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SpaceX wins $150 million contract to launch Space Development Agency satellites

WASHINGTON — SpaceX has been awarded a $150.4 million contract to launch as many as 28 satellites for the Pentagon’s space agency, the Defense Department announced Dec. 31. 

The contract is to launch a mix of small and medium spacecraft of different sizes that the Space Development Agency is acquiring from multiple vendors. That includes 20 data-relay satellites known as the Transport Layer and the other eight are missile-warning satellites known as the Tracking Layer.

SpaceX will launch these satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

The Space Development Agency requested bids on Oct. 6 and responses were due Nov. 9. The agency estimates the satellites will be ready to launch in late 2022. 

The manifest will be divided into two planes of 14 spacecraft each in two circular near-polar orbits at an altitude of 950 kilometers, according to the request for proposals. 

The agency said it would select a provider that offered the “best value” based on several criteria such as price, schedule and past performance.

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SpaceX Falcon 9 fleet to kick off 2021 with a flurry of launches

Right on schedule, one of SpaceX’s two drone ships left Port Canaveral on December 30th, heading into the Atlantic Ocean to prepare for the company’s first launch and landing of 2021.

As always, rocket launches (and landings, in the case of SpaceX) are exceptionally complex events at risk of a wide range of possible delays, ranging from weather to hardware failure. However, based on well-sourced launch calendars, the mission – known as Turksat 5A – is expected to be Falcon 9 booster B1060’s fourth launch in six months, as well as SpaceX’s first of up to four launches in January alone.

Barring delays, Falcon 9 is scheduled to launch the 3500 kg (7700 lb) Airbus-built Turksat 5A communications satellite from Cape Canaveral Launch Complex 40 (LC-40) sometime between 8:27 pm and 12:29 am EST on January 4th and 5th (01:27-05:29 UTC, 5 Jan).

Pictured here on November 20th, a SpaceX drone ship has left Port Canaveral ahead of the company’s first launch of the new year. (Richard Angle)

Drone ship Just Read The Instructions’ (JRTI) December 30th departure marks the first public signs of SpaceX’s preparations for its first orbital launch of the new year. It also serves as a reminder of the company’s major ambitions in 2021.

On average, Atlantic Ocean booster recoveries necessitate around 5-7 days at sea from port departure to port return, meaning that SpaceX’s pair of East Coast drone ships could theoretically support 4-6 launches per month with zero downtime for maintenance, repairs, or at-sea weather delays. According to CEO Elon Musk, SpaceX wants to launch 48 times in 2021, meaning that the company could find itself operating its rocket recovery fleet near-continuously without the introduction of a long-awaited third drone ship.

In January alone, multiple separate launch calendars forecast four SpaceX launches, beginning with Turksat 5A on January 4th, SpaceX’s first dedicated Smallsat Program launch (Transporter-1) on January 14th, and one or two ~60-satellite Starlink missions in the second half of the month. To achieve its 48-launch goal, January will have to have four launches and every other month of 2021 will have to reach a similar cadence. SpaceX completed its first four-launch month ever in November 2020.

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SpaceX Starship boosters could forgo landings entirely, says Elon Musk

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says that Starship’s Super Heavy boosters could forgo landings entirely, relying instead on a wild crane-based solution to recover the world’s largest rocket stage.

Starship’s Super Heavy booster prepares to boost back to the pad after launch. (SpaceX)

As previously discussed on Teslarati, the Super Heavy booster tasked with carrying a ~1400-ton (~300,000 lb) Starship around 25% of the way to orbit will be the largest rocket stage ever built – and by a large margin.

“Standing about as tall as an entire two-stage Falcon 9 rocket at 70 meters (230 ft) tip to tail, the Super Heavy booster tasked with getting Starship about a quarter of the way to orbit will be the largest rocket stage ever built. Outfitted with up to 28 Raptors capable of producing more than ~7300 metric tons (~16.2 million lbf) of thrust at liftoff, Super Heavy will also be the most powerful rocket ever built, respectively outclassing Saturn V and SpaceX’s own Falcon Heavy by a factor of more than two and three.”

Teslarati.com – December 29th, 2020

Prior to today, December 30th, SpaceX’s plan was to more or less recover Super Heavy boosters in a similar fashion to Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, landing them either far downrange on an ocean-based platform or returning to touch down as close as possible to the launch pad. Ever since the first iteration of SpaceX’s Mars rocket was publicly revealed in 2016, SpaceX and CEO Elon Musk have also maintained a consistent desire to land Super Heavy boosters directly on top of the launch mount after a great deal of refinement.

Launch mount recovery would require unprecedented precision and accuracy and add a new element of risk or a need for extraordinarily sturdy pad hardware. However, the benefits would be equally significant, entirely eliminating the need for expensive recovery assets, time-consuming transport, and even the time it would take to crane Super Heavy boosters back onto the launch mount from a pad-adjacent landing zone.

Instead, Musk says that SpaceX might be able to quite literally catch Super Heavy in mid-air, grabbing the booster before it can touch the ground by somehow slotting an elaborate “launch tower arm” underneath its steel grid fins. Although such a solution sounds about as complex and risky as it gets, it would technically preclude the need for any and all booster recovery infrastructure – even including the legs Super Heavy would otherwise need.

While true, catching Super Heavy by its grid fins would likely demand that control surfaces and the structures they attach to be substantially overbuilt – especially if Musk means that the crane arm mechanism would be able to catch anywhere along the deployed fins’ 7m (23 ft) length. Even more importantly, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that such a complex and unproven recovery method could be made to work reliably on the first one or several tries, implying that early boosters will still need some kind of rudimentary landing legs.

In other words, much like direct-to-launch-mount landings, mid-air-crane-catch recovery is probably not a feature expected to debut on Super Heavy v1.0.

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SpaceX’s next Starship gets frosty to prepare for first launch

One week after the rocket was rolled from the factory to the launch pad, SpaceX appears to have successfully put Starship serial number 9 (SN9) through two routine pre-launch tests.

On December 22nd, significantly less than two weeks after Starship SN9 suffered a significant handling or production accident that caused it to tip several degrees and impact the walls of its production facility, SpaceX wrapped up speedy repairs and transported the rocket about 1.5 miles down the road.

In some combination of a minor miracle and Starship’s exceptionally sturdy design, the rocket – standing ~50 meters (~165 ft) tall and weighing around 75 to 100 metric tons (175,000-220,000 lb) – tipped sideways onto two of its four pre-installed flaps. Despite being subjected to off-nominal forces, the far stronger structural mechanisms connecting those flaps to Starship’s main airframe were seemingly unharmed and SpaceX was able to remove and replace the crumpled control surfaces mere days after the incident.

Starship SN9 has been repaired and moved to the launch pad less than two weeks after suffering damage from a handling accident. (Space Padre Isle)

On December 28th, that work began in earnest with what is generally known as an ambient temperature pressure test, filling Starship SN9’s propellant tanks with benign air-temperature nitrogen gas. Used to check for leaks, verify basic vehicle valve and plumbing performance, and ensure a basic level of structural integrity, SN9 appeared to pass its ambient proof test without issue – albeit late in the window.

Testing wrapped up on Monday shortly after the ambient proof and was followed by the main event – a cryogenic proof test – a bit less than a day later on Tuesday. The exterior of Starship SN9 began to develop a coating of frost after SpaceX started loading its oxygen and methane tanks with liquid nitrogen around 2:30 pm CST (UTC-6). While used similarly to verify structural integrity like an ambient pressure test, a ‘cryo proof’ adds the challenge of thermal stresses to ensure that Starship can safely load, hold, and offload supercool liquids.

In SN9’s case, it’s unclear if SpaceX fully or only partially loaded the rocket’s main propellant tanks with liquid nitrogen, while a lack of frost at the tip of its nose implies that the Starship’s smaller liquid oxygen ‘header’ tank wasn’t filled as part of the test. Altogether, Starship should be capable of holding roughly 1200 metric tons of liquid nitrogen if fully loaded.

The lack of SN9’s LOx header tank participation in Tuesday cryo proof testing is intriguing on its own, as it implies that SpaceX will either perform a second cryo proof later this week or is confident enough in LOx header tank and transfer tube performance to forgo any testing. In the latter case, SpaceX would likely just use the build-up to Starship SN9’s first Raptor static fire test as a wet dress rehearsal (WDR) and a cryo proof for the smaller tank system.

According to NASASpaceflight’s managing editor, if Monday and Tuesday’s ambient and cryo proof tests were as uneventful and successful as they seemed, SpaceX may move directly on to triple-Raptor static fire preparations. In a first, Starship SN9 was transported to the launch pad last week with two of three central Raptor engines already installed and had that missing third engine installed within a few days of arrival. SN9 is also the first Starship to attempt its first proof tests with any Raptor – let alone three – installed.

SpaceX technicians installed a third Raptor – SN49 – on Starship SN9 on December 23rd. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
Starship SN9 stands behind the remains of Starship SN8 – yet to be fully cleared after an explosive but successful launch debut. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

If SpaceX does move directly from cryo proof testing to a three-engine static fire, that will mark another first for the Starship program and signal growing confidence and a desire for speedier preflight tests – both of which will help accelerate flight testing. As of now, SpaceX has yet to cancel a road closure scheduled on Wednesday, December 30th but it’s far more likely that a trio of 8 am to 5 pm CST closures requested on January 4th, 5th, and 6th will host Starship SN9’s first static fire attempt(s). According to NASASpaceflight.com, Starship SN9 is expected to attempt a 12.5 km (~7.8 mi) launch similar or identical to SN8’s as early as a few days after that static fire. Stay tuned for updates!

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SpaceX’s first Super Heavy booster hop “a few months” away, says Elon Musk

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says that the first prototype of a Starship booster – known as Super Heavy – could be finished and ready for flight testing just “a few months” from now.

Standing about as tall as an entire two-stage Falcon 9 rocket at 70 meters (230 ft) tip to tail, the Super Heavy booster tasked with getting Starship about a quarter of the way to orbit will unequivocally be the largest rocket stage ever built. Outfitted with up to 28 Raptors capable of producing more than ~7300 metric tons (~16.2 million lbf) of thrust at liftoff, Super Heavy will also be the most powerful rocket ever built, respectively outclassing Saturn V and SpaceX’s own Falcon Heavy by a factor of more than two and three.

While it could be awhile before SpaceX is ready to risk more than two-dozen Raptor engines on a single vehicle, Super Heavy will be able stand on the back of a wealth of experience gained from a full year of Starship production and testing.

As previously discussed on Teslarati, SpaceX has been gradually working on the first Super Heavy booster over the last few months despite a clear primary focus on Starship production and SN8’s high-altitude launch debut. Most recently, the first eight-Raptor thrust structure, a custom common (i.e. shared) tank dome, and an extra-wide transfer tube needed to feed liquid methane through Super Heavy’s liquid oxygen tank were spotted at SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas factory.

Some two-dozen of the 31 or 32 Super Heavy BN1 rings remaining are simply waiting to be stacked. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
Super Heavy BN1’s common dome was recently sleeved with three of those steel rings. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
Uniquely large methane transfer tubes – likely meant for BN1 – arrived in Texas in November. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Aerial photos captured by RGV Aerial Photography on December 22nd also revealed that SpaceX appears to be simultaneously stacking two separate sections of Super Heavy BN1 inside an ~80-meter (~260 ft) tall high bay. While it’s impossible to know exactly where SpaceX stands in the process of assembling what it’s deemed Booster Number 1 (BN1), at least a dozen rings are in the stacking stage with another one or two dozen awaiting their addition to the main booster ‘stack’.

Combined, SpaceX may already have all ~38 of the steel rings it needs to complete Super Heavy BN1 staged around the build site. With BN1’s forward dome already into the stacking process in the high bay and its common dome more or less ready to join it, the only major parts missing are the first Super Heavy engine section and landing legs. It’s not even clear if BN1 will receive the fin-like legs depicted in SpaceX’s official renders, so that engine section is all that truly remains.

To complete what Musk has described as a short hop test powered by as few as two Raptor engines, it’s likely that the first Super Heavy booster will be far closer to a grounded structural test article than something capable of sending a 2000-ton Starship on its way to orbit. It’s even possible that SpaceX will build another test tank to independently stress test Super Heavy’s new engine section and eight-Raptor “thrust puck” before risking some three-dozen steel rings.

Super Heavy’s landing ‘fins’ and massive steel gridfins are visible in this official 2019 render. (SpaceX)

Regardless, if SpaceX really could be ready for Super Heavy’s first hop test within “a few months,” BN1 integration is about to speed up substantially. Stay tuned for updates!

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Viasat asks FCC to perform environmental review of Starlink

WASHINGTON — Viasat has petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to perform an environmental review of SpaceX’s Starlink broadband constellation, arguing that the satellite system poses environmental hazards in space and on Earth.

In a Dec. 22 filing, Viasat formally requested that the FCC conduct either an environmental assessment or more rigorous environmental impact statement of Starlink before approving a SpaceX request to modify its existing license for the system so that it can operate nearly 3,000 more satellites in lower orbits.

Satellite systems have long had what’s known as a categorical exemption from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires federal agencies like the FCC to assess the environmental impacts of their actions. That exemption, implemented in the mid-1980s by the FCC, was based on analysis at the time that launches of individual satellites would not have measurable effects on the environment.

The size of SpaceX’s Starlink system, currently authorized for approximately 12,000 satellites, changes that calculus, Viasat argued in its petition. “But given the sheer quantity of satellites at issue here, as well as the unprecedented nature of SpaceX’s treatment of them as effectively expendable, the potential environmental harms associated with SpaceX’s proposed modification are significant,” the company stated.

“Relying on the Commission’s decades-old categorical exemption to avoid even inquiring into the environmental consequences of SpaceX’s modification proposal would not only violate NEPA, but also would needlessly jeopardize the environmental, aesthetic, health, safety, and economic interests that it seeks to protect, and harm the public interest,” Viasat continued (emphasis in original.)

Part of the petition addresses orbital debris. Viasat has been a strident critic in FCC filings in recent months about the reliability of Starlink satellites and concerns that satellites that fail in orbit could add to the growing debris population in LEO. The company has cited statistics that claimed a failure rate as high as 7%, although that included many of the original “v0.9” Starlink satellites launched in May 2019 that SpaceX has been deliberately deorbiting over the last several months.

SpaceX has countered that its on-orbit failure rate is far lower, but Viasat argued that the FCC should assess the overall risk of increased collisions as part of an environmental review. “The Commission cannot take SpaceX’s word for it that the thousands of satellites it is seeking to pack into a lower orbit will not materially increase the risks of collisions and produce excessive space debris — especially because SpaceX knows that when its satellites do collide with other space objects and fragment or fail, it can always launch more,” it stated.

Viasat’s argument for an environmental review goes beyond orbital debris. It claims that both the launch and reentry of Starlink satellites poses environmental hazards, from the production of ozone-destroying chemicals by launch vehicles to chemicals released in the atmosphere when satellites burn up on reentry and debris that reaches the ground.

The petition cites research by The Aerospace Corporation on atmospheric impacts of launches and reentries. At the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union earlier this month, the organization presented research that concluded that the rise of satellite megaconstellations could increase the mass of satellites reentering the atmosphere from about 100 metric tons a year to as much as 3,200 metric tons.

The Aerospace study, though, only found a potential for environmental impacts caused by an increasing number of reentering satellites, and said that further study on what those impacts could be is needed. “Our preliminary work simply suggests that given the present and anticipated increase in large constellations, there is potential for environmental impact, and further study is therefore recommended,” William Ailor, technical fellow with the Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies, told SpaceNews.

A third line of argument for an environmental review is the effect Starlink will have on the night sky. The petition noted concerns astronomers have voiced since the first cluster of Starlink satellites launched in 2019 that the constellation could interfere with astronomical observations, and could also have cultural impacts.

Satellites in lower orbits, Viasat added, would be brighter. “The Commission’s decision thus will directly affect the amount of light pollution in the environment, placing NEPA responsibilities squarely on the Commission’s shoulders,” the company stated.

Viasat’s petition is the not the first attempt to request an environmental review of Starlink. In April, Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) asked the Government Accountability Office to examine the FCC’s categorical exemption for satellite systems. It cited in particular light pollution concerns from an unnamed satellite constellation with a description similar to Starlink. A paper published in a law review journal in January also proposed invoking NEPA regarding the impacts of Starlink on astronomy.

The GAO hasn’t publicly responded to the senators’ request. However, astronomers have since reported they’re pleased with the level of cooperation with SpaceX to mitigate the impacts of the Starlink constellation on their observations. That has included the incorporation of visors on Starlink satellites to prevent sunlight from reflecting off the satellites and thus reducing their brightness.

“SpaceX is leading the charge in terms of trying to understand these issues and designing mitigations on their satellites,” Tony Tyson, chief scientist of the Vera Rubin Observatory, said at an August briefing about a workshop held earlier this summer on the topic.

SpaceX hasn’t commented on the Viasat FCC filing. The company has held a series of ex parte meetings with FCC staff this month on its proposed modification of its Starlink license, according to filings with the commission, including a request to launch a set of Starlink satellites into a sun-synchronous orbital plane to take advantage of an unspecified “upcoming polar launch availability.”

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Foust Forward | A tale of two launch vehicle programs

SN8 upon landing

There was no clearer set of contrasts between how SpaceX and NASA approach launch vehicle development than the dueling tests the two performed in early December of Starship and Space Launch System, respectively.

It was hard to miss the Dec. 9 test flight of SpaceX’s Starship SN8 prototype, the first time the vehicle flew more than a couple hundred meters off the pad. It soared into the Texas sky propelled by its three Raptor engines, then descended back to the pad — only to explode after coming in a little too fast. The flight won praise from its fans, but that explosive end prompted a backlash from critics.

Two days earlier, NASA started a test of the SLS core stage at the Stennis Space Center. There would be no launch that day, or even an ignition of the stage’s four RS-25 engines, just loading the tanks of the giant stage with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. But even that modest step did not go as planned: engineers stopped the test when the liquid oxygen flowing into the tank was a few degrees warmer than expected.

The two events clearly illustrate the differences in development philosophies between the two organizations. SpaceX’s approach is the literal manifestation of the Silicon Valley philosophy to “move fast and break things,” in this case Starship prototypes. The SN8 prototype that met its demise was the latest in a long line of test articles, and hardly the first to have exploded, burst or crumpled.

NASA’s approach to testing SLS has been far more cautious. While SN8 was simply a prototype never intended to fly to space, the core stage at Stennis is flight hardware that NASA will use for the Artemis 1 mission in late 2021. In a call with reporters, NASA managers emphasized they were being deliberate and cautious during the ongoing Green Run test campaign, not wanting to take any risks with the hardware.

It’s tempting to look at that slow pace and ask, “Why can’t NASA be more like SpaceX?” That’s certainly what many fans of SpaceX have wondered, looking at the relatively rapid development of Starship and comparing it to the snail’s pace of SLS. In their view, the SpaceX approach is clearly better than how NASA is developing SLS.

But it’s hard to see NASA adopting a Starshiplike approach to SLS development. The tolerance for risk is very different for a government program like SLS, with a budget of more than $2 billion a year and a large number of stakeholders in government and industry, than for a private program that answers ultimately to just one person, Elon Musk. SLS stages exploding on test stands would invite not just bad press but also congressional scrutiny.

Yet the two efforts are not nearly as different as they might appear. While NASA is being very careful with the core stage on the stand at Stennis, the agency tested other SLS hardware to destruction to confirm its structural strength matched models. (One NASA release about such a test emphasized a propellant tank was burst “on purpose,” possibly to preempt any criticism about the test being a failure.)

SpaceX, meanwhile, is not as reckless as all the dramatic explosions during testing would lead some to assume. People who closely track all the activities at Boca Chica have documented many test attempts, like static firings of Starship prototypes, that were scrubbed for one reason or another. It’s a sign of measured risk taking by SpaceX even as the Starship effort has fallen behind Musk’s aggressive schedule. At an event at Boca Chica last fall, he expected the first high-altitude test flight to take place in one or two months, but Starship SN8 finally flew 14 months later.

Expecting SLS development to move faster is probably just as unlikely as expecting that Starship development will have fewer explosions. Each is optimized for the risk tolerance of their organizations and those funding them. Whether either approach is optimized for long-term success, though, remains to be seen.


jeff_foust_4c

 

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine. This column ran in the Dec. 14, 2020 issue.

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Relive SpaceX’s high-altitude Starship launch debut in 4K [video]

SpaceX has published a 4K recap of Starship serial number 8’s (SN8) spectacular high-altitude launch debut, highlighting all crucial aspects of the immensely successful test flight and hinting at the next steps forward.

On December 9th, after days of anticipation and delays for the unprecedented test flight, Starship SN8 sailed through a clean preflight flow, ignited three Raptor engines, and lifted off around 4:45 pm CST – just 15 minutes before the launch window was scheduled to close. In a move that would later be confirmed to be intentional, Starship’s ascent went exactly as planned with all three Raptors sequentially shutting down over the course of almost five minutes – necessary, said Elon Musk, to keep the rocket from “[blowing] through the [12.5-kilometer] altitude limit.”

Although technical difficulties prevented a high-altitude NASA reconnaissance jet from capturing aerial footage of the spectacle from up high, SpaceX certainly seems to have made do with more mundane platforms, capturing all aspects of Starship SN8’s launch in high definition.

At apogee, Starship SN8 vented most of the remaining liquid oxygen in its main tank and shut down the last active Raptor engine, kicking off an unprecedented guided freefall back to Earth. To achieve that feat, Starship SN8 had to reach apogee more or less vertical, begin falling tail-first, activate cold-gas thrusters and actuate four giant flaps to tilt belly-down, and use those same thrusters and flaps to maintain stability.

Liftoff to apogee. (SpaceX)

Likely reaching speeds of around 150 m/s (~330 mph) during that freefall, Starship SN8 made it look effortless, twitching its flaps and occasionally using a burst of thrusters to elegantly and stably glide back to about 1 km (~0.6 mi) above the ground. At that point, the rocket ignited one – and then two – Raptor engines with no apparent issue, gimballing violently and firing thrusters to flip its 9m by 50m (30 ft by 165 ft) hull ~120 degrees in a handful of seconds, ending in a tail-down landing configuration.

Up to that point, more than six minutes into the flight test, Starship SN8 had all but aced the gauntlet of firsts SpaceX had thrown at it, notably surpassing CEO Elon Musk’s expectation of a successful ascent but otherwise failed descent.

Freefall descent, powered descent, and a rather hard “landing”. (SpaceX)

Instead, SN8 made it just a dozen or two seconds away from a soft landing before things went wrong. According to Musk, who commented after the fact, the Starship’s fuel (methane) header tank – a small secondary tank used to store landing propellant at high pressures – began to exhibit lower than needed pressures in the seconds before touchdown. Whether intentional or not, one of the two Raptors ignited during SN8’s flip maneuver shut down around ten seconds later, at which point the lone remaining engine throttled up only to have its plume turn an almost solid green.

In simple terms, without enough pressure in the fuel header, Raptor’s combustion turned very oxygen-rich, dramatically ramping up the heat and literally melting the engine’s copper-rich combustion chamber liner (hence the green hue). Had that tank been able to maintain pressure, it’s reasonable to assume that SN8 would have stuck a soft landing just like SN5 and SN6 did a few months prior. Thankfully, Musk says the source of the pressure issue was “minor” and, as SpaceX notes at the end of the recap, Starship SN9 is almost ready to carry the torch forward.

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SpaceX’s first dedicated Falcon 9 rideshare lines up dozens of smallsats

Already set to include several dozen small satellites for companies and institutions around the world, SpaceX’s first self-managed Falcon 9 rideshare launch is just around the corner.

Scheduled to launch no earlier than (NET) January 14th, the mission – known as SpaceX Rideshare 3 (SXRS-3) – will be the company’s third mission under the umbrella of the “Smallsat Program” it debuted in 2019. The first two SXRS missions came in the form of Starlink rideshares in June and August 2020, carrying a total of five Earth imaging spacecraft into orbit for Planet and BlackSky alongside 115 of SpaceX’s own Starlink satellites.

Potentially costing just $1 million or less per 200-kilogram (440 lb) satellite ($5,000/kg), SpaceX’s smallsat launch pricing is by far the most competitive ever commercially offered, but the company has yet to make a major dent with only five spacecraft launched. However, that’s about to change – and rather dramatically so – just three or so weeks from now.

Exolaunch recently announced that it has a full 30 satellites manifested on SpaceX’s first dedicated Smallsat Program launch. (Exolaunch)

Back in June 2020, SpaceX revealed that it had already secured more than 100 smallsat launch contracts less than 12 months after opening its doors, turning what might otherwise be a rounding error into a source of substantial income – likely on the order of $50 million or more.

Six months later, the large ambitions of SpaceX’s Smallsat Program are becoming clear. Between Spaceflight Inc and Exolaunch alone, two third-party rideshare organizers, SpaceX’s first dedicated Smallsat Program mission is already scheduled to launch no less than 46 satellites – closing in on a record 63 satellites launched by SpaceX for Spaceflight in December 2018.

Spaceflight says its first “Sherpa FX” spacecraft will launch on SpaceX’s SXRS-3 mission with at least 16 satellites and several hosted payloads for customers in the US, Switzerland, and Japan and will weigh around 385 kg (~850 lb) at liftoff .

Spaceflight’s non-propulsive Sherpa FX will debut on SXRS-3, deploying 16 satellites over the course of multiple hours.

Meanwhile, Exolaunch – a Germany-based startup with a rideshare organization purview similar to Spaceflight – says it will launch 30 customer spacecraft as part of SXRS-3. Nothing else is known about Exolaunch’s payloads but it’s safe to say that the company’s share of the mission will weigh at least as much as Spaceflight’s.

Nanoracks is another confirmed customer and will be including several satellites on SXRS-3.

Ultimately, SpaceX’s SXRS-3 rideshare is expected to be the start of a series of dedicated rideshare missions that will continue for as long as demand remains and augment more frequent but payload-constrained Starlink rideshares. Stay tuned for updates as SpaceX nears SXRS-3’s January 14th launch date.

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SpaceX’s next high-altitude Starship shrugs off fall damage

A handful of days after a workstand collapse threatened to end SpaceX’s next high-altitude Starship before it could leave the cradle, the rocket appears to have shrugged off whatever damage was caused with ease.

On the morning of December 11th and less than 24 hours after SpaceX investors and VIPs like COO Gwynne Shotwell and CEO Elon Musk were standing almost underneath the rocket, an unknown issue cause Starship SN9’s workstand to partially collapse. Seemingly through sheer luck, the part of the circular stand that collapsed was towards the corner of the ‘high bay’ building housing SN9, causing the rocket to tip around five degrees before colliding with the wall’s steel frame.

Starship SN9 after an accidental rendezvous with the wall. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
Probably not gonna buff out… (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Again, by some stroke of luck, the same angle of Starship SN9’s fall that prevented the rocket from tipping over onto Super Heavy’s in-work tank section (with workers possibly inside) seemingly allowed its flaps to absorb the bulk of that impact. One of two pairs used to keep the ship steady during a skydiver-like freefall maneuver, SN9’s forward and aft starboard flaps suffered obvious damage, perhaps unintentionally functioning like the crumple zones designed to protect passengers during car crashes.

‘Tis… a bit more than a scratch. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Aside from one or two subtle dents caused by the thoroughly off-axis stresses, the rest of the fully-assembled vehicle remained visibly untouched, though it was a near-complete unknown if Starship was capable of surviving such an ordeal. For 99% of the world’s rockets, almost all of which are either built out of aluminum or carbon fiber, tipping from a vertical position into a steel wall at anything less than a snail’s pace would likely be the end of any normal propellant tank – probably up to and including even SpaceX’s own reusable Falcon boosters. At a minimum, extensive repairs would be required.

On December 20th, nine days after the incident and six days after a crane lifted SN9 back into a stable position, SpaceX quietly replaced the Starship’s crumpled forward flap after having removed both damaged flaps in the days prior. The installation of that replacement flap – possibly taken from Starship SN10’s nose – all but confirmed a best-case scenario, as it would be hard to remove the damaged hardware and install a new flap so quickly if the underlying hinge and mounting mechanisms had been damaged in the fall. If only the aft – but not forward – flap mechanism was somehow damaged, it would also make little sense to install a new forward flap.

New flap, new day. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
The crane needed to install Starship SN9 on the launch mount was carried to the pad on December 21st. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Meanwhile, in another kind of encouraging sign, SpaceX moved the crane needed to lift Starships onto the launch mount from the build site to the launch pad on December 21st – right on schedule. It’s extremely unlikely that SpaceX would complete that move unless it was confident that a Starship prototype would be ready to roll to the launch pad, further implying that Starship SN9 really has shrugged off its workplace accident after less than two weeks of delays. Stay tuned for updates – road closures that could be used to transport SN9 are still in place from around 8 am to 5 pm CST on December 22nd and 23rd.

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