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Elon Musk’s Starlink user documents are filled with meme-worthy Easter Eggs

A rollout for SpaceX’s “Better than Nothing Beta” for Starlink is now underway. And in true Elon Musk fashion, it appears that Starlink’s Terms of Service and Installation Guidelines include several memelord-worthy (and surprisingly sensible) Easter Eggs. Needless to say, the space community has been charmed. 

Among the most notable of these Easter Eggs lay in the Starlink system’s Installation Guidelines. As noted by CNBC space reporter Michael Sheetz, SpaceX’s official Installation Guidelines have revealed that the private space firm is fondly calling its Starlink user terminals “Dishy McFlatface,” a reference to “Boaty McBoatface,” which caught headlines back in 2016. 

The “Boaty McBoatface” meme was born in 2016 when the British scientific research agency NERC launched an online crowdsourced contest to determine the name of its new polar research vessel. The ship, which was among the most advanced in Britain, received numerous name suggestions, the most popular of which was the amusing “Boaty McBoatface,” a moniker suggested by former BBC presenter James Hand. While the ship was ultimately named the RSS David Attenborough, an onboard drone was later christened as “Boaty McBoatface” nonetheless. The name has lived on in the internet since. 

References to Boaty aside, Starlink’s Terms of Service also included some rather unique sections, the most notable of which was written under “Governing Law.” In it, Musk’s private space enterprise explained that users of Starlink must recognize that Mars is a free planet and not governed by any Earth-based government authorities. While meme-worthy on its own, SpaceX’s mention of Mars’ autonomy does highlight the company’s intense focus on reaching the red planet within the coming years. 

“For Services provided to, on, or in orbit around the planet Earth or the Moon, these Terms and any disputes between us arising out of or related to these Terms, including disputes regarding arbitrability (“Disputes”) will be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of the State of California in the United States. For Services provided on Mars, or in transit to Mars via Starship or other colonization spacecraft, the parties recognize Mars as a free planet and that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities. Accordingly, Disputes will be settled through self-governing principles, established in good faith, at the time of Martian settlement,” SpaceX noted. 

In a way, “Dishy McFlatface” and Terms of Use that reference using Starlink in Martian soil are perfectly on-brand for Elon Musk and his private space enterprise. Musk, after all, has been pretty open about the idea of using Starlink satellites to eventually establish internet connections on Mars. The project will of course likely take several more years, but it is quite difficult to deny that the idea is quite practical. 

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SpaceX’s next three-Raptor Starship static fire delayed by winds, says Elon Musk

CEO Elon Musk says that SpaceX’s second three-Raptor Starship static fire test has been delayed several days by bad weather at the company’s South Texas launch facilities.

Prior to Musk’s tweet, all signs pointed to a second static fire test as early as 5am to 11am CDT on Friday, October 30th – made official by a paper safety notice SpaceX distributes to remaining Boca Chica Village residents around 12-24 hours prior. Unfortunately, however, Musk says that SpaceX ran into “some challenges with high winds” – seemingly canceling today’s static fire attempt.

SpaceX has successfully installed three Raptors on Starship SN8 and is scheduled to attempt the first triple-engine static fire as early as October 14th. (Elon Musk)

On the other hand, there’s a chance that SpaceX’s October 30th safety warning and 5am-11am window could be for Starship SN8’s first wet dress rehearsal (WDR) with a nosecone (and thus a liquid oxygen header tank) installed. A wet dress rehearsal refers to the process of putting a rocket through a flow identical to what is done on launch day – albeit short of actually igniting or launching the rocket. In that sense, it’s essentially one step shorter than a static fire.

Road closure filings prior to November 1st are ambiguous, however, with no specific purpose disclosed. Technically, as long as SpaceX doesn’t perform a static fire or flight test without giving residents significant prior notice and necessary FAA/FCC approvals, road closures can more or less be used to whatever end the company deems necessary.

As far as triple-Raptor static fire testing goes, it’s unclear how anything less than mechanically dangerous wind conditions could interfere with Starship. Given that winds of 20-30 mph (and gusts even higher) are far from uncommon on the South Texas coast, Starship will need to be able to tolerate – and launch in – even worse weather.

Starship SN8 is no longer attached to a crane at its nose, leaving the task of withstanding wind sway entirely up to the launch mount and the rocket’s rigidity. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Prototype testing is substantially different than operational flight procedures, though, and well-characterized test conditions and repeatability are essential for a company like SpaceX where the ‘build-test-fly-fail’ philosophy is the foundation of R&D. The process of functionally and permanently mating Starship SN8’s tank/engine and nose sections – a first for the Starship program – began less than ten days ago, so Musk is most likely referring to wind disrupting SN8’s on-pad integration.

SpaceX’s extensive reliance upon wheeled boom lifts to ferry workers around and inside Starship SN8 and the sheer scale and surface area of the rocket likely translate to an unsteady and relatively unsafe work environment in high winds.

Regardless of whether SpaceX actually puts Starship SN8 through any kind of tests on October 30th, the company has four more road closures (i.e. test windows) scheduled from Sunday to Wednesday. Aside from a 7pm to 1am CST (UTC-6) window on November 1st, SpaceX’s Mon-Wed testing will occur between 9am and 11pm. In Cameron County, Texas regulatory documents, SpaceX says it will use those windows for “SN8 Nose Cone Cryoproof” testing, referring to the process of filling the rocket’s tanks with supercool liquid nitrogen to verify their behavior at extreme temperatures.

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SpaceX finds cause of Falcon 9 engine abort

Demo-2 launch

WASHINGTON — NASA and SpaceX say they believe they have identified the Falcon 9 engine problem that aborted a GPS satellite launch in early October and delayed a commercial crew mission to the middle of November.

At an Oct. 28 briefing, Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX, said the engine anomaly that aborted a Falcon 9 launch seconds before its scheduled liftoff Oct. 2 was caused by material that blocked a relief valve in the engine’s gas generator, which powers the engine’s turbopumps. The last-second abort prevented a hard start of the engine, he said, which could have damaged it.

He described the material found in the valve as a “masking lacquer,” a red substance similar to nail polish. The lacquer is used to protect surfaces when aluminum engine components are anodized for corrosion protection. That lacquer is then supposed to be removed with a cleaning fluid.

Koenigsmann said that anodizing work is done by a vendor, rather than in-house at SpaceX, and speculated that a change in processes there, such as using less cleaning fluid, could have caused the lacquer to remain. “We’ve talked to the people. We made them aware of that,” he said. “I’m pretty sure it will not happen any more.”

SpaceX examined the data from testing of other Merlin engines, and found two with similar engine startup signatures installed on the Falcon 9 booster that will be used for the Crew-1 commercial crew mission. SpaceX is replacing those two engines, as well as another Merlin engine installed on a Falcon 9 that will launch the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich ocean science satellite Nov. 10.

NASA said Oct. 26 it has rescheduled the Crew-1 launch, previously planned for Oct. 31, to 7:49 p.m. Eastern Nov. 14. In that statement, NASA said the Crew-1 launch would take place “following a thorough review of launch vehicle performance” from the Sentinel-6 launch.

Agency officials at the briefing, though, offered mixed messages about the dependence of the Crew-1 launch on the Sentinel-6 launch. “Right now there is not a ‘hard bar’ between these missions,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, when asked if any delay in the Sentinel-6 launch would mean a delay for Crew-1. “We’re going to fly both missions when it’s the right time.”

Later in the call, Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager, suggested the delayed GPS 3 mission would need to fly before Crew-1. “One of the engines that we are installing on the first stage has a slight change that we would like to see fly on the GPS 3 mission first,” he said. “We would like to see that one mission go fly before we fly crew.” SpaceX has yet to reschedule the GPS 3 launch.

NASA is continuing preparations for the Crew-1 mission based on a Nov. 14 launch. The four astronauts flying the mission entered what Stich called a “soft quarantine” at home with their families Oct. 25. They will go into a more stringent preflight quarantine Oct. 31 and travel to the Kennedy Space Center Nov. 6. A static-fire test of the Falcon 9’s first stage is scheduled for Nov. 9, followed by a final dress rehearsal for launch preparations Nov. 11.

A Nov. 14 launch would also enable a fast approach to the International Space Station, with docking about eight and a half hours after launch. Stich said that fast approach was enabled by the orbital alignment of the station for that particular launch opportunity, and is “about as short a time as we can accommodate” for the approach and docking of the spacecraft. If the launch slips a day to Nov. 15, the Crew Dragon would instead take 27.5 hours to dock with the station.

First, though, NASA and SpaceX must verify that the Falcon 9 is ready to launch that mission. “Over my life at SpaceX I’ve seen little things having big effects,” he said of the masking lacquer problem that aborted the GPS launch. “Rockets are humbling.”


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SpaceX operational astronaut launch debut back on track after “nail polish” delay

In a new NASA briefing, SpaceX vice president of build and flight reliability Hans Koenigsmann was able to explain in far more detail why a recent last-second Falcon 9 launch abort happened and how it wound up delaying the company’s first operational astronaut launch.

Now scheduled to lift off no earlier than (NET) 7:49 pm EST (00:49 UTC) on Saturday, November 14th, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Crew-1 mission was originally expected to launch in late September, October 23rd, and October 31st. On October 2nd, however, a new Falcon 9 booster – sibling to Crew-1’s own new booster – automatically aborted its GPS III SV04 satellite launch attempt just two seconds before liftoff. The rare last-second abort was quickly blamed on “unexpected pressure rise in the turbomachinery gas generator” by CEO Elon Musk.

Likely built side-by-side with faulty GPS III SV04 Falcon 9 booster B1062 at SpaceX’s Hawthorne, California factory, Crew-1 Falcon 9 booster B1061 was almost immediately inspected to search for any commonality once the cause of the abort was better understood.

SpaceX COO and President Gwynne Shotwell stands in front of the Falcon 9 booster that will soon ferry four astronauts to the ISS. (TIME/SpaceX)

Just one week before the latest briefing, NASA human spaceflight program administrator and former Commercial Crew Program manager Kathy Lueders revealed in a statement on Twitter that SpaceX was still analyzing the cause of the abort but had already determined that at least one Crew-1 booster engine would need to be replaced, as well as one engine on Falcon 9 booster B1063.

Crew-1 Falcon 9 booster B1061 arrived in Florida on July 14th. (SpaceX)
Falcon 9 booster B1063 was spotted on its way west from McGregor, Texas to Vandenberg Air Force Base, California in August. (D. Stamos)

Now, during NASA’s October 28th Crew-1 briefing, SpaceX’s Koenigsmann revealed that the company had ultimately decided to replace not one but two of Crew-1 booster B1061’s nine Merlin 1D engines. Thanks to Falcon 9’s namesake nine-engine booster design and SpaceX’s prolific rocket factory, that process was completed extraordinarily quickly, simply requiring the redirection of already qualified Merlin 1D engines from a fairly large pool. Based on Koenigsmann’s phrasing, SpaceX has already installed both replacement engines on the Crew-1 booster.

What, though, caused GPS III SV04’s launch abort and how did that affect Crew-1?

Rocket engine vs. “nail polish”

According to Koenigsmann, in the course of the rapid and complex mechanical and electrical ballet preceding Falcon 9 first stage ignition, the rocket’s autonomous flight computer observed that two of the GPS III SV04 booster’s nine Merlin 1D engines appeared to be running ahead of schedule, so to speak. The computer immediately halted the ignition process to avoid what could have otherwise been a “hard” (i.e. stressful or damaging) start. SpaceX quickly began inspecting the rocket within 24 hours but was unable to detect anything physically or electrically wrong with Falcon 9’s Merlin 1D engines and engine section.

A Merlin 1D engine is inspected and tested in McGregor, Texas. (SpaceX)

Out of an abundance of caution, SpaceX removed both misbehaving engines and shipped them to its McGregor, Texas development and test facilities where – somewhat miraculously – the same premature startup behavior was replicated on the test stand. After a great deal of increasingly granular inspections, SpaceX finally narrowed the likely cause down to a tiny plumbing line feeding one of the engine’s gas generator relief valves. In a seemingly random subset of relatively new Merlin 1D engines, SpaceX eventually discovered that a supplier-provided relief valve line was sometimes clogged by a protective lacquer Koenigsmann likened to “red nail polish.”

A Merlin 1D is prepared at SpaceX’s Hawthorne factory. The small cylindrical tube on the side is the engine’s gas generator. (SpaceX)

Used to selectively exclude parts of the engine tubing during a surface finishing process known as anodization, the lacquer was either unsuccessfully removed on a random selection of engine parts or was accidentally channeled into a blockage by over-enthusiastic cleaning. Ultimately, for whatever, reason that miniscule blockage was enough to cause affected Merlin 1D engines to consistently attempt to ignite a tiny fraction of a second early.

Crucially, when SpaceX discovered the possible cause and cleaned out the blocked plumbing, each previously affected Merlin 1D engine performed perfectly, all but directly confirming both the cause and the cure for Falcon 9’s October 2nd abort.

A Falcon 9 Block 5 booster’s engine section and heat shield. (SpaceX/Discovery)

Astronauts enter quarantine

In anticipation of SpaceX seemingly simple solution to the gas generator problem, NASA Commercial Crew Program manager Steve Stich revealed that SpaceX’s Crew-1 mission astronauts – Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, and Mike Hopkins, and JAXA (Japanese) astronaut Soichi Noguchi – had begun routine prelaunch quarantine procedures in anticipation of a November 14th launch.

NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, and Mike Hopkins, and JAXA (Japanese) astronaut Soichi Noguchi are nearly set to fly on Crew-1. (SpaceX)
Crew-1 will follow in the fresh footsteps of NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley’s near-flawless Demo-2 Crew Dragon launch and landing debut. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Stich also offered a more specific Crew-1 schedule, beginning with an integrated Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon static fire test NET November 9th and a full dry dress rehearsal on November 10th before the first launch attempt on November 14th. Notably, thanks to coincidental orbital dynamics, a successful launch on November 14th would enable Crew Dragon to raise its orbit and rendezvous with the International Space Station a brisk eight and a half hours after liftoff – three times quicker than the more common 27.5-hour transit.

Stay tuned for updates as the mission’s launch date approaches.

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Elon Musk to give away free SpaceX Starlink internet access to rural TX families

The Ector County Independent School District (ECISD) in Odessa, Texas has announced that dozens of families residing in the area will be receiving free internet service from Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite system. The families are expected to get internet access from Starlink sometime in early 2021.

In a press release, the ECISD announced that it is the first school district that will be harnessing the advantages of SpaceX’s satellite constellation, which is designed to provide stable web connectivity to areas that could not be serviced by conventional internet systems. The ECISD noted that 45 families would initially get the free service next year, and another 45 will follow once Starlink’s network capabilities grow.

The families who will receive free internet connectivity will be determined by the school district.

“Ector County ISD is the first school district in the United States to work with SpaceX in harnessing its Starlink satellite constellation to deliver high-speed, low-latency Internet access for ECISD students. The project will initially provide free Internet service to 45 families in the Pleasant Farms area of south Ector County. The school district will identify the families and facilitate delivery of the necessary equipment to those homes. The service will be active early in 2021. As the network capabilities continue to grow, it will expand to serve an additional 90 Ector County families,” the press release noted.

ECISD Superintendent of Schools Dr. Scott Muri is optimistic about the free internet service that will be provided by Elon Musk’s private space company. According to Muri, Starlink should allow the county to take a step towards closing the digital divide that still exists today, which results in some students not having access to the world wide web.

School officials noted that this issue became evident during the pandemic, especially when students had to transition to remote learning. A survey from district officials found that about 39% of families in the area have limited to no internet access at all.

“This innovative partnership represents bold and unprecedented action for our school district and our community. Our research clearly indicates the lack of broadband access is a crisis in Ector County. In collaboration with SpaceX, we are providing space-based Internet service to students and families that have few, if any, options. The partners with us share our vision for equity and access for all students. Today, we take a giant leap forward in closing the digital divide that exists within our community,” he said.

SpaceX has started an invitation-only public beta for Starlink. Pricing for the system, at least for the beta, involves a fee of $499 for the phased array antenna and a $99 monthly fee for internet service. Internet speeds for the program, which SpaceX lightly calls the “Better than Nothing” beta, are estimated to be between 50 Mbps to 150 Mbps.

Read the ECISD’s press release about Elon Musk’s free Starlink program for Ector County families below.

ECISD Partnership to Bring SpaceX Satellite Internet to Students2020 by Simon Alvarez on Scribd

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FCC approves OneWeb sale as Starlink begins public beta

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission approved the sale of OneWeb to the British government and Bharti Global Oct. 27, as rival SpaceX started a public beta test of its Starlink system.

In a public notice, the FCC announced it has approved the transfer of OneWeb’s satellite and ground station licenses to its new owners as the company seeks to exit its Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. OneWeb requested the transfer Sept. 2, and there were no public comments on the request.

A federal bankruptcy court approved the sale of OneWeb to the British government and Bharti Global Oct. 2, three months after they submitted a winning bid of $1 billion for the company. OneWeb said at the time of the court approval that the sale would close once it received “customary regulatory approvals” from agencies like the FCC. OneWeb expects to have the sale wrapped up by the end of the year.

According to the FCC notice, the British government and Bharti Global will each have a 42.2% stake in the reorganized OneWeb. SoftBank, a leading investor in OneWeb prior to the Chapter 11 filing, will have a 12.3% stake. SoftBank owned 37.41% of OneWeb before the Chapter 11 filing.

Hughes Network Systems, which owned 2.6% of OneWeb before the Chapter 11 filing, announced in July it would invest $50 million into the reorganized company. The FCC notice states that the terms of that investment have yet to be finalized, but that it will not have a “meaningful impact” on the ownership stakes of the British government and Bharti Global.

OneWeb plans to resume launches in December of its constellation, which were placed on hold after a pair of Soyuz launches in February and March. The company is deploying an initial constellation of 650 satellites to provide broadband internet access globally.

OneWeb’s biggest competitor, SpaceX, has continued to roll out its Starlink constellation, with more than 800 satellites now in orbit. That includes 180 satellites launched in October alone on three Falcon 9 launches.

With its constellation growing, SpaceX is beginning a public beta test for the system. SpaceX started informing people who expressed interest to be the first to test the system Oct. 26 that they could now sign up for the service and order hardware, including the system’s distinctive “UFO-on-a-stick” antenna.

Participants in the beta test, which is initially limited to northern regions of the U.S., will have to pay $499 for the antenna and other hardware. The service itself will cost $99 per month.

Those who participate in what SpaceX calls the “Better Than Nothing Beta” were told by the company to expect data rates of 50–150 megabits per second, and latencies of 20–40 milliseconds. “There will also be brief periods of no connectivity at all,” the SpaceX email cautions.

The scope of the beta test is expected to expand, and the quality of the service improve, as SpaceX adds more satellites to the constellation. The SpaceX email said bandwidth, latency and uptime will “improve dramatically” by the summer of 2021.

The system has already been in a “friends and family” private beta test in the Pacific Northwest that has also included the emergency management department of the state of Washington and the Hoh tribe in the state. Ector County Independent School District in West Texas recently announced it will use Starlink to provide free broadband to 45 families in a rural part of the county. That service, the district said in an Oct. 20 statement, will begin “early in 2021.”


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SpaceX eyes multiple Starship lunar landings before first NASA Moon mission

SpaceX Director Nick Cummings says that the company could potentially attempt multiple uncrewed Starship lunar landings before the first attempt at landing NASA astronauts on the Moon.

In April 2020, NASA announced the first commercial contract recipients under its new Human Landing System (HLS) program, awarding almost $1 billion in an uneven split between Dynetics, Blue Origin’s “National Team”, and SpaceX. While an undeniable boon for Dynetics, SpaceX’s inclusion arguably came as the biggest surprise, marking NASA’s first serious investment in Starship – the company’s next-generation, fully-reusable launch vehicle.

NASA’s goal: develop one or more competing human-rated Moon landers capable of landing astronauts on the lunar surface and safely returning them to an Orion spacecraft in lunar orbit. Towards that end, the space agency awarded Blue Origin’s “National Team” (including Draper, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman) $567 million to develop a massive and complex three-stage system, using Blue Origin’s conceptual Blue Moon lander for the final descent stage. Dynetics received $253 million to build a slightly simple single-stage lander, while SpaceX received $135 million to work on a single-stage Starship-derived vehicle.

It’s never been entirely clear what returns NASA expects from its initial ~$970 million investment – no trivial sum. It’s also unclear why there is such a discrepancy between the three rewards. Regardless, as of October 2020, all three competitors have successfully passed what NASA describes as a certification baseline review (CBR), laying out explicit deliverables (“acceptance criteria and products”).*

*As a side-note, if the three contracts NASA awarded involve the same deliverables, the space agency’s first HLS awards serve as yet another reminder that SpaceX’s competitors are almost inconceivably inefficient – almost 2x cheaper than Dynetics and more than 4x cheaper than Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, et al.

Regardless, one thing is abundantly clear: whether or not NASA’s first phase of HLS rewards anticipated it, SpaceX is the only provider performing actual integrated tests with full-scale Starship prototypes. Since NASA’s April 30th award, SpaceX has successfully completed two hop tests with two separate full-scale Starships, powered by a single off-center Raptor engine that may already serve as a real-world demonstration for a strategy SpaceX could use to gently land Starships on the Moon.

In an intriguing change of pace, NASA says that it will ultimately downselect to two of its three prospective providers, whereas past messaging has heavily implied that more than one winner was extremely unlikely. The space agency now wants to make that decision no earlier than Spring (i.e. April) 2021 with the intention of awarding contracts for demonstration flights from both providers: one to fly in 2024 and the other in 2025.

Meanwhile, over the last several months, Dynetics and Blue Origin have made significant noise over their respective reveals of what essentially amount to toy-like mockups of their proposed Moon lander systems. Blue Origin is technically making good progress testing Blue Moon’s BE-7 engine, but that’s the full extent of known hardware in work between both the National Team and Dynetics. SpaceX, on the other hand, appears to be assembling some kind of Lunar Starship mockup out of real hardware, including an off-spec steel nose and – potentially – one of two functional, flight-proven Starship prototypes. The company has also built and tested no less than 39 full-scale Raptor engine prototypes in the last ~18 months.

Ultimately, all three providers have now confirmed that in the event of winning flight test contracts, they are explicitly planning at least one uncrewed Moon landing before attempting to deliver NASA astronauts to and from the lunar surface. If NASA manages to secure future HLS funding from Congress, the next several years are bound to be jam-packed with lunar spaceflight development and exploration.

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SpaceX rolls out Starlink internet “Better Than Nothing Beta” in the US and Canada

SpaceX has officially begun rolling out what it’s deemed a Starlink internet “Better Than Nothing Beta” across the United States and Canada.

The culmination of a mere 11 months of dedicated Starlink launches, SpaceX says that the constellation – some 820 satellites strong – is now large and mature enough to begin covering all of Canada and the US in 2020, “rapidly expanding to near global coverage of the populated world by 2021.”

While global coverage is thus close on the horizon, SpaceX is striving to make it abundantly clear to early Starlink beta customers that the constellation is in a state of extreme change and instability and will be far from perfect: literally Better Than Nothing, for the time being.

Alongside the first beta invite emails from Starlink, the SpaceX division appears to have made both iOS and Android apps available on their respective app stores. The apps feature a minimalist design leaving plenty of room for expansion and mainly exist to help onboard customers and guide them through the relatively simple setup process.

Starlink is designed to deliver high-speed broadband internet to locations where access has been unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable. Under Starlink’s Better Than Nothing Beta program, initial service is targeted for the U.S. and Canada in 2020, rapidly expanding to near-global coverage of the populated world by 2021.

The Starlink app is designed to help you:

• Identify the install location that will ensure the best quality of service
• Check for obstructions that can interfere with service
• Setup your Starlink hardware
• Verify your WiFi connection
• Run speed tests
• Troubleshoot connectivity issues
• Contact support

Starlink App description – Android/iOS

SpaceX’s Android and iOS Starlink apps are effectively identical.

The Starlink beta invite also informs early users that they should expect to receive speeds of 50-150 Mbps and latency (ping) between 20 and 40 milliseconds with occasional service outages and connection interruptions. Curiously, the invite also flies counter to previous hints in the code of SpaceX’s website that beta testing would be free for testers, revealing that Better Than Nothing Beta service will cost $99 per month and require each user to purchase a $499 Starlink user terminal.

While undeniably steep as far as most consumers of normal US and Canadian internet services are concerned, the sheer quantity of social media users revealing the obscene prices they pay for mediocre internet across North America suggests that even Starlink’s high beta pricing can compete with – or obliterate – existing rural providers.

SpaceX has likely produced just a few thousand user terminals in pursuit of a factory capable of delivering millions annually. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

A step further, SpaceX’s Hawthorne, CA Starlink user terminal factory has just barely begun volume production, all but guaranteeing that the efficiencies possible through economies of scale have yet to be realized. Phased-array antennas have never been mass-produced at the scale Starlink will need to serve even a minuscule percentage of prospective customers, meaning that SpaceX is likely to learn a great deal as it attempts to be the first company to do so.

If one assumes that SpaceX can quickly cut the cost of service and user terminals in half while dramatically improving network performance, Starlink will quickly become a no-brainer in many developed broadband markets.

SpaceX appears to be shipping Starlink user terminals and setup packages to beta users almost immediately after orders are placed. Lacking any kind of obvious non-disclosure agreement (NDA), it appears that the first reviews from Starlink beta users are likely to begin rolling in a matter of days from now.

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SpaceX swaps Starship Raptor engine for one last pre-flight test

On the same day SpaceX stacked a flightworthy Starship prototype to its full height for the first time, the company decided to swap one of the rocket’s three Raptor engines ahead of one last major pre-flight test.

Curiously, at the same time as SpaceX engineers and technicians were removing Raptor serial number 39 (SN39) from Starship SN8, a second Raptor – SN36 – was briefly removed from a specialized transport truck. Once SN39 was removed, both it and SN36 were loaded onto a separate flatbed and carefully driven back to SpaceX’s Boca Chica Starship factory.

It’s unclear why SpaceX seemingly aborted October 22nd’s in situ Raptor replacement but Raptor SN36 (presumed) was ultimately installed in SN39’s place on Starship around midnight on October 23rd. Regardless of why, SpaceX did what it always does and reacted almost immediately, quickly replacing a Raptor engine to keep Starship SN8 on schedule for what could be its last test before an ambitious 15 km (50,000 ft) launch debut.

SpaceX began installing Starship SN8’s nose section on October 22nd. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
By October 26th, the newly assembled Starship was standing under its own weight. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

According to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, Starship SN8 is expected to complete two separate triple-Raptor static fire tests before the company is ready to commit the rocket to such an ambitious flight test. SN8 completed what was the Starship and Raptor programs’ first multi-engine static fire test ever a mere two days before SpaceX began installing the rocket’s nosecone – a milestone curiously absent from Musk’s tweet.

It’s possible that Musk was speaking under the assumption that SN8 would be fully assembled before it began static fire operations, with “checkouts” referring to touch-free inspections between two back-to-back Raptor tests to simulate the in-flight reignition Starship SN8 will need to perform during its flight debut. If that’s the case, SN8 may need to pass two more static fires before being cleared for flight.

Raptor SN36 was first delivered to the launch site by semi truck on October 22nd.(NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
Raptor SN39 was soon removed from Starship but both engines were eventually taken back to the build site. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Either way, SpaceX has already scheduled unlabeled Boca Chica road closures from 8am to 11pm CDT (UTC-5) on October 28th and 29th and 5am to 11am CDT on October 30th. Given the length of those closures, their purpose is almost certainly to support Starship SN8’s next static fire test campaign. With SN8’s nose now fully installed, SpaceX will likely focus on testing the liquid oxygen header tank located in the tip to ensure that the smaller sub-tanks meant to hold Starship’s landing propellant are working as expected and capable of supplying three thirsty Raptor engines.

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SpaceX schedules next GPS satellite launch attempt after swapping Falcon 9 engines

Multiple outlets report that SpaceX has rescheduled its third US military GPS III satellite launch to no earlier than (NET) 6:24 pm EDT (18:24 UTC) Thursday, November 5th.

Agonizingly, a United Launch Alliance (ULA) National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) launch – albeit a different mission – is scheduled just two days before SpaceX’s next GPS III SV04 launch window. In other words, odds are once again high that SpaceX will get stuck in a cycle of delays if its competitor suffers additional launch delays.

Thankfully, ULA’s NROL-101 mission – scheduled to launch no earlier than 5:30 pm EDT (17:30 UTC), Tuesday, November 3rd – will fly on an Atlas V rocket. While still averaging just 5-6 launches annually throughout the last decade, several annual launches go a long way towards ensuring workforce, infrastructure, and vehicle readiness, whereas Delta IV – partially responsible for ULA’s chronic NROL-44 delays – has averaged a meager two launches annually for most of its operational life.

Even worse, Delta IV’s Heavy variant has only flown 11 times since 2004 and just three times in the last six years – a perfect recipe for terrible reliability.

An Atlas V rocket lifts off in December 2019. (Richard Angle)
A Delta IV Heavy rocket lifts off in 2018. (Tom Cross)

Meanwhile, SpaceX’s Block 5 Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets have undeniably exhibited their own minor reliability issues since their May 2018 debut, but on-time launch reliability and bug-free countdowns quickly became the norm over the last 12-18 months. In the ~30 months since then, Falcon Block 5 rockets have completed 41 consecutively successful launches – the sheer quantity of which has almost certainly helped SpaceX iron out bugs in the new variant.

In general, SpaceX is known for moving extraordinarily fast relative to the rest of the aerospace industry. Notably, since Falcon 9 B1062 suffered a rare last-second launch abort on October 2nd, SpaceX has discovered an issue with several new Merlin 1D booster engines and apparently removed affected engines from Falcon 9 booster B1062, shipped the engines to McGregor, Texas for testing, characterized the bad behavior, and implemented a fix capable of satisfying their strictest customers (NASA and the US military) in roughly three weeks.

Falcon 9 B1060 rolls out to LC-40 with an upper stage, fairing, and GPS III SV03 in June 2020. (SpaceX)

More likely than not, Falcon 9 B1062 will be static fired again before the next launch attempt, meaning that the rocket will likely roll out to the launch pad around November 1st or 2nd if things are proceeding nominally. With any luck, SpaceX’s solution will hold and enable a successful Falcon 9 GPS III SV04 static fire and launch a few days after ULA’s own NROL-101 mission.

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