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Court denies Viasat attempt to halt Starlink launches pending legal action

Starlink launch

TAMPA, Fla. — A federal appeals court denied a motion from satellite operator Viasat to stop SpaceX from enlarging its Starlink megaconstellation.

Viasat had requested a stay on a SpaceX license modification that allows it to continue building out the low-Earth-orbit constellation, while legal action seeking to compel a thorough environmental review of the broadband network plays out through the court.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled July 20 that Viasat, which operates broadband satellites in geostationary orbit, “has not satisfied the stringent requirements for a stay pending court review.”

The court also granted a motion to expedite the appeal, setting dates that end with an Oct. 26 deadline for final briefs to clear the way for oral arguments.

Satellite broadcaster Dish Network also objected to SpaceX’s license modification and its case is part of Viasat’s appeal.

Viasat first sought a stay from the Federal Communications Commission on SpaceX’s April 27 license modification, enabling it to continue expanding a constellation estimated to now exceed 1,600 satellites at an altitude of around 550-kilometers.

The company gave the FCC until the end of June 1 to grant the order, before submitting the motion to the same court that will decide whether the regulator was legally obligated to assess Starlink’s environmental impact before modifying its license.

The modification gives SpaceX permission to operate 4,408 satellites at 550-kilometers, instead of just 1,584 in this orbit and 2,825 at altitudes of 1,100 to 1,300-kilometers. 

Decreasing the distance between a satellite and Earth reduces signal lag for latency-critical applications including video calls and gaming. 

However, Viasat said the rapidly expanding megaconstellation poses orbital debris, light pollution and other environmental risks.

SpaceX has continued to deploy Starlink satellites amid the legal action, although the cadence has slowed as it works through launch missions for other customers.

Viasat is also calling on the FCC to review nearly $900 million of rural broadband subsidies that SpaceX won in December for Starlink.

In an application filed June 1, Viasat asked the FCC to review why it was not permitted to bid for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.


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SpaceX’s fourth Falcon booster delivery this year hints at rare production uptick

For at least the fourth time in 2021, SpaceX has shipped a new Falcon booster from its Hawthorne, California headquarters and factory to an expansive test and development campus in Central Texas.

By all appearances, SpaceX’s latest delivery could imply that the company is on track to experience its first Falcon booster production uptick in four years. Thanks almost exclusively to the overwhelming success of Falcon reusability, SpaceX has been decreasing booster production year over year since 2017 while (on the whole) still significantly increasing its annual launch cadence. However, that downward booster production trend may have finally come to an end in 2021.

On July 21st, spaceflight journalist Eric Berger spotted a SpaceX Falcon booster – almost impossible to miss on the road – traveling eastbound towards El Paso on a Texas highway. Designed from the start with a maximum diameter (3.6m/12′) explicitly limited to allow Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy stages to be easily and cheaply transported by road, SpaceX has taken advantage of that capability by making Falcon rockets some of the most extensively tested launch vehicles on Earth.

Most notably, every single Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy booster and upper stage SpaceX has ever built at its Hawthorne HQ has shipped to McGregor, Texas for qualification testing before being cleared to launch. The exact nature of that qualification testing is unknown but, at minimum, every SpaceX-built stage must eventually complete a clean static fire test before the company deems it qualified for flight and ships it to one of three launch pads.

Before integrated static fire testing, SpaceX also separately tests every single Merlin 1D, Merlin Vacuum, Draco engine, and cold gas thruster before they’re installed on their respective Falcon first stage, second stage, fairing, or Dragon spacecraft back in California. However, Falcon engines, fairings, second stages, and Dragon spacecraft are all small or well-packaged enough to be unassuming on the road. Only Falcon boosters – measuring some 4m (~13 ft) wide and 56m (~190 ft) long and usually wrapped in solid white or black plastic – are routinely spotted in the wild by members of the public.

Those regular public spottings provide the only real glimpse available behind the curtain of SpaceX’s prolific rocket production. Beyond a mishmash of observations from members of the public and the occasional tidbit from CEO Elon Musk, SpaceX – a private company in a very competitive industry – provides no official information about how many Falcon stages it produces each year. That leaves it up to unaffiliated fans to collate and track that activity.

In particular, one Reddit user went to the effort of combing through a decade of those observations to tabulate SpaceX’s annual Falcon first stage production – including Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters – since 2010. From 2010 to 2017, booster production consistently grew year over year, ultimately peaking at 13 – more than one booster per month – in 2017. Since 2017, booster production has consistently declined, dropping to just five boosters completed in 2020 – the lowest figure since 2013.

Of course, despite building just five new boosters in 2020, SpaceX completed a record 26 Falcon 9 launches, demonstrating just how much of a paradigm shift booster reusability has been for the company. Notably, while booster production has drastically decreased, SpaceX still has to manufacture a new expendable upper stage for every Falcon launch, meaning that – for the most part – Hawthorne is likely as busy as – and soon to be busier than – it was around the 2016-2018 peak.

In a bit of twist, though, that booster production downtick may have bottomed out in 2020. Since May 2020, SpaceX appears to have shipped at least 8 or 9 boosters* from Hawthorne to McGregor. Less than a month ago, a new booster – believed to be Falcon 9 B1069 – went vertical in McGregor ahead of its first wet dress rehearsal and static fire. Less than three weeks later, another new Falcon booster was spotted ready for transport outside of Hawthorne – likely the same booster spotted on its way to McGregor on July 21st.

*Including F9/FH boosters B1061, B1062, B1063, B1064, B1065, B1066, B1067, and B1069

In 2021, SpaceX has delivered one Falcon Heavy (likely B1066) and two Falcon 9 boosters (B1067 and B1069) to McGregor. The mystery booster seen in Hawthorne on July 18th – now likely inside a McGregor hangar as of publishing – is the fourth Falcon first stage to roll out of Hawthorne this year. If SpaceX maintains that average over the next five months, it could ship 6 or even 7 Falcon boosters in 2021 – marking the first apparent production uptick since 2017.

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SpaceX Crew Dragon set to make room for Boeing’s Starliner do-over

SpaceX and NASA are on track for the Crew-2 Dragon spacecraft currently docked to the International Space Station (ISS) to perform a “port relocation” maneuver early Wednesday, effectively opening the door for Boeing’s Starlink flight test do-over.

Scheduled to launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket no earlier than (NET) July 30th, Boeing’s Starliner will be flying for the first time since the spacecraft’s near-catastrophic Orbital Flight Test (OFT) debut in December 2019. During Starliner’s inaugural test flight, a combination of inept Boeing software development, shoddy quality control, and inexplicably lax NASA oversight allowed the spacecraft to launch with inoperable software.

As a result, things went wrong mere seconds after Atlas V – which performed nominally – deployed Starliner. Almost as simple as using the wrong clock, the first software fault – something that would have been instantly caught with even the most rudimentary integrated systems test – caused Starliner to think it was in a different part of the OFT mission and waste much of its fuel with thousands of unnecessary thruster firings.

Aside from pushing Starliner’s maneuvering thrusters beyond their design limits, those unplanned and unexpected misfirings also threw the spacecraft off course, obfuscating Boeing and NASA’s ability to communicate and command the spacecraft and troubleshoot the situation at hand. Eventually, the company regained control of Starliner, but not before it had burned through most of its propellant reserves – precluding plans for to rendezvous and dock with the ISS.

Less than three hours before reentry, Boeing also uncovered a separate thruster-related software issue that could have caused the Starliner capsule to lose stability and re-impact its expendable trunk section after separation.

Ultimately, with so many issues and a failure to gather any kind of data related to operations at and around the ISS, NASA thankfully forced Boeing to plan to repeat OFT with Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2). Scheduled to launch in December 2020 as of the second half of that year, OFT-2 ultimately slipped – both for scheduling and technical reasons – to March, June, and finally July 30th, 2021.

Crew Dragon C207 became the first US spacecraft to switch ISS ports in April 2021. (NASA)

More than 19 months after Starliner’s ill-fated debut, NASA and Boeing are now almost ready for the spacecraft’s critical do-over. For unknown reasons, though, NASA and/or Boeing apparently need (or prefer) Starliner to use a specific docking port – the same port SpaceX’s second operational Crew Dragon spacecraft is currently docked to. As a result, SpaceX and NASA have scheduled a port relocation maneuver around 7am EDT (UTC-4) on Wednesday, July 21st.

SpaceX’s first relocation occurred in early April to prepare for the arrival of a second Crew Dragon later that month. When Crew-1 Dragon departed a few weeks after the maneuver, it would leave the station’s zenith (space-facing) port free for a Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft scheduled to arrive around one month later. Due to the station’s geometry and port layout, only the zenith port allows its robotic Canadarm2 arm to unload unpressurized cargo from Dragon’s trunk.

Already at the forward port, the Crew-2 Dragon will thus be moving to the zenith port for Starliner’s brief 1-2 week stay at the ISS. However, as may have become clear, Crew Dragon will then have to re-relocate to the forward port for any future Cargo Dragon missions – one of which happens to be scheduled to launch with an important unpressurized payload as early as August 29th.

Regardless of why, it’s hard to ever complain about seeing Dragons fly. Tune in around 6:30 am EDT (10:30 UTC) to watch Crew Dragon C206 maneuver around an orbital space station.

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SpaceX fires up world’s largest rocket booster on the first try

CEO Elon Musk says that SpaceX has successfully fired up Super Heavy – the largest rocket booster in the world – on the first try, potentially opening the door for a significantly more ambitious ‘static fire.’

Known as Booster 3 (B3), SpaceX completed Starship’s first functional Super Heavy prototype around July 1st and rapidly rolled the rocket out and installed it on a customized mount previously used for testing and launching Starship prototypes. After a bit less than two more weeks spent finishing up Booster 3’s avionics and plumbing and installing one Raptor engine, Super Heavy sailed through its first cryogenic proof test attempt on July 12th.

Rather than flammable liquid methane and oxygen propellant, Super Heavy was loaded with liquid nitrogen – providing roughly the same extremely cold temperature and mass without risking a massive explosion. In the week after that success, technicians rapidly installed two more Raptor engines and completed final closeout work on the building-sized rocket. On July 19th, Super Heavy B3 came alive for the second time.

After a delay to this week, SpaceX closed the road, cleared the launch pad, and began fueling Super Heavy for the first time ever around 6:20 pm CDT (UTC-5) – six hours into Monday’s ten-hour window. Almost exactly mirroring a routine Starship wet dress rehearsal or static fire, the pad and rocket followed a well-documented choreography of tank farm activity, vents, and frost formation, culminating in Booster 3 successfully igniting three Raptor engines around 7:05 pm.

Unlike virtually all Starship prototypes ever tested, including the first fully-assembled ships’ first multi-Raptor static fires, Super Heavy Booster 3 – the first functional prototype of its kind – completed its first static fire ever on the first try. In the history of Starship testing, initial prototypes have never smoothly sailed through cryogenic proof or static fire tests on the first attempt. Almost without fail, minor to major issues have arisen either before or during initial test attempts as SpaceX worked through the basics of operating Starship tests.

Instead, despite the fact that B3 is quite literally the largest rocket booster prototype ever built in the history of spaceflight and the first of its kind, Super Heavy appeared to run into no obvious issues at all after it was properly prepared for its first two major tests. Put simply, Super Heavy’s smooth testing makes it abundantly clear that SpaceX’s Starship launch vehicle design, production, and operations are rapidly maturing as the company speeds towards its first orbital launch attempt.

Meanwhile, Elon Musk says that SpaceX “might try a 9 engine firing on Booster 3” depending on how Booster 4 production progresses – presumably over the next week or two. By all appearances, SpaceX began stacking Super Heavy B4 – the booster tasked with supporting Starship’s first orbital launch attempt around July 16th. Based on B3 assembly, Booster 4 could be complete by mid to late August.

With nine Raptors installed, Super Heavy B3 could produce up to 1800 tons (~4 million lbf) of thrust during a brief static fire – just ~20% less than Falcon Heavy. Stay tuned for updates on Booster 3 and Booster 4!

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Lynk books SpaceX flight for direct-to-cellphone satellites

Falcon 9 Transporter-2 launch

TAMPA, Fla. — Lynk aims to launch multiple operational satellites on a SpaceX ride-share mission in December, ahead of plans to provide connectivity services with the constellation directly to unmodified cellphones next year.

The Virginia-based startup booked a place on a SpaceX transporter mission through ride-share service provider Spaceflight, Lynk CEO Charles Miller told SpaceNews.

Miller said the venture is “actively looking at launches” for next spring, summer and fall as it nears regulatory approval to start commercial services under recently streamlined rules.

The plan to launch multiple satellites in one go in December could change “for tactical reasons,” he added.

Lynk announced May 25 that it requested permission from the Federal Communications Commission to operate an initial set of satellites under smallsat rules established in 2019, enabling services to begin quickly but with limitations that include a constellation of no more than 10 satellites.

“Before the new ‘smallsat rules’ we were thinking we could have dozens of satellites in orbit, but without the authority to provide commercial services,” Miller said.

He added that strong demand from mobile network operators (MNOs) for its services is also encouraging Lynk to target summer 2022 to launch commercially.

The constellation’s initial capacity constraints will limit these services to messaging and emergency alerts. It is also limiting early rollout to 12 MNOs — one per country of operation — under a flagship carrier program.

Lynk said it has over 36 testing partners worldwide, representing more than 1.5 billion mobile phone subscribers.

“The first dozen MNOs will be receiving a defacto ‘exclusive’ in their country for a limited time period,” Miller said in an email.

The company is planning a total constellation of 5,000 satellites in low-Earth-orbit, ramping up to produce 200 of them per month by 2025 to keep the network replenished and upgraded.

“We will build a continuous production line of spacecraft, and every 2 years we will upgrade to the next generation of spacecraft size and performance,” he said.

“Our goal is to upgrade the spacecraft like clockwork, just like how iPhone is upgraded every year.”

Lynk said July 13 that Shannon, its fifth test satellite that launched on a SpaceX ride-share mission in June, had started operations following successful deployment.

Shannon is five times the mass and has seven times the power of its fourth satellite, according to Lynk, and is designed for mass production. 

Texas-based AST SpaceMobile, which raised about $462 million when it became a public company in April and was formerly known as AST & Science, is also developing a cellphone-compatible satellite broadband constellation.

The venture is planning its first commercial satellite launches for the second half of 2022 or early 2023, when it expects to cover 49 countries along the equator with 20 satellites, representing a total population of around 1.6 billion people.


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SpaceX tops off Starship launch tower during Blue Origin crew launch briefing

On Sunday morning, SpaceX began the process of installing the last prefabricated section of Starship’s skyscraper-sized ‘launch tower’ around the same time as startup Blue Origin kicked off a preflight briefing for its first crewed suborbital launch.

Though both events are almost entirely unconnected and have no immediate impact on each other, the simultaneity almost immediately triggered comparisons between one of the most important media briefings in Blue Origin’s 21-year history and an average busy day at SpaceX’s South Texas Starship factory and launch site. Almost exclusively funded by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos since it was founded in September 2000, around two years before SpaceX, Blue Origin is on the cusp of its first crewed launch less than two weeks after Virgin Galactic completed its first fully-crewed test flight above 80 km (~50 mi).

Approximately 600 miles southeast of Blue Origin’s Van Horn, Texas launch and test facilities, in a different corner of the vast state, SpaceX was preparing for the latest in a long line of steps towards the completion of an orbital launch site for Starship – potentially the first fully reusable orbital rocket ever built.

First revealed more than three months ago in a cryptic post from owner Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin is scheduled to launch passengers on its New Shepard rocket for the first time ever, marking the end of an extraordinarily long development period. Designed to be fully reusable, New Shepard is a small single-stage rocket powered by one liquid hydrogen and oxygen-fueled BE-3 engine capable of producing approximately 500 kN (110,000 lbf) of thrust at liftoff. Designed exclusively for the purpose of ferrying a few tourists above a mostly arbitrary 100 km (~62 mi) line separating Earth’s atmosphere and “space,” New Shepard is about the same diameter as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets but is just 15m (~50 ft) tall.

The small rocket launched for the first time in April 2015 and reached an apogee of ~94 km but instability ultimately destroyed the first New Shepard booster during its first landing attempt. Blue Origin successfully launched and landed New Shepard on its next test flight in November 2015, culminating in Bezos’ infamous “Welcome to the club!” comment after SpaceX successfully recovered a Falcon 9 booster for the first time one month later.

As of July 2021, Blue Origin has completed just 15 New Shepard test flights – 14 of which were fully successful – in six years. In the same period, SpaceX successfully recovered an orbital-class Falcon 9 booster for the first time, reused a Falcon booster on a commercial satellite launch, debuted Falcon Heavy, reused several orbital Cargo Dragon capsules three times each, debuted Crew Dragon, became the first company in history to launch astronauts, completed its first operational astronaut launch for NASA, hopped three Starship prototypes, flew five Starship prototypes to 10-15 km, successfully landed four Raptor-powered Starship prototypes, rolled out Starship’s first completed booster prototype, completed more than 100 successful orbital launches, flown the same Falcon 9 booster ten times (versus New Shepard’s record of seven flights), reused orbital-class boosters 68 times, created the world’s largest satellite constellation, and far, far more.

Along those lines, on Saturday, July 17th, SpaceX teams attached a massive crane to the seventh prefabricated section of a ‘launch tower’ that could eventually support Starship and Super Heavy stacking – and maybe even catch ships and boosters. On Sunday, not long after daybreak and about an hour before Blue Origin’s New Shepard-16 preflight briefing, that tower section lifted off under the watchful eye of several unofficial cameras operated by NASASpaceflight, LabPadre, and others. By the end of Blue Origin’s briefing, most of which involved executives or senior employees reading from scripts and none of which offered a look at actual flight hardware or “astronaut” preparations, the eighth launch tower section was mostly in place, creating a structure some 135m (~440 ft) tall.

By the end of’s unofficial six-hour stream, the outlet’s excellent and unaffiliated coverage of SpaceX erecting part of a relatively simple tower for the seventh time had been viewed more than a quarter of a million times. By the end of Blue Origin’s official preflight briefing for a crewed launch set to carry the richest person on Earth, the company had accrued around 20,000 views on YouTube.

Some might see ten times as many viewers flocking to an unofficial live stream of fairly mundane SpaceX construction over a briefing for the first crewed launch of a fully-reusable suborbital rocket and scoff. For those who watched both broadcasts, it’s likely less than shocking that spaceflight and rocket fans almost universally sided with a livestream showing something – anything! – happening over what amounted to a camera pointed at five people reading (mostly stale) statements off of teleprompters.

Barely 24 hours away from Blue Origin’s most significant launch ever, the company – save for a few low-res clips from Jeff Bezos – has yet to share a single new piece of media highlighting the mission’s actual New Shepard rocket, crew capsule, astronaut preparations, flight suits, launch pad, or any of the other dozens of things most spaceflight fans – and people in general – tend to get excited about. For whatever reason, Blue Origin has also worked with Texas to shut down the only quasi-public viewing area less than 10-20 miles away from New Shepard’s launch pad despite never having done so in 15 test flights.

SpaceX, on the other hand, may not have always been a perfect neighbor in Boca Chica but the company has mostly accepted the buzzing, near-continuous presence of spaceflight fans and members of the media who come to South Texas to see Starbase in person. More recently, SpaceX has actively let at least two media outlets (NASASpaceflight and LabPadre) install and operate several robotic cameras overlooking Boca Chica’s Starship factory and pad.

It’s impossible to condense it into one or two simple differences but it’s safe to say that SpaceX’s relative openness and a general willingness to engage with media and let public excitement and interest grow uninterrupted (when possible) is part of the reason that mundane SpaceX goings-on can accumulate a magnitude more interest than on unofficial channels than an official briefing for the most important event in Blue Origin’s history.

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SpaceX begins assembling first orbital Starship and Super Heavy booster

SpaceX has begun rapidly assembling the first orbital Starship prototype and the Super Heavy booster set to launch it isn’t far behind.

SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas rocket factory seemingly turned a corner in early July as sections of Starship 20 (S20) began to pop up around the site. Though parts labeled Starship “SN20” first appeared as far back as March 2021, the only unequivocal work on SpaceX’s first purportedly orbital-class Starship began in mid-June with the integration of the first engine section with mounts for six – not three – Raptors.

However, in line with SpaceX’s strict focus on maximizing the speed of Starship development and shortening the path to orbit, the company has frequently built Starship hardware before firmly assigning that hardware to any given ship, booster, or tank. In other words, until SpaceX actually begins stacking multiple completed rocket sections, there’s always a degree of uncertainty about the fate of any given ring, dome, or tank barrel. With Starship S20, that process began earlier this month and Super Heavy Booster 4 is likely to follow suit within the next few days – if it hasn’t already.

Since SpaceX unceremoniously rolled Starship prototype SN16 to an empty lot in mid-May, the company didn’t stack a single Starship part until the first week of July – unusual after a frenetic seven months spent building, qualifying, and launching Starships SN8, SN9, SN10, SN11, and SN15 and testing test tanks SN7.2 and BN2.1. Around the same time as Starship SN15 became the first prototype to successfully complete a high-altitude test flight and land in one piece, news broke that SpaceX was striving to perform Starship’s first orbital test flight with Ship 20 (S20) and Booster 3 (B3) as early as July.

Eventually, Booster 3’s orbital launch assignment shifted to Booster 4 as it became clear that the former prototype wasn’t meant to fly, but Starship S20 remained. More likely than not, the almost two-month gap between Starship SN16’s instant retirement and the start of the next flightworthy prototype’s assembly can be explained by the significant changes, upgrades, and undecided design decisions required to jump to S20.

Beyond the need for a thrust structure capable of supporting three sea-level Raptors and three vacuum-optimized engines, Starship S20 would need a full heat shield with thousands of tiles; orbital-class communications and avionics; and the general polished fit and finish required for an orbital launch attempt to have a good shot at producing the data needed for it to be valuable. SpaceX appeared to conclude that those stars were aligned in early July.

Starship S20 entered the assembly or ‘stacking’ phase on July 3rd. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
S20’s forward dome section was likely installed on July 13th. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
Later the same day, S20’s aft engine section and leg skirt were mated. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Two weeks after the first stack, Starship S20 is already approximately half-assembled and the last section of the vehicle’s tanks is almost ready for installation. What could be Starship S20’s nosecone is also in the late stages of assembly, though SpaceX has yet to even attempt to fully cover a nose in heat shield tiles and getting that process right could take an attempt or two.

Booster 4 rings are pictured here on the bottom and right. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Meanwhile, as evidenced by the booster common dome section hanging in midair in the image above, the assembly of Super Heavy booster 4 (B4) – the same booster tasked with supporting Starship’s first orbital launch attempt – may have begun on July 15th. If the Super Heavy common dome assembly was simply being moved relocated, a separate four-ring section has been staged outside of the high bay to kick off Booster 4 stacking within the next few days.

All told, it’s not inconceivable that both of the first orbital-class Starship and Super Heavy prototypes will be fully assembled and ready for testing – integrated or otherwise – sometime in August.

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SpaceX’s first “Version 3” drone ship arrives at Port Canaveral

SpaceX has officially taken delivery of a third ‘autonomous spaceport drone ship’ named A Shortfall of Gravitas (ASOG), returning its East Coast booster recovery fleet to two strong.

Five weeks prior, senior drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) began a more than 8000 km (~5000 mi) journey from Port Canaveral, Florida to Port of Long Beach, California as part of SpaceX’s plans to return its West Coast launch facilities to active duty. Though it now appears that plans to begin the first dedicated polar Starlink launches out of Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) as soon as July have slipped to no earlier than (NET) August, drone ship OCISLY did arrive at its new Los Angeles home port on July 6th, completing a smooth four-week journey.

Nine days later, brand new drone ship ASOG has completed its own slightly ambitious journey from Louisiana to the East Coast of Central Florida, allowing SpaceX to begin preparing the vessel for its first Falcon booster landing.

As previously discussed on Teslarati, A Shortfall of Gravitas marks a significant visual departure from its siblings thanks to a number of apparent refinements and upgrades.

“Drone ship ASOG appears to be a fair bit sleeker and more optimized than its siblings. The substantial amount of extra equipment required to turn a barge into a ‘drone ship’ has been packaged in a far sturdier manner inside steel bunkers, whereas JRTI and OCISLY have generators, power supplies, computers, and communications equipment strewn about the edges of their decks in shipping containers.”

According to CEO Elon Musk, ASOG may also be SpaceX’s first truly autonomous drone ship.

“Musk says that ASOG is SpaceX’s first truly autonomous drone ship. While JRTI and OCISLY are both capable of autonomously staying in one specific location after being towed out to sea and prepared by a team of technicians, ASOG may be able to travel several hundred miles out to sea, recover and secure a Falcon booster with its Octagrabber robot, and then return to Port Canaveral to offload the rocket without a single person boarding the drone ship.” – July 12th, 2021

In footage shared by Musk of ASOG’s first sea trials, the drone ship was shown traveling at a significant clip under its own power – a first for a SpaceX drone ship. While Just Read The Instructions was technically upgraded with similarly capable thrusters and power generation capabilities in 2020, the drone ship has never been seen traveling at speed under its own power during early sea trials or operational booster recoveries.

Drone ship ASOG. (Richard Angle)
Drone ship OCISLY. (Richard Angle)

According to Elon Musk, A Shortfall of Gravitas is apparently SpaceX’s first “Version 3” drone ship, likely implying that versions 1 and 2 are respectively represented by OCISLY and JRTI. As such, while the second iteration of JRTI may technically share some of ASOG’s upgrades, it’s possible that new design choices mean that ASOG really is the first drone ship truly capable of autonomous operations. On the other hand, it’s also possible that drone ship JRTI has been capable of similar self-propelled feats since its June 2020 East Coast debut but that regulatory hurdles and complexities have prevented SpaceX from doing so.

Regardless, it’s safe to assume that SpaceX is a ways away from truly hands-free Falcon booster recoveries and that drone ship ASOG will be towed to and from landing zones – and accompanied by humans – on its first few missions.

Meanwhile, ASOG’s new ‘Octagrabber’ robot – used to remotely secure Falcon boosters at sea – has been staged on the dockside for imminent installation on the drone ship. As of mid-July, though, it’s unclear if SpaceX has any launches at all scheduled in the second half of the month, likely giving the company’s recovery team at least two weeks to prepare A Shortfall of Gravitas for its first booster recovery attempt – a rather literal baptism by fire.

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SpaceX schedules first Super Heavy static fire after installing three Raptors

After an apparent false start on Wednesday morning, SpaceX has distributed a second safety alert among Boca Chica residents in anticipation of the first static fire of a Super Heavy booster as early as July 15th.

Delineated by highway and beach closures filed in advance with Cameron County, Thursday’s window stretches from 12pm to 8pm or 10pm CDT (UTC-5), giving SpaceX 8-10 hours to put the first functional Super Heavy booster prototype through its most challenging tests yet.

Known as a static fire, what is a mostly routine test for operational rockets is a bit more of a challenge for a first-of-its-kind prototype. Notably, on July 12th, Super Heavy Booster 3 survived its first ‘cryogenic proof’ pressure test, withstanding the thermal and mechanical stresses created when the rocket was filled with a few hundreds tons of liquid nitrogen and the expanding gases created as that cryogenic fluid then warmed and boiled. However, Booster 3 has yet to perform any kind of test involving the combustible, explosive liquid oxygen and methane propellant needed to fuel Raptor engines.

By all appearances, SpaceX aims to roll Super Heavy’s first wet dress rehearsal (WDR; like a ‘cryo proof’ with real propellant) and static fire into one busy day of testing. That combined WDR and static fire will likely be the first time ever that a launch vehicle as large as Super Heavy has attempted to pressurize its tanks autogenously, referring to the process of using a rocket’s own fuel and oxidizer to generate ullage gas. Starship prototypes notoriously struggled with their smaller autogenous pressurization systems – and jerry-rigged alternatives – on several occasions.

Super Heavy booster prototype B3 survived its first major test on Monday, paving the way for a possible static fire later this week. (
SpaceX has installed three Raptors on Super Heavy Booster 3 in the days shortly before and after its cryo proof. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

In other words, even an ignition-free wet dress rehearsal test completed with autogenous pressurization would be a major success and hurdle surmounted for Super Heavy. If SpaceX manages to perform the first booster WDR and static fire on the same day, it would indicate that the company has extreme confidence in Super Heavy.

Despite an aborted attempt on July 11th, SpaceX outfitted the rocket with one Raptor on Saturday, July 10th and installed another two engines in quick succession on Tuesday, July 13th – likely in an odd triangular configuration on the booster’s central nine-engine ‘thrust puck.’ Why that particular configuration was chosen instead of something more symmetric is unclear but it does decrease the odds of a multi-engine test on Super Heavy’s first static fire without a clear reason to assume that testing such an odd engine placement would provide some valuable insight.

In comparison, two engines on opposite sides of Super Heavy’s inner ‘ring’ or three engines forming a line across that ring are two configurations that boosters are very likely to use during landing burns. Regardless, according to Next Spaceflight’s Michael Baylor, SpaceX may start Super Heavy B3’s static fire test campaign with just one engine, so it’s not impossible that the current configuration is just a part of the incomplete process of installing five or more engines.

As with all Starship development, it’s equally likely that Super Heavy’s first wet dress rehearsal and static fire test attempts will slip late into the window, to Friday, or even to the week of July 19th. Stay tuned for updates!

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SpaceX recovers second upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft for future reuse

Four days after reentering Earth’s atmosphere and splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico, SpaceX has safely returned its second upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft to dry land back Florida’s East Coast.

On Thursday, July 8th, the uncrewed SpaceX spacecraft officially undocked from the International Space Station (ISS) after more than a month in orbit. When the Cargo Dragon 2 vehicle lifted off on Falcon 9 last month, it was carrying more than 3.3 metric tons (~7300 lb) of food, water, science experiments, and space station hardware – an all-time record for SpaceX and Dragon. When the same spacecraft returned to Earth 36 days later, it splashed down with more than two metric tons (4400 lb) of cargo in tow.

Nine years after Dragon became the first privately-developed spacecraft ever to successfully rendezvous with the International Space Station, it remains the only spacecraft in the world capable of returning significant cargo from orbit, making Dragon truly invaluable.

Over the course of 25 successful orbital Dragon launches and recoveries, SpaceX has used the vast majority of that exclusive capability to safely return approximately 40 metric tons (~90,000 lb) of crucial science experiments, hardware, and more from the space station to Earth.

Cargo Dragon C209 departs the ISS. (Thomas Pesquet – ESA)

Derived from the Dragon capsule’s inherent recoverability, that unique ability to return cargo from orbit has also translated into SpaceX becoming the only entity on Earth regularly reusing orbital spacecraft – second only to NASA and the Space Shuttle. While Dragon is far from the Space Shuttle’s record average of more than two dozen missions per orbiter, SpaceX has reused Dragon capsules ten times and flown capsules on three orbital missions in three separate instances.

Crew Dragon and Cargo Dragon 2 build off of that not-insignificant foundation with several iterative improvements, resulting in spacecraft that are far easier and faster to turn around and nominally capable of at least five orbital flights each. Unlike Dragon 1, NASA has also been onboard with Dragon 2 reuse from the start, meaning that SpaceX won’t have to wait years to start reusing its fleet of orbital spacecraft.

Cargo Dragon capsule C209, July 9th. (SpaceX)
Four days after splashdown, Dragon C209 was safely returned to dry land. (Richard Angle)

In fact, SpaceX has already used a Dragon 2 spacecraft, launching two separate groups of astronauts with Crew Dragon capsule C206 in March 2020 and April 2021. Aside from representing the first time in history that space capsule has flown crew twice, capsule C206 also broke SpaceX’s Dragon turnaround record. Meanwhile, SpaceX’s next Dragon mission – CRS-23 – will mark SpaceX’s first reuse of a Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft, flying the same capsule just seven months after its first recovery.

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