provided by the 45th Weather Squadron and confirmed via the company’s Twitter account, SpaceX aims to get two Falcon 9’s launched from the Florida coast just nine hours apart. The company also has a possible flight test of its Starship prototype vehicle on the books from Boca Chica, Texas this weekend. Rocket Lab looks to join in the launching activity with the return to flight mission of its Electron rocket following the wrap-up of its recent in-flight anomaly investigation.

The weather forecasts provided by the 45th Weather Squadron for SpaceX’s Sunday double Falcon 9 header looks iffy. (45th Weather Squadron)

SpaceX can only launch this weekend if ULA does too

As SpaceX and ULA both launch from what is referred to as the eastern range – the location of all launches originating from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station or Kennedy Space Center – only one launch provider can be supported at a time by the 45th Space Wing and 45th Weather Squadron which oversee eastern range operations.

As a part of the reservation process ahead of securing a launch date with the eastern range, each launch provider chooses a targeted launch date and secures a number of back-up launch opportunities should a delay occur.

In the case of ULA’s NROL-44 mission, a primary launch opportunity and two back-up opportunities – 24 hours and 48 hours after the initial launch attempt – have been identified. This means that should the Delta IV Heavy suffer another critical issue resulting in a delay during its Saturday, August 29 primary launch attempt, both of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch opportunities will be delayed as well.

The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket waits inside the protective Mobile Serive Tower ahead of a launch attempt. (Richard Angle)

ULA’s NROL-44 Delta IV Heavy carries a classified satellite payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, a national security division of the United States government. As such, the NROL-44 mission is a matter of national security and takes precedence over both SpaceX’s internal Starlink mission and SAOCOM-1B payload for customer Comisión Nacional de Actividades Espaciales, Argentina’s national space agency.

If the ULA NROL-44 mission is delayed through both back-up launch opportunities SpaceX, presumably, would have to wait until no earlier than Tuesday, September 1 to launch a Falcon 9.

Rocket Lab “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Optical”

https://twitter.com/Peter_J_Beck/status/1297021496402092034

While SpaceX will have to wait for ULA’s Delta IV Heavy to clear its pad before attempting either of the planned Falcon 9 launches, Rocket Lab will attempt the return to flight mission of its Electron rocket – the fourteenth flight overall – regardless (weather permitting).

The launch attempt initially scheduled for 11:04pm ET (0304 UTC) Friday, August 28 was rescheduled due to high winds and heavy cloud cover over Launch Complex-1A in Mahia, New Zealand. The next available launch attempt at 11:05 pm ET Sunday, August 30 (0305 UTC Monday, August 31) lines up for Electron to take off just four hours after SpaceX’s SAOCOM-1B mission.

Following an in-flight anomaly during Electron’s thirteenth mission in July, Rocket Lab was forced to stand down from active launching status to complete a full investigation into the incident. In about a month’s time, Rocket Lab was able to track down and remedy an overheating issue with a single electrical connection on Electron’s second stage.

After receiving clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration to resume operational launches, Rocket Lab has announced that Electron’s fourteenth flight -nicknamed “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Optical” – will be a dedicated mission for Capella Space, a California-based company that utilizes Earth observation data to provide information services.

According to a statement provided by Rocket Lab, the satellite payload called “Sequoia” is “a single 100 kg class microsatellite which will be the first publicly available satellite in the company’s commercial Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) constellation.”

The fairing of Rocket Lab’s Electron features mission-specific artwork for the upcoming fourteenth flight – a dedicated payload for Capella Space. (Rocket Lab)

A big goal of Rocket Lab’s is to join competitor SpaceX in a class of launchers that regularly recovers and reuses orbital-class boosters. Rocket Lab intends to catch an Electron first-stage booster in-flight once it has been dispensed by catching the falling booster’s parachute canopy with a grappling hook secured to a helicopter.

However, the company has stated that a full-scale demonstration of this effort is targeted for no earlier than the seventeenth mission of Electron currently slated to occur in Fall 2020.

If all proceeds as planned, this weekend could end up as a launchfest of rockets and spaceship prototypes. At the time of publishing, all is proceeding as expected for ULA’s Delta IV Heavy launch attempt and the weather looks good on Saturday, August 29.

ULA has confirmed that the previous issues that caused a launch attempt delay have all been cleared and weather outlook remains at an 80% chance of favorable launching conditions.

The launch attempt will be streamed live and is expected to begin at 1:43 am EDT (0543 UTC) on the company’s website or viewed below.

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SpaceX eyes two Falcon 9 launches and a Starship hop in three days

Pending an August 29th mission from competitor ULA, SpaceX aims to attempt two orbital Falcon 9 launches and a Starship hop test over the course of just a few days.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket was originally scheduled to launch the secretive National Reconnaissance Office 44 (NROL-44) spy satellite on Wednesday before the customer requested a 24-hour delay and technical rocket bugs pushed the mission to no earlier than (NET) August 27th and now August 29th. Delta IV Heavy’s low cadence of one or two annual launches has traditionally made it hard for the rocket to launch on time, offering very few opportunities for the company to work the kinks out of the complex system.

ULA’s NROL-44 launch currently holds precedence over other missions scheduled around the same time, meaning that SpaceX has no choice but to delay its own launches every time the ULA mission slips. SpaceX has two launches currently in queue: Argentinian Earth observation satellite SAOCOM 1B was scheduled to launch NET 7:19 pm EDT (UTC-4) on August 28th, while SpaceX’s 11th Starlink v1.0 launch was expected to lift off NET 10:08 am EDIT (UTC-4) on August 30th. Simultaneously, a SpaceX Starship prototype is tracking towards its first short hop somewhere in between those orbital launches. ULA’s second NROL-44 delay has thrown both SpaceX launch dates somewhat up in the air, however.

SpaceX encapsulated SAOCOM 1B in Falcon 9’s payload fairing earlier this month. (CONAE)

Starship SN6 Flight 1

Recent delays to SpaceX’s East Coast launches have pushed the company’s second full-scale Starship hop test to the front of the line. Starship serial number 6 (SN6) is currently scheduled to attempt its first 150m (~500 ft) hop as early as Saturday, August 29th. Coming less than four weeks after Starship SN5 became the first full-scale prototype to successfully lift off (and land) on August 4th, a second successful hop – with an entirely different Raptor engine and Starship prototype – would be an extraordinary feat.

Meanwhile, SpaceX is simultaneously inspecting and repairing the hop-proven Starship SN5 prototype – most likely with the intention of flying the ship again in the near future. According to CEO Elon Musk, SpaceX’s current goal is to perform “several” fast-paced Starship hop tests to streamline the new rocket’s launch operations. The August 29th window for SN6’s 150m hop lasts from 8am to 8pm and the rocket could attempt to lift off as early as 10am to noon.

Starship SN6 completed a cryo proof test and Raptor static fire on August 16th and August 23rd. (LabPadre)

SAOCOM 1B

Sister to the SAOCOM 1A satellite SpaceX launched from California in October 2018, SAOCOM 1B is more or less identical. Notably, however, it will launch from Florida – the first polar launch planned from the US East Coast in half a century. The reason the United States effectively retired the Eastern polar launch corridor is a bizarre story of Cold War tensions gone awry but the gist is that SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket will ‘dogleg’ midflight, changing its trajectory to avoid overflying populated regions.

Originally scheduled to launch as early as March 30th, the Argentinian satellite has been relentlessly delayed by coronavirus-related restrictions and technical delays. SAOCOM 1B’s Falcon 9 booster was even swapped amidst the delays, switching from B1051 to B1059 as SpaceX strove to fill the gap in its manifest with internal Starlink missions. Now, NROL-44’s technical launch delays have pushed the Falcon 9 mission from August 27th to NET 7:19 pm EDT (UTC-4) on Sunday, August 30th.

SAOCOM 1B will be SpaceX’s first return-to-launch-site (RTLS) booster landing since March 2020.

Falcon 9 B1059 – now scheduled to launch SAOCOM 1B – last returned to port on June 16th after launching Starlink-8. (Richard Angle)

Starlink-11

Finally, prior to NROL-44’s 72-hour slip, SpaceX’s 11th Starlink v1.0 mission and 12th Starlink launch overall was scheduled NET Sunday, August 30th. ULA’s delays have added considerable uncertainty, at one point pushing Starlink-11 to a tentative September 1st NET before the launch date (rather oddly) slipped back into late-August. Assuming SpaceX still has to wait for ULA, the most likely alternative is August 31st, given that August 30th would necessitate two launches in less than ten hours.

SpaceX completed its first operational US military Falcon 9 launch with booster B1060 on June 30th. (Richard Angle)
B1060 completed its first recovery on July 4th. (Richard Angle)

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SpaceX to launch Masten lunar lander

Masten XL-1 lander

WASHINGTON — Masten Space Systems announced Aug. 26 that it signed a contract with SpaceX for the launch of its first lunar lander mission carrying a suite of payloads for NASA.

Masten said SpaceX will launch its Masten Mission One, or MM1, lunar lander mission in late 2022. The companies did not disclose the value of the contract.

In an Aug. 27 interview, Sean Mahoney, chief executive of Masten, said the contract does not cover a specific launch vehicle, but rather a service to get the spacecraft to the moon on the company’s desired schedule. “We’re buying the performance that we need,” he said. SpaceX will have the ability to place other spacecraft on the launch on a noninterference basis.

The mission will carry payloads for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program under a $75.9 million contract awarded by the agency in April. The XL-1 lander will deliver nine science and technology demonstration payloads to the south polar region of the moon.

The lander has passed a preliminary design review, Mahoney said, and the company is starting to purchase long-lead items needed to build the spacecraft. Masten is also holding biweekly meetings with teams representing the nine CLPS payloads.

NASA will be an anchor customer for the mission but Masten intends to sign up others. “There is a tremendous amount of interest,” he said, including from both the public and private sector, although he didn’t mention any specific potential customers.

Mahoney said the level of customer interest soared after Masten won the CLPS award and had a firm schedule for the mission. “Once the CLPS award was made and we crossed from speculative to having a schedule, the tenor and tone of our conversations have changed dramatically.”

The limiting factor for the lander mission has not been the amount of mass available for payloads, he said, but instead positions on the lander that have views of the surface desired by payloads. “There’s a game of positioning among the various instruments so that they can get the view angles that they need and not interfere,” he said.

However, he said the company isn’t considering major changes in the lander’s design to accommodate payloads. “The design principle is the ‘pickup truck’ that can haul a bunch of different things,” he said. “We’re trying to escape the completely unique, bespoke system that does one job and one mission really well.”

Masten joins a growing list of companies and organizations using SpaceX to launch lunar lander missions. Intuitive Machines, which won one of the first NASA CLPS awards last year, selected SpaceX to launch its IM-1 lunar lander mission on a Falcon 9 in 2021. Intuitive Machines said at the time that it would be part of a rideshare mission, but didn’t state if its lander would be considered the primary payload or not.

Japanese company ispace selected SpaceX in 2018 to launch its first two lunar missions, which at the time were to be an orbiter and lander launching in 2020 and 2021 respectively on Falcon 9 rockets. The company now says both will be lander missions, launching in 2022 and 2023.

SpaceX has already launched one lunar lander mission. Beresheet, the lunar lander built by Israel Aerospace Industries for Israeli organization SpaceIL, flew as a secondary payload on the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of an Indonesian communications satellite in February 2019. Beresheet used its onboard propulsion to move from a geostationary transfer orbit to lunar orbit, but crashed attempting a landing in April 2019.

Astrobotic, which won a CLPS award last year for its Peregrine lunar lander, selected United Launch Alliance to launch that mission on the first flight of ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket in 2021. Astrobotic had previously contracted with ULA to launch Peregrine as a secondary payload on an Atlas 5 before winning the CLPS award.

Astrobotic won a second CLPS award June 11 when NASA selected the company to deliver its Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) mission to the lunar south pole in late 2023. Astrobotic said at the time it would select a launch vehicle for the VIPER mission later this year.

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SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket wins fourth Moon lander launch contract

SpaceX continues to dominate the global commercial launch market in Earth orbit and beyond and has secured its fourth Moon lander launch contract.

Awarded by Masten Space Systems, SpaceX’s newest launch contract will see it send the first XL-1 Moon lander on its way to the lunar South Pole no earlier than (NET) 2022. The mission was funded by NASA under the agency’s new Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative in April 2020, awarding Masten ~$76 million to design, build, launch, and land its XL-1 spacecraft on the Moon.

Masten has been developing XL-1 on and off with NASA for at least five years, resulting in a relatively mature design but very little hardware built. Already, based on the lone render released alongside NASA’s contract award, Masten has substantially changed the structural layout of XL-1, though it’s safe to assume that most of its critical systems remain the same.

SpaceX has won four firm Moon lander launch contracts in just a few years. (Richard Angle)

As of now, SpaceX has already successfully launched Israel’s Beresheet commercial lunar lander in February 2019, although the spacecraft sadly failed just a few minutes before touchdown. In May 2019, NASA announced its first three CLPS Moon lander contracts, one of which (Orbit Beyond) had to back out soon after. Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines – the two remaining providers – ultimately awarded their respective launch contracts to ULA and SpaceX.

Independent of NASA, SpaceX has multiple Falcon 9 launch contracts on hand for lunar landers to be built by Japanese startup iSpace and launched as soon as 2022 and 2023. Technically, SpaceX even won a fifth Moon lander launch contract from Planetary Transportation Systems (PTS) but the German company went bankrupt in 2019 and its Alina lander appears to be in limbo.

Beresheet was just a few hundred meters per second shy of a successful Moon landing after successfully entering lunar orbit and beginning the landing process. (SpaceIL)
From left to right: Astrobotic’s Peregrine, Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C, and OrbitBeyond’s Z-01. SpaceX won launch contracts for two of them before OrbitBeyond was forced to exit the program. (NASA)
SpaceX could launch iSpace’s proposed Hakuto-R lander and rover as early as 2022. (iSpace).
A 2019 iteration of the XL-1 Moon lander. (Masten Space)

Compared to most other lunar landers SpaceX is scheduled to launch, Masten’s XL-1 is quite large, weighing 675 kg (~1500 lb) dry and 2675 kg (~5900 lb) fully fueled. It will be able to deliver up to 100 kg (220 lb) of useful payload to the surface of the Moon and support that equipment with power and communications for a full lunar day (~12 days). Of the eight experiments NASA plans to include on Masten’s first Moon mission, a robotic arm derived from spare Mars rover parts and a small rover designed to test fast, autonomous Moon roving.

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SpaceX kicks off orbital Starship launch pad construction in Texas

CEO Elon Musk has confirmed that SpaceX is already well into the process of building an orbital-class Starship launch pad in Boca Chica, Texas.

After much ado about nothing and a multi-day fan skirmish over whether a new SpaceX construct was meant for a water tower or launch pad, the debate can finally be brought to a close. As of almost two weeks ago, it was just shy of guaranteed that the concrete foundation SpaceX was working on would be wildly excessive for a water tower, turning it into a question of whether it would be a suborbital or orbital-class test stand for Starship.

Now, Musk has confirmed – somewhat surprisingly – that the foundation will ultimately support an “orbital launch mount” capable of hosting what will eventually be the largest and most powerful rocket ever built.

All the way back in September 2019, SpaceX actually broke ground on a separate orbital-class Starship launch pad at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A). Despite rapid progress over the next several months, work on Pad 39A’s Starship additions abruptly ground to a halt in Q1 2020 and has yet to restart.

The start of a Starship launch mount at Pad 39A is pictured here in December 2019.
An official render of SpaceX’s circa 2019 Starship launch mount design. (SpaceX)
SpaceX’s latest orbital-class Starship pad work is seen here on August 25th, 2020.

The beginnings of the 39A Starship launch mount closely resembled a conceptual design published as part of an official 2019 SpaceX video. However, in a twist that isn’t actually much of a surprise for long-time followers of SpaceX, the company’s new orbital South Texas launch mount looks almost nothing like 2019 pad renders or the incomplete metalwork at Pad 39A.

In other words, SpaceX – probably lead by Musk himself – has substantially redesigned Starship’s orbital-class launch facilities and/or changed its approach to pad development for the next-generation rocket.

Hexagonal symmetry all the way down to the mount’s foundation pilings suggests that SpaceX’s new Starship pad design will begin with the bare-minimum needed for a sturdy, semi-permanent launch pad. SpaceX may change the design for Super Heavy but Starship’s thrust section is attached to a skirt with six strengthened sections that host landing legs and hold-down clampsThe sheer heft of ~2m (~6 ft) wide steel and rebar columns – soon to be filled with concrete – and pilings at least as wide and more than 30m (100 ft) deep certainly hints at a final structure capable of surviving the fury of Starship’s Super Heavy booster.

Barring additional changes, Super Heavy will be as tall as the entirety of a Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy rocket – first stage, second stage, and payload fairing included. Powered by up to 31 Raptor engines, the Super Heavy booster will produce upwards of 72,000 kN (16,000,000 lbf) of thrust at liftoff – 12 times the thrust of Falcon 9, triple the thrust of Falcon Heavy, and double the thrust of Saturn V (the most powerful liquid-fuel rocket ever to reach orbit). Combined with Starship, the full stack will weigh roughly 5000 metric tons (11 million lbs) fully fueled. For the purpose of static fire testing and final vehicle checks after ignition but before liftoff, a Super Heavy-class launch mount will need to withstand more than 7200 tons (~16 million lbf) of force.

Meanwhile, SpaceX could be just a few days away from Starship SN6’s hop debut just beside SpaceX’s ongoing orbital launch mount construction, while an 80m (~260 ft) tall Super Heavy booster assembly building may have reached its full height earlier this week.

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45th Space Wing to attempt three launches in three days, on pace for 39 in 2020

WASHINGTON — For the first time since 2001, Cape Canaveral will attempt to launch three rockets over three days.

Scheduled for Aug. 27 is a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy National Reconnaissance Office mission. On Aug. 28 a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch the SAOCOM 1B satellite for Argentina’s space agency followed by another Falcon 9 Starlink launch on Aug. 29.

It this works out, it will be historic, said Brig. Gen. Doug Schiess, commander of the 45th Space Wing that oversees the Florida space coast ranges.

Three launches in a week has not been done in Florida since 2001, Scheiss said Aug. 25 during a video call with reporters.

That year, a Titan 4 launched Aug. 6th, a Delta 2 on Aug. 8 and the the NASA Space Shuttle on Aug. 10.

Schiess said that if the current manifest holds, the Florida Space Coast will see 39 launches in 2020, compared to 18 launches in 2019 and 24 in 2018.

“And so the launches are continuing to increase, that’s due to national security space missions and a huge part due to our commercial missions,” said Schiess.

The manifest for the next three months has a Sept. 30 GPS satellite launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9, another NRO mission on a ULA Atlas 5 sometime in October, the first operational launch of the SpaceX Crew Dragon Oct. 23 and in November a ULA Atlas 5 launch of Boeing’s Starliner capsule uncrewed test mission.

Polar launch the first since 1969

SpaceX will launch Argentina’s SAOCOM 1B — an Earth observation satellite designed to provide radar imagery — to a polar orbit and will fly a southerly trajectory.

“It’s been decades since that’s been used,” said Schiess.

The last polar launch from the Cape was in February 1969 — the ESSA-9, also known as TOS-G, a meteorological satellite on a three-stage Delta rocket, a 45th Space Wing spokesman said.

After launching SAOCOM 1B, SpaceX will attempt to land the Falcon 9 booster on land at Landing Zone 1, rather than on a droneship at sea. The last time that happened was when SpaceX flew the CRS-20 Commercial Resupply Service mission to the International Space Station in March 2020.

Schiess said the southerly trajectory flight for the polar orbit mission was approved by the Federal Aviation Administration and does not pose a threat to the populations of southern Florida or Cuba as the rocket flies over those areas.

‘We have done an extensive amount of work to make sure that we’re safe,” said Schiess.

SpaceX has launched satellites to polar orbits from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, but wanted to do this one from the Cape, said Schiess, because its payload “processing was here and it made more sense.”

The 45th Space Wing uses southerly trajectories for submarine ballistic missile tests, Schiess said, and noted that Vandenberg Air Force Base is the “premier location to launch to polar and I don’t see that changing.”

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