Categories
aerospace astronomy Complex 40 Drone Ship falcon 9 Global Positioning System GPS GPS 3 GPS 3-3 L3 Harris Launch Lockheed Martin Military Space Mission Reports Navigation News Reusability Space and Missile Systems Center spacex US Space Force X Sidebar

Photos: Falcon 9 rocket launches from Florida with GPS navigation satellite

The first launch by SpaceX for the U.S. Space Force on June 30 carried the third in a new line of modernized GPS navigation satellites into orbit from Cape Canaveral.

The 9,505-pound (4,311-kilogram) GPS 3 SV03 spacecraft rode into orbit inside the payload shroud of a Falcon 9 rocket, on the way to replace an aging GPS satellite launched in May 2000.

These photos show the Falcon 9 rocket firing off pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 4:10:46 p.m. EDT (2010:46 GMT). Nine Merlin 1D engines, burning a mixture of kerosene and liquid oxygen, powered the Falcon 9 into the sky with 1.7 million pounds of thrust.

The launch marked the 88th flight of a Falcon 9 rocket since SpaceX debuted its workhorse launch vehicle in June 2010. It was the 11th Falcon 9 flight so far in 2020.

Read our full story for details on the June 30 launch.

Credit: SpaceX
Credit: SpaceX
Credit: SpaceX
Credit: SpaceX
Credit: SpaceX
Credit: SpaceX
Credit: SpaceX
Credit: Lockheed Martin
Credit: SpaceX
Credit: Lockheed Martin
Credit: SpaceX
Credit: SpaceX

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Categories
aerospace astronomy Complex 40 Drone Ship falcon 9 Global Positioning System GPS GPS 3 GPS 3-3 L3 Harris Launch Lockheed Martin Military Space Mission Reports Navigation News Reusability Space and Missile Systems Center spacex US Space Force X Home Page Highlight

SpaceX launches its first mission for the U.S. Space Force

A Falcon 9 rocket blasts off Tuesday from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: SpaceX

A new GPS satellite rocketed into orbit from Cape Canaveral on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher Tuesday on the way to replace one of the more than 30 other spacecraft helping guide everything from military munitions to motorists.

The launch was the first by SpaceXs for the U.S. Space Force, which took over most Air Force-run space programs after its establishment as a new military service in December. The third in a new line of upgraded Global Positioning System navigation satellites flew aboard the Falcon 9 rocket, adding fresh capabilities to the GPS network while replacing an aging spacecraft launched more than 20 years ago.

“The GPS 3 program continues to build on its successes by delivering advanced capabilities for the United States Space Force, and maintaining the ‘gold standard’ for position, navigation and timing.” said Col. Edward Byrne, Medium Earth Orbit Space Systems Division chief at the Space and Missile Systems Center.

The third GPS 3-series satellite, designated GPS 3 SV03, took off at 4:10:46 p.m. EDT (2010:46 GMT) from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Riding a 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 rocket, the 9,505-pound (4,311-kilogram) spacecraft launched on a trajectory toward the northeast from Cape Canaveral, flying roughly parallel to the U.S. East Coast.

Nearly 90 minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9’s upper stage precisely released the GPS 3 SV03 satellite into an on-target transfer orbit ranging in altitude between around 250 miles (400 kilometers) and 12,550 miles (20,200 kilometers), with an inclination of 55 degrees to the equator.

The spot-on orbit puts the GPS 3 SV03 spacecraft in position to use its own propulsion system in the coming weeks to circularize its orbit at an altitude of 12,550 miles, where the satellite is set to enter the operational GPS constellation as early as August, military officials said.

The launch was originally scheduled for late April, but military officials delayed the flight two months to allow time for teams at a satellite operations center in Colorado to introduce and test new protocols to enable physical distancing between control consoles. Officials reduced the size of the crew inside the control center, and added partitions and procured personal protective equipment for satellite controllers to reduce risks amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to Byrne.

Manufactured by Lockheed Martin, the GPS 3 SV03 satellite is set to enter service in Plane E, Slot 4 of the GPS constellation. That position is currently occupied by a GPS satellite launched May 10, 2000, from Cape Canaveral on a Delta 2 rocket. Military officials did not say whether that satellite, which was originally designed for a 10-year mission, will be decommissioned or moved to another slot in the GPS network.

Lockheed Martin confirmed in a statement after Tuesday’s launch that the GPS 3 SV03 spacecraft was responding to commands from engineers at the company’s Launch and Checkout Center in Denver.

The GPS satellites are spread among six orbital planes, each with four primary spacecraft, plus spares. Byrne said Friday in a pre-launch teleconference with reporters that the GPS constellation currently consists of 31 satellites.

The GPS network provides positioning and timing services worldwide for military and civilian users, beaming signals relied upon by airliners, ATMs, drivers and smart bombs, among numerous other users.

“The Global Positioning System has become part of our critical national infrastructure, from transportation to financial markets to energy grids to the rideshare industry,” said Tonya Ladwig, acting vice president of Lockheed Martin’s navigation systems division. “It’s no longer a matter of did you use GPS today. It’s a matter of how many times did you actually use it.”

With an estimated 4 billion users, the GPS network reached full operational capability in 1995. The military has conducted a series of launches to replenish the GPS satellite fleet since then, using ULA’s Atlas and Delta rockets, and now SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

The GPS 3 satellites provide more accurate navigation signals and boasting longer design lifetimes of 15 years. The new GPS 3 satellites also broadcast e a new L1C civilian signal that is compatible with Europe’s Galileo network and Japan’s Quasi-Zenith Satellite System.

Military officials say the compatibility of GPS signals with satellite navigation networks operated by allies maximizes the accuracy of positioning and timing signals, helping ensure that users can fix their locations through more spacecraft in the sky at one time.

The U.S. military’s third GPS 3-series satellite, designated SV03, is prepared for encapsulation inside the payload fairing of its SpaceX-built Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: SpaceX

Like the previous line of Boeing-built GPS 2F satellites, all GPS 3-series spacecraft broadcast a dedicated L5 signal geared to support air navigation. The GPS 3 satellites also continue beaming an encrypted military-grade navigation signal known as M-code.

The M-code signal allows GPS satellites to broadcast higher-power, jam-resistant signals over specific regions, such as a military theater or battlefield. The capability provides U.S. and allied forces with more reliable navigation services, and could also allow the military to intentionally disrupt or jam civilian-grade GPS signals in a particular region, while the M-code signal remains unimpeded.

L3Harris Technologies builds the navigation payloads for the GPS 3 satellites.

The first two GPS 3-series satellites launched in December 2018 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and last August aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 booster. Both were declared fully operational earlier this year.

Ladwig said the GPS 3 SV04 and SV05 spacecraft are complete and in storage awaiting launch, and the next three satellites are fully assembled and undergoing environmental testing. SV09 and SV10 are currently being assembled at Lockheed Martin’s GPS satellite factory near Denver.

Lockheed Martin is on contract with the Defense Department to build 10 GPS 3 satellites — two of which have launched — and up to 22 upgraded GPS 3F-series satellites.

The Space Force has reserved the next three GPS 3-series satellite launches with SpaceX. An SMC spokesperson said the GPS SV04 mission is set for launch no earlier than Sept. 30, followed by SV05 in January 2021.

Tuesday’s launch also marked the first time military officials allowed SpaceX to reserve enough propellant on the rocket to land the Falcon 9’s first stage booster after a launch of a high-priority national security payload.

The Falcon 9 booster touched down on SpaceX’s drone ship “Just Read The Instructions” positioned around 400 miles (630 kilometers) northeast of Cape Canaveral in the Atlantic Ocean.

The first stage fired its engines to guide itself toward the drone ship after separation from the Falcon 9’s upper stage around two-and-a-half minutes into the mission. Titanium grid fins helped stabilize the rocket during descent, and booster landed on the power of its center engine around eight-and-a-half minutes after launch.

It was a crucial recovery for SpaceX, which aims to reuse the booster on a future flight. The first stage used Tuesday was a brand new booster.

Mission planners modified the Falcon 9 launch profile to accommodate the booster landing.

The launch profile adjustment to make landing of the Falcon 9 booster possible ended up saving “several million dollars” for the military from the original SpaceX launch contract value of $96.5 million, according to Walter Lauderdale, mission director for the GPS SV03 launch from the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center.

On SpaceX’s first launch of a GPS navigation satellite in December 2018, military officials required the launch company to devote all of the Falcon 9 rocket’s capacity to placing the spacecraft into orbit. That meant SpaceX could not install landing legs on the Falcon 9’s first stage or attempt recovery of the booster.

SpaceX lands, refurbishes and re-flies Falcon 9 first stages to reduce costs, and it is the only launch company that currently reuses rocket hardware.

SpaceX has recovered rockets on previous launches with military payloads, such as a Falcon Heavy mission last June, but those missions carried experimental technology demonstration and research satellites — not operational spacecraft like a GPS satellite.

On SpaceX’s first GPS launch in 2018, the military required the Falcon 9 rocket to place the spacecraft into an orbit with a higher perigee, or low point, of more than 740 miles, or about 1,200 kilometers. Teams also loaded extra fuel into the GPS spacecraft as an extra precaution.

It was the first high-priority national security payload to launch on a SpaceX rocket, and it was also the first satellite in a new design of GPS spacecraft.

“Simply put, there was insufficient performance given the mission trajectory and payload weight, combined with the uncertainties associated with this demanding mission,” Lauderdale said.

“Our evaluation of that mission’s performance, combined with additional work with SpaceX, reduced uncertainty in many areas,” Lauderdale said. “When we approached SpaceX to revise some spacecraft requirements for this mission … they responded with an opportunity to recover the booster in exchange for adding these requirements, as well as other considerations.”

Artist’s concept of a GPS 3 satellite in space. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Officials are now more comfortable with the performance of the Falcon 9 rocket and the new GPS 3-series satellite design. That allowed engineers to load less propellant into the third GPS 3 satellite.

Mission planners also changed the perigee of the spacecraft’s initial orbit after launch from around 740 miles to 250 miles, according to Byrne.

“All that required from us was to reassess our burn profile, so we made some slight modifications to that burn profile, but there’s been no mission impact associated with the booster recovery option,” Byrne said in a pre-launch conference call with reporters.

One change to the Falcon 9 rocket for the GPS SV03 mission was a gray band of thermal insulation on the launcher’s upper stage. The thermal layer was designed to help maintain kerosene fuel at proper temperatures during a nearly one-hour coast phase between the first and second burns of the upper stage’s Merlin engine, and then keep propellants stable during another coast phase of several hours before a third Merlin burn to deorbit the stage.

SpaceX has tested the thermal layer before, but it did not fly on the first GPS 3 launch in 2018. The company has experimented with long-duration coasts of the Falcon upper stage to gather data before the first dedicated launch of a national security payload on SpaceX’s triple-core Falcon Heavy rocket late this year.

Military engineers charged with overseeing the design and production of SpaceX rockets for national security missions assessed numerous configuration changes since the Falcon 9’s first launch of a GPS satellite in 2018.

“Since the GPS 3 launch in December 2018, we’ve worked with SpaceX to stay current on the configuration of the Falcon 9, evaluating 665 changes,” Lauderdale said. “This enabled us to maintain the vehicle technical baseline that is the foundation of our independent mission assurance.”

Space Force officials have not yet approved SpaceX to launch critical military satellites — a mission class known as National Security Space Launch payloads — using previously-flown boosters. SpaceX has re-launched Falcon boosters 37 times to date with a 100 percent success record.

Lauderdale said the SMC mission assurance team is becoming more familiar with how SpaceX refurbishes rockets in between flights.

“I can’t commit to when we’ll be ready,” he said Friday, referring to when the military could launch a national security payload on a reused Falcon 9 booster.

SpaceX is building an all-new Falcon Heavy rocket for a national security launch late this year, and the company is expected to use a brand new booster for the next GPS launch no earlier than Sept. 30.

The military is currently considering proposals from four companies — SpaceX, ULA, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman — in the next round of launch service procurements. Lauderdale said the military will allow launch service providers who win the the so-called “Phase 2” contracts to bid reused rockets for national security space launches in an effort to reduce costs.

“As a program, we are open and ready and looking forward to whatever industry wants to make available to us, but predominately we’ve been looking at the Phase 2 competition as that opportunity,” Lauderdale said.

With the GPS launch behind them, SpaceX teams on Florida’s Space Coast will again turn their attention to launching a Falcon 9 rocket pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center with the next batch of SpaceX’s Starlink Internet satellites.

That mission was supposed to launch Friday, June 26, but SpaceX scrubbed the launch attempt and postponed the flight until after the GPS launch from nearby pad 40. A launch hazard area warning notice released Tuesday for sailors off Florida’s Space Coast suggested the next Falcon 9/Starlink launch has been rescheduled for Wednesday, July 8.

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Categories
aerospace astronomy Complex 40 Drone Ship falcon 9 Global Positioning System GPS GPS 3 GPS 3-3 L3 Harris Launch Launch Timeline Lockheed Martin Military Space Mission Reports Navigation News Reusability Space and Missile Systems Center spacex US Space Force X Home Page Highlight Below Right

Timeline for Falcon 9’s launch of the GPS 3 SV03 spacecraft

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is set for liftoff from Cape Canaveral on Tuesday carrying the U.S. Air Force’s next GPS 3-series navigation satellite destined for an orbit more than 12,000 miles above Earth.

The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) rocket is poised for launch from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 3:55:48 p.m. EDT (1955:48 GMT) Tuesday at the opening of a 15-minute launch window.

The Lockheed Martin-built GPS 3 SV03 satellite mounted atop the rocket is the third member of an upgraded generation of GPS navigation spacecraft, featuring higher-power signals that are more resilient to jamming, and additional broadcast frequencies to make the GPS network more interoperable with other navigation satellite fleets.

Unlike SpaceX’s previous launch of a GPS payload in 2018, the mission will fly a slightly different profile to reserve fuel for landing of the Falcon 9 booster. Read our mission preview story for more information.

The timeline below outlines the launch sequence for the Falcon 9 flight with the GPS 3 SV03 spacecraft.

See our Mission Status Center for details on the launch.

Data source: SpaceX

T-0:00:00: Liftoff

After the rocket’s nine Merlin engines pass an automated health check, hold-down clamps will release the Falcon 9 booster for liftoff from Complex 40.
After the rocket’s nine Merlin engines pass an automated health check, hold-down clamps will release the Falcon 9 booster for liftoff from pad 40.

T+0:01:11: Max Q

The Falcon 9 rocket reaches Max Q, the point of maximum aerodynamic pressure.
The Falcon 9 rocket reaches Max Q, the point of maximum aerodynamic pressure, a few seconds after surpassing the speed of sound.

T+0:02:31: MECO

The Falcon 9’s nine Merlin 1D engines shut down.
The Falcon 9’s nine Merlin 1D engines shut down.

T+0:02:35: Stage 1 Separation

The Falcon 9’s first stage separates from the second stage moments after MECO.
The Falcon 9’s first stage separates from the second stage moments after MECO.

T+0:02:42: First Ignition of Second Stage

The second stage Merlin 1D vacuum engine ignites for an approximately 6-minute burn to put the rocket and SES 9 into a preliminary parking orbit.
The second stage Merlin 1D vacuum engine ignites for a five-and-a-half-minute burn to put the rocket and GPS 3 SV03 into a preliminary parking orbit.

T+0:03:28: Fairing Jettison

The 5.2-meter (17.1-foot) diameter payload fairing jettisons once the Falcon 9 rocket ascends through the dense lower atmosphere. The 43-foot-tall fairing is made of two clamshell-like halves composed of carbon fiber with an aluminum honeycomb core.
The 5.2-meter (17.1-foot) diameter payload fairing jettisons once the Falcon 9 rocket ascends through the dense lower atmosphere. The 43-foot-tall fairing is made of two clamshell-like halves composed of carbon fiber with an aluminum honeycomb core.

T+0:06:45: First Stage Entry Burn Complete

The Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage descends back to Earth as its engines fire for the entry burn before landing on SpaceX’s drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

T+0:08:07: SECO 1

The second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket shuts down after reaching a preliminary low-altitude orbit. The upper stage and SES 9 begin a coast phase scheduled to last more than 18 minutes before the second stage Merlin vacuum engine reignites.
The second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket shuts down after reaching a preliminary orbit. The upper stage and GPS 3 SV03 begin a coast phase scheduled to about one hour before the second stage Merlin-Vacuum engine reignites.

T+0:06:45: First Stage Landing

The Falcon 9’s first stage booster lands on SpaceX’s drone ship “Just Read The Instructions” positioned in Atlantic Ocean northeast of Cape Canaveral.

T+1:03:28: Second Ignition of Second Stage

The Falcon 9's second stage Merlin engine restarts to propel the SES 9 communications satellite into a supersynchronous transfer orbit.
The Falcon 9’s second stage Merlin engine restarts to propel the GPS 3 SV01 navigation satellite into an elliptical transfer orbit ranging in altitude between about 250 miles (400 kilometers) and 12,550 miles (20,200 kilometers), with an inclination of 55 degrees.

T+1:04:13: SECO 2

The Merlin engine shuts down after a short burn to put the SES 10 satellite in the proper orbit for deployment.
The Merlin engine shuts down after a planned 45-second burn to put the GPS 3 SV03 satellite in the proper orbit for deployment.

T+1:29:14: GPS 3 SV03 Separation

The SES 9 satellite separates from the Falcon 9 rocket in an orbit with a predicted high point of about 39,300 kilometers (24,400 miles), a low point of 290 kilometers (180 miles) and an inclination of 28 degrees. Due to the decision to burn the second stage nearly to depletion, there is some slight uncertainty on the orbital parameters based on the exact performance of the launcher.
The GPS 3 SV03 satellite separates from the Falcon 9 rocket in an elliptical transfer orbit with an apogee, or high point, near the altitude of the GPS fleet, located around 12,550 miles (22,200 kilometers) above Earth.

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Categories
aerospace astronomy Complex 40 Drone Ship falcon 9 Global Positioning System GPS GPS 3 GPS 3-3 L3 Harris Launch Lockheed Martin Military Space Mission Reports Mission Status Center Navigation News Reusability Space and Missile Systems Center spacex US Space Force X Home Page Highlight

Live coverage: SpaceX counting down to launch of GPS navigation satellite

Live coverage of the countdown and launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida with the U.S. Air Force’s GPS 3 SV03 navigation satellite. Text updates will appear automatically below. Follow us on Twitter.

SpaceX’s live video webcast begins around 15 minutes prior to launch, and will be available on this page.

Categories
aerospace astronomy Complex 40 Drone Ship falcon 9 Global Positioning System GPS GPS 3 GPS 3-3 L3 Harris Launch Lockheed Martin Military Space Mission Reports Navigation News Reusability Space and Missile Systems Center spacex US Space Force X Home Page Highlight Below Left

U.S. military makes adjustments in GPS launch to allow for SpaceX booster landing

The U.S. military’s third GPS 3-series satellite, designated SV03, is prepared for encapsulation inside the payload fairing of its SpaceX-built Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX is preparing for liftoff Tuesday of its first mission for the U.S. Space Force, a launch from Cape Canaveral that will deploy a new GPS navigation satellite using a redesigned profile to allow the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage booster to reserve enough propellant for landing on SpaceX’s drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

The launch profile adjustment to make landing of the Falcon 9 booster possible ended up saving “several million dollars” for the military from the original SpaceX launch contract value of $96.5 million, according to Walter Lauderdale, mission director for the GPS SV03 launch from the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center.

The U.S. Space Force’s third GPS 3-series navigation satellite is set for liftoff from Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch pad during a 15-minute launch window opening at 3:55 p.m. EDT (1955 GMT) Tuesday. There’s a 60 percent chance of favorable weather, according to a forecast issued by the Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron.

Built by Lockheed Martin, the spacecraft will join two previous GPS 3 satellites launched by SpaceX in 2018 and by United Launch Alliance last year.

Tuesday’s mission is the first by SpaceX for the Space Force since the establishment of the new military branch in December.

“This is our first U.S. Space Force launch, and we’re really excited about it and hope this is the first of many, many of those launches in the future,” said Lee Rosen, SpaceX’s vice president of customer operations and integration.

During a nearly 90-minute launch sequence, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket head northeast from Cape Canaveral and propel the 9,505-pound (4,311-kilogram) GPS 3 SV03 spacecraft into an elliptical transfer orbit ranging between about 250 miles (400 kilometers) and 12,550 miles (20,200 kilometers) in altitude. The Falcon 9’s on-board computer will aim to release the GPS 3 SV03 satellite into an orbit inclined 55 degrees to the equator.

On SpaceX’s first launch of a GPS navigation satellite in December 2018, military officials required the launch company to devote all of the Falcon 9 rocket’s capacity to placing the spacecraft into orbit. That meant SpaceX could not install landing legs on the Falcon 9’s first stage or attempt recovery of the booster.

SpaceX lands, refurbishes and re-flies Falcon 9 first stages to reduce costs, and it is the only launch company that currently reuses rocket hardware.

The launch of the GPS 3 SV03 mission Tuesday is the first flight with a high-priority national security satellite that will reserve propellant for landing of the rocket. SpaceX has recovered rockets on previous launches with military payloads, such as a Falcon Heavy mission last June, but those missions carried experimental technology demonstration and research satellites — not operational spacecraft like a GPS satellite.

On SpaceX’s first GPS launch in 2018, the military required the Falcon 9 rocket to place the spacecraft into an orbit with a higher perigee, or low point, of more than 740 miles, or about 1,200 kilometers. Teams also loaded extra fuel into the GPS spacecraft as an extra precaution.

It was the first high-priority national security payload to launch on a SpaceX rocket, and it was also the first satellite in a new design of GPS spacecraft.

“Simply put, there was insufficient performance given the mission trajectory and payload weight, combined with the uncertainties associated with this demanding mission,” Lauderdale said.

“Our evaluation of that mission’s performance, combined with additional work with SpaceX, reduced uncertainty in many areas,” Lauderdale said. “When we approached SpaceX to revise some spacecraft requirements for this mission … they responded with an opportunity to recover the booster in exchange for adding these requirements, as well as other considerations.”

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is prepared for rollout to Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch pad. Credit: SpaceX

Officials are now more comfortable with the performance of the Falcon 9 rocket and the new GPS 3-series satellite design. That allowed engineers to load less propellant into the third GPS 3 satellite.

Mission planners also changed the perigee of the spacecraft’s initial orbit after launch from around 740 miles to 250 miles, according to Col. Edward Byrne, senior materiel leader at SMC’s Medium Earth Orbit space systems division.

“All that required from us was to reassess our burn profile, so we made some slight modifications to that burn profile, but there’s been no mission impact associated with the booster recovery option,” Byrne said in a pre-launch conference call with reporters.

One change to the Falcon 9 rocket requested by the Space Force for the GPS SV03 mission is a gray band of thermal insulation on the launcher’s upper stage. The thermal layer will help maintain kerosene fuel at proper temperatures during a nearly one-hour coast phase between the first and second burns of the upper stage’s Merlin engine.

SpaceX has tested the thermal layer before, but it did not fly on the first GPS 3 launch in 2018. The company has experimented with long-duration coasts of the Falcon upper stage to gather data before the first dedicated launch of a national security payload on SpaceX’s triple-core Falcon Heavy rocket late this year.

Military engineers charged with overseeing the design and production of SpaceX rockets for national security missions assessed numerous configuration changes since the Falcon 9’s first launch of a GPS satellite in 2018.

“Since the GPS 3 launch in December 2018, we’ve worked with SpaceX to stay current on the configuration of the Falcon 9, evaluating 665 changes,” Lauderdale said. “This enabled us to maintain the vehicle technical baseline that is the foundation of our independent mission assurance.”

The military has contracted with SpaceX to launch the fourth, fifth and sixth GPS 3 satellites. Assuming the launch of GPS SV03 goes according to plan, the SV04 mission could launch from Cape Canaveral on a Falcon 9 rocket as soon as Sept. 30, according to the Space and Missile Systems Center.

The GPS SV05 spacecraft is scheduled for launch on a Falcon 9 rocket in January.

Space Force officials have not yet approved SpaceX to launch critical national security satellites using previously-flown boosters. SpaceX has re-launched Falcon boosters 37 times to date with a 100 percent success record.

Lauderdale said the SMC mission assurance team is becoming more familiar with how SpaceX refurbishes rockets in between flights.

“I can’t commit to when we’ll be ready,” he said Friday, referring to when the military could launch a national security payload on a reused Falcon 9 booster.

SpaceX is building an all-new Falcon Heavy rocket for a national security launch late this year, and the company is expected to use a brand new booster for the next GPS launch no earlier than Sept. 30.

The military is currently considering proposals from four companies — SpaceX, ULA, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman — in the next round of launch service procurements. Lauderdale said the military will allow launch service providers who win the the so-called “Phase 2” contracts to bid reused rockets for national security space launches in an effort to reduce costs.

“As a program, we are open and ready and looking forward to whatever industry wants to make available to us, but predominately we’ve been looking at the Phase 2 competition as that opportunity,” Lauderdale said.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket stands vertical on pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station before launch of the GPS 3 SV03 spacecraft. Credit: Lockheed Martin

The GPS 3 SV03 spacecraft awaiting launch Tuesday will use its on-board propulsion system to circularize its orbit after separation from the Falcon 9 rocket. It’s expected to enter service later this year.

Both of the previous GPS 3-series satellites are healthy, according to the U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center. They were “set healthy” and officially entered the operational GPS constellation Jan. 13 and April 1, an SMC spokesperson said.

The launch of the GPS 3 SV03 spacecraft is timed to inject the satellite into Plane E, Slot 4 of the GPS constellation. That position is currently occupied by a GPS satellite launched May 10, 2000, from Cape Canaveral on a Delta 2 rocket. Military officials did not say whether that satellite, which was originally designed for a 10-year mission, will be decommissioned or moved to another slot in the GPS network.

The GPS satellites are spread among six orbital planes, each with four primary spacecraft, plus spares. Byrne said Friday the GPS constellation currently consists of 31 satellites.

The GPS network provides positioning and timing services worldwide for military and civilian users, beaming signals relied upon by airliners, ATMs, drivers and smart bombs, among numerous other users.

“The Global Positioning System has become part of our critical national infrastructure, from transportation to financial markets to energy grids to the rideshare industry,” said Tonya Ladwig, acting vice president of Lockheed Martin’s navigation systems division. “It’s no longer a matter of did you use GPS today. It’s a matter of how many times did you actually use it.”

The GPS 3 satellites provide more accurate navigation signals and boasting longer design lifetimes of 15 years. The new GPS 3 satellites also broadcast e a new L1C civilian signal that is compatible with Europe’s Galileo network and Japan’s Quasi-Zenith Satellite System.

Other space-based navigation networks operated by Japan and China are also adopting similar compatible signals.

Like the previous line of Boeing-built GPS 2F satellites, all GPS 3-series spacecraft broadcast a dedicated L5 signal geared to support air navigation. The GPS 3 satellites also continue beaming an encrypted military-grade navigation signal known as M-code.

The M-code signal allows GPS satellites to broadcast higher-power, jam-resistant signals over specific regions, such as a military theater or battlefield. The capability provides U.S. and allied forces with more reliable navigation services, and could also allow the military to intentionally disrupt or jam civilian-grade GPS signals in a particular region, while the M-code signal remains unimpeded.

L3Harris Technologies builds the navigation payloads for the GPS 3 satellites.

Ladwig said the GPS 3 SV04 and SV05 spacecraft are complete and in storage awaiting launch, and the next three satellites are fully assembled and undergoing environmental testing. SV09 and SV10 are currently being assembled at Lockheed Martin’s GPS satellite factory near Denver.

Lockheed Martin is on contract with the Defense Department to build 10 GPS 3 satellites — two of which have launched — and up to 22 upgraded GPS 3F-series satellites.

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Categories
aerospace astronomy Astrotech Complex 40 Drone Ship falcon 9 Global Positioning System GPS GPS 3 GPS 3-3 L3 Harris Launch Lockheed Martin Mission Reports Navigation News Reusability Space and Missile Systems Center spacex Static Fire US Space Force X Sidebar

GPS satellite ready for installation on Falcon 9 rocket for launch next week

The third GPS 3-series navigation satellite, named “Columbus,” is seen before shipment from Lockheed Martin’s factory in Denver. Credit: Lockheed Martin

The U.S. military’s next GPS navigation satellite moved to a SpaceX launch facility late Thursday at Cape Canaveral, ready for attachment with a Falcon 9 rocket for liftoff June 30 to take the place of an aging GPS spacecraft launched from Florida’s Space Coast more than 20 years ago.

Built by Lockheed Martin, the spacecraft was closed up inside the payload shroud of its Falcon 9 rocket Sunday inside the Astrotech payload processing facility in Titusville, then trucked to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station late Thursday. Once in position inside a SpaceX rocket hangar, ground teams planned to mount the spacecraft and payload fairing to the Falcon 9 launcher that will carry the GPS satellite into orbit.

The third in the military’s new GPS 3-series of navigation satellites is scheduled for launch from Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch pad during a 15-minute window opening at 3:55 p.m. EDT (1955 GMT) Tuesday, June 30.

The GPS 3 SV03 spacecraft follows the launch of SV01 and SV02 in December 2018 and August 2019. Those satellites launched on SpaceX Falcon 9 and United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rockets, respectively.

Both of the previous GPS 3-series satellites are healthy, according to the U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center. They were “set healthy” and officially entered the operational GPS constellation Jan. 13 and April 1, an SMC spokesperson said.

The GPS 3 SV03 satellite will launch into an elliptical transfer orbit aboard the Falcon 9 rocket. After deployment from the launch vehicle, the GPS satellite will use its own propulsion system to reach a circular orbit inclined 55 degrees to the equator at an altitude of about 12,550 miles (20,200 kilometers).

The launch June 30 is timed to place the GPS 3 SV03 spacecraft into Plane E, Slot 4 of the GPS constellation. That position is currently occupied by a GPS satellite launched May 10, 2000, from Cape Canaveral on a Delta 2 rocket. Military officials did not say whether that satellite, which was originally designed for a 10-year mission, will be decommissioned or moved to another slot in the GPS network.

The GPS satellites are spread among six orbital planes, each with four primary spacecraft, plus spares.

The GPS network provides positioning and timing services worldwide for military and civilian users, beaming signals relied upon by airliners, ATMs, drivers and smart bombs, among numerous other users.

The GPS 3 satellites provide more accurate navigation signals and boasting longer design lifetimes of 15 years. The new GPS 3 satellites also broadcast e a new L1C civilian signal that is compatible with Europe’s Galileo network and Japan’s Quasi-Zenith Satellite System.

Other space-based navigation networks operated by Japan and China are also adopting similar compatible signals.

Like the previous line of Boeing-built GPS 2F satellites, all GPS 3-series spacecraft broadcast a dedicated L5 signal geared to support air navigation. The GPS 3 satellites also continue beaming an encrypted military-grade navigation signal known as M-code.

The M-code signal allows GPS satellites to broadcast higher-power, jam-resistant signals over specific regions, such as a military theater or battlefield. The capability provides U.S. and allied forces with more reliable navigation services, and could also allow the military to intentionally disrupt or jam civilian-grade GPS signals in a particular region, while the M-code signal remains unimpeded.

L3Harris Technologies builds the navigation payloads for the GPS 3 satellites.

SpaceX test-fired a brand new Falcon 9 rocket Thursday on pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in preparation for the GPS satellite launch. Credit: William Harwood/CBS News

The launch June 30 will be the first dedicated flight by SpaceX for the U.S. Space Force since the new military branch was established in December.

It comes four days after the scheduled launch Friday of a different Falcon 9 rocket from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, a few miles to the north of pad 40. That mission was set to loft 57 satellites for SpaceX’s Starlink broadband Internet constellation, along with a pair of commercial Earth-imaging microsatellites for BlackSky.

SpaceX test-fired the Falcon 9 rocket assigned to the GPS launch Thursday, less than a day after a similar static fire test of the Falcon booster for the Starlink/BlackSky mission.

Unlike SpaceX’s launch of the first GPS 3-series satellite in 2018, military officials overseeing the flight have allowed SpaceX to set aside enough propellant reserve on the Falcon 9 booster to attempt a landing on an offshore drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. SpaceX flew the Falcon 9 rocket in a fully expendable configuration for the GPS 3 SV01 launch in 2018.

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Categories
aerospace astronomy Broadband Commercial Space Complex 40 Drone Ship Earth observation falcon 9 Launch Maxar Mike Safyan Mission Reports News Planet Reusability SkySat SkySat 16 SkySat 17 SkySat 18 spacex starlink Starlink 8 Static Fire Telecom X Home Page Highlight

Starlink satellite deployments continue with successful Falcon 9 launch

A Falcon 9 rocket streaked into space just before sunrise Saturday from Cape Canaveral. Credit: SpaceX

Breaking a SpaceX record for the shortest span between two missions from the same launch pad, a Falcon 9 rocket lifted off Saturday from Cape Canaveral carrying 58 more Starlink broadband satellites three Earth-imaging spacecraft for Planet.

The Falcon 9 rocket roared into space from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 5:21:18 a.m. EDT (0921:18 GMT), heading to the northeast as it ascended into sunlight, creating a twilight spectacle visible for hundreds of miles.

SpaceX’s previous Falcon 9 launch took off from the same location less than 10 days before, the fastest turnaround between Falcon 9 flights from the same launch pad in the company’s history.

It was the third Falcon 9 launch in two weeks, and SpaceX has two more Falcon 9 rocket flights scheduled before the end of June.

Those missions are currently scheduled for launch from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on June 22 — with another batch of Starlink satellites — and on June 30 from pad 40 again with a U.S. Space Force GPS navigation satellite.

After shutting down its nine main engines two-and-a-half minutes into the mission Saturday, the Falcon 9’s first stage dropped away and flipped around to fly tail first and descend to a propulsive landing on SpaceX’s drone ship floating in the Atlantic Ocean around 400 miles (630 kilometers) northeast of Cape Canaveral.

The Falcon 9’s second stage engine ignited to accelerate the 58 Starlink satellites and three SkySats into an orbit with an average altitude of nearly 200 miles (300 kilometers). The rocket’s nose cone also jettisoned to parachute into the Atlantic, where two other SpaceX recovery ships retrieved the two-piece fairing for return to Port Canaveral.

The first stage booster and fairing flown on Saturday’s mission were both recovered and reused from previous Falcon 9 missions.

Saturday’s launch was the first to fly secondary payloads to ride to orbit on SpaceX’s commercial rideshare service, which the company announced last year.

Planet, headquartered in San Francisco, was the first company to publicly confirm plans to utilize the rideshare launch service.

The launch of three Planet SkySat spacecraft Saturday will be followed by another Falcon 9/Starlink mission in July carrying Planet’s final three SkySats, capping off the deployment of the company’s fleet of 21 commercial high-resolution Earth observation satellites.

Mike Safyan, Planet’s vice president of launch, said SpaceX’s small satellite rideshare service was “a very attractive offering” to launch the company’s last six SkySat satellites.

SpaceX’s 87th Falcon 9 rocket mission carried 58 Starlink satellites and three of Planet’s Earth-imaging SkySats into orbit. Credit: SpaceX

While Safyan would not disclose what Planet paid SpaceX to launch the six SkySats, SpaceX has published pricing for rideshare launch services on its website. The company lists a price as low as $1 million for a 440-pound payload on a rideshare to a polar sun-synchronous orbit.

“That’s incredibly competitive pricing,” Safyan said. “Coupled with the fact that the Falcon 9 is one of the world’s most reliable and well-flown vehicles out there, and they’re going to a variety of orbits very regularly, makes it a very attractive offering.”

The cost to purchase the entire capacity of an Electron rocket mission from Rocket Lab is around $5.7 million. Rocket Lab’s Electron launcher can carry up to 496 pounds (225 kilograms) to a low-altitude orbit, or 330 pounds (150 kilograms) to a higher sun-synchronous orbit.

Safyan said SpaceX provided Planet with parameters to integrate the SkySats on top of a flat-packed stack of Starlink satellites.

“SpaceX gave us the interface pattern, and then we designed a custom adapter plate in-house,” Safyan said. “We put together this adapter plate that would allow for three SkySats to fit onto that mounting. The SkySats sit at the top of the stack, and they get deployed as the first satellite deployment event, and Starlinks will follow thereafter.”

With the addition of three SkySats on top of the Starlink stack, SpaceX is only launching 58 Starlink platforms on Saturday’s mission, down from the typical number of 60 per launch.

The top-mounted SkySats separated from the rocket first Saturday after reaching a preliminary orbit inclined 53 degrees to the equator, deploying one-at-a-time at 30-second intervals beginning around-and-a-half minutes after liftoff.

Then the Falcon 9’s upper stage reoriented for the deployment of the 58 Starlink satellites, which separated from the rocket in one piece after the release of retention rods holding the flat-packed spacecraft onto the rocket.

Once the separation was initiated, the Starlink satellites — each weighing about a quarter-ton — were expected to slowly fly apart from each other as they prepare to unfurl solar arrays and activate their krypton ion drives.

The Starlink deployment occurred at T+plus 26 minutes when the Falcon 9 was flying outside the range of ground stations. SpaceX confirmed the separation sequence was initiated once the rocket flew over a tracking antenna at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

Saturday’s flight was also the first Falcon 9 launch to go ahead without a pre-flight test-firing of its nine Merlin first stage engines.

SpaceX was the only launch operator to perform static fire tests before every mission. Other companies, such as United Launch Alliance, conduct fueling rehearsals ahead of some missions, but most launch providers fuel their rockets for the first time on launch day.

It’s not clear whether SpaceX will perform static fire tests before future missions, or whether the company might only test-fire rockets making their first launch, or in preparation for missions with external customers, such as NASA or the U.S. military.

SpaceX is both the launch provider and the customer for a Falcon 9 launch with Starlink satellites. With 87 Falcon 9 flights in the books, the rocket is no longer a newly-designed launch vehicle. The Falcon 9 has logged more missions than any other U.S. launcher currently in service.

Three of Planet’s SkySat Earth-imaging satellites were mounted on top of 58 SpaceX Starlink Internet satellites for Saturday’s launch. Credit: Planet / SpaceX

With the Starlink satellites successfully placed in orbit, their krypton propulsion systems will raise the spacecraft’s orbits to an operating altitude of 341 miles, or 550 kilometers, while SpaceX ground teams perform checkouts of each spacecraft.

With Saturday’s launch, SpaceX has launched 538 Starlink satellites since May 2019, extending the company’s record as the owner of the largest fleet of commercial satellites. Planet operates between 100 and 150 satellites, making it the owner of the second-largest constellation of commercial satellites.

Continuing its rapid launch pace, SpaceX aims to launch around 1,000 more Starlink satellites later this year and next year to begin offering worldwide Internet service.

Thousands more Starlink spacecraft could launch in the coming years to meet global demand, according to SpaceX.

SpaceX recently started soliciting information from prospective Starlink customers. Those who sign up can receive email updates on the Starlink network, those who submitted their zip codes will be “notified via email if beta testing opportunities become available in your area,” SpaceX said.

“Starlink is designed to deliver high-speed broadband Internet to locations where access has been unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable,” SpaceX said. “Private beta testing is expected to begin later this summer, followed by public beta testing, starting with higher latitudes.”

Planet’s fleet includes more than 100 medium-resolution Dove and SuperDove CubeSats — each the size of a toaster oven — and 15 larger SkySats with sharper vision.

Built by Maxar, each of the SkySat satellites weighs around 242 pounds (110 kilograms) at launch. The SkySats are about the side of a mini-refrigerator.

The first 15 SkySat satellites launched into polar sun-synchronous orbits and fly in in north-south paths around Earth. Sun-synchronous orbits are popular for remote sensing and environmental satellites because they allow regular imaging of the Earth’s surface with the sun at the same angle.

Around half of the SkySats fly in orbits timed to fly overhead in the morning, and the other half soar over imaging targets in the afternoon, providing coverage of certain parts of the globe twice per day.

The six remaining SkySats are the last of a block of spacecraft ordered from Maxar, formerly known as SSL, by Skybox Imaging. Skybox was acquired by Google and renamed Terra Bella in 2014, then Planet acquired Terra Bella and the SkySat assets in 2017.

The three SkySat satellites launching Saturday, and another three set to launch on a following Starlink mission in July, will fly at a lower-inclination orbit inclined 53 degrees to the equator. Planet says the new satellites “will offer more targeted coverage and raw image capacity in key geographic regions.”

Safyan told Spaceflight Now the SkySats will use their own propulsion to maneuver from the Starlink injection orbit to an operating altitude of around 250 miles (400 kilometers).

At that altitude, the SkySats will be able to produce images of Earth at a resolution of less than 20 inches, or 50 centimeters. Planet announced it has also lowered the orbits of its SkySats already in space to allow the collection imagery of the same quality.

The first 15 SkySats have launched on a range of rockets, riding a Ukrainian-Russian Dnepr booster in 2013, a Russian Soyuz launcher in 2014, an Indian PSLV and a European Vega rocket in 2016, Northrop Grumman’s Minotaur-C rocket in 2017, and a Falcon 9 mission in 2018.

In addition to selling excess room on Starlink missions, SpaceX is planning as many as three dedicated Falcon 9 rideshare launches per year to sun-synchronous orbit. The first of the company’s dedicated rideshare missions is scheduled for December from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The rideshare launches are similar to a sun-synchronous orbit multi-satellite launch from Vandenberg on a Falcon 9 rocket in December 2018. But that mission was managed by Spaceflight, a rideshare launch broker based in Seattle, which purchased the entire capacity of a Falcon 9 rocket and sold slots to commercial and government customers.

Now SpaceX itself is putting together rideshare launches, selling slots directly to satellite operators and brokers that then distribute mass and volume allotments to their customers.

Starlink launches take up the majority of the Falcon 9 rocket’s launch manifest this year. SpaceX has also sold capacity on the next Starlink launch, set for June 22, for two Earth-imaging satellites owned by BlackSky.

“SpaceX had a lot of different orbits we could choose from,” Safyan said. “That’s one of the advantages of going with a SpaceX rideshare because with other launch providers, they may be going to the orbit that you’re looking for, but with only one or two missions every now and again.

“But SpaceX is launching so frequently that if you’re looking for mid-inclination, you could go on a Starlink,” Safyan said. “If you’re looking for sun-synchronous, they have other rideshare opportunities. Other orbits are being offered as well. So it’s the number and frequency of opportunities that really makes a difference.”

The launch contract between SpaceX and Planet was signed just six months ago, Safyan said.

Artist’s concept of SkySat satellites. Credit: Planet

“We not only recognize that these Starlink launch opportunities were very cost-competitive on a very reliable launch vehicle, and going to the right orbit, but also the timing,” Safyan said. “We were ready to launch, and if we were to go to a dedicated launch service provider, then it could take 12 or 18 months for them to build their launch vehicle from scratch and fit it into their manifest.

“Launch companies typically don’t just have rockets sitting around on inventory that haven’t been assigned,” he said. “So being able to turn this around really quickly was another big advantage, and SpaceX is one of the few launch providers in the world that could do this so quickly.”

Planet could have launched all six of their remaining SkySats clustered together on same Starlink rideshare mission, but the company preferred to put them on two different rockets to be released into different orbital planes. That will help spread out the fleet for broader coverage, Safyan said.

“I think that there has been what appears to be kind of like a culture shift at SpaceX with respect to the smallsat market,” Safyan said. “Previously, I think that they were much more focused on bigger payloads and dedicated launch services, and they preferred to kind of outsource aggregating smaller payloads to other brokers. With their smallsat rideshare announcement, I think that was a turning point for SpaceX where they recognize that this is a real and important market, and that they wanted to be working directly with customers.

“That’s been a really great shift for us because SpaceX works very fast. They work at a very similar pace as we do. So we were able to put together this launch in a very quick timeframe.”

The SkySats are designed for six-year missions, according to Planet.

“That gives us a pretty long runway with respect to what these SkySats will be able to provide,” Safyan said. “We’re looking at the future of high-res at Planet. It’s still too early to talk about the details of that. But we will continue to offer both medium-res and high-res products to our customers.

“One of the promises that Planet always makes to its customers is that our products get better over time,” Safyan said. “We don’t like to rest on our laurels. We really like to listen to the market and understand what are they evolving needs, especially as we grow the customer base.

“It’s not just industries that are traditional users of remote sensing, like government agencies and agriculture,” he said. “There are newer markets that are being opened up in finance and insurance, so better understanding those market needs as well helps us inform how we develop the product going forward. Because we’re vertically-integrated, that gives us a really big advantage of being able to take customer feedback and actually incorporate that into satellite design and operations.”

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Categories
aerospace astronomy Broadband Commercial Space Complex 40 Drone Ship Earth observation falcon 9 Launch Maxar Mike Safyan Mission Reports Mission Status Center News Planet Reusability SkySat SkySat 16 SkySat 17 SkySat 18 spacex starlink Starlink 8 Static Fire Telecom X Sidebar

Live coverage: Falcon 9 rocket ready for predawn launch Saturday

Live coverage of the countdown and launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The mission will launch SpaceX’s ninth batch of Starlink broadband satellites. Text updates will appear automatically below. Follow us on Twitter

Categories
aerospace astronomy Broadband Commercial Space Complex 40 Drone Ship Earth observation falcon 9 Launch Maxar Mike Safyan Mission Reports News Planet Reusability SkySat SkySat 16 SkySat 17 SkySat 18 spacex starlink Starlink 8 Static Fire Telecom X Home Page Highlight

Hitching a ride with SpaceX, Planet poised to complete SkySat fleet

Three of Planet’s SkySat Earth-imaging satellites are mounted on top of 58 SpaceX Starlink Internet satellites for launch Saturday. Credit: Planet / SpaceX

Three of Planet’s SkySat Earth-imaging satellites are mounted on top of 58 of SpaceX’s Starlink broadband satellites for launch Saturday from Cape Canaveral on top of a Falcon 9 rocket, the first secondary payloads to ride to orbit on SpaceX’s commercial rideshare service.

The launch of three Planet SkySat spacecraft Saturday will be followed by another Falcon 9/Starlink mission in July carrying Planet’s final three SkySats, capping off the deployment of the company’s fleet of 21 commercial high-resolution Earth observation satellites.

Mike Safyan, Planet’s vice president of launch, said SpaceX’s small satellite rideshare service, which the launch provider announced last year, was “a very attractive offering” to launch the company’s last six SkySat satellites.

While Safyan would not disclose what Planet paid SpaceX to launch the six SkySats, SpaceX has published pricing for rideshare launch services on its website. The company lists a price as low as $1 million for a 440-pound payload on a rideshare to a polar sun-synchronous orbit.

“That’s incredibly competitive pricing,” Safyan said. “Coupled with the fact that the Falcon 9 is one of the world’s most reliable and well-flown vehicles out there, and they’re going to a variety of orbits very regularly, makes it a very attractive offering.”

The cost to purchase the entire capacity of an Electron rocket mission from Rocket Lab is around $5.7 million. Rocket Lab’s Electron launcher can carry up to 496 pounds (225 kilograms) to a low-altitude orbit, or 330 pounds (150 kilograms) to a higher sun-synchronous orbit.

Safyan said SpaceX provided Planet with parameters to integrate the SkySats on top of a flat-packed stack of Starlink satellites.

Planet, headquartered in San Francisco, dispatched a small team to Cape Canaveral to prepare the three SkySats for launch.

“We were able to do it with a skeleton crew,” Safyan said in an interview with Spaceflight Now. “We were trying to minimize the number of people that needed to travel given the pandemic conditions.”

Liftoff of the Falcon 9 rocket with the SkySat and Starlink satellites is set for 5:21:18 a.m. EDT (0921:18 GMT) from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The launch comes less than 10 days after the previous Falcon 9 mission lifted off from pad 40, the shortest span between flights from the same launch pad in SpaceX’s history.

It’s also the first Falcon 9 launch to go ahead without a pre-flight test-firing of its nine Merlin first stage engines. Although SpaceX has not responded to questions on the matter, the launch team Friday was preparing for an overnight countdown ahead of Saturday’s predawn launch.

SpaceX was the only launch operator to perform static fire tests before every mission. Other companies, such as United Launch Alliance, conduct fueling rehearsals ahead of some missions, but most launch providers fuel their rockets for the first time on launch day.

The first stage booster flying on Saturday’s Falcon 9 flight previously launched and landed on two missions in December and March, each carrying a Dragon cargo capsule into space on a resupply mission to the International Space Station. The booster is flying for a third time Saturday.

It’s not clear whether SpaceX will perform static fire tests before future missions, or whether the company might only test-fire rockets making their first launch, or in preparation for missions with external customers, such as NASA or the U.S. military.

SpaceX is both the launch provider and the customer for a Falcon 9 launch with Starlink satellites. With 86 Falcon 9 flights in the books, the rocket is no longer a newly-designed launch vehicle. The Falcon 9 has logged more missions than any other U.S. launcher currently in service.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket stands on pad 40. Credit: SpaceX

In an interview with Spaceflight Now, Safyan said Planet was comfortable with launching on the Falcon 9 with or without a static fire test.

“SpaceX gave us the interface pattern, and then we designed a custom adapter plate in-house,” Safyan said. “We put together this adapter plate that would allow for three SkySats to fit onto that mounting. The SkySats sit at the top of the stack, and they get deployed as the first satellite deployment event, and Starlinks will follow thereafter.”

With the addition of three SkySats on top of the Starlink stack, SpaceX is only launching 58 Starlink platforms on Saturday’s mission, down from the typical number of 60 per launch.

Like all Starlink launches to date, the Falcon 9 rocket will blast off and head northeast from Cape Canaveral powered by 1.7 million pounds of thrust from nine Merlin 1D main engines.

Fueled by kerosene, the nine Merlin engines will burn for two-and-a-half minutes before shutting down, allowing the Falcon 9’s first stage to drop away and head for landing on SpaceX’s drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” parked in the Atlantic Ocean nearly 400 miles (630 kilometers) northeast of Cape Canaveral.

The second stage’s Merlin Vacuum engine will ignite at T+plus 2 minutes, 43 seconds. Around 30 seconds later, the Falcon 9’s clamshell-like payload fairing will jettison in two halves to drop into the Atlantic Ocean.

The two halves of the fairing launching Saturday are also reused from previous missions.

SpaceX’s two fairing recovery vessels — named Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief — are stationed in the Atlantic Ocean, presumably to attempt recovery of the payload shroud halves again.

Landing of the first stage booster on SpaceX’s drone ship is scheduled nearly nine minutes after liftoff, followed moments later by shutdown of the Falcon 9’s upper stage engine after reaching an elliptical, or egg-shaped, orbit ranging between 132 miles and 228 miles (213-by-367 kilometers) in altitude.

The orbit will be inclined 53 degrees to the equator.

The SkySats will separate from the rocket first, deploying one-at-a-time at 30-second intervals beginning around-and-a-half minutes after liftoff.

Then the Falcon 9’s upper stage will reorient for the deployment of the 58 Starlink satellites, which will separate from the rocket in one piece after the release of retention rods holding the flat-packed spacecraft onto the rocket.

Once the separation is initiated, the Starlink satellites — each weighing about a quarter-ton — will slowly fly apart from each other as they prepare to unfurl solar arrays and activate their krypton ion drives.

The krypton propulsion system will raise the satellites’ orbits to an operating altitude of 341 miles, or 550 kilometers, while SpaceX ground teams perform checkouts of each spacecraft.

With Saturday’s launch, SpaceX will have launched 538 Starlink satellites since May 2019, extending the company’s record as the owner of the largest fleet of commercial satellites.

SpaceX is on a rapid-fire launch pace, following the launch of the previous batch of Starlink satellites June 3, and another Falcon 9/Starlink mission scheduled for June 22.

SpaceX aims to launch around 1,000 more Starlink satellites later this year and next year to begin offering worldwide Internet service. Initial beta testing of the Starlink network could begin later this year, beginning in higher latitude regions like Canada and the northern United States.

Thousands more Starlink spacecraft could launch in the coming years to meet global demand, according to SpaceX.

Artist’s concept of SkySat satellites. Credit: Planet

Planet is the owner of the world’s second-largest satellite constellation, with between 100 and 150 spacecraft currently in operation. That fleet includes more than 100 medium-resolution Dove and SuperDove CubeSats — each the size of a toaster oven — and 15 larger SkySats with sharper vision.

Built by Maxar, each of the SkySat satellites weighs around 242 pounds (110 kilograms) at launch. The SkySats are about the side of a mini-refrigerator.

The first 15 SkySat satellites launched into polar sun-synchronous orbits and fly in in north-south paths around Earth. Sun-synchronous orbits are popular for remote sensing and environmental satellites because they allow regular imaging of the Earth’s surface with the sun at the same angle.

Around half of the SkySats fly in orbits timed to fly overhead in the morning, and the other half soar over imaging targets in the afternoon, providing coverage of certain parts of the globe twice per day.

The six remaining SkySats are the last of a block of spacecraft ordered from Maxar, formerly known as SSL, by Skybox Imaging. Skybox was acquired by Google and renamed Terra Bella in 2014, then Planet acquired Terra Bella and the SkySat assets in 2017.

The three SkySat satellites launching Saturday, and another three set to launch on a following Starlink mission in July, will fly at a lower-inclination orbit inclined 53 degrees to the equator. Planet says the new satellites “will offer more targeted coverage and raw image capacity in key geographic regions.”

Safyan told Spaceflight Now the SkySats will use their own propulsion to maneuver from the Starlink injection orbit to an operating altitude of around 250 miles (400 kilometers).

At that altitude, the SkySats will be able to produce images of Earth at a resolution of less than 20 inches, or 50 centimeters. Planet announced it has also lowered the orbits of its SkySats already in space to allow the collection imagery of the same quality.

The first 15 SkySats have launched on a range of rockets, riding a Ukrainian-Russian Dnepr booster in 2013, a Russian Soyuz launcher in 2014, an Indian PSLV and a European Vega rocket in 2016, Northrop Grumman’s Minotaur-C rocket in 2017, and a Falcon 9 mission in 2018.

In addition to selling excess room on Starlink missions, SpaceX is planning as many as three dedicated Falcon 9 rideshare launches per year to sun-synchronous orbit. The first of the company’s dedicated rideshare missions is scheduled for December from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The rideshare launches are similar to a sun-synchronous orbit multi-satellite launch from Vandenberg on a Falcon 9 rocket in December 2018. But that mission was managed by Spaceflight, a rideshare launch broker based in Seattle, which purchased the entire capacity of a Falcon 9 rocket and sold slots to commercial and government customers.

Now SpaceX itself is putting together rideshare launches, selling slots directly to satellite operators and brokers that then distribute mass and volume allotments to their customers.

Starlink launches take up the majority of the Falcon 9 rocket’s launch manifest this year. SpaceX has also sold capacity on the next Starlink launch, set for June 22, for two Earth-imaging satellites owned by BlackSky.

“SpaceX had a lot of different orbits we could choose from,” Safyan said. “That’s one of the advantages of going with a SpaceX rideshare because with other launch providers, they may be going to the orbit that you’re looking for, but with only one or two missions every now and again.

“But SpaceX is launching so frequently that if you’re looking for mid-inclination, you could go on a Starlink,” Safyan said. “If you’re looking for sun-synchronous, they have other rideshare opportunities. Other orbits are being offered as well. So it’s the number and frequency of opportunities that really makes a difference.”

The launch contract between SpaceX and Planet was signed just six months ago, Safyan said.

“We not only recognize that these Starlink launch opportunities were very cost-competitive on a very reliable launch vehicle, and going to the right orbit, but also the timing,” Safyan said. “We were ready to launch, and if we were to go to a dedicated launch service provider, then it could take 12 or 18 months for them to build their launch vehicle from scratch and fit it into their manifest.

“Launch companies typically don’t just have rockets sitting around on inventory that haven’t been assigned,” he said. “So being able to turn this around really quickly was another big advantage, and SpaceX is one of the few launch providers in the world that could do this so quickly.”

Planet could have launched all six of their remaining SkySats clustered together on same Starlink rideshare mission, but the company preferred to put them on two different rockets to be released into different orbital planes. That will help spread out the fleet for broader coverage, Safyan said.

“I think that there has been what appears to be kind of like a culture shirt at SpaceX with respect to the smallsat market,” Safyan said. “Previously, I think that they were much more focused on bigger payloads and dedicated launch services, and they preferred to kind of outsource aggregating smaller payloads to other brokers. With their smallsat rideshare announcement, I think that was a turning point for SpaceX where they recognize that this is a real and important market, and that they wanted to be working directly with customers.

“That’s been a really great shift for us because SpaceX works very fast. They work at a very similar pace as we do. So we were able to put together this launch in a very quick timeframe.”

The SkySats are designed for six-year missions, according to Planet.

“That gives us a pretty long runway with respect to what these SkySats will be able to provide,” Safyan said. “We’re looking at the future of high-res at Planet. It’s still too early to talk about the details of that. But we will continue to offer both medium-res and high-res products to our customers.

“One of the promises that Planet always makes to its customers is that our products get better over time,” Safyan said. “We don’t like to rest on our laurels. We really like to listen to the market and understand what are they evolving needs, especially as we grow the customer base.

“It’s not just industries that are traditional users of remote sensing, like government agencies and agriculture,” he said. “There are newer markets that are being opened up in finance and insurance, so better understanding those market needs as well helps us inform how we develop the product going forward. Because we’re vertically-integrated, that gives us a really big advantage of being able to take customer feedback and actually incorporate that into satellite design and operations.”

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Categories
aerospace astronomy Broadband Commercial Space Drone Ship falcon 9 Just Read the Instructions Launch Mission Reports News Reusability spacex starlink Starlink 7 Telecom X Home Page Highlight

SpaceX sets new mark in rocket reuse 10 years after first Falcon 9 launch

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off at 9:25 p.m. EDT Wednesday (0125 GMT Thursday) from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station with 60 more Starlink Internet satellites. Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the Falcon 9 rocket’s debut flight, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral with a reused first stage Wednesday, then landed the previously-flown booster for a record fifth time after sending 60 more Starlink Internet satellites into space.

The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 9:25 p.m. EDT Wednesday (0125 GMT Thursday).

Nine Merlin 1D engines lit the sky orange as the Falcon 9 rocket climbed into an overcast sky over Florida’s Space Coast with 1.7 million pounds of ground-shaking thrust. Two-and-a-half minutes later, the first stage turned off its engines and dropped away to head for a pinpoint touchdown on SpaceX’s offshore landing platform, or drone ship.

The rocket’s upper stage fired into orbit with the 60 Starlink satellites, and then released all of the flat-panel spacecraft at one time around 15 minutes after liftoff in a preliminary elliptical orbit. The satellites were expected to deploy their solar arrays and spread out before beginning orbit-raising maneuvers to enter SpaceX’s Starlink constellation around 341 miles (550 kilometers) above Earth.

The launch Wednesday came a little more than four days after SpaceX’s previous launch from the Florida spaceport.

A different Falcon 9 rocket took off Saturday from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center — a few miles north of pad 40 — with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station. The launch Saturday was the first time astronauts flew into orbit from U.S. soil since the final liftoff of the space shuttle program July 8, 2011.

Hurley and Behnken docked with the space station aboard their Crew Dragon capsule Sunday, and the Falcon 9 booster that carried them aloft returned to Port Canaveral Tuesday after landing on SpaceX’s ocean-going rocket recovery vessel named “Of Course I Still Love You.”

SpaceX’s other rocket retrieval drone ship, named “Just Read the Instructions,” was dispatched into the Atlantic Ocean before the other landing platform made it back to the Florida Coast with the booster from the Crew Dragon launch.

The drone ship Just Read the Instructions, or JRTI, was used for a rocket landing off Florida’s coast for the first time Wednesday night, following a transit from California after supporting a series of Falcon 9 missions from Vandenberg Air Force Base, the primary launch site on the U.S. West Coast.

After detaching from the Falcon 9’s upper stage and the rocket’s payload stack of 60 Starlink spacecraft, the 15-story-tall first stage booster maneuvered using thrusters to fly tail first, extended four stabilizing aerodynamic grid fins, and plunged back into the thick, lower atmosphere.

An entry burn using three of the first stage’s Merlin engines helped target the booster for landing on the drone ship, positioned in the Atlantic Ocean roughly 230 miles (370 kilometers) east of Charleston, South Carolina. The rocket’s center engine fired just before reaching the vessel, and four carbon fiber landing legs extended as the booster touched down on the drone ship.

With the entry into service of a second drone ship in Florida, SpaceX can remove one hurdle to achieving a faster cadence of missions from its two launch pads on the Space Coast.

Wednesday night’s launch of 60 more Starlink satellites was delayed from last month after Tropical Storm Arthur brought high winds and rough seas to the downrange recovery area northeast of Cape Canaveral in the Atlantic Ocean, where SpaceX’s drone ship needed to be positioned for landing of the Falcon 9’s first stage booster.

SpaceX decided to use the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You — originally deployed into the Atlantic for the Starlink launch — to recover the Falcon 9 first stage from the Crew Dragon mission.

With a single operational drone ship, SpaceX would require more than a week between Falcon 9 flights from different pads at Cape Canaveral, and still be able to retrieve both boosters for future flights. With two drone ships, SpaceX has demonstrated the capability to launch two Falcon 9 rockets from Florida and recover both boosters in a span of four days.

Two additional SpaceX vessels were in the Atlantic Ocean for Wednesday night’s launch to attempt to catch the two halves of the Falcon 9 rocket’s payload fairing, the aerodynamic shroud the shields satellites during the first few minutes of flight. Once in space, the Falcon 9 sheds the fairing halves to fall back to Earth with the aid of parafoils.

SpaceX has two ships equipped with giant nets to try to catch the fairings as they come back to Earth.

The booster and fairing recovery efforts pursued by SpaceX are unique the launch industry, and SpaceX made it a reality after a series of trial-and-error experiments and step-by-step redesigns of the Falcon 9 rocket.

SpaceX launched its first Falcon 9 rocket on a test flight 10 years ago Thursday from pad 40, the same launch complex that served as the departure point for Wednesday night’s mission.

Spaceflight Now covered the first Falcon 9 launch in 2010. Read our story from that day.

SpaceX’s first Falcon 9 rocket took off from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on June 4, 2010, carrying a mock-up of the company’s Dragon cargo capsule. Credit: SpaceX

The launch Wednesday night marked the 86th flight of a Falcon 9 rocket since its debut in June 2010, and the ninth Falcon 9 launch so far in 2020.

While the Falcon 9 still uses the same fundamental launch architecture as the first version of the rocket in 2010, SpaceX has revamped numerous technological details. For example, the Falcon 9’s Merlin engines have gone through multiple upgrades to produce more thrust, and SpaceX stretched the length of the rocket’s kerosene and liquid oxygen propellant tanks to gain performance.

When those upgrades proved not enough, SpaceX began loading liquid propellants into the Falcon 9 that are chilled closer to their freezing temperature. The change, known as propellant densification, allowed engineers to cram more propellants into the Falcon 9 to further improve its lift capacity.

There have also been changes to make the Falcon 9 reliable enough to carry astronauts, as the rocket did for the first time Saturday. And SpaceX has redesigned parts of the rocket’s helium pressurization system to address the causes of two catastrophic failures — one in flight in 2015 and another on the launch pad in 2016 — that destroyed a pair of Falcon 9 rockets and their payloads.

But the most dramatic change to the Falcon 9’s design since 2010 has been in how SpaceX lands and reuses the first stage boosters.

SpaceX originally hoped to use a parachute to slow down returning rocket boosters for a gentle splashdown at sea. When that didn’t work, engineers devised a way to land the rocket vertically using variable thrust from the booster’s throttleable Merlin engines.

In some cases, when a satellite payload is light enough, the Falcon 9 first stage carries enough reserve propellant to reverse course and return to an onshore landing pad near the launch site. In cases where a payload is heavier, or if a satellite needs more energy from the Falcon 9 to go to a more distant orbit, the Falcon 9 booster arcs toward a landing on a downrange drone ship after releasing the rocket’s upper stage to continue the push into space.

Avoiding a splashdown in the ocean ensures sensitive engine components are not exposed to corrosive salt water, easing refurbishment and reuse.

SpaceX installed landing lets, aerodynamic fins and a heat shield on Falcon 9 boosters to make the recovery experiments a success. The company first recovered a Falcon 9 first stage intact on a land-based pad in December 2015, then successfully landed on a drone ship at sea for the first time in April 2016.

With Wednesday night’s booster landing, SpaceX has recovered 53 Falcon rockets, including boosters used on the company’s triple-body Falcon Heavy launcher.

The achievements have allowed SpaceX to reduce its launch costs — in some cases below $50 million — and caused rival launch providers to change plans, cut prices, and develop new rockets to try to compete with the Falcon 9.

SpaceX has won commercial business that previously went to international launch companies, and the company is now certified to launch NASA astronauts and sensitive U.S. military satellites.

Although SpaceX’s relatively low launch prices compared to competitors has lured customers from around the world, the bulk of the Falcon 9 flights in recent months have been dedicated to the company’s own satellite constellation.

The Starlink fleet could eventually number tens of thousands of satellites to beam broadband Internet services to customers lacking reliable, high-speed connectivity via terrestrial networks. Designed for low-latency broadband links, the Starlink network could be used by rural customers, support schools, hospitals and businesses in developing countries, and provide service to the U.S. military.

With Wednesday’s flight, SpaceX has launched 480 Starlink satellites on eight dedicated Falcon 9 missions since May 2010.

SpaceX aims to launch around 1,000 more Starlink satellites later this year and next year to begin offering worldwide Internet service. Initial beta testing of the Starlink network could begin later this year, beginning in higher latitude regions like Canada and the northern United States, the company says.

Thousands more Starlink spacecraft could launch in the coming years to meet global demand, according to SpaceX.

A new sunshade to reduce the brightness of the Starlink satellites was also due to be demonstrated on one of the spacecraft on Wednesday night’s launch. The umbrella-like visor will block sunlight from reaching the shiniest parts of the flat-panel spacecraft, making them less visible from the ground.

Scientists have raised concerns that thousands of Starlink satellites — as envisioned by SpaceX — could impact astronomical observations through ground-based telescopes. So far, SpaceX has answered with an experimental darkening treatment that offered some reduction in visibility, and the company says it is changing the orientation of the Starlink satellites during the period shortly after launch to turn their solar panels away from the sun.

The sunshade should provide a more significant dimming effect, SpaceX says.

With Wednesday night’s mission in the books, SpaceX plans two more Falcon 9 launches later this month from pad 40 and pad 39A to deliver more Starlink satellites into orbit from Cape Canaveral. SpaceX is also gearing up for the launch of a U.S. military GPS navigation satellite from pad 40 no earlier than June 30.

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.