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SpaceX launches second dedicated rideshare mission

Falcon 9 Transporter 2 launch

WASHINGTON — SpaceX launched 88 satellites on a Falcon 9 June 30 on the company’s second dedicated smallsat rideshare mission.

The Falcon 9 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 3:31 p.m. Eastern, more than halfway into a nearly hourlong launch window because of weather. A launch attempt the day before was scrubbed when a private helicopter entered restricted airspace minutes before the scheduled liftoff.

Deployment of the payload of 88 satellites started nearly 58 minutes after liftoff, once the upper stage performed a second burn of its engine to place it into a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of nearly 550 kilometers. The satellites, from a variety of government and commercial customers, were released over half an hour.

The mission, named Transporter-2 by SpaceX, was the company’s second dedicated smallsat rideshare mission, after the Transporter-1 mission in January. The earlier flight carried 143 satellites, but SpaceX said the total payload mass for Transporter-2 was greater than that of Transporter-1. The company did not disclose specific payload mass figures for either mission.

SpaceX established its smallsat rideshare program nearly two years ago, offering low-cost launches on dedicated Falcon 9 missions like Transporter-2 as well as on launches of its Starlink satellites. It has attracted significant interest from both companies and government agencies.

The Transporter-2 payload manifest featured synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites from three competing companies: Capella, Iceye and Umbra. HawkEye 360 and Kleos, two companies deploying constellations to perform radio-frequency tracking, each had satellites on this mission, as did PlanetIQ and Spire, which collect GPS radio occultation data for use in weather forecasting.

Other commercial customers included Astrocast, which is developing an internet-of-things constellation, and Satellogic, which has a multi-launch agreement with SpaceX for launching its imaging satellites. SpaceX flew three of its own Starlink satellites on the launch, which will join 10 Starlink satellites launched into polar orbit on Transporter-1.

The Pentagon’s Space Development Agency (SDA) had four satellites on Transporter-2. Two Mandrake-2 satellites — originally intended to launch on Transporter-1 before being damaged in prelaunch processing — feature optical crosslinks and will be used to test technologies for future low Earth orbit military satellite. Two cubesats built by General Atomics will also test optical communications between satellites and with drones. SDA has a fifth payload on Loft Orbital’s YAM-3 satellite.

NASA flew two smallsats on Transporter-2, including a pathfinder for a cubesat constellation called TROPICS, for Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats. TROPICS Pathfinder is identical to the six TROPICS satellites that Astra will launch on its Rocket 3 small launch vehicle in 2022 and will enable full testing of the satellite design in advance of the deployment of the constellation.

Launch cadence and reusability

Transporter-2 was SpaceX’s 20th Falcon 9 mission of the year, with six months yet to go. In only two years has SpaceX conducted more orbital launches: 21 in 2018 and 26 in 2020. The company is on track to shatter the record set last year, even with an anticipated slowdown of launches in July and August.

A key factor in that high launch cadence is reusability. The Falcon 9 booster used for Transporter-2 was making its eighth flight, concluding with a landing at Cape Canaveral’s Landing Zone 1. Its first launch was exactly one year ago, when it launched a GPS 3 satellite, and was also used for launching Turksat 5A and five Starlink missions before Transporter-2. Other Falcon 9 boosters have flown up to 10 times.

While SpaceX previously set a goal of 10 flights per booster, company officials have in recent months suggested those boosters could fly more than 10 times. “We’ve got boosters now that have flown 10 times, and some that are slated to fly 20 or possibly 30 times,” Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of SpaceX, said in a June 29 appearance at the Mobile World Congress.

“With Falcon 9, we’ve achieved I think the most efficient reusability of any rocket to date,” he said, but added that SpaceX will take reusability “to another level” with its Starship vehicle. That vehicle, whose first orbital launch Musk now says will take place in the “next few months,” is intended to be reflown without any significant refurbishment, like an airliner.

“The Holy Grail for rocketry is rapidly reusable reliable rockets,” he said.

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Space Development Agency celebrates launch of its first satellites

WASHINGTON — The Defense Department’s space agency on June 30 hailed the deployment of its first missions which flew to orbit on a SpaceX rideshare carrying 88 small satellites.

“Today’s missions will provide real-world data that we can use to verify our engineering assumptions and space-qualify a significant emerging technology,” Derek Tournear, director of the Space Development Agency said in a statement after SpaceX confirmed the agency’s payloads successfully separated.

SDA’s missions on Transporter 2, estimated to cost $21 million, include two pairs of satellites to demonstrate the performance of optical communications terminals in low Earth orbit, and one to demonstrate on-orbit data processing. 

These are the agency’s first in-space experiments since it was established in 2019. SDA plans to deploy a network of satellites in low Earth orbit for military communications and for missile defense. The first batch of satellites is scheduled to launch in late 2022.

Optical communications between satellites, from satellites to aircraft in flight and to the ground is a key technology SDA wants to use in its constellations. “SDA is relying on optical communications terminals to get massive amounts of data off of sensors and into warfighters’ hands faster than has ever been possible,” said Tournear.

One of the missions, called Mandrake 2, was supposed to launch in January on the Transporter 1 rideshare but the satellites were damaged during processing. This is a joint SDA, DARPA and Air Force Research Laboratory mission to evaluate the pointing, acquisition and tracking algorithms that allow optical terminals to establish and maintain high-speed communication links. 

Mandrake 2 will help characterize data transfer rates and optical link performance between space vehicles in LEO and from space to ground. After separation from the launch vehicle, the pair of Mandrake 2 satellites will gradually drift apart on orbit, allowing for tests at ranges up to 2,400 kilometers.

The other optical communications demonstration — called  Laser Interconnect Networking Communications System (LINCS) — uses two satellites equipped with optical terminals. The satellites and terminals were supplied by General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems. This mission will test in-space communication and also attempt to demonstrate space-to-air optical links between a satellite and a specially developed optical communications pod on an MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle. 

“Optical links between space, air, and ground assets offer significantly higher data rates and lower latency when compared to conventional radio frequency links,” Tournear said. Another benefit of optical links is that they are more difficult to detect and disrupt than traditional communication links.

SDA’s fifth payload on Transporter 2 is the Prototype On-orbit Experimental Testbed (POET), which rode on a commercial satellite built by Loft Orbital called YAM-3, short for “Yet Another Mission.”

The agency said POET will demonstrate the integration of data from multiple sources on a computer aboard the satellite, known as an “edge processor.” The payload’s software suite was developed by Scientific Systems Company Inc.

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SpaceX rocket lands on land after 88-satellite rideshare launch

For the first time this year, a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster has landed back on land after supporting the US East Coast’s third polar launch in half a century.

Known as Transporter-2, the mission is SpaceX’s second dedicated rideshare launch as part of its own Smallsat Program. Transporter-1 smashed the all-time record for the number of satellites flown on a single rocket, successfully carrying 143 spacecraft into orbit in January 2021. Six months later, Transporter-2 lifted off from Cape Canaveral at 3:31 pm EDT (17:31 UTC) on June 30th, approximately six days later than originally planned.

Unspecified issues – perhaps related to Falcon 9’s payload fairing – triggered a five-day delay from June 24th to June 29th, when a last-second airspace violation forced SpaceX to abort the launch and try again on June 30th. Finally, in spite of stormy weather, everything came together for a launch attempt late in that Tuesday window.

Flying for the eighth time in 12 months, Falcon 9 booster B1060 aced its role in the mission, boosting Falcon 9’s expendable upper stage, payload fairing, and ~88 satellites out of Earth’s atmosphere and on their way to orbit. Flying for the third time, both of the Falcon 9’s reused fairing halves also did their job, protecting those satellites from the elements and aerothermal stress on the ground and during ascent.

(Richard Angle)

Transporter-2 was SpaceX’s 20th orbital launch of 2021, a cadence that could enable as many as 40 launches this year. That also means that barring surprises, SpaceX could match its annual record (26 launches; set in 2020) just eight months into 2021, all but guaranteeing that the company will smash that record before the end of the year. As of June 30th, SpaceX has now completed 36 orbital launches and 35 Falcon 9 first stage landings in the last 12 months, losing only one booster in the process.

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SpaceX Super Heavy booster reaches full height as Elon Musk talks orbit

Just a few days after CEO Elon Musk said that SpaceX’s first true Super Heavy prototype was “almost done,” the booster has been stacked to its full height.

Standing more than 65 meters (~215 ft) tall, Super Heavy Booster 3 (B3) assembly is now just a few major welds away from completion after SpaceX teams mated the final two sections of its propellant tanks and structure. Assembled separately out of approximately 12 barrel sections each made up of 2-4 steel rings, Booster 3’s methane tank (13 rings) and oxygen tank (23 rings) were stacked together on June 29th, just over six weeks after the process began.

Earlier the same day, speaking at the 2021 Mobile World Congress, Musk confirmed what was now fairly clear to most observers, stating that SpaceX is “going to do its best” to complete Starship’s first orbital (or, at least, space) launch attempt “in the next few months.” In other words, a several-month-old launch target of no later than July 2021 is most likely out of reach despite a strong effort from SpaceX.

The most significant technical hurdles still in the way involve a few incremental Starship milestones and, more importantly, the qualification of the largest and most powerful rocket booster ever built. Standing almost as tall as an entire two-stage Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy, Super Heavy is expected to weigh more than 3500 tons (~7.7 million lbs) and produce at least ~5000 tons (~11 million lbf) of thrust at liftoff – more than any other rocket booster in history, liquid or solid.

Borrowing heavily from Starship, Super Heavy is mostly built with the same techniques out of the same steel rings, stringers, and structures, save for a few booster-specific components. However, Super Heavy is also designed to use 29-32 Raptor engines while the most SpaceX has ever simultaneously installed, tested, or flown is three. In other words, while Super Heavy is in many ways simpler than Starship, it will still be treading plenty of new ground when it heads to the launch pad for the first time.

Booster 3 is sporting a mysterious and sturdy bracket-like structure holding a pressure vessel and some kind of plumbing. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
Former Starship Suborbital Mount A has been modified for booster testing. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Plenty of final integration tasks remain before Super Heavy B3 will be ready to start qualification testing but SpaceX could feasibly be ready to roll the booster to the launch site within the next week or two. Once installed on a former Starship launch mount that’s been customized for booster testing, Super Heavy will likely be put through its first cryogenic proof and static fire test(s) to verify that the massive rocket is performing as expected. The static fire process could be fairly lengthy if SpaceX decides to incrementally increase the number of Raptor engines installed.

In the likely event that Booster 3 begins testing without engines installed, SpaceX will also have to go through the process of installing up to 29 Raptors while Super Heavy is sitting out in the elements on a launch mount. Based on experience with Starship, installing that many engines in situ could take at least several days – and maybe longer. All told, the fun is only just beginning.

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Falcon 9 launch scrub highlights airspace integration problems

Falcon 9 Transporter-2

WASHINGTON — A SpaceX launch scrubbed in the final seconds of its countdown when an aircraft violated restricted airspace June 29 has aligned both the launch industry and the airline industry in their criticism of the Federal Aviation Administration.

SpaceX was preparing to launch a Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 2:56 p.m. Eastern. The Transporter-2 mission is carrying 88 satellites on SpaceX’s second dedicated smallsat rideshare missions, supporting customers ranging from NASA and the Pentagon’s Space Development Agency to several companies developing remote sensing and communications constellations.

However, the countdown was stopped 11 seconds before liftoff because of a “fouled range,” or range violation of some kind. While SpaceX had nearly a one-hour launch window for this mission, the company scrubbed the launch minutes later because it would not have time to prepare the vehicle for another launch attempt. The launch has been tentatively rescheduled for the same time June 30.

SpaceX did not disclose what caused the range violation and subsequent scrub, although the host of the company’s webcast speculated it could be an aircraft. Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of SpaceX, confirmed that in a tweet minutes after the scrub.

“Unfortunately, launch is called off for today, as an aircraft entered the ‘keep out zone’, which is unreasonably gigantic,” he wrote. “There is simply no way that humanity can become a spacefaring civilization without major regulatory reform. The current regulatory system is broken.”

Musk has expressed similar criticisms of the FAA’s “broken” regulatory system in the past, but that focused on the launch licensing process rather than airspace restrictions. Musk’s latest criticism mirrors that from the commercial aviation industry, which for years has complained that the size and duration of airspace restrictions for launches cause flight delays and disrupt airline schedules.

The issue came up most recently at a June 16 hearing of the House Transportation Committee’s aviation subcommittee, which revisited several issues regarding the FAA’s oversight of commercial space transportation.

“FAA has also made progress in developing procedures, technologies and industry coordinations to reduce inefficiencies in safely integrating commercial space users into the National Airspace System,” said Heather Krause, director of physical infrastructure at the Government Accountability Office, in testimony at the hearing. “These efforts are promising, but full and efficient integration of all users of the National Airspace System is years away and will require continued work and focus.”

Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), chair of the subcommittee, asked if the FAA was making sufficient progress toward that goal. Krause responded that the FAA had taken “a number of steps” since a 2019 review that highlighted inefficiencies. “It is a complex issue to work through, and technologies and systems need to be further developed so that there’s better data to be able to assess risk.”

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chair of the full committee, criticized the FAA for slow progress in one specific tool, called the Space Data Integrator, which is intended to provide information on launch activities more quickly to air traffic controllers and pilots, reducing the size and duration of airspace restrictions. He asked Wayne Monteith, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, about the timeline for development of the tool, noting it had been discussed at a hearing five years ago.

Monteith responded that progress had accelerated on the Space Data Integrator since the project was handed over to Teri Bristol, chief operating officer of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization. “We expect in the next few months to have the first operational tests of it,” he said. “We will be taking live data and ingesting it into our system with the goal of reducing the airspace that must be segregated and really integrate commercial space into the system,” he said.

One of the critics of current approaches to restrict airspace for launches has been the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). At the hearing, Capt. Joe Depete, president of ALPA, called for “collaboration by the aviation and aerospace sectors” to develop an airspace integration strategy.

“We agree that there is a better way,” DePete tweeted in response to Musk after the launch scrub, offering to work with SpaceX, the FAA and others “to support the safe integration of all national airspace users.”

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SpaceX adds batch of polar Starlink satellites to rideshare launch

Orbit details shared by SpaceX suggest that the company’s second dedicated Smallsat Rideshare launch – known as Transporter-2 – will also carry a second batch of polar Starlink satellites.

SpaceX launched the first batch of ten polar Starlink satellites in January 2021 as part of Transporter-1, co-manifesting them alongside a record-breaking 133 other spacecraft for a variety of companies and institutions. The mission was ultimately a major success, breaking records and demonstrating that SpaceX is serious about its Smallsat Program. Much like company executives promised in 2019 and 2020, SpaceX really does appear to have firm plans for semi-regular rideshare missions that will give customers two or more launch windows per year.

Now scheduled to launch no earlier than 2:56 pm EDT (16:56 EDT) on Tuesday, June 29th, Transporter-2 is the second in a series of Falcon 9 rideshare launches currently scheduled every six months or less over the next several years.

While Transporter-2 wont beat the unprecedented number of satellites launched on on Transporter-1, SpaceX says it will still “launch 88 spacecraft to orbit” and – more importantly – carry more customer mass. In other words, Transporter-2 will carry roughly 50% fewer satellites, each of which will weigh substantially more on average.

Ordering directly through SpaceX, Smallsat Rideshare Program begins at $1 million for up to 200 kg (~440 lb) to Sun Synchronous Orbit (SSO; around 500 km or 300 mi). A majority of small satellites weigh significantly less than 200 kilograms but if a customer manages to use all of their allotment, the total cost of a SpaceX rideshare launch could be as low as $5000 per kilogram – incredibly cheap relative to almost any other option. For a dedicated launch to SSO on a Rocket Lab Electron or Astra Rocket 3.0 rocket using every last gram of available performance, the same customer would end up paying a minimum of $25,000 to $37,500 per kilogram to orbit.

Befitting the premium price tag, a dedicated launch on one of a growing number of small orbital-class rockets does carry benefits like direct orbit insertion, specialized payload handling, and more schedule control. A rideshare with dozens of other satellites is more akin to taking a bus, delivering the lowest prices possible at the cost of strict departure times and a one-size-fits-all approach to drop-offs.

An artist rendering of Transporter-2 payload deployment. (Exolaunch)

Given that SpaceX’s Transporter program is on track to orbit more than twice as many satellites in six months as Rocket Lab’s small Electron rocket has launched on 17 successful missions spread over more than three years, it’s safe to say that a large portion of prospective smallsat owners and builders have concluded that the cost savings provided by rideshares far outweigh the inconvenience.

Beyond Transporter-2, SpaceX is already working to launch Transporter-3 in December 2021, Transporter-4 as soon as March 2022, Transporter-5 in June 2022, Transporter-6 in October 2022, and at least three other dedicated rideshare launches tentatively scheduled in 2023.

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SpaceX Falcon 9 booster fleet assembles for West Coast Starlink launches

For the second time in a month, SpaceX has shipped a heavily flown Falcon 9 booster from Cape Canaveral, Florida to its West Coast launch facilities.

Falcon 9 booster B1051’s June 24th arrival at Vandenberg Air/Space Force Base (VAFB) is perhaps the best sign yet that SpaceX means to almost immediately reach – and sustain – an orbital launch cadence not seen on the West Coast in decades. Just four weeks prior to B1051’s second appearance at the California launch range, B1049 became the first Falcon 9 booster to arrive at Vandenberg in more than half a year.

B1051’s arrival means that SpaceX now has two Falcon 9 boosters on hand to support dedicated polar Starlink launches out of Vandenberg – launches that could begin as early as next month. First teased by SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell in April, preparations for that July launch target have been well underway for months. Several major pieces have fallen into place in rapid succession at the same time.

A few weeks after Shotwell’s comments, SpaceX signed a lease for new dock space and rocket processing facilities and moved its years-old West Coast recovery operations from Port of Los Angeles to adjacent Port of Long Beach facilities soon after. Around May 27th, Falcon 9 booster B1049 was trucked into VAFB.

On June 10th, drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) began a more than 5000-mile (~8000 km) journey from Port Canaveral, Florida to Port of Long Beach, California, where it would eventually recover boosters hundreds of miles downrange after dedicated polar Starlink launches. After waiting for several days in a nearby harbor, the massive SpaceX recovery platform was carried through the Panama Canal on the back of an even larger transport ship on June 25th and is now en route to California – ETA: July 6th.

Falcon 9 B1049, May 9th. (Richard Angle)
Falcon 9 B1051, May 12th. (Richard Angle)

Once OCISLY arrives, the only real uncertainties left will be readying the drone ship for recovery operations after a long journey and ensuring that SpaceX’s VAFB SLC-4E launch pad is ready to go after six months of inactivity. That leaves Falcon 9 second stage, payload fairing, and satellite testing, delivery, and integration – a routine process for SpaceX after 30 successful Starlink launches.

With both Falcon 9 boosters B1049 and B1051 at hand, SpaceX will feasibly be able to push SLC-4E to its design limits with monthly Starlink launches. Having respectively achieved record turnarounds of 61 and 38 days between flights, SpaceX’s West Coast Starlink launch campaign is unlikely to suffer from a lack of booster availability anytime soon.

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SpaceX sends Starship’s first vacuum Raptor engine to Boca Chica

For the first time, SpaceX has shipped a vacuum-optimized Raptor engine to its Boca Chica, Texas Starship factory days after the company’s present reiterated plans for an inaugural orbital launch attempt as early as July.

Back in March 2021, CEO Elon Musk confirmed that he’d set SpaceX a goal of attempting Starship’s first orbital launch no later than the end of July – around four and a half months distant at the time. Fifteen weeks later, though the prospects of an orbital launch attempt happening in July have practically shrunk to zero, SpaceX COO and President Gwynne Shotwell – best known for acting as a more grounded foil to Musk’s often impractical schedule estimates – reiterated that the company is still “shooting for July” for Starship’s first orbital launch attempt.

As of late June, hitting that target would require SpaceX to string together numerous extraordinary feats of engineering and rocketry in record time or attempt some extremely unorthodox corner-cutting.

The launch pad and launch vehicle hardware needed for Starship’s first space shot are currently far from ready for flight. On June 24th, Musk unexpectedly revealed that the Super Heavy booster prototype SpaceX is now in the late stages of assembly isn’t actually the booster that will carry Starship on its first space launch attempt. In other words, though dozens of rings in various states of work are strewn about SpaceX’s Boca Chica factory, the company has yet to begin assembling the massive 65m (~215 ft) tall booster required for the first orbital launch attempt.

Using Super Heavy Booster 3 (B3) as a ruler, assembly could easily take 9-10 weeks – starting whenever the process actually begins. If SpaceX started stacking Booster 4 today, in other words, it’s unlikely that the rocket would even be complete by the end of August. Barring SpaceX taking unprecedented shortcuts, completing the booster is just part of the process of preparing for flight and B4 would still need to be qualified for flight, likely involving at least one cryogenic proof and static fire test.

In a best-case scenario where SpaceX begins assembly today, manages to halve Booster 4 assembly time in one fell swoop, the sneaks the second Super Heavy ever completed through qualification testing in a single week, the orbital flight test booster still wouldn’t be ready for Starship installation (likely another unprecedented first) before mid-August.

That would then leave SpaceX five or six weeks to fully assemble Starship S20, a process that has yet to begin. Like Starship SN15, which Musk said sported “hundreds of improvements”, Musk has also stated that Ship 20 and all after it will feature another batch of upgrades needed to take Starship orbital. Starship SN15 was very gradually stacked and assembled over the course of almost four months, though that slow assembly can likely be blamed on the fact that SpaceX is busy testing Starships SN8 through SN11 and was effectively waiting to see if any other major changes might be required.

Starship SN20’s (now S20) thrust dome is the first non-pathfinder hardware to feature Raptor Vacuum mounts. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

While most of S20’s upgrades are a mystery, the ship’s thrust dome – spotted in work at Boca Chica earlier this month – has already confirmed that the prototype will be the first with the necessary hardware for Raptor Vacuum engine installation. That likely means that S20 will also be the first Starship to attempt to static fire six Raptor engines*, potentially producing more thrust than a Falcon 9 booster. On June 27th, one such vacuum-optimized Raptor (RVac) arrived in Boca Chica for the first time ever, making it clear that the comparatively brand new engine may already be ready to start integrated Starship testing.

*Update: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says that the Raptor Vacuum delivered to Boca Chica on June 27th is, in fact, meant for Starship S20, seemingly confirming that the prototype will fly with a full six Raptor engines.

Of course, beyond Starship and Super Heavy, SpaceX also has a great deal of work left to get the rocket’s first orbital-class launch facilities partially operational. SpaceX will need to complete and activate at least one or two more custom-built propellant storage tanks, sleeve those three or four tanks with three or four massive thermos-like ‘shells,’ complete thousands of feet of insulated plumbing and wiring, finish a massive ‘launch table,’ install that table on a six-legged ‘launch mount;’ outfit that table and mount with an array of power, avionics, hydraulics, and fueling equipment and plumbing; complete a ~145m (~475 ft) ‘integration tower,’ and perform the first fit checks and shakedown tests with a real booster or Starship.

Only then will SpaceX be able to attempt Starship’s first space launch. All told, it might not be literally impossible for SpaceX to complete all the above work in less than five weeks, but it’s safe to say that the odds of that happening could probably make a lottery ticket blush. Regardless, if Starship reaches orbit at any point before the end of 2021, it would beat out simpler “next-generation” rockets like Ariane 6, ULA’s Vulcan, and Blue Origin’s New Glenn despite beginning concerted development years later and with a far less certain funding situation.

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SpaceX drone ship sails through Panama Canal on the way to California

For the third time ever, one of SpaceX’s “autonomous spaceport drone ships” has successfully transited the Panama Canal on its way to a new home port.

This time around, similar to drone ship Just Read The Instructions’ (JRTI) original 2015 journey from a Louisiana shipyard to Port of Los Angeles, drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) headed west through the Panama Canal on June 25th, 2021. Unlikely JRTI, though, OCISLY was already operational and had supported almost four dozen successful Falcon booster landings before SpaceX decided to move the storied drone ship from Port Canaveral, Florida to Port of Long Beach, California.

A bit less than four years after Just Read The Instructions debuted on the West Coast, SpaceX sent the drone ship back east in August 2019, leaving the company’s Vandenberg Air/Space Force Base (VAFB) launch pad without an at-sea booster recovery capability ever since. Perhaps unsurprisingly, SpaceX has only launched once out of VAFB in the last two years. Now, though, the company intends to restart West Coast launches with a vengeance – and soon.

SpaceX’s primary motivation: a growing need to deliver a large number of Starlink satellites to polar – rather than semi-equatorial – orbits. Just last month, SpaceX’s 28th dedicated Starlink launch carried the constellation past the 1600-satellite milestones for the first time ever. Comprised of a little over 4400 satellites split between five orbital ‘shells,’ that milestone meant that the Starlink constellation’s first phase is now more than a third complete.

It also means that SpaceX has effectively finished the first of those five shells once all ~1584 satellites finish raising their orbits. A second nearly identical shell of 1584 satellites will eventually complete the constellation’s semi-equatorial foundation. In principle, those two shells of ~3200 satellites are enough to serve internet to ~99% of humanity.

Polar satellites will allow SpaceX to truly provide internet anywhere on Earth. Perhaps most importantly, polar Starlink satellites with optical (i.e. laser) interlinks would allow the constellation to serve uninterrupted, high-quality internet to all aircraft and ships – two major connectivity markets currently trapped with solutions that are either offer a terrible user experience or are extraordinarily expensive (and still mediocre).

Once operational on the West Coast, drone ship OCISLY should allow SpaceX to begin fleshing out Starlink’s polar shells with dedicated launches almost immediately. OCISLY is currently on tracked to arrive at Port of Long Beach around July 6th, leaving SpaceX more than three weeks to prepare for a polar Starlink launch before the month is out. Recently, FCC filings have also indicated that SpaceX intends to perform dedicated polar Starlink launches from California and Florida – though the latter missions will take a significant performance hit to make that happen.

According to Musk, Starlink is about six weeks away from achieving uninterrupted global coverage (excluding the poles) and six months away from offering uninterrupted coverage anywhere on Earth. It’s unclear how much of Starlink’s three polar shells will have to be completed before the constellation can truly provide uninterrupted coverage to those living in Earth’s polar regions but it’s likely that achieving that feat in six months will be a challenge.

Accounting for the inherently less efficient nature of polar launches and assuming approximately 50 Starlink satellites per polar launch, SpaceX will likely need to complete 12-20 polar missions to achieve full global coverage. Though unlikely, both of SpaceX’s first dedicated polar Starlink launches from the East and West Coasts could potentially occur in late July or early August.

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SpaceX aiming for July for Starship orbital launch despite regulatory reviews

WASHINGTON — SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell says the company is “shooting for July” for the first orbital launch of the company’s Starship vehicle despite lacking the regulatory approvals needed for such a launch.

Speaking at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference (ISDC) June 25, Shotwell said the company was pressing ahead with plans for an orbital flight involving the Super Heavy booster and Starship upper stage from the company’s Boca Chica, Texas, test site.

“We are headed for our first orbital attempt in the not-too-distant future. We’re shooting for July,” she said. “I am hoping we make it, but we all know this is difficult. We are really on the cusp of flying that system, or at least attempting the first orbital flight of that system, in the very near term.”

SpaceX last flew a Starship prototype May 5, with the SN15 vehicle flying to an altitude of 10 kilometers before making a successful landing, a milestone that had eluded four previous prototypes in tests between December 2020 and March 2021. While SpaceX originally appeared to be planning a second suborbital flight of that vehicle, it instead moved the vehicle from the launch pad. Another Starship prototype, SN16, has remained at the production site.

SpaceX has since turned its attention to preparing for the first orbital test flight. In a filing with the Federal Communications Commission May 13, SpaceX outlined the flight plan for the mission, starting with liftoff off from Boca Chica. The Super Heavy booster would land in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast from Boca Chica, while Starship would go into orbit but reenter after less than one orbit, splashing down 100 kilometers northwest of the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

That license application stated the flight would take place during a six-month period beginning June 20. However, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has not yet issued a launch license for Starship/Super Heavy launches from Boca Chica. The company’s existing license covers only suborbital flights of Starship.

As a part of the licensing process, the FAA is performing an environmental review of launches from Boca Chica. The agency said in November that the original environmental impact statement for the site, prepared in 2014 when SpaceX was contemplating launching Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, was not applicable to the far larger Starship/Super Heavy vehicles. Some environmental groups had criticized allowing SpaceX to launch Starship vehicles from Boca Chica using the original environmental study.

That assessment must be completed before the FAA can issue a license to SpaceX for Starship/Super Heavy flights. The assessment could conclude that such launches would have no significant impact, or that some mitigation measures are needed to allow such launches. It could also conclude that a more detailed environmental impact statement would be required, delaying a decision on the license.

The FAA has not provided an update on the status of the environmental assessment, which would include publication of a draft version for public comment before a final version. It is unlikely that process could be done in time to support a launch in the near future.

Shotwell made no mention of the licensing and environmental review process in her brief comments at ISDC, where she was accepting an award from the organization. Later in her remarks, she said the orbital launch attempt was the next big test for Starship. “I never want to predict dates because we’ll still in development, but very soon,” she said.

Shotwell said she was also “very excited” about the progress on the Starlink program. She said SpaceX will have full global coverage once all the satellites launched to date reach their operational orbits. SpaceX launched the most recent batch of Starlink satellites May 26.

“Roughly six or so weeks from now we will have full global continuous coverage with the Starlink constellation, which should really help people who are un- or under-served to get broadband internet,” she said.

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