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SpaceX Falcon Heavy to launch NASA ocean moon explorer, saving the US billions

In a move that’s likely to save the US taxpayer several billion dollars over the next few years, NASA has carefully extricated a mission to one of Jupiter’s ocean moons from the claws of its own Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.

Known as Europa Clipper, the six metric ton (~13,300 lb) spacecraft will instead launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket for less than $180M. Had Falcon Heavy not been ready or NASA shied away from the challenge of switching launch vehicles, sending the ~$4.25 billion orbiter to Jupiter could have easily added more than $3 billion to the mission’s total cost. Instead, Europa Clipper will be able to launch one or two years earlier than SLS would have been ready and at a cost that’s practically a rounding error relative to the alternative.

Measuring approximately 3100 km (~1940 mi) in diameter, Europa is approximately 10% smaller and 30% less massive than Earth’s Moon. Both are similar balls of rock with solid metallic cores. However, based on observations taken over decades by spacecraft and Earth-based telescopes, odds are good that Europa also has a vast liquid water ocean insulated by 10-30 km (6-20 mi) of ice so cold that it’s as hard as granite.

Scientists estimate that Europa’s saltwater ocean is dozens to 100+ km (~62 mi) deep, covers the moon’s entire surface, and holds more water than all of Earth’s oceans combined. Signs of a liquid ocean under Europa’s crust (and the crust of numerous other outer solar system moons, as it would turn out) were especially surprising because of the implication that those moons possessed vast heat sources. In the case of Europa, it’s believed that Jupiter’s immense gravitational pull and the moon’s close orbit are balanced in such a way that Europa is heated as those tidal forces violently stretch and squeeze its interior.

In an orbit 30% lower than Europa, tidal heating is so aggressive that the moon Io is littered with titanic volcanoes and lava lakes more than 200 km (~120 mi) across – so large that waves have been spotted on its surface with Earth-based telescopes. In short, because Europa appears to be in the right place to have enough – but not too much – tidal heating, it’s believed to be one of the best potential harbors of extraterrestrial life and Europa Clipper’s primary purpose is to pursue that potential astrobiological treasure trove.

Europa Clipper’s history is a truly bizarre one. Championed almost singlehandedly by fundamentalist Christian and former Republican Representative John Culberson, it’s almost certain that the mission would have never come together and never secured enough funding to proceed. Culberson’s singular goal: determine if humanity is (or is not) alone in the universe. If life can independently evolve twice in the same average solar system, the logic goes, it would practically guarantee that life will be omnipresent anywhere we look.

Culberson’s original vision was an orbiter (Clipper) that would effectively scout Europa for a lander that would follow just a few years later. Incredibly, he appears to have all but guaranteed that Europa Clipper will launch. However, he lost a reelection bid in 2018, casting the lander component into limbo before proper funding or commitments could be ascertained. It now seems likely that the future of Europa Lander will depend almost entirely on what Clipper does (or doesn’t) find.

Europa Clipper is now scheduled to launch on an expendable Falcon Heavy rocket no earlier than a two-week window set to open in October 2024. As part of the politicking to secure the billions of dollars needed to fund the mission, Culberson originally shackled Europa Clipper to NASA’s SLS rocket – now half a decade behind schedule and set to cost more than $23 billion before its first launch. However, it appears that SLS is so mismanaged and uncharacterized that even its infamously zealous, pork-motivated Congressional cheerleaders weren’t willing to put up a public fight to retain the SLS rocket’s only confirmed non-human payload.

Ultimately, on launch alone, Falcon Heavy’s Europa Clipper launch will likely save taxpayers more than $2 billion – the likely minimum cost of a single SLS Cargo launch. Due to issues with the rocket, Ars Technica also reports that Europa Clipper and SLS would have required at least $1 billion in modifications and upgrades to safely fly, meaning that choosing SpaceX will likely end up saving NASA more than $3 billion – equivalent to almost three-quarters of the entire Europa Clipper mission’s price tag.

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Falcon Heavy to launch Europa Clipper

Europa Clipper

WASHINGTON — NASA has selected SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy to launch its Europa Clipper mission to a potentially habitable moon of Jupiter, a choice that appeared inevitable once NASA was no longer required to use the Space Launch System.

NASA announced July 23 that it awarded a launch services contract to SpaceX for the October 2024 launch of Europa Clipper on a Falcon Heavy rocket. The contract is valued at $178 million.

The award to SpaceX was expected after Congress, in the fiscal year 2021 omnibus spending bill passed in December 2020, gave the agency the flexibility to choose an alternative launch vehicle for the mission. Previous years’ spending bills required the use of the SLS for Europa Clipper, even as NASA requested the flexibility to acquire a commercial launch vehicle.

Congress relented because of potential hardware compatibility issues found last year between Europa Clipper and SLS. The 2021 spending bill directed NASA to use SLS for Europa Clipper only if “the SLS is available and if torsional loading analysis has confirmed Clipper’s appropriateness for SLS.”

A month after the passage of the bill, NASA directed the Europa Clipper project to halt all planning for launching the spacecraft on SLS and instead prepare to use a commercial vehicle. “We now have clarity on the launch vehicle path and launch date,” Robert Pappalardo, project scientist for Europa Clipper at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said at a meeting in early February.

That decision made it likely NASA would select SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy given the technical requirements for the mission and the launch vehicles available to meet it. NASA placed Europa Clipper in its “Category 3” requirements for launch services, requiring that vehicles have performed at least three successful launches, including at least two successful consecutive launches.

Falcon Heavy has flown three times, all successfully, although it has not launched since June 2019. Alternative vehicles with the performance required for the mission, such as Blue Origin’s New Glenn and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur, will not make their first launches until at least next year.

Launching Europa Clipper on Falcon Heavy, rather than SLS, results in trade-offs on both cost and schedule. NASA, in its fiscal year 2021 budget request, argued that a commercial launch could save the agency “over $1.5 billion compared to using a Space Launch System rocket.” By contrast, a NASA Office of Inspector General report in 2019 concluded the cost difference could be less than $300 million, although that study estimated the cost of a Falcon Heavy launch at $450 million, more than twice the value of the contract awarded to SpaceX.

What is not in doubt, though, is that SLS would have offered a faster ride for Europa Clipper. An SLS launch would have allowed the spacecraft to fly directly to Jupiter, arriving less than three years after launch. With Falcon Heavy, Europa Clipper will make gravity-assist flybys of Mars and Earth, arriving at Jupiter five and a half years after launch.

The Europa Clipper contract adds to a growing manifest of future Falcon Heavy missions for NASA, the Defense Department and commercial customers. That includes contracts awarded by NASA in February for the launch of the first two modules of the lunar Gateway and by Astrobotic in April for the launch of its Griffin lunar lander carrying a NASA lunar rover. The Gateway launch is currently scheduled for November 2024, just one month after the Europa Clipper launch.

Ironically, the hardware compatibility issue that finally gave NASA the flexibility to select a vehicle other than SLS to launch Europa Clipper may not have been as severe as once thought. While NASA disclosed few specifics about the problem, Steve Jurczyk, NASA acting administrator in March, said it involved higher lateral loads on the spacecraft during an SLS launch than what the spacecraft was designed for.

“Given that the design is done and some of the hardware is already manufactured, it was going to be very challenging from a cost and schedule standpoint to modify the spacecraft or develop an isolation system to handle the lateral load issue,” he said in a March interview.

However, Robert Stough of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, speaking at a meeting of the steering committee of the planetary science decadal survey July 7, argued that engineers had used “very conservative” limits when doing the initial analysis. “It really was a nonissue at the end of the day,” he argued.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SpaceX sets new goals for Falcon booster reuse goals after ten-flight milestone

Speaking virtually at Barcelona’s 2021 Mobile World Congress (MWC), CEO Elon Musk says that SpaceX has already set its sights on even more ambitious reusability goals for Falcon rocket boosters.

Less than two months prior, booster B1051 sent 60 satellites and an upper stage on their way to orbit, simultaneously becoming the first Falcon 9 first stage to ace ten orbital-class launches and landings, crossing a mostly symbolic – but still significant – milestone years in the making. SpaceX competitors – most notably the United Launch Alliance – have often held the ten-flight mark over its head as the latest in a long line of moving goalposts used to discredit, demean, and look down upon reusable rockets and SpaceX’s efforts to realize them.

Not long before it was clear that SpaceX would hit that 10-flight target with at least one Falcon booster, competitors working overtime to rationalize a lack of substantial investment into reusable rockets shifted their goalposts again, expanding rationales to require a fleetwide average of ten flights. Instead of explaining why SpaceX’s reusability plans could never work, as many dozens of aerospace executives have assuredly done over the last 5-10 years, the new attitude du jour is to claim that SpaceX’s ability to achieve its reuse goals was never actually in doubt and that the economics of full booster reuse simply can’t make economic sense!

Now, five and half years after Falcon 9’s first successful booster landing, four years after SpaceX’s first successful booster reuse, and seven weeks after a Falcon 9 first stage’s first ten-flight milestone, Elon Musk says that some of the company’s fleet of boosters are already “slated to fly 20 or possibly 30 times.” Never one to personally rest or allow his companies to rest on their laurels, SpaceX now has a new target to strive for as teams work to ramp and sustain Falcon 9’s launch cadence at record-breaking levels.

Back before Falcon 9’s Block 5 upgrade debuted in May 2018, Musk held a press conference in which he made it abundantly clear that it was SpaceX’s “unequivocal intent” to launch new Falcon boosters up to 10 times without refurbishment. Three years later, although SpaceX ultimately abandoned plans to recover and reuse Falcon 9’s upper stage to prioritize Starship development, Musk’s dream of cutting the cost of launch by a full magnitude has almost been realized.

Technically, if SpaceX had developed a reusable upper stage, Falcon 9 as it stands today could feasibly cost just ~10% of its list price (~$6 million. Factoring in the cost of a new expendable upper stage for each mission, the actual cost of a modern Falcon 9 launch with a flight-proven booster and payload fairing is closer to ~$18M. However, in the same June 2021 interview, Musk confirmed that the cost of Falcon 9 operations – as in refurbishment, recovery, consumables, and any other recurring work – is just 10% of the cost of launch, effectively confirming that Falcon 9’s Block 5 upgrade really did create a rocket booster that requires virtually no refurbishment.

B1051, SpaceX’s first ten-flight Falcon 9 booster. (Richard Angle)

Back in Musk’s 2018 conference call, he also noted that beyond plans for up to ten flights without refurbishment, Falcon boosters could feasibly be made to fly dozens or even 100+ times with occasional in-depth maintenance – not unlike modern aircraft. Three years later, Musk is now talking about launching certain Falcon boosters 20 or 30 times, while something approximating the recurring maintenance he once described has yet to crop up.

It’s possible, in other words, that SpaceX has found that Falcon 9 Block 5 boosters – which do need some small amount of refurbishment and inspection after each launch – can actually be flown 20 or 30 times without major rework. Ultimately, only time will tell, but Falcon 9 B1051’s 11th flight is expected – this time from the West Coast – as early as late July or August 2021, carrying SpaceX’s first or second dedicated batch of polar Starlink satellites. B1051 arrived at Vandenberg Air/Space Force Base (VAFB) in late June about a month after Falcon 9 B1049 – likely set to become the second booster to complete ten launches.

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SpaceX’s next Falcon Heavy launches delayed by military satellite issues

SpaceX’s next Falcon Heavy launches will have to wait several more months after issues unrelated to the rocket forced the US military to delay two upcoming missions.

In an official email sent to outlet Via Satellite on May 19th, the director of the US Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) revealed that the Space Force’s first SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch – known as USSF-44 – was pushed from July to October 2021 “to accommodate payload readiness.” Translated, the common military euphemism likely implies that the mission’s main geostationary satellite payload ran into significant delays in the last year or so and may have also been responsible for an earlier launch delay from April to July 2021.

Possibly connected to USSF-52’s delays, US SMC Colonel Robert Bongiovi indicated in a separate medium that SpaceX’s fifth Falcon Heavy launch and second mission for the US Space Force had also been hit by delays, originally slipping from June to October 2021 and now from October 2021 to sometime in 2022.

That leaves just one Falcon Heavy launch now scheduled for 2021. Set to debut two new recoverable side boosters and the first intentionally expendable center core, all Falcon Heavy USSF-44 hardware was likely ready to go at SpaceX’s Florida launch facilities by April. Unfortunately, SpaceX – seemingly on time or only slightly behind schedule for Q2 2021 launch – will now have to sit on that Falcon Heavy hardware for the better part of half a year.

The latest of at least four new Falcon Heavy boosters, expendable Falcon Heavy center core B1066 wrapped up testing at SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas development facilities in March and likely shipped to Florida a few weeks later. B1066 followed Falcon Heavy side boosters B1064 and B1065, which completed their own static fire acceptance testing in Texas in late 2020 and early 2021. Given that B1066 will be intentionally expended after its first flight, at least one other Falcon Heavy center core (and probably two or more) is also in work to support SpaceX’s USSF-52 launch sometime next year.

That second new center core – likely B1068 or B1069 – has yet to ship from SpaceX’s Hawthorne, California factory to Texas. If the company was in any rush, significant USSF-44 and USSF-52 payload delays have removed practically all production schedule pressure, giving SpaceX at least 3-5 extra months to test and ship any incomplete boosters, upper stages, or fairings for both missions and prepare for several others.

Barring major delays, SpaceX now has as many as five Falcon Heavy launches scheduled in 2022. USSF-52 is likely up first early in the year, followed by ViaSat’s second ViaSat-3 launch as early as Q1. The rocket is then firmly scheduled to launch NASA’s Psyche asteroid exploration mission in August 2022 and the Space Force’s geostationary USSF-67 satellite(s) in Q4. Finally, one of Inmarsat’s two next-generation I-6 satellites could also launch on Falcon Heavy sometime in 2022, though a specific schedule has yet to be set.

All told, Falcon Heavy has an extremely busy future ahead despite what is now likely to be a more than 28-month gap between the rocket’s third and fourth launch.

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SpaceX set to launch six commercial Moon landers after latest win

After securing yet another contract, SpaceX Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets are now scheduled to launch at least six commercial Moon landers over the next two and a half years.

On May 20th, rocket startup Firefly Aerospace announced that it had selected a SpaceX Falcon 9 to launch its first Blue Ghost Moon lander as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. While Firefly is preparing to launch its own Alpha rocket for the first time later this year, a rocket that is technically capable of launching Blue Ghost with the help of an electric ‘space tug,’ the company is apparently prioritizing maximum payload delivery and on-time performance.

As a result, Firefly has contracted with a direct competitor to launch its first Moon lander, becoming the sixth company to select SpaceX’s Falcon rockets for that purpose.

Thanks to Firefly’s decision to use Falcon 9 instead of Alpha, the first Blue Ghost spacecraft should be able to deliver up to 150 kg (330 lb) of NASA payloads to the lunar surface – three times more than Alpha would allow. That makes Firefly the sixth Moon-bound company to be won over by the unique combination of affordability and performance offered by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.

The first of those missions – Israel’s Beresheet spacecraft – already flew in early 2020 as part of a unique rideshare with a commercial geostationary communications satellite. Unfortunately, the lander suffered an avionics failure just a few minutes before touchdown, causing Beresheet to impact the Moon far too quickly. While it’s no longer clear if that’s still the case, Firefly Aerospace’s Blue Ghost lander may borrow significantly from Beresheet and the lessons Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) learned from the mission’s successes and failures. At the same time, IAI is also working on its own follow-up Moon lander mission.

As part of NASA’s CLPS program, SpaceX has won launch contracts for five of the six landers announced, one of which went to ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket. One of those six landers wound up canceling their contract due to corporate issues, leaving SpaceX with four of five CLPS launch contracts. The company is currently on track to launch two Intuitive Machines Nova-C landers on Falcon 9 rockets in Q1 and Q4 2022, Masten Space System’s XL-1 lander in 2022, Firefly’s first Blue Ghost lander on a Falcon 9 rocket in 2023, and Astrobotics first large Griffin lander – carrying NASA’s VIPER Moon rover – on a Falcon Heavy rocket in Q4 2023.

Outside of NASA, Japanese startup ispace has selected SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets to launch its first two commercial Hakuto-R Moon landers, beginning as early as Q4 2022. All told, SpaceX has contracts to launch at least six Moon landers in 2022 and 2023.

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SpaceX sleuths spot third drone ship under construction in Louisiana

For the first time, SpaceX fleet-tracking sleuths have confirmed the identity and location – and captured photos – of the company’s third rocket recovery ‘drone ship.’

After several years of waiting for more details and multiple apparent delays, new information and photos allow us to finally determine what exactly that third drone ship – to be named A Shortfall Of Gravitas (ASOG) – will bring to the table when it enters SpaceX’s greater fleet.

While SpaceX could have feasibly gone in any number of directions, ranging from a clean-sheet build to something more akin to Blue Origin’s plans to convert a keeled cargo ship, it appears that the company ultimately settled on the simplest possible option – effectively replicating one of its two existing drone ships. Drone ships Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) and Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) are both converted barges based on virtually identical Marmac 303 and 304 vessels.

SpaceX’s barge conversion approach produces recovery ships with a massive, flat 300′ by 200′ (90 by 60 meter) surface perfect for supporting Falcon booster landings. SpaceX has also used the space available to add small garages to each ship for “Octagrabber” robots that allow recovery teams to remotely secure landed boosters – far safer than the hands-on alternative. Barges are also extremely affordable and simple to own, operate, and modify relative to crewed ships, making the conversion and certification process far easier.

Nevertheless, barges are flat-bottomed ships, meaning that they are more or less fully at the mercy of seas and weather, which can often force SpaceX to delay launches. At least as far as SpaceX’s current efforts go, its drone ships are must also be towed by tugboat to and from recovery zones and are only able to use their onboard propulsion for station-keeping once there. That means that SpaceX’s “drone ships” aren’t actually autonomous, per se, and are completely reliant upon several crewed support ships to do their jobs, translating to not-insignificant expenses for each at-sea booster recovery.

Given those challenges and the fact that A Shortfall Of Gravitas was originally expected to enter service some two years ago, it would have been far from surprising if SpaceX took that time to design and build a wholly new kind of rocket recovery ship meant to tackle those established issues. Instead, though, SpaceX appears to be adding an almost identical third ship to its fleet of converted barges, suggesting that the current fleet’s limitations weren’t worth the hassle to solve.

Simultaneously, signs suggest that SpaceX is on the cusp of reactivating its West Coast launch facilities for a dozen or more polar Starlink missions – missions that will very likely require drone ship booster landings for maximum efficiency. As such, it’s entirely possible that one of SpaceX’s three drone ships will immediately head for the Panama Canal as soon as ASOG is ready to enter the fleet. In other words, SpaceX’s East Coast fleet will likely continue to have two drone ships for the indefinite future.

In the meantime, it’s possible that drone ship ASOG could be ready to join its siblings just a few months from now. Stay tuned for updates!

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SpaceX Falcon Heavy beats out ULA Vulcan rocket for NASA Moon rover launch

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket appears to have edged out competitor United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) next-generation Vulcan Centaur launch vehicle to send a NASA rover and commercial lander to the Moon in 2023.

Back in August 2019, not long after NASA first began announcing significant contracts under its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, startup Astrobotic announced that it contracted with ULA to launch its first small “Peregrine” lander and a dozen or so attached NASA payloads to the Moon in 2021. Rather than the extremely expensive but operational Atlas V rocket, the startup instead chose to manifest Peregrine on the first launch of Vulcan Centaur, a new ULA rocket meant to replace both Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy.

Less than two years later, Astrobotic has decided to purchase a dedicated launch from SpaceX – not ULA – for even larger “Griffin” lander that aims to deliver NASA’s ice-prospecting VIPER rover to the Moon and kick off the exploration of permanently-shadowed craters at its south pole.

Astrobotic’s Griffin lander and NASA’s VIPER rover. (Astrobotic)

Back in August 2019, Astrobotic’s announcement stated that “it selected United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Vulcan Centaur rocket in a [highly competitive commercial process].” It later became clear that the Peregrine lander – while still scheduled to be sent directly to the Moon on a trans-lunar injection (TLI) trajectory – would not be the only payload on the mission. None of Vulcan Flight 1’s other payloads are known, but the presence of other paying customers helps explain how Vulcan beat SpaceX for the contract.

More importantly, companies willing to risk their payload(s) on new rockets have historically been enticed to overlook some of that first-flight risk with major discounts. In other words, in the often unlikely event that a company manages to sell a commercial rocket’s first launch, it’s incredibly unlikely that the same rocket will ever sell that cheaply again.

Falcon Heavy Flight 3 made use of both flight-proven side boosters and a new center core. Note the scorched landing legs and sooty exteriors. (SpaceX)
It’s likely that Griffin-1 and VIPER will launch on a Falcon Heavy rocket with two or all three of its boosters already flight-proven. (NASA – Kim Shiflett)
Peregrine. (Astrobotic)
Griffin is substantially larger and more complex than Peregrine, which is scheduled to attempt its first Moon landing some 6-9 months from now. (Astrobotic)

That appears to be exactly the case for ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, which secured a lunar lander contract for its launch debut only to lose a similar lunar lander launch contract from the same company – well within the range of Vulcan’s claimed capabilities – less than two years later. If SpaceX’s relatively expensive Falcon Heavy managed to beat early Vulcan launch pricing, there is virtually no chance whatsoever that Vulcan Centaur will ever be able to commercially compete with Falcon 9.

In fact, back in 2015 when Astrobotic began making noise about its plans to build commercial Moon landers, the larger Griffin was expected to weigh some 2220 kg (~4900 lb) fully-fueled and – when combined with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 workhorse – be able to land payloads as large as 270 kg (~600 lb) on the Moon. It’s unclear if that figure assumed an expendable Falcon 9 launch or if it was using numbers from the rocket’s most powerful variant, which was still a few years away at the time.

Either way, NASA’s VIPER lander – expected to have a launch mass of ~430 kg (~950 lb) is a bit too heavy for a single-stick Falcon 9 flight to TLI. It’s also reasonable to assume that Griffin’s dry and fueled mass has grown substantially after more than half a decade of design maturation and the first Peregrine lander reaching the hardware production and assembly phase. While Falcon 9 narrowly falls short of the performance needed for Griffin/VIPER, a fully recoverable Falcon Heavy is capable of launching more than 6.5 metric tons to TLI, offering a safety margin of almost 100%.

Astrobotic says it has purchased a dedicated Falcon Heavy launch for Griffin-1 and VIPER, but it would be far from surprising to see one or multiple secondary payloads find their way onto a mission with multiple tons of extra capacity. Presumably assuming that its Q4 2021 or early 2022 Peregrine Moon landing debut is successful, Astrobotic and SpaceX aim to land Griffin-1 and NASA’s VIPER rover on the Moon as early as “late 2023.”

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Astrobotic selects Falcon Heavy to launch NASA’s VIPER lunar rover

SpaceX Falcon Heavy

WASHINGTON — Astrobotic has signed a contract with SpaceX for the launch of its Griffin lunar lander, carrying a NASA lunar rover, on a Falcon Heavy in 2023.

Astrobotic announced April 13 that it selected SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy for its Griffin Mission 1 lunar lander mission, which will deliver the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) spacecraft to the south pole of the moon in late 2023. Astrobotic won a NASA competition through the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program last year to transport VIPER on its Griffin lunar lander.

“Getting to the moon isn’t just about building a spacecraft, but having a complete mission solution. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy completes our Griffin Mission 1 solution by providing a proven launch vehicle to carry us on our trajectory to the moon,” Daniel Gillies, director of Griffin Mission 1 at Astrobotic, said in a statement.

Astrobotic declined to disclose the terms of the deal. SpaceX publishes a list price of $90 million on its website for Falcon Heavy, although some government contracts for Falcon Heavy missions have been significantly more expensive. Astrobotic also declined to identify what other launch options it considered for the mission.

VIPER is a NASA mission to investigate permanently shadowed regions of craters at the lunar south pole that may contain deposits of water ice that could serve as resources for future crewed missions. It is designed to operate for 100 days after landing.

NASA originally planned to launch VIPER in 2022, with a mission cost of $250 million. However, NASA postponed the launch to late 2023 to provde more time for work to increase VIPER’s mission life from 14 to 100 days. That, in turn, drove up the cost of VIPER to $433.5 million, NASA disclosed in March.

VIPER is the biggest mission that is part of CLPS, a NASA initiative to purchase payload accommodations on commercial lunar landers. Astrobotic won a $199.5 million task order in June 2020 to deliver VIPER to the lunar surface on its Griffin lander.

Most of the landers flying CLPS missions selected to date will launch on SpaceX. Intuitive Machines, which won CLPS task orders for two lander missions, will launch each on Falcon 9 vehicles late this year and in 2022. Masten Space Systems selected SpaceX to provide launch services for its XL-1 lander mission, which won a CLPS award for a late 2022 mission.

Astrobotic will launch its first CLPS mission, a smaller lunar lander called Peregrine, on the inaugural launch of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur currently scheduled for late this year. Firefly Aerospace, which won the most recent CLPS award in January, has not selected a launch provider yet for its Blue Ghost lander, but noted the lander is too large to launch on the company’s own Alpha rocket.

The Astrobotic contract adds to a growing backlog for the Falcon Heavy, which has not flown since the Space Test Program (STP) 2 mission in June 2019. The next Falcon Heavy launch is expected no earlier than July, carrying a classified payload for the U.S. Space Force. Another Falcon Heavy launch for the Space Force is scheduled for late this year.

SpaceX has won NASA contracts for Falcon Heavy, including the launch of the Psyche mission the metallic asteroid of the same name in 2022 and, in February, the first two elements of the lunar Gateway in 2024. Falcon Heavy is also the front-runner for the ongoing competition to launch the Europa Clipper mission after NASA concluded that mission could not launch on the Space Launch System as originally planned.

Gillies, the Astrobotic manager for Griffin Mission 1, previously worked at SpaceX, where he was a mission integrator for the STP-2 Falcon Heavy launch. “Having previously sat on the other side of the table as a former SpaceX mission manager, I am fully aware of SpaceX’s capabilities and processes and am excited to be working with SpaceX on a mission once again,” he said.

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SpaceX Texas test HQ fires up a dozen Falcon, Starship rocket engines in six hours

Though it often falls under the radar relative to SpaceX’s high-profile Boca Chica Starship hub, another even more important Texas outpost appears to be busier than ever testing the rocket engines and boosters instrumental to all SpaceX operations.

Famous for occasionally supporting half a dozen or more rocket tests on busy days, SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas facilities showed off exactly that kind of rapid-fire activity on Friday, March 19th, flexing the sheer variety and volume of rocket hardware liable to pass through its gates.

A 2017 overview provides the best recent view behind the scenes of SpaceX’s McGregor, TX rocket development and testing facilities.

Located on the grounds of a former US military explosives factory, SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas rocket development and test facilities have been testing Falcon, Dragon, and Starship parts and supporting each program’s development for a decade and a half. After being fabricated and assembled in Hawthorne, California virtually every single active propulsive component SpaceX has flown spent some amount of time in McGregor.

For boosters, every cold gas maneuvering thruster is qualified in Texas before being sent back to Hawthorne for final installation. Each stage’s nine Merlin 1D engines are individually tested in McGregor, shipped back to Hawthorne, installed on a booster, shipped back to McGregor, and static fired as an integrated first stage before SpaceX deems a Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy core ready for flight. The exact same process (individual engines followed by integrated vehicles) is performed with Falcon upper stages and their Merlin Vacuum engines, as well as all Dragon spacecraft and their Draco (and SuperDraco) thrusters. The same is true for the Raptor engines and cold-gas thrusters that power Starship.

On March 19th, nearly all of those different engines and vehicles – and the separate stands used to test each of them – came together for an exceptionally busy day at McGregor. According to local resident Reagan (@bluemoondance74), who lives within earshot of SpaceX’s extraordinarily busy rocket testing HQ, at least five unique tests were performed in just six hours – all but one of which was squeezed into the last ~125 minutes.

Around 2:40 pm, an unknown test – possibly a Merlin Vacuum (MVac) or Merlin 1D (M1D) engine – kicked off the salvo. Four hours later, SpaceX completed arguably the most significant test of the day, firing up the first Falcon Heavy center core to head to McGregor in almost 24 months. Assuming that static fire was a success, the booster will be inspected, have its tanks cleaned, and be shipped to Florida to complete the first stage of SpaceX’s fourth Falcon Heavy rocket for a launch as early as July.

An hour and a half after the Falcon Heavy center core’s static fire, SpaceX fired up a Raptor engine (either a sea level or vacuum variant), followed by another likely M1D or MVac test just minutes later. Finally, at 8:52 pm, SpaceX ignited a second Raptor engine at an entirely separate vertical test stand (known as the tripod stand) recently modified to support testing Starship engines in a more flight-like configuration. Altogether, assuming no repeated tests, SpaceX effectively tested a booster and 13 (9+4) rocket engines in a little over six hours.

Both Merlin 1D test bays are usually occupied. (SpaceX)
Sans nozzle, a Merlin Vacuum engine is static fired on a stand adjacent to those M1D bays. (SpaceX)
A sea-level Raptor operates at one of McGregor’s two horizontal test bays. (SpaceX)
SpaceX tests Raptor Vacuum prototypes on the same horizontal bays. (SpaceX)
A vertical test stand also helps SpaceX test Raptors in more flight-like conditions.

More likely than not, one or both of those Raptors will soon find themselves on a Starship or Super Heavy prototype in Boca Chica. The M1D and/or MVac engines will assuredly find a place on a future Falcon booster or upper stage. The Falcon Heavy center core (B1065 or B1066) is scheduled to launch as early as July 2021 and – if SpaceX can end its center core curse and recover it in one piece – will hopefully support many more launches after that.

All told, SpaceX’s McGregor rocket testing HQ is about as busy as – if not busier than – it’s ever been as the company works towards an unprecedentedly ambitious 48-launch 2021 manifest, builds and flies at least four Dragon spacecraft, and pursues an even more ambitious effort to begin orbital Starship launches this summer. Quieted away in rural Texas, McGregor may largely go unnoticed but its infrastructure remains as integral as ever for virtually every single SpaceX project – past, present, and future.

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