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SpaceX secures Starship SN15 launch license, permit to use Starlink dish in flight

Right in the nick of time for a high-altitude flight test scheduled as early as Friday, April 30th, SpaceX has secured an FAA license to launch Starship prototype SN15 and simultaneously received an FCC permit to operate a Starlink dish installed on the rocket.

The two-month FCC permit is primarily a luxury that will allow SpaceX to experiment with the utility of adding Starlink satellite internet connectivity to an active launch vehicle. The FAA license, however, is an essential requirement for the company to legally attempt its fifth high-altitude Starship launch and landing. While FAA approval is the latest of several promising signs that SpaceX may able to be squeeze in a Starship launch attempt before the weekend, some ambiguity still remains.

As of April 29th, Starship SN15’s launch debut now has an active FAA license, a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) to clear airspace, a marine hazard notice to warn maritime operators, and a highway closure all set for Friday, April 30th. The upgraded Starship prototype has also completed two back-to-back Raptor static fires without any apparent issues and without a need to replace one or more of those engines – a first for a multi-engine Starship prototype.

On the other hand, SpaceX has yet to officially confirm plans for a Friday launch attempt on social media or and the company has yet to distribute evacuation notices to the few residents that still live in Boca Chica Village. Additionally, weather conditions are likely to be poor on Friday and Starship SN15 still hasn’t been outfitted with explosive Flight Termination System (FTS) charges – a step that’s generally been performed 24+ hours before prior Starship launch attempts.

Update: SpaceX began installing Starship SN15’s FTS charges around 11pm CDT on April 29th.

Knowing SpaceX, it’s more likely than not that the company is capable of installing FTS less than 24 hours before a launch attempt, but it’s still a departure from the norm and thus noteworthy. Oddly, SpaceX has once again filed TFRs for apparent launch windows on Saturday and Sunday, though the company hasn’t so much as attempted a basic Starship tanking test on a weekend since well before high-altitude flight tests began five months ago.

As such, if SpaceX is unable to launch Starship SN15 tomorrow, it’s far likelier that the next window will open on Monday, May 3rd. Weather forecasts currently show a ~50% chance of thunderstorms and low visibility on Friday and Saturday, with conditions clearing up for a mostly sunny outlook from Sunday through Tuesday. Stay tuned for updates as SpaceX continues to prepare for what could be the first fully successful high-altitude Starship launch and landing.

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SpaceX launches Starlink satellites

Starlink launch

WASHINGTON — SpaceX launched another set of Starlink satellites April 28, its first since the FCC approved a modification that allows the company to operate more satellites in lower orbits.

The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 11:44 p.m. Eastern. The rocket’s upper stage deployed its payload of 60 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit nearly 65 minutes later.

The launch took place a day after the Federal Communications Commission approved SpaceX’s request to modify its Starlink constellation. The modification will move 2,814 satellites originally approved for launch in orbits of 1,100 to 1,300 kilometers to orbits of 540 to 570 kilometers, similar to the 550-kilometer orbits used by existing Starlink satellites.

SpaceX did not mention the FCC’s decision in its webcast. However, it did discuss how it chose lower orbits for spaceflight safety, ensuring that satellites will deorbit within several years of the end of their lives. It also mentioned its work with the 18th Space Control Squadron, sharing data on the orbits of Starlink satellites for collision avoidance activities, as well as a recent agreement with NASA to coordinate maneuvers between Starlink and NASA spacecraft in low Earth orbit.

“We are extremely proud of our efforts to not only provide internet access to the disconnected, but also ensure space remains a place where human spaceflight continues to grow,” Jessie Anderson, host of the webcast, said.

With this launch, SpaceX has now placed 1,505 Starlink satellites into orbit, of which 1,434 remain in orbit. The company was approaching its previous authorization of 1,584 satellites in 550-kilometer orbits when the FCC approved its license modification to allow more satellites in those lower orbits.

The Falcon 9’s first stage landed on a droneship in the Atlantic about eight and a half minutes after launch. The booster completed its seventh flight, which included launches of a GPS 3 satellite, the Turksat 5A communications satellite and five Starlink missions.

SpaceX has been using the Starlink launches to push the limits of reusability of the Falcon 9 first stage. “There doesn’t seem to be any obvious limit to the reusability of the vehicle,” Elon Musk, chief executive of SpaceX, said at an April 23 NASA press conference after the Crew-2 launch. “We do intend to fly the Falcon 9 booster until we some kind of a failure with the Starlink missions, have that be a life-leader.”

Musk’s comments came after the first launch of a reused Falcon 9 first stage on a crewed mission. The Crew-2 launch used the same first stage that flew the Crew-1 mission the previous November.

Musk said he and NASA have discussed what the optimal number of launches of a booster might be. “Do you want to be on a brand-new booster?” he asked. “You probably don’t want to be on the life leader for a crewed mission, but it’s probably good to have a flight or two under its belt.” He suggested a “couple of flights” might be best for a booster launching a crewed mission.

“It’s a hard problem for a rocket,” he said of reusability.

SpaceX also used the launch to honor Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 astronaut who died earlier that day at the age of 90. “Godspeed Apollo 11’s Michael Collins,” the SpaceX launch director said as the rocket lifted off. “May the pursuit of exploration live on.”


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SpaceX aces 25th Starlink launch and delivers 1500th Starlink satellite to orbit

After a minor issue at sea triggered a ~23-hour delay, a flight-proven Falcon 9 rocket lifted off without issue on April 28th, carrying an expendable upper stage and 60 Starlink internet satellites as part of its seventh launch and SpaceX’s ninth Starlink mission in 2021 alone.

As is now routine, Falcon 9 booster B1060 burned its nine Merlin 1D (M1D) engines for approximately two and a half minutes and separated from the integrated second stage and payload, which ignited a lone Merlin Vacuum (MVac) engine and continued on its way to orbit. During that approximately six-minute-long second stage burn, B1060 flipped to point its aft end towards the atmosphere, crested to an apogee greater than 150 km (~90 mi), performed a reentry burn to slow down and limit heating, and aced its seventh drone ship landing in ten months.

Known as Starlink-24, the mission is SpaceX’s two-dozenth operational Starlink launch since ‘v1.0’ satellite launches began less than 18 months ago in November 2019. Including an earlier batch of 60 v0.9 Starlink prototypes launched in May 2019, the vast majority of which have been intentionally deorbited, SpaceX has now launched more than 1500 Starlink satellites. Of the 1450 operational spacecraft launched in 17 months, 1435 remain in orbit and some 1430 – 98.6% – are still under SpaceX’s control. With Starlink-24 complete, SpaceX may also possess more active Starlink satellites in orbit than all other commercial satellites combined.

Falcon 9’s Starlink-24 launch, stage separation, second stage ignition, and booster reentry burn are visible in this long-exposure image. (Richard Angle)

As previously discussed on Teslarati, several sources suggest that Starlink-24 will kick an extremely busy May and June launch manifest for SpaceX.

“Starlink-24 should also be SpaceX’s third and final launch this April, opening the door for as many as four more Starlink launches (Starlink-25 through Starlink-28) in May, according to Next Spaceflight. Spaceflight Now reports that Starlink-25 is scheduled to launch in “early May,” possibly just a few days to a week after Starlink-24. All four of SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 boosters (B1049, B1051, B1058, B1060) would have to fly once – and one booster twice – to launch Starlink-24 through Starlink-28 between now and the end of May.

No earlier than (NET) June 1st, a Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to launch radio provider SiriusXM’s SXM-8 radio satellite. SpaceX is scheduled to launch its second upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft as early as June 3rd, just two days after SXM-8. Last but likely not least, launch photographer Ben Cooper reports that a flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to launch the US military’s fifth upgraded GPS III navigation satellite on June 17th.” – 27 April 2021

Including Starlink-24, that means that SpaceX appears to have up to eight Falcon 9 launches scheduled in the next seven weeks and possibly even a ninth or tenth mission in the last two weeks of June. Starlink-24 is SpaceX’s 12th launch this year, leaving the company firmly on track to complete at least 36 orbital launches in 2021 – nearly 40% more than its current record of 26 launches completed in 2020.

Rewatch – and catch the tail end of – SpaceX’s Starlink-24 webcast below.

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Op-ed | Competition delivers the goods and the crew for all NASA commercial space services

On April 23, SpaceX launched a crew of international astronauts to the Space Station. This marks the third human spaceflight success for the firm’s Crew Dragon Capsule, developed under NASA’s Commercial Crew program. The amazing accomplishments of this program and of its predecessor, Comercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS), which funded development of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and the cargo version of Dragon, depended not only on great engineering by SpaceX and other NASA vendors, but also upon the power of system redundancy and market competition. Both programs succeed, in great part, because NASA had two systems and two vendors. While we celebrate that, it appears that those lessons were not fully internalized on Capitol Hill.

During my service on the previous NASA transition team (2016-2017), one of the first decisions we faced was the question of continuing the Obama-era Commercial Crew program. That effort to deliver American astronauts to the International Space Station on commercial capsules was running years behind schedule due to the reluctance of Congress to fully fund the NASA request. There were also technical challenges facing both vendors, Boeing and SpaceX. Meanwhile, the loss of COTS payloads in both 2014 and 2015 demonstrated both the vulnerability of complex systems as well as the power of redundant systems to achieve programmatic objectives. With Commercial Crew vehicles behind schedule and on half-funding, some members of our team and some senior NASA officials supported a downselect of the program to a single vendor, so they could fully fund one system. I opposed that. 

I felt strongly that technical redundancy and market competition were central to the principle of commercial space contracting. Any one system would leave us with the vulnerabilities that had plagued the space shuttle program. On the two occasions when a shuttle was lost, the United States was out of the space business for three years of investigations and re-engineering. Without the redundancy of Russian vehicles, the 2003 Columbia disaster would likely have resulted in abandonment of the International Space Station and a $100 billion U.S. investment and put the remaining station crew at risk. A failure of such magnitude could have marked the end of NASA human spaceflight.

Shuttle flights were also far more expensive than their originally projected costs, in part because the program became “too big to fail.” This is a condition NASA and the Defense Department have faced with many single vendor programs, including the current James Webb Space Telescope, the Space Launch System and the infamous F-35. The competition for the award and the intentions of the contract are easily lost once the governmental buyer lacks the leverage provided by having another vendor. Skipping competition in actual services is not an option.

Thankfully, Commercial Crew went forward with two vendors and funding was ticked up a bit. It worked. SpaceX now provides regular access to ISS on American rockets launched from American soil, rendering recent Russian threats to leave the space station less concerning. Meanwhile, Boeing, which experienced software failures during the demonstration flight of their CST-100 Starliner is re-flying that $400 million mission on their own dime. Redundancy saves lives and competition saves money.

I was therefore frustrated by NASA’s announcement of April 16 that, due primarily to insufficient congressional funding, they were downselecting the lunar Human Landing System (HLS) for the Artemis program from three to just one vendor, SpaceX. Selection of SpaceX’s Starship pleased me in that it represents a uniquely bold vision for space transportation to the moon, to Mars and beyond. Further, SpaceX has demonstrated the ability to outperform its competitors while receiving smaller awards that it effectively leverages with significant amounts of private capital. NASA’s source selection statement is intended to provide a non-political overview of all of the vendors’ merits in technical approach, management approach and cost. The document released last this month suggests that SpaceX offered more bang for the Buck Rogers. The firm also has a strong recent history of delivering for NASA. 

However, as a student of history and someone who has been there, no amount of such analysis will convince me that a single vendor solution is the right option here. The proposals from Blue Origin and Dynetics also merit development. Congress must sufficiently fund the HLS program for the currently selected vendor and provide for competition. NASA’s vague promises of future services contracts for undefined lunar missions after Artemis 3, will not suffice for companies expected to invest billions of dollars and retain thousands of workers on their payrolls. NASA must clarify its commitment to a sustained lunar presence and future lunar transportation requirements.

I have immense respect for the fine choices President Biden has made with his NASA nominees, including the selection of former Sen. Bill Nelson for administrator, Pam Melroy as deputy administrator, Margaret Vo Schaus as CFO and particularly acting Chief of Staff Bhavya Lal who has done yeoman’s work to support the continuity of the Artemis program. I hope that team will work to convince OMB and Congress that in an environment as unforgiving as space, nothing is more expensive than short-term financial thinking. They must insist on funding adequate to support HLS competition, now. If they do not, we may someday find ourselves paying China for rides to the moon.

Greg Autry is a Clinical Professor of Space Leadership, Policy and Business with the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University. He serves as Chair of the Safety Working Group on the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee at the FAA. The opinions expressed here are his own.


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Intuitive Machines’ first lunar lander mission slips to 2022

Intuitive Machines lander

WASHINGTON — The first lunar lander mission by Intuitive Machines, which had been scheduled for launch late this year, has been delayed to early 2022 by its launch provider, SpaceX.

Intuitive Machines had planned to launch its Nova-C lander on the IM-1 mission in the fourth quarter of this year on a SpaceX Falcon 9, carrying a combination of commercial and NASA payloads. A March 24 news release about an agreement to use the Parkes radio telescope in Australia as a ground station for the mission mentioned a launch “towards the end of 2021.”

However, in an April 23 application filed with the Federal Communications Commission to obtain S-band spectrum for the mission, Intuitive Machines said that the lander was now scheduled for launch in early 2022. The company didn’t provide a more specific launch date or a reason for the delay in its FCC filing.

Intuitive Machines spokesman Josh Marshall said April 26 that the slip was caused by its launch provider. “SpaceX informed Intuitive Machines that due to unique mission requirements the earliest available flight opportunity is in the first quarter of 2022,” he told SpaceNews.

Marshall referred questions about the “unique mission requirements” that caused the delay to SpaceX. That company did not respond to questions from SpaceNews on the topic.

The 1,908-kilogram Nova-C spacecraft will launch into a supersynchronous transfer orbit of 185 by 60,000 kilometers. Nineteen hours after launch it will carry out a translunar injection maneuver to go to the moon, performing another maneuver to enter a 100-kilometer lunar orbit. Nova-C will then attempt a landing at Mare Serenatis for a surface mission landing 14 days. Intuitive Machines said in the filing it will attempt to contact the solar-powered lander again after the 14-day lunar night, but acknowledged “is highly likely that the NOVA-C will not survive the lunar night.”

Intuitive Machines’ application with the FCC seeks to use the agency’s new streamlined processing for small satellites, even though the spacecraft weighs nearly four times the limit of 500 kilograms established by the FCC for using that process. A waiver of that mass limit, the company argues, “is appropriate and necessary in this case given extremely short-term use of the NOVA-C and the fact that it is non-Earth orbiting commercial lunar mission.” It added that it believed that it was in the public interest to waive the mass limit given the role of IM-1 in NASA’s overall Artemis lunar exploration program.

The company also seeks FCC permission to use S-band frequencies even though there is no commercial allocation for them. “Intuitive Machines is providing services on behalf of a government agency and is supported through Federal funding,” it noted in the filing, adding that it would coordinate with government users of that band to avoid interference.

The lander is carrying several payloads for NASA through the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. Intuitive Machines received one of the first CLPS awards in May 2019, valued at $77 million for a mission then scheduled for launch in July 2021. Those payloads are a laser retroreflector, a lidar for navigation during landing, stereo camera system, an autonomous navigation experiment and low-frequency radio experiment.

IM-1 will also have several commercial payloads on the lander. They include a small rover from British company Spacebit, a camera that will be deployed to provide an external view of the landing, an astronomical telescope for the International Lunar Observatory Association, a radiation measurement sensor, a “passive data cache” in the form of etched metal disks and a sensor to measure propellant tank levels.

IM-1 was to be the first CLPS mission to launch, and one of two scheduled to fly this year. The other is Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander, which received a $79.5 million award from NASA at the same time Intuitive Machines won its first CLPS contract.

Astrobotic announced its latest customer for that mission April 22. The German space agency DLR will fly a radiation sensor on that spacecraft similar to those that will fly on the Artemis 1 Orion test flight. That release stated that the launch was still scheduled for 2021, although a DLR release said the mission would go to the moon “at the end of the year.”

Peregrine will be the payload for the first launch of United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan Centaur rocket. ULA is targeting a first Vulcan launch late this year, but has not provided a more specific launch date.


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SpaceX gears up for two jam-packed months of Starlink, Dragon, and satellite launches

After taking a roughly two-week break to focus on Crew Dragon’s third astronaut launch, SpaceX is ready to get back to its regular programming of rapid-fire Starlink, Cargo Dragon, and commercial satellite launches.

Kicking off what is setting up to be a jam-packed ten weeks of launches, a six-flight Falcon 9 booster, expendable upper stage, and 60 Starlink satellites went vertical at SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral Launch Complex 40 (LC-40) pad on April 27th. The booster is scheduled to launch for the seventh time as part of the company’s 24th operational Starlink launch (Starlink-24) no earlier than 11:44 pm EDT (03:44 UTC) on Wednesday, April 28th.

Starlink-24 was originally meant to launch around midnight the same day but was pushed back ~23 hours when the tugboat tasked with towing drone ship Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) suffered an engine failure several hundred kilometers offshore, requiring both a rescue and replacement tug. The 23-hour delay should leave just enough time for the drone ship to be in position to support Falcon 9 booster B1060’s seventh landing attempt.

Starlink-24 should also be SpaceX’s third and final launch this April, opening the door for as many as four more Starlink launches (Starlink-25 through -28) in May, according to Next Spaceflight. Spaceflight Now reports that Starlink-25 is scheduled to launch in “early May,” possibly just a few days to a week after Starlink-24. All four of SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 boosters (B1049, B1051, B1058, B1060) would have to fly once – and one booster twice – to launch Starlink-24 through Starlink-28 between now and the end of May.

Starlink-24 will be Falcon 9 booster B1060’s second launch in 35 days and seventh flight overall. (Richard Angle)
Falcon 9 booster B1061 could enter SpaceX’s general-purpose fleet after a second successful astronaut launch earlier this month. (Richard Angle)

Now that SpaceX has successfully reused Falcon 9 B1061 to launch astronauts on April 23rd, a first in spaceflight history, it’s possible that the company will be able to move that booster into its general-purpose fleet, growing it from four to five.

Aside from three or four Starlink missions, no other Falcon 9 launches are expected in May. In June, however, SpaceX’s focus will likely shift to several important commercial missions – a bit of a rarity this year. No earlier than (NET) June 1st, a Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to launch radio provider SiriusXM’s SXM-8 radio satellite, less than six months after sister satellite SXM-7 – also launched by SpaceX – was declared a total loss mere weeks after reaching orbit.

SpaceX launched SXM-7 on December 13th, 2020. (Richard Angle)
Falcon 9 booster B1067 arrived in McGregor, Texas in mid-March and completed static fire testing by mid-April. (Reagan – @bluemoondance74)

Meanwhile, SpaceX is scheduled to launch its second upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft as early as June 3rd, just two days after SXM-8. On top of SpaceX and NASA confirmation that a new Dragon 2 spacecraft will support the CRS-22 space station cargo delivery mission, Next Spaceflight reports that a new Falcon 9 booster – B1067 – will also be flying for the first time. That booster went vertical at SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas rocket testing facilities in late March and completed static fire testing around three weeks later.

Last but likely not least, launch photographer Ben Cooper reports that a flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to launch the US military’s fifth upgraded GPS III navigation satellite on June 17th. The GPS III SV05 mission will make Falcon 9 the first flight-proven commercial rocket to launch a critical payload for the US Air Force or Space Force.

Even accounting for marginal delays, SpaceX will likely have another 10-14 days to add one or two Starlink missions to its June launch manifest. In the meantime, tune in to SpaceX’s official webcast around 11:30 pm EDT (03:30 UTC) to watch the ninth Starlink launch of 2021 live.

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Dynetics protests NASA HLS award

Dynetics lunar lander

WASHINGTON — Dynetics has joined Blue Origin in filing a protest of NASA’s selection of SpaceX for a single Human Landing System award, a move that could force the agency to suspend work on the program.

In a statement April 27, Dynetics said it filed a protest of the HLS award with the Government Accountability Office the previous day. Blue Origin, the other losing bidder in the competition, filed its own protest of the award with the GAO the same day.

“Dynetics has issues and concerns with several aspects of the acquisition process as well as elements of NASA’s technical evaluation and filed a protest with the GAO to address them,” the company said in a statement to SpaceNews. “We respect this process and look forward [to] a fair and informed resolution of the matter.”

The company did not elaborate on the specific “issues and concerns” it had with the HLS acquisition process, but noted it believed “NASA’s initial plan for continued competition remains the best approach to ensure program success.” The company said it would not comment further on the protest.

NASA selected one company, SpaceX, for an “Option A” award April 16 to fund development of a crewed lunar lander and a demonstration mission, after earlier indicating that it would select one or two companies. The agency said in a source selection statement that budget shortfalls made it impossible for the agency to select two, and had to ask SpaceX, the lowest bidder, to revise its proposed payment schedule to fit into its budget profile.

Of the three bidders, Dynetics was the lowest ranked. It had a technical rating of “Marginal,” one step below the “Acceptable” that Blue Origin and SpaceX received. Its Management rating of “Very Good” was the same as Blue Origin but one step below SpaceX’s “Outstanding.”

In the source selection statement, Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said the Dynetics lander “suffered from a number of serious drawbacks” that increased risk. The lander was overweight, which at this early stage of development “calls into question the feasibility of Dynetics’ mission architecture and its ability to successfully close its mission as proposed,” she wrote. The evaluation also questioned the maturity of the technology for performing in-space cryogenic fluid transfer required to refuel the lander, as the company planned.

Lueders concluded that “while Dynetics’ proposal does have some meritorious technical and management attributes, it is overall of limited merit and is only somewhat in alignment with the objectives as set forth in this solicitation.” The document only stated that Dynetics’ proposal had a price “significantly higher” than Blue Origin’s proposal, which in turn was significantly higher than SpaceX’s winning bid of $2.89 billion. Blue Origin disclosed in its protest that it bid $5.99 billion.

NASA made the HLS award so that it could seamlessly shift from the original “base period” contracts issued nearly one year ago and set to expire April 30 to the Option A award. However, NASA Acting Administrator Steve Jurczyk said it’s uncertain if the two protests will suspend that work.

“We’ve been made aware of the protests by both Blue Origin and Dynetics from GAO,” he said during an April 27 webinar by the Space Transportation Association. “It’s too soon to be determined whether that’s going to delay moving forward or whether we can keep things moving forward. We’re working through that right now.”

In September 2014, Sierra Nevada Corporation filed a protest of NASA’s award of commercial crew development contracts to Boeing and SpaceX. NASA instructed those two companies to stop work on those contracts, but within a couple weeks lifted those stop-work orders, citing “statutory authority available to it” to allow work to continue while the GAO reviewed the protest. GAO dismissed the protest in January 2015.


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FCC approves Starlink license modification

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission approved a modification of SpaceX’s license for its Starlink constellation, allowing the company to operate more than 2,800 additional satellites in lower orbits.

In an order and authorization published April 27, the FCC said it will allow SpaceX to move 2,814 satellites from orbits in the range of 1,100 to 1,300 kilometers to 540 to 570 kilometers. That is the same orbital range that the company is using for its current constellation of about 1,350 satellites in operation today.

The agency rejected efforts by several companies, including others planning low Earth orbit constellations and those operating geostationary satellite systems, to block the modification or force SpaceX to be considered in a new round of proposed systems, losing its priority.

“Our action will allow SpaceX to implement safety-focused changes to the deployment of its satellite constellation to deliver broadband service throughout the United States, including to those who live in areas underserved or unserved by terrestrial systems,” the FCC said.

Under the approval, the size of the Starlink constellation will decrease by one satellite, from 4,409 to 4,408. That includes the 1,584 satellites previously authorized to operate at orbits of 550 kilometers at inclinations of 53 degrees, and 10 authorized in January to operate in polar orbits. They will be joined by 2,814 satellites, previously approved for higher orbits, operating at inclinations of 53.2, 70 and 97.6 degrees and at latitudes between 540 and 570 kilometers.

SpaceX’s proposal was the subject of intense debate at the FCC, with nearly 200 filings submitted. Many satellite operators opposed the modification on grounds ranging from increased electromagnetic interference to a greater risk of satellite collisions and creation of orbital debris.

The FCC, by and large, rejected those claims. “Based on our review, we agree with SpaceX that the modification will improve the experience for users of the SpaceX service, including in often-underserved polar regions,” the order states. “We conclude that operations at the lower altitude will have beneficial effects with respect to orbital debris mitigation. We also find that SpaceX’s modification will not present significant interference problems, as assessed under Commission precedent.”

In particular, it concluded that allowing SpaceX to operate more satellites in that lower orbit would not, in the aggregate, harm the orbital environment. Some companies, such as Viasat, had argued that Starlink satellites suffered a high failure rate that threatened to increase the risk of collisions in LEO.

“SpaceX’s satellite failure rate is a matter of significant contention in the record,” the FCC noted, alluding to back-and-forth filings on the issue in recent months by SpaceX, Viasat and others. The FCC noted that, according to SpaceX, the company had suffered a “disposal failure rate” of 1.45%, and that 720 of the last 723 satellites launched (as of mid-February 2021) were maneuverable after launch.

FCC said that “it will be important for SpaceX to maintain a high disposal reliability rate for its satellites in order to limit collision risk.” As a condition of the modified license, SpaceX must file semiannual reports on the number of “conjunction events” and those that required a maneuver to avoid a collision, as well as satellites that the company has disposed. SpaceX would also have to file reports if there are three or more disposal failures in any one-year period.

The order requires SpaceX to operate its Starlink satellites at altitudes no higher than 580 kilometers. That was a condition requested by Amazon to avoid close approaches to its Project Kuiper satellites, and one SpaceX had stated in filings that it would accept.

The FCC, as part of the order, also rejected requests that the agency perform an environmental assessment as part of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Some astronomers had also proposed that Starlink be subject to an environmental assessment, or EA, because of the impacts that the satellites have on astronomical observations.

The FCC concluded that “the issues raised in the filings do not warrant preparation” of an environmental assessment. It offered several reasons for rejecting those requests, from the fact that the Federal Aviation Administration does its own environmental assessments for launches of Starlink satellites to “whether NEPA covers sunlight as a source of ‘light pollution’ when reflecting on a surface that is in space.”

However, the FCC urged SpaceX to continue to work closely with astronomers to mitigate the brightness of its satellites. “Although we do not find that the record before us merits preparation of an EA under NEPA, we conclude that it nonetheless would serve the public interest under the Communications Act for SpaceX to ensure that it does not unduly burden astronomy and other research endeavors,” it stated. “Accordingly, we will continue to monitor this situation and SpaceX’s efforts to achieve its commitments in this record.”


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Op-ed | How Elon Musk’s CO2 XPRIZE can fight climate change and advance space exploration

Elon Musk and XPRIZE recently announced a $100 million prize purse for economically scalable ideas to capture and sequester carbon dioxide (CO2). As of Earth Day 2021, registration for XPRIZE Carbon Removal now open. The hope is to inspire a global industry that will “collectively achieve” gigaton-scale removal of CO2 from Earth’s atmosphere. We urgently need these solutions, as most Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scenarios require CO2 removal to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

As badly as we need this Earth-saving industry, it’s also interesting to consider its benefits for another industry: space exploration. Specifically, for contestants seeking an edge, I predict Musk will acquire an XPRIZE solution that:

  1. Converts captured CO2 into useful products.
  2. Fits inside an 8-meter-diameter compartment.

An integrated theory of Elon Musk

Elon Musk wants to go to Mars. This is common knowledge. But “going to Mars” is more than rockets. All of his projects are part of the Mars plan. Earth is only his R&D lab. His SolarCity (solar panels) and the Gigafactory (batteries) have obvious utility on Mars. Tesla (self-driving electric vehicles) offers transportation in a place with no gasoline — and potentially no humans, should Musk want to send drones to lay out the red carpet ahead of a crewed mission. Starlink (satellites) enables communication not only with Earth, but between points on Mars. Even the Boring Company (tunneling machines) has its place: Solar radiation makes the Martian surface nigh unlivable, so interconnected subterranean living quarters may be necessary. As for the not-flamethrower? We don’t know what Perseverance will find. You can’t be too safe.

How does carbon capture fit this theory?

This XPRIZE is intended to “fight climate change and restore the Earth’s carbon balance.” It has no interest in Mars, but rather in Earth-based solutions such as Carbon Engineering, Project Vesta, or Running Tide. So why is Elon Musk funding the prize? Why his sudden interest in scrubbing Earth’s atmosphere? 

Resources on Mars will be hard to come by, but it has at least one in abundance: The Martian atmosphere is 95% CO2. (For reference, Earth’s atmosphere is 0.04% CO2, and the flue gases emitted from smokestacks have 25% CO2 or less.) We often think of CO2 as waste or pollution, but what if we used it as industrial feedstock? Look no further than another XPRIZE, which focuses on turning CO2 into products. With a little engineering and chemistry, you can convert CO2 to fuel, food, building materials, or other chemicals. Musk hasn’t lost sight of Mars. Far from it. He’s lying awake wondering how to supply a Martian outpost.

Of course, you need to get to Mars before you can mine its atmosphere. Everything Musk sends to the Red Planet must fit into the SpaceX Starship. The Starship has a payload compartment 8 meters in diameter and up to 22 meters high, with a maximum weight of 100 tons. You can send your technology in pieces on multiple rockets — “economically scalable” could be interpreted as modular, and modular solutions could be broken into multiple trips — but your largest component can’t exceed those specifications.

Musk’s tunnel-boring machine, named Prufrock, is a case in point. Critics from coast to coast have urged him to drill wider tunnels, to allow for municipal trains. But Prufrock, developed in-house, is only 3.7 meters in diameter (with, I estimate, a 25-ton cutting face). With those dimensions, Musk can fit multiple components into a single rocket. Like Prufrock, a Martian carbon capture solution should fit in the Starship.

You don’t need to win to win

This XPRIZE challenge will last four years, ending midway through the most environmentally consequential decade of our lifetimes. I can’t wait to see the creative solutions it inspires in the carbon capture field. Winning teams will need to capture and store one ton of CO2 per day, while convincing judges they can economically scale to a billion tons over time. That is an aspirational goal, and solutions will likely take many forms.

Some of those solutions may be portable or modular, and will produce a product to offset operating costs. I hope and expect that this XPRIZE will advance both CO2 capture and space exploration. You can be certain Musk will be watching closely for ideas that support his extraplanetary ambitions. Not everyone can win the XPRIZE cash, but give Musk something he can take to Mars and he might just bring you along for the ride.

Alex Urquhart is committed to a decarbonized future. He lives in Maine, where he works on solar project development. Previously, he worked on CO2 sequestration and radioactive waste storage issues at Sandia National Labs.


aerospace astronomy Crew Dragon Crew-1 nasa spacex

Crew-1 splashdown delayed by weather

Demo-2 splashdown

WASHINGTON — NASA and SpaceX are postponing the return of a Crew Dragon spacecraft by three days because of poor weather forecast in the splashdown location off the Florida coast.

NASA announced late April 26 that, in cooperation with SpaceX, it is postponing the return of the Crew-1 mission, which was scheduled to undock from the International Space Station April 28 and splash down in the Gulf of Mexico south of Tallahassee, Florida, later that day. NASA said forecasted wind speeds in that zone will be “above the recovery criteria” for a safe landing.

The revised plan calls for the Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft to undock from the station at 5:55 p.m. Eastern April 30. It will remain in orbit for nearly 18 hours after undocking, splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico at 11:36 a.m. May 1.

The announcement came several hours after the four Crew-1 astronauts — Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker of NASA and Soichi Noguchi of JAXA — spoke with reporters. Hopkins, the commander of the spacecraft, said at the time that he had not heard many details about the weather forecast for landing since it was still 48 hours out.

“Now is the time when the predictions start to get a little better, so we’re going to see over the next 24 hours whether we have a ‘go’ to start the sequence of events that would have us undocking on Wednesday” April 28, he said.

Crew-1 will be the second Crew Dragon mission to splash down with astronauts on board, after the Demo-2 mission in August 2020. Hopkins said he had talked with the Demo-2 astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, to get their insights on what the splashdown experience was like. That was especially useful, he said, as Demo-2 was the first NASA crewed mission to end in a splashdown since the final Apollo mission, for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, in 1975.

“One of the best pieces of advice that I got from Doug was, with this new vehicle and not having landed a lot before, is just making sure that you’re staying ahead of the capsule,” he said. “That’s something that all of us have been focusing on over the last few days, preparing for that landing, just going over our procedures and making sure that when we get into that sequence of events that we’re ready to go.”

Once Resilience returns, SpaceX will refurbish the spacecraft and prepare it for the Inspiration4 commercial mission, scheduled to launch in mid-September. Hopkins said he had not yet had a chance to talk to the four people who will fly on that mission, “but I think all of us would love to have that opportunity and talk to them about what it’s like inside Resilience going uphill, and we’ll be able to tell them soon here what it’s like coming home as well.”