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SpaceX launches Starlink and BlackSky satellites

Falcon 9 Starlink 10 launch

WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Falcon 9 launched the latest set of the company’s Starlink satellites, along with two BlackSky imaging satellites, Aug. 7 after weeks of delays.

The Falcon 9 lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at 1:12 a.m. Eastern. After a pair of burns, the upper stage deployed BlackSky’s Global-7 satellite nearly 62 minutes after launch, followed by the Global-8 satellite five minutes later. The primary payload, 57 Starlink satellites deployed 93 minutes after launch.

The mission was significantly longer than other recent Starlink launches, which have deployed Starlink satellites as little as 15 minutes after liftoff. The company explained on its webcast of the launch that it performed a brief second burn of the upper stage 45 minutes after liftoff to circularize the orbit for the BlackSky satellites.

The rocket’s first stage, making its fifth flight, landed on a droneship in the Atlantic Ocean about eight and a half minutes after liftoff. The stage first flew on the Demo-1 uncrewed test flight of the Crew Dragon spacecraft in March 2019, then launched the three Radarsat Constellation Mission satellites in June 2019 and Starlink missions in January and April.

SpaceX also deployed two boats to attempt to capture the payload fairing halves from the launch. The company, though, said during the launch webcast that effort was unsuccessful.

This launch was originally scheduled for late June but postponed several times because of poor weather and technical issues. The company never explained the technical issues that delayed those launch attempts, saying only it needed “additional time for pre-launch checkouts” or “to allow more time for checkouts,” according to tweets by the company on June 26 and July 11, respectively.

During the webcast, John Insprucker, principal integration engineer at SpaceX, said the delays were not caused by the rocket itself. “Through all of this, Falcon 9 has been trouble-free, as the delays have been weather-related and payload-related,” he said. He did not disclose if the payload problems were with the Starlink or BlackSky satellites.

The launch is the tenth SpaceX Starlink mission, placing 595 Starlink satellites into orbit, excluding two experimental “Tintin” satellites launched in February 2018. SpaceX ultimately plans a constellation of thousands of Starlink satellites to provide broadband internet access, and is preparing a beta test of the service to customers in parts of North America later this year.

The large number of Starlink satellites has raised concern among astronomers about interference with their observations. In an effort to reduce their brightness, SpaceX equipped one satellite on a Starlink mission in June with visors to block sunlight from reflecting off the spacecraft. While that “VisorSat” is still reaching its operational orbit, SpaceX said all 57 Starlink satellites on this latest launch are equipped with visors.

The two BlackSky satellites on this launch join four others launched in 2018 and 2019. The company hopes to have 16 of the satellites, which provide high-resolution imagery, in orbit by early 2021.

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Falcon 9 launch of South Korean military satellite postponed

EDITOR’S NOTE: Updated at 2:15 p.m. EDT (1815 GMT) with SpaceX statement.

The Anasis 2 satellite is prepared for shipment to Cape Canaveral from Airbus’s facility in Toulouse, France. Credit: Airbus Defense and Space

The planned launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket Tuesday from Cape Canaveral of a South Korean military communications satellite has been delayed in order to address an issue on the launcher’s second stage, and potentially replace the hardware if necessary, officials said Monday.

“Standing down from tomorrow’s launch of Anasis 2 to take a closer look at the second stage, (and) swap hardware if needed,” SpaceX tweeted Monday. “Will announce new target launch date once confirmed on the range.”

It’s the second SpaceX mission to be postponed indefinitely in recent days as the company tries to cut turnaround times for reused rockets and produce new upper stages at a rapid rate to to meet a fast-paced launch schedule in the coming weeks.

SpaceX on Saturday test-fired the Falcon 9 rocket assigned to launch South Korea’s Anasis 2 communications satellite, and the company confirmed the mission was on track for liftoff Tuesday from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The launch window Tuesday was to open at 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT) and close at 8:55 p.m. EDT (0055 GMT).

But sources said Monday morning that the mission would be delayed, and SpaceX confirmed the delay in a tweet Monday afternoon.

And the Eastern Range, which oversees launch operations from Cape Canaveral, on Monday canceled launch hazard area notices for offshore airline and marine traffic that were associated with Tuesday’s launch opportunity.

The Anasis 2 spacecraft was manufactured by Airbus Defense and Space in Toulouse, France, and transported to Cape Canaveral last month on an Antonov An-124 cargo plane. Based on Airbus’s Eurostar E3000 satellite design, Anasis 2 “will provide secured communications over wide coverage,” Airbus said in a statement.

The launch of Anasis 2 is one of five missions SpaceX has planned through early August. A Falcon 9 launch from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, a few miles north of pad 40, was to take off Saturday with a cluster of commercial satellites for SpaceX’s Starlink broadband fleet and BlackSky’s Earth-imaging constellation, but SpaceX called off the countdown “to allow more time for checkouts.”

The Falcon 9 launch with the Starlink and BlackSky satellites was initially targeted for launch June 26, but SpaceX scrubbed the launch attempt that day and was similarly vague about the reason, again citing the need for “additional time for pre-launch checkouts.”

A Falcon 9 rocket — without its payload fairing — fired up on Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch Saturday for a pre-flight test-firing. Credit: William Harwood/CBS News

Two more SpaceX missions were slated to launch later in July from launch pads on Florida’s Space Coast.

Argentina’s SAOCOM 1B radar observation satellite was scheduled for liftoff as soon as July 25 on a Falcon 9 rocket, and another batch of Starlink satellites — flying in tandem with three Earth-observing satellites from Planet — were expected to launch around the end of July.

Another Starlink launch on a Falcon 9 was planned in early August. Schedules for subsequent Starlink missions have not been announced, but SpaceX is booked to launch the next Crew Dragon spacecraft with astronauts to the International Space Station and a GPS navigation satellite as soon as September.

The launch dates for those missions could be delayed as a ripple effect from the back-to-back postponements of the Starlink/BlackSky mission and the Anasis 2 flight.

The Anasis 2 mission will use a Falcon 9 first stage that previously flew May 30 to carry aloft NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. The booster, designated B1058, landed on SpaceX’s drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” in the Atlantic Ocean, and then returned to Port Canaveral for refurbishment ahead of its second flight.

In order to achieve the rapid-fire launch cadence planned in the coming weeks, SpaceX is aiming to cut its turnaround time for reused rockets. The shortest span between launches of the same Falcon 9 booster to date has been 62 days, which SpaceX achieved with a Feb. 17 mission.

If the Anasis 2 launch had gone ahead Tuesday, the booster for that mission would have launched on its second flight just 45 days after its first flight May 30.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, has previously said he wants to launch, recover and re-launch Falcon 9 booster twice within a 24-hour period. But Musk has not recently repeated those comments, instead focusing on SpaceX’s larger, next-generation Starship launch vehicle to make the next leap in reusable rocket technology.

The Falcon 9 booster from the Crew Dragon Demo-2 launch will be reused for the Anasis 2 mission. Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

SpaceX currently has five Falcon 9 boosters in its inventory, and the company has flown two brand new first stages in its 11 missions so far this year. At least two more new Falcon 9 first stages are scheduled to enter service in the coming months, with SpaceX’s next launch of astronauts and the next launch of a U.S. military GPS navigation satellite, both currently planned no earlier than September.

A Falcon Heavy launch planned in late 2020 with a clandestine U.S. military payload will fly with three Falcon rocket boosters, all brand new. SpaceX officials said in December that the company planned to build around 10 new Falcon first stages in 2020.

With its success in reusing Falcon 9 booster stages, the company haas ramped up production of Falcon 9 second stages, which are new on each mission.

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SpaceX test-fires Falcon 9 rocket launch next week with Korean military satellite

A Falcon 9 rocket — without its payload fairing — fired up on Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch Saturday for a pre-flight test-firing. Credit: William Harwood/CBS News

Hours after calling off a launch of a different rocket from a nearby launch pad, SpaceX’s launch team loaded a Falcon 9 rocket with propellant Saturday and fired its nine main engines on pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, setting the stage for a liftoff with a South Korean military satellite as soon as Tuesday amid a busy stretch of missions for the California-based rocket company.

SpaceX ground crews raised the Falcon 9 rocket vertical on pad 40 Saturday morning. An automated computer-controlled sequencer commanded super-chilled, densified kerosene and liquid oxygen into the Falcon 9 Saturday afternoon.

The countdown culminated in ignition of the rocket’s nine Merlin 1D main engines at 6 p.m. EDT (2200 GMT). The engines throttled up to full power, generating 1.7 million pounds of thrust for several seconds while clamps restrained the Falcon 9 on the launch pad.

Onlookers observed a plume of exhaust coming from the rocket and confirmed the the test-firing occurred. SpaceX was expected to officially release an update on the outcome of the static fire test after a quick-look data review.

The Falcon 9 will be lowered and rolled back inside SpaceX’s hangar near pad 40, where technicians will attach a European-made communications satellite named Anasis 2 built for the South Korean military.

Assuming the final days of launch preparations go according to plan, SpaceX plans to launch the mission Tuesday during a nearly four-hour window opening at 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT) and extending until 8:55 p.m. EDT (0055 GMT).

The static fire test Saturday for the Anasis 2 mission occurred the same day SpaceX planned to launch a Falcon 9 rocket from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, located a few miles north of pad 40. SpaceX announced Saturday morning that it called off the launch from pad 39A “to allow more time for checkouts.”

SpaceX tweeted that teams “working to identify the next launch opportunity” for the mission from pad 39A, which will loft SpaceX’s next 57 Starlink broadband Internet satellites and a pair of commercial BlackSky Earth-imaging microsatellites.

The Starlink/BlackSky launch was supposed to take off June 26, but SpaceX delayed the mission to conduct additional pre-launch checkouts. A launch attempt Wednesday was scrubbed minutes before liftoff by poor weather.

The company has not disclosed any details about the nature of the problems — other than weather — that have delayed the Starlink/BlackSky mission. As of Saturday evening, it was not clear whether SpaceX might proceed with Tuesday’s planned Anasis 2 launch next, or if there might be another opportunity to launch the Starlink/BlackSky mission as soon as Monday.

SpaceX has launched 11 Falcon 9 missions so far this year, most recently on June 30, when a Falcon 9 rocket took off from pad 40 with a U.S. military GPS navigation satellite.

The Anasis 2 satellite is prepared for shipment to Cape Canaveral from Airbus’s facility in Toulouse, France. Credit: Airbus Defense and Space

Developed by Airbus Defense and Space, the Anasis 2 satellite is shrouded in secrecy at the wishes of the the spacecraft’s owner — the South Korean government.

Anasis 2 is based on the Eurostar E3000 spacecraft platform made by Airbus, but details about its performance have been kept under wraps. The Anasis 2 satellite is expected to launch into an elliptical transfer orbit, then use its on-board propulsion system to reach a circular orbit at geostationary altitude more than 22,000 miles (nearly 36,000 kilometers) over the equator.,

South Korea purchased the satellite — formerly known as KMilSatCom 1 — through an arrangement to offset South Korea’s purchase of F-35A fighter jets from Lockheed Martin. Lockheed Martin ultimately subcontracted the satellite manufacturing deal to Airbus.

Before Anasis 2, South Korea’s military has relied on international and civilian-owned satellites for communications.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.