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ULA, SpaceX win landmark multibillion-dollar launch agreements with Pentagon

Artist’s concept of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket. Credit: ULA

United Launch Alliance and SpaceX beat out Northrop Grumman and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin for billions of dollars in U.S. military rocket contracts, and will share the load in launching the Pentagon’s highest-priority national security space missions through 2027, officials announced Friday.

ULA, the 50-50 joint venture formed in 2006 by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, will get 60 percent of the military’s most critical satellite launch contracts awarded through late 2024 for missions that will take off between 2022 and late 2027. SpaceX will receive 40 percent of the national security launch contracts over the same period, the Pentagon said.

The Pentagon did not select proposals submitted by Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin.

The agreements cover contracts to launch satellites for the U.S. Space Force, the National Reconnaissance Office, the Missile Defense Agency, and other military services and agencies, providing an anchor customer for SpaceX and ULA.

“This is a groundbreaking day, culminating years of strategic planning and effort by the Department of the Air Force, NRO, and our launch service industry partners,” said Will Roper, assistant secretary of the U.S. Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics. “Maintaining a competitive launch market, servicing both government and commercial customers, is how we encourage continued innovation on assured access to space.”

The agreements with ULA and SpaceX are part of Phase 2 of the Pentagon’s effort to transition military satellite launches off of rockets using Russian-made RD-180 engines, and onto vehicles with U.S.-built engines. ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket has launched more national security satellites than any other rocket currently in service, and its first stage is powered by the RD-180 engine.

The procurement strategy is also intended to reduce launch costs for the Pentagon.

“We have been stuck on Russian RD-180 engines for too long,” Roper said Friday in a conference call with reporters. It is a risk to our national security, so many years ago the Air Force decided to create an acquisition strategy to get us through the sole-source environment that we were in with a single rocket provider, and still tied to Russian engines, (and) build up a competitive U.S. industry base that would ultimately culminate in today, in a Phase 2 award to two vendors.”

The announcement Friday also marked the end of a hard-fought competition between four major players in the U.S. space industry for a chance at billions of dollars in revenue from lucrative military launch contracts.

ULA is developing the next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket, with all U.S.-made engines, to replace its Atlas and Delta launch vehicles, and SpaceX offered the Pentagon its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets already in service, albeit with some modifications to meet the military’s demanding launch requirements.

“ULA is honored to be selected as one of two launch providers in this procurement,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and CEO. “Vulcan Centaur is the right choice for critical national security space missions and was purpose built to meet all of the requirements of our nation’s space launch needs.

“For decades, we have been a trusted partner to safely and securely deliver strategic national security space assets for our nation’s defense and this award shows the continued confidence of our customer in the commitment and dedication of our people to safeguard these missions by reliably launching our country’s most critical and challenging missions,” Bruno said in a statement.

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment Friday on the Pentagon launch contract award.

Northrop Grumman’s OmegA rocket and Blue Origin’s New Glenn launch vehicle were also in the running.

Despite losing out on the Phase 2 awards with their own rockets, Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin will still get business through national security launches. Northrop Grumman will supply solid rocket boosters and Blue Origin will build BE-4 main engines for ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket.

“We evaluated every proposal by the published award criteria, technical factors being first and foremost, then followed by past performance, their ability to work with small business, and then finally totally evaluated price,” Roper said. “Every proposal is evaluated. We call the ball and strikes as they are, and the ability to meet those technical factors — to do the mission –is the most important thing above all.”

For nearly a decade, the Pentagon awarded sole-source national security launch contracts to ULA, which builds and operates the fleet of Atlas and Delta rockets that have delivered to orbit nearly all of the military’s large reconnaissance, surveillance, communications, navigation and missile warning satellites currently in use.

But rising launch costs, pressure from upstart SpaceX, and worsening diplomatic relations with Russia prompted the Air Force to rethink its rocket procurement strategy for the military’s highest-priority space missions. Congress also passed a law in 2014 — after Russia’s annexation of Crimea — that capped the number of RD-180 engines the military could use to launch national security satellites before transitioning to a rocket with U.S.-made propulsion.

File photo of a Falcon Heavy launch in April 2019. Credit: SpaceX

The highest-priority class of payloads was previously part of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV, program. Last year, military officials renamed the EELV program as the National Security Space Launch, or NSSL, program as the Pentagon moved into a new era of launch services, which include reusable rockets.

The Air Force ended competition for its EELV-class missions when the Pentagon approved the Boeing and Lockheed Martin consolidation in 2006, a decision ULA and military officials said was necessary to ensure the survival of the Atlas and Delta rocket families to launch U.S. national security satellites.

Pentagon officials say the military needs two independent launchers to ensure crucial payloads can get to space even if one of the rockets is grounded.

The Air Force certified SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to launch national security satellites in 2015, a process the military promised to speed up after SpaceX filed a lawsuit against the Air Force the previous year protesting the Pentagon’s $11 billion “block buy” sole-source order of Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets in 2013.

Military officials made more launch contracts available for competition between ULA and SpaceX in an intermediate “Phase 1A” procurement round before moving on to Phase 2, which required rockets use only U.S.-made engines.

The Air Force awarded funding to Aerojet Rocketdyne, Northrop Grumman, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance in 2016 as part of cost-sharing public-private partnerships with industry to advance research and development of new U.S. rocket propulsion systems.

In 2018, the Air Force selected Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and United Launch Alliance for the next round of launch service agreement awards. Those agreements were cumulatively valued at around $2.3 billion.

SpaceX, which was the only company competing with a rocket already flying, was left out of the development contracts awarded in 2018.

The Pentagon also announced Friday the first three firm-fixed-price launch contracts awarded by the U.S. Space Force under the NSSL program’s Phase 2 agreements.

Two of those missions, designated USSF-51 and USSF-106, were awarded to ULA for launches in the the first quarter and third quarter of calendar year 2022. SpaceX won a task order to launch the USSF-67 mission in the third quarter of calendar year 2022.

ULA received $337 million in the task orders announced Friday, while SpaceX was awarded $316 million.

If ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, which scheduled to debut in 2021, is not certified for the national security missions in 2022, ULA could offer an Atlas 5 rocket — with its Russian-made engine — as an alternative for the USSF-51 and USSF-106 missions.

A contract announcement posted on a Defense Department website said the contracts include “early integration studies, launch service support, fleet surveillance, launch vehicle production, mission integration, mission launch operations, mission assurance, spaceflight worthiness, and mission unique activities for each mission.”

Roper said of the 18 RD-180 engines Congress has allowed the Pentagon to buy through 2022 for national security missions, 12 remain available for purchase. There’s no prohibition on when the engines can actually launch a national security mission, just that the Pentagon can’t procure any more launches using the RD-180 engines after 2022.

“By the end of ’22, we cannot buy any more RD-180 engines,” Roper said. “We do have 12 engines that are available should we need to use those engines beyond the ’22 mark. We’re allowed to use them. We’re just allowed to purchase more. So the reason that this Phase 2 award weighted technical performance — technical merit — as the No. 1 priority is that we have to ensure that we get off of those engines.

“I’m very confident with the selection that we have made today that we have a very low risk path to get off the RD-180 engines on time and to not have to dip into that surplus that we have available, though we’re glad to know it’s there should we need it.”

The three task orders unveiled Friday are just the tip of the iceberg for ULA and SpaceX, which stand to compete head-to-head for dozens more national security launches contracts over the next four years. The U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, or SMC, will order launch services annually from ULA and SpaceX, the military said in a statement.

Roper said military officials estimated SMC would order 32 to 34 national security launches during the five-year period covered by the Phase 2 agreements. But there is some uncertainty in that number, Roper said.

“It is an indefinite quantity contract because we wanted to be ready for a number of launches that can be in flux,” Roper said Friday.

That will help ensure ULA and SpaceX can relay on a steady “drum beat” of launches for the Pentagon, supplementing commercial missions on their launch manifests, he said.

“So there’s no ceiling on this contract,” Roper said. “It’s driven by the number of launches that we and the NRO, and organizations like the Missile Defense Agency and the Space Development Agency need.

“We’re very excited within the Space Force to provide a launch capability to the entire department that its dependable and reliable, and we look forward to building on the 81-out-81 mission success that the Air Force, and now the Space Force, has provided over the past years,” Roper said.

Artist’s illustration of Northrop Grumman’s planned OmegA rocket, which lost out in the Pentagon’s Phase 2 launch contract awards. The OmegA rocket’s design is based on two solid-fueled core stages and a liquid-fueled upper stage. Credit: Northrop Grumman

While SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets have the lift capacity to meet the Pentagon’s launch requirements, which include access to unusual, hard-to-reach orbits, there will be some changes on the launch vehicles and ground systems to accommodate the new missions.

For the Pentagon’s Phase 2 missions, SpaceX did not propose using the company’s next-generation Starship launch vehicle.

“It’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, no Starship,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, last year. “We bid to meet every requirement. The only modifications we need are an extended fairing on the Falcon Heavy, and we are going to have to build a vertical integration capability. But we are basically flying the rockets that they need.

“There are more data requirements they’re asking for, some additional inspection, some additional stuff that’s new to Phase 2,” she said. “I believe some of the reference orbits have slightly more mass to each orbit. But Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy are beasts as they are.”

The most significant upgrades SpaceX plans for the Phase 2 missions are the construction of a new moveable gantry on pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where the company launches powerful Falcon Heavy rockets. The mobile tower will sit just to the north of the pad’s launch mount, enabling SpaceX to satisfy military requirements to vertically integrate sensitive top secret spy satellites.

Read our earlier story for details on the dimensions and requirement for the gantry.

SpaceX will also introduce a larger payload envelope to fit some of the biggest satellites that need to be launched on the Phase 2 missions. The company could expand its Falcon 9 launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to accommodate the Falcon Heavy, which uses three Falcon 9 first stage boosters bolted together.

The NSSL missions include the military’s most expensive and critical payloads, such as school bus-sized spy satellites, nuclear-hardened communications satellites to link the president with military commanders, spacecraft to detect enemy missile launches, and the GPS navigation fleet used around the world.

The Space Force has other launch procurement mechanisms to award launch service contracts for smaller missions, such as technology demonstration satellites.

Roper said the Pentagon will work with Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman to wind down their work under the launch service agreements awarded in 2018.

“The goal is not to carry them indefinitely,” Roper said. “So we will tie off the (launch service agreement) contracts as soon as we can at a point that makes sense. We want to make sure that work that’s in flux, that we’re able to document that … Where the government has rights to the data and the work, we want to make sure that we retain those.”

In a statement, Northrop Grumman said it was disappointed in the Pentagon’s decision to go with ULA and SpaceX for the Phase 2 awards.

“We are confident we submitted a strong proposal that reflected out extensive space launch experience and provided value to our customer, and we are looking forward to our debriefing from the customer,” Northrop Grumman said.

The fate of Northrop Grumman’s OmegA rocket program is uncertain. Building on its recent acquisition of Orbital ATK, the defense contractor designed the OmegA launch vehicle to be profitable with just a handful of launches per year, with an emphasis on capabilities aimed at the U.S. military’s requirements.

In recent months, construction crews have been assembling a tower on a mobile launch platform for the OmegA rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Charlie Precourt, vice president of propulsion systems at Northrop Grumman, said in an interview in June that qualification test-firings of the OmegA rocket’s solid-fueled stages were completed, and engineers were gearing up for a test-firing of the launcher’s hydrogen-fueled upper stage before the end of this year.

Precourt said in June that the OmegA rocket was on schedule to be ready for its first test launch from pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in mid-2021. But that assumed Northrop Grumman would win a Phase 2 award from the Pentagon.

Blue Origin says development of its New Glenn rocket will continue in pursuit of business in the commercial and civil space markets.

The huge privately-developed rocket is the largest of all the launchers that were part of the Phase 2 competition. Capable of deploying up to 99,000 pounds, or 45 metric tons, to low Earth orbit, the New Glenn will have a reusable first stage powered by seven BE-4 engines.

ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket will have two methane-fueled BE-4 engines on its first stage.

Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon.com, established Blue Origin in 2000. Bezos is funding the development of the New Glenn rocket, which is estimated to cost more than $2.5 billion, including construction of a huge factory near the Kennedy Space Center and a launch pad and test facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Bob Smith, Blue Origin’s CEO, said the company was disappointed the New Glenn was not selected for a Phase 2 launch service procurement contract.

“We submitted an incredibly compelling offer for the national security community and the U.S. taxpayer,” Smith said. “Blue Origin’s offer was based on New Glenn’s heavy-lift performance, unprecedented private investment of more than $2.5 billion, and a very competitive single basic launch service price for any mission across the entire ordering period.

“We are proceeding with New Glenn development to fulfill our current commercial contracts, pursue a large and growing commercial market, and enter into new civil space launch contracts,” Smith said. “We remain confident New Glenn will play a critical role for the national security community in the future due to the increasing realization that space is a contested domain and a robust, responsive, and resilient launch capability is ever more vital to U.S security.”

The Pentagon plans to open another competition for a Phase 2 launch service procurement later in the 2020s.

“We don’t think that this is the last round of innovation that we’re going see, and though we’re excited for the next five years of Phase 2, we’re looking ahead to Phase 3 five years from now, and are just wondering what new leap-ahead, lower-cost technologies might be on the forefront to make assured access to space not just assured, but cheaper,” Roper said.

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SpaceX closes out busy week with launch of more Starlink satellites

A Falcon 9 rocket takes off from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 1:12 a.m. EDT (0512 GMT) Friday. Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

With a Falcon 9 rocket launch Friday, SpaceX added 57 more satellites to the Starlink broadband fleet and deployed a pair of piggyback commercial Earth-imaging reconnaissance satellites for BlackSky, wrapping up a busy week that began with SpaceX’s return of two NASA astronauts to Earth and the first low-altitude test flight of the company’s next-generation Starship vehicle.

The 59 commercial satellites took off at 1:12:05 a.m. EDT (0512:05 GMT) on top of a Falcon 9 rocket from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Nine Merlin 1D engines flashed to life with a deep rumble to hurl the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) rocket into the sky with 1.7 million pound of thrust. After pitching to align with a trajectory toward the northeast from Florida’s Space Coast, the Falcon 9 soared into the stratosphere trailing a brilliant orange exhaust plume before shutting down its first stage engines two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff.

Seconds later, the first stage booster dropped away from the Falcon 9’s second stage to begin a guided descent toward SpaceX’s drone ship parked in the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Cape Canaveral.

The Merlin engine on the second stage ignited two times to maneuver the Starlink and BlackSky satellites to a near-circular orbit nearly 250 miles (400 kilometers) above Earth. Meanwhile, the Falcon 9’s first stage booster flew to a propulsive landing on SpaceX’s rocket recovery vessel, a football field-sized platform positioned nearly 400 miles (around 630 kilometers) downrange from the Kennedy Space Center.

Two BlackSky Earth-imaging satellites, each with a mass of about 121 pounds (55 kilograms), deployed from the top of the stack of Starlink spacecraft more than an hour into the mission. BlackSky booked the launch for its satellites through Spaceflight, a Seattle-based rideshare broker, utilizing room in the Falcon 9 rocket’s payload compartment made available by SpaceX.

Read our earlier story for background on BlackSky and SpaceX’s rideshare launch service offering.

BlackSky is deploying a fleet of Earth observation satellites designed to monitor changes across Earth’s surface, feeding near real-time geospatial intelligence data to governments and corporate clients. The two microsatellites on Friday’s mission are designated Global 7 and Global 8, but they are actually the fifth and sixth operational satellites in the BlackSky fleet, which the company could eventually number more than 50 satellites, depending on customer demand.

The BlackSky satellites were built by LeoStella, a joint venture between Spaceflight Industries and Thales Alenia Space, a major European satellite manufacturer. LeoStella’s production facility is located in Tukwila, Washington, a suburb of Seattle.

The satellites have electrothermal propulsion systems that use water as a propellant. Each of the current generation of BlackSky Global spacecraft can capture up to 1,000 color images per day, with a resolution of about 3 feet (1 meter).

With the piggyback payloads away, the Falcon 9’s upper stage spun up for release of the 57 Starlink satellites at 2:45 a.m. EDT (0645 GMT). Live video beamed back to Earth from the Falcon 9 rocket showed the flat-panel satellites flying free of the upper stage as they soared nearly 250 miles over the Pacific Ocean near Baja California.

SpaceX declared success, concluding the 90th flight of a Falcon 9 rocket since 2010, and the 13th Falcon 9 launch of the year. It was also the 57th time SpaceX has recovered a reusable Falcon first stage booster, and it marked the fifth flight of the booster designated B1051.

The launch early Friday came less than five days after the return of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft to Earth with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, completing the ship’s first mission with crew members on-board. The test flight sets the stage for NASA’s certification of the Crew Dragon for regular crew rotation flights to the International Space Station.

On Tuesday, SpaceX performed a low-altitude “hop” test of a prototype of the company’s next-generation Starship space transportation vehicle.

SpaceX’s Starlink network is designed to provide low-latency, high-speed Internet service around the world. With Friday’s mission, SpaceX has launched 595 flat-panel Starlink spacecraft since beginning full-scale deployment of the orbital network in May 2019, making the company the owner of the world’s largest fleet of satellites.

Each of the flat-panel satellites weighs about a quarter-ton, and are built by SpaceX in Redmond, Washington. Once in orbit, they will deploy solar panels to begin producing electricity, then activate their krypton ion thrusters to raise their altitude to around 341 miles, or 550 kilometers.

SpaceX says it needs 24 launches to provide Starlink Internet coverage over nearly all of the populated world, and 12 launches could enable coverage of higher latitude regions, such as Canada and the northern United States.

The launch Friday will be the 10th mission to carry Starlink satellites into orbit, but the Starlink spacecraft deployed on the network’s first dedicated launch were designed to demonstrate satellite and payload performance. SpaceX has not said if any of those satellites might be incorporated into the operational fleet.

The Falcon 9 rocket can loft up to 60 Starlink satellites — each weighing about a quarter-ton — on a single Falcon 9 launch. But launches with secondary payloads, such as BlackSky’s new Earth-imaging satellites, can carry fewer Starlinks to allow the rideshare passengers room to fit on the rocket.

The initial phase of the Starlink network will number 1,584 satellites, according to SpaceX’s regulatory filings with the Federal Communications Commission. But SpaceX plans launch thousands more satellites, depending on market demand, and the company has regulatory approval from the FCC to operate up to 12,000 Starlink relay nodes in low Earth orbit.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, says the Starlink network could earn revenue to fund the company’s ambition for interplanetary space travel, and eventually establish a human settlement on Mars.

SpaceX fans sleuthing through coding on the Starlink website last month found images of a prototype version of the antenna consumers will use to connect to the Internet network.

Musk responded to the tweet, writing the the Starlink ground terminal “has motors to self-orient for optimal view angle. No expert installer required.”

SpaceX has not released pricing information for the Starlink service.

SpaceX says it will soon begin “beta testing” using the Starlink network. The company is collecting email information and mailing addresses from prospective customers, and SpaceX says it will provide updates on Starlink news and service availability to those who sign up.

The beta testing is expected to begin for users living at higher latitudes — such as the northern United States and southern Canada — where the partially-complete Starlink satellite fleet can provide more consistent service. SpaceX will send a Starlink kit including a small antenna, router and other equipment to people selected for beta testing.

Astronomers have raised concerns about the brightness of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, and other companies that plan to launch large numbers of broadband satellites into low Earth orbit.

The Starlink satellites are brighter than expected, and are visible in trains soon after each launch, before spreading out and dimming as they travel higher above Earth.

SpaceX introduced a darker coating on a Starlink satellite launched in January in a bid to reduce the amount of sunlight the spacecraft reflects down to Earth. That offered some improvement, but not enough for ultra-sensitive observatories like the U.S government-funded Vera Rubin Observatory in Chile, which will collect all-sky images to study distant galaxies, stars, and search for potentially dangerous asteroids close to Earth.

SpaceX launched a satellite June 3 with a new unfolding radio-transparent sunshade to block sunlight from reaching bright surfaces on the spacecraft, such as its antennas. SpaceX says all Starlink satellites beginning with the spacecraft launched Friday will carry the sunshades.

Coupled with changes in how the satellites are oriented when they are at lower altitudes soon after launch, the sun visors could alleviate the most serious impacts on astronomy from the Starlink network, and eliminate the Starlink satellites from naked eye vision once they reach their 341-mile-high operational orbit.

SpaceX plans to fly a sunshade structure on new Starlink satellites. Credit: SpaceX

The Vera Rubin Observatory’s 3,200-megapixel camera will start astronomical surveys in 2022. Each image will cover a region of the sky the size of 40 full moons, and many of the images will include light streaks left by satellites from the Starlink network, and potentially other satellite constellations.

The worst impacts will come after dusk and before dawn. That’s a time of day when astronomers want to search for asteroids.

Astronomers on the Vera Rubin Observatory team say SpaceX has been working with them since last year to try to reduce the impacts of the Starlink network on their scientific program. Astronomers illuminated a Vera Rubin imaging detector in a test to see how it would respond to the passage of a satellite as bright as a Starlink. They found the satellite leaves behind not just a single trail, but “ghost” trails away from the spacecraft’s path.

Scientists from Vera Rubin Observatory said the ghost artifacts could be removed with software if the Starlink satellites are dimmer than 7th magnitude. Observations of the Starlink spacecraft with the darker coating indicate that change dimmed the satellite to about 6.1 magnitude, somewhat shy of Vera Rubin’s requirement.

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Live coverage: SpaceX plans overnight launch from Kennedy Space Center

Live coverage of the countdown and launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The mission will launch SpaceX’s tenth batch of Starlink broadband satellites. Text updates will appear automatically below. Follow us on Twitter.

Spaceflight Now members can watch a live view of the pad. Join now.

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After delays, Falcon 9 rocket back on launch pad with Starlink satellites

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket stands vertical on pad 39A on Thursday morning. Credit: Spaceflight Now

After a six-week delay for undisclosed reasons, SpaceX raised a Falcon 9 vertical on its launch pad Thursday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for another try early Friday to send into orbit the company’s next batch of Starlink Internet relay stations and a pair of commercial BlackSky Earth-imaging microsatellites.

The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) launcher is set for takeoff at 1:12:05 a.m. EDT (0512:05 GMT) Friday from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center with 57 more Starlink satellites.

It will be SpaceX’s first launch to carry a full set of Starlink satellites equipped with new sunshades, or visors, in an attempt to make the spacecraft less visible to ground-based telescopes, addressing concerns voiced by astronomers that thousands of Starlink satellites could interfere with scientific observations.

“All Starlink satellites on this flight are equipped with a deployable visor to block sunlight from hitting the brightest spots of the spacecraft — a measure SpaceX has taken as part of our work with leading astronomical groups to mitigate satellite reflectivity,” SpaceX says on its website.

Two commercial Earth observation satellites from BlackSky will accompany the Starlink payloads into orbit, taking advantage of SpaceX’s rideshare service, which sells excess capacity on Falcon 9 missions to other companies.

The mission set for launch Friday was originally supposed to take off in late June, but SpaceX has delayed the flight multiple times. The company has not disclosed any details about the nature of the problems — other than weather — that have delayed the Starlink/BlackSky mission.

The Starlink/BlackSky launch was supposed to take off June 26, but SpaceX delayed the mission to conduct additional pre-launch checkouts, the company said on Twitter. A launch attempt July 8 was scrubbed minutes before liftoff by poor weather.

SpaceX called off another launch attempt July 11, and the company again said officials made the decision “to allow more time for checkouts,” without providing further details.

The concerns that delayed the Starlink/BlackSky launch have not affected other SpaceX missions.

SpaceX successfully launched two Falcon 9 rockets June 30 and July 20 from Cape Canaveral with a U.S. military GPS navigation satellite and the Anasis 2 military communications satellite for South Korea.

The Starlink/BlackSky launch was tentatively planned to launch last week from the Kennedy Space Center, but there were range safety concerns about the Falcon 9 rocket taking off from a pad near where NASA’s Perseverance rover — with a nuclear power generator on-board — was being readied for takeoff.

SpaceX says the Falcon 9 rocket poised for launch Friday will be powered by a kerosene-fueled first stage booster that previously flew on four missions, beginning with the launch of the company’s Crew Dragon spaceship on its first unpiloted test flight to the International Space Station on March 2, 2019.

Since then, the reusable first stage booster — designated B1051 — launched and landed successfully on missions June 12, 2019, and Jan. 29 and April 22 of this year. This will be the fifth flight of this particular first stage booster.

The launch early Friday will be the 90th flight of a Falcon 9 rocket since 2010, and the 13th launch by SpaceX so far this year.

A Falcon 9 first stage booster lands on SpaceX’s drone ship Jan. 29 in the Atlantic Ocean following a previous Starlink launch. The same booster will launch again on Friday’s mission. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX’s launch team will ready the rocket for loading of super-chilled, densified propellants Thursday night, before the start of the countdown’s automated sequencer at 12:37 a.m. EDT (0437 GMT).

At that time, kerosene and liquid oxygen will begin pumping aboard the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage, and kerosene will start flowing into the rocket’s second stage. At 12:56 a.m. EDT (0456 GMT), SpaceX will start filling the second stage with its liquid oxygen supply.

In the final 10 minutes of the countdown, the Falcon 9 will begin chilling its engine plumbing for ignition, activate and check out its hydraulic systems, and pressurize its cryogenic propellant tanks for flight.

Nine Merlin 1D engines will flash to life at the base of the Falcon 9 rocket, and hold-down clamps will open to allow the launcher to fly away from pad 39A at 1:12 a.m. EDT (0512 GMT).

Heading northeast over the Atlantic Ocean, the Falcon 9 will surpass the speed of sound before shutting down its first stage engines at T+plus 2 minutes, 32 seconds. Four seconds later, the booster will separate to begin a controlled descent toward SpaceX’s drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” parked in the Atlantic Ocean nearly 400 miles (about 630 kilometers) downrange from Cape Canaveral.

The booster will target a propulsive landing on the floating platform nearly eight-and-a-half minutes into the mission.

Meanwhile, the Falcon 9’s second stage will ignite its single powerful Merlin 1D engine at T+plus 2 minutes, 44 seconds, to drive the 57 Starlink satellites and two BlackSky payloads into a preliminary orbit.

The second stage engine will shut down at T+plus 8 minutes, 51 seconds, to begin a coast halfway around the world before reigniting for a few seconds at T+plus 47 minutes, 18 seconds.

That will inject the Starlink and BlackSky satellites into a near-circular orbit ranging in altitude between 241 miles (388 kilometers) and 249 miles (401 kilometers) above Earth, with an inclination of 53 degrees to the equator.

The two BlackSky satellites will deploy from the top of the stack of Starlink satellites 61 and 66 minutes after liftoff.

BlackSky, based in Seattle, is deploying a fleet of Earth observation satellites designed to monitor changes across Earth’s surface, feeding near real-time geospatial intelligence data to governments and corporate clients. The two 121-pound (55-kilogram) satellites on Friday’s mission will become the fifth and sixth operational spacecraft in BlackSky’s fleet, which the company could eventually number more than 50 satellites, depending on customer demand.

The deployment of the BlackSky payloads will set the stage for separation of the 57 Starlink spacecraft at T+plus 1 hour, 33 minutes, or at 2:45 a.m. EDT (0645 GMT).

SpaceX’s Starlink network is designed to provide low-latency, high-speed Internet service around the world. SpaceX has launched 538 flat-panel Starlink spacecraft since beginning full-scale deployment of the orbital network in May 2019, making the company the owner of the world’s largest fleet of satellites.

With Friday’s launch, SpaceX will have delivered 595 Starlink satellites to orbit since May 2019.

SpaceX plans to debut a new sunshade structure on its future Starlink satellites. Credit: SpaceX

Each of the flat-panel satellites weighs about a quarter-ton, and are built by SpaceX in Redmond, Washington. Once in orbit, they will deploy solar panels to begin producing electricity, then activate their krypton ion thrusters to raise their altitude to around 341 miles, or 550 kilometers.

SpaceX says it needs 24 launches to provide Starlink Internet coverage over nearly all of the populated world, and 12 launches could enable coverage of higher latitude regions, such as Canada and the northern United States.

The launch Friday will be the 10th mission to carry Starlink satellites into orbit, but the Starlink spacecraft deployed on the network’s first dedicated launch were designed to demonstrate satellite and payload performance. SpaceX has not said if any of those satellites might be incorporated into the operational fleet.

The Falcon 9 rocket can loft up to 60 Starlink satellites — each weighing about a quarter-ton — on a single Falcon 9 launch. But launches with secondary payloads, such as BlackSky’s new Earth-imaging satellites, can carry fewer Starlinks to allow the rideshare passengers room to fit on the rocket.

The initial phase of the Starlink network will number 1,584 satellites, according to SpaceX’s regulatory filings with the Federal Communications Commission. But SpaceX plans launch thousands more satellites, depending on market demand, and the company has regulatory approval from the FCC to operate up to 12,000 Starlink relay nodes in low Earth orbit.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, says the Starlink network could earn revenue to fund the company’s ambition for interplanetary space travel, and eventually establish a human settlement on Mars.

SpaceX fans sleuthing through coding on the Starlink website last month found images of a prototype version of the antenna consumers will use to connect to the Internet network.

Musk responded to the tweet, writing the the Starlink ground terminal “has motors to self-orient for optimal view angle. No expert installer required.”

SpaceX has not released pricing information for the Starlink service.

SpaceX says it will soon begin “beta testing” using the Starlink network. The company is collecting email information and mailing addresses from prospective customers, and SpaceX says it will provide updates on Starlink news and service availability to those who sign up.

The beta testing is expected to begin for users living at higher latitudes — such as the northern United States and southern Canada — where the partially-complete Starlink satellite fleet can provide more consistent service. SpaceX will send a Starlink kit including a small antenna, router and other equipment to people selected for beta testing.

Astronomers have raised concerns about the brightness of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, and other companies that plan to launch large numbers of broadband satellites into low Earth orbit.

The Starlink satellites are brighter than expected, and are visible in trains soon after each launch, before spreading out and dimming as they travel higher above Earth.

SpaceX introduced a darker coating on a Starlink satellite launched in January in a bid to reduce the amount of sunlight the spacecraft reflects down to Earth. That offered some improvement, but not enough for ultra-sensitive observatories like the U.S government-funded Vera Rubin Observatory in Chile, which will collect all-sky images to study distant galaxies, stars, and search for potentially dangerous asteroids close to Earth.

SpaceX launched a satellite June 3 with a new unfolding radio-transparent sunshade to block sunlight from reaching bright surfaces on the spacecraft, such as its antennas. SpaceX says all Starlink satellites beginning with the spacecraft on the launch Friday will carry the sunshades.

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ULA, SpaceX win contracts to launch satellites for SES in 2022

File photo of a previous Atlas 5 launch in the “531” configuration with three solid rocket boosters. Credit: United Launch Alliance

SES has selected United Launch Alliance and SpaceX to launch up to five new commercial C-band communications satellites from Cape Canaveral in 2022 aboard Atlas 5 and Falcon 9 rockets, officials announced Wednesday.

Two Boeing-built communications satellites will launch together on a ULA Atlas 5 rocket, and two telecom craft made by Northrop Grumman will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, according to SES, a global communications satellite operator based in Luxembourg.

The SES 18 and 19 satellites, based on Northrop Grumman’s GEOStar 3 satellite platform, will launch stacked together on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in 2022, SES said. SES also awarded SpaceX a contract to launch another C-band satellite if required.

The SES 20 and 21 communications satellites are slated to launch in tandem aboard a ULA Atlas 5 rocket, also in 2022, SES said.

SES ordered the four satellites from Boeing and Northrop Grumman in June to replace C-band capacity being transitioned to 5G cellular network services by the Federal Communications Commission. At the same time, Intelsat ordered six new C-band communications satellites from Maxar and Northrop Grumman as part of its C-band transition plan. Launch services contracts for the new Intelsat satellites have not been announced.

SES said it considered only U.S. launchers when awarding the launch services contracts, and having the new satellites in geostationary orbit on time is a high priority. That essentially left ULA and SpaceX as the only companies eligible for the contracts.

Financial terms for the launch contracts were not disclosed by SES, SpaceX, or ULA.

Suzanne Ong, an SES spokesperson, said the division of launch contracts between ULA and SpaceX — rivals in the U.S. launch business — fit the different offerings provided by the Atlas 5 and Falcon 9 rockets.

The Atlas 5 rocket will deploy the SES 20 and 21 satellites into a higher orbit, utilizing the long-duration, multiple-restart capability of the rocket’s Centaur upper stage. That will place the satellites closer to their final operating positions in geostationary orbit more than 22,000 miles (nearly 36,000 kilometers) over the equator.

SES 20 and 21 will be built by Boeing and based on the Boeing 702SP spacecraft bus with all-electric propulsion. Electric thrusters are more efficient than conventional rocket engines, allowing the satellite to need less fuel during its mission. That results in a lighter satellite.

But the electric thrusters do not have as much thrust as a liquid-fueled thruster, so it takes longer for a satellite with all-electric propulsion to reach geostationary orbit.

“The Boeing 702SP satellites, relying only on electrical propulsion, would take longer to reach designated geostationary orbit if launched on SpaceX,” Ong said in response to questions from Spaceflight Now. “This is the reason why ULA is launching Boeing satellites and SpaceX is launching the NG (Northrop Grumman) satellites.”

Jessica Rye, a ULA spokesperson, said the SES 20 and 21 satellites will launch on the “531” variant of the Atlas 5 rocket with a 5-meter payload fairing and three strap-on solid rocket boosters. That configuration has flown three times to date, and is set to launch a fourth time in September with a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, the U.S. government’s spy satellite agency.

File photo of a Falcon 9 launch from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: SpaceX

“Clearing mid-band spectrum expeditiously while protecting cable neighborhoods across America is a huge undertaking and one that requires partners that can deliver mission success and schedule assurance,” said Steve Collar, CEO at SES. “We are thrilled to be working with ULA again and partnering to meet the FCC’s ambitious timeline for the accelerated clearing of C-band spectrum.”

“We are pleased SES selected ULA and our proven Atlas 5 for this important commercial launch service,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and CEO. “Atlas 5 is known for its unmatched level of schedule certainty and reliability and this launch is critical to the timely clearing of C-band spectrum, empowering America’s accelerated implementation of 5G.

“ULA’s legacy of performance, precision and mission design flexibility allow us to deliver a tailored launch service that minimizes orbit raising time and perfectly meet our customer’s requirements,” Bruno said in a statement. “We are thrilled to provide this optimized launch solution to SES for this crucial launch.”

Two SES satellites have launched on previous Atlas 5 rocket missions in 2004 and 2006. ULA now has two commercial launches in its Atlas 5 backlog, along with a ViaSat 3 broadband payload due to fly on the most power Atlas 5 configuration with five solid rocket boosters.

The Northrop Grumman-built SES 18 and 19 satellites will use a combination of electric and liquid propulsion for post-launch orbit-raising maneuvers.

“We have a deep and trusted relationship with SpaceX having been the first to launch a commercial satellite with them and subsequently the first commercial company to adopt the flight-proven booster and we could not be more confident in their ability to deliver on this time-critical mission,” Collar said in a statement.

Six SES satellites have launched on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets to date.

“SES is one of SpaceX‘s most-valued partners, and we are proud of their continued trust in our capabilities to reliably deliver their satellites to orbit,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer. “We are excited to once again play a role in executing SES’s solutions to meet their customers’ needs.”

SES will soon order two additional C-band satellites from U.S. manufacturers as ground spares. The contract option with SpaceX to place a third C-band satellite into orbit would cover the launch of one of the ground spares, Ong said.

“The ground spares will only be launched if there is a systematic problem that delays the satellite construction, or if there is a launch failure or any other issue that puts the accelerated clearing schedule at risk,” Ong said in response to questions from Spaceflight Now. “In case of a launch failure, SpaceX will launch one of the other C-band satellites that SES will order soon.”

The four SES satellites are part of the Federal Communications Commission’s order finalized earlier this year to clear 300 megahertz of C-band spectrum for the roll-out of 5G mobile connectivity networks.

The FCC plans to auction U.S. C-band spectrum — currently used for satellite-based video broadcast services to millions of customers — to 5G operators in December. In compensation for losing the spectrum, Intelsat is set to receive $4.87 billion and SES will get $3.97 billion from 5G bidders if they can accelerate the transition of C-band services to a smaller swath of spectrum by December 2023, two years before the FCC’s mandated deadline.

Artist’s concept of the SES 20 and SES 21 communications satellites to be manufactured by Boeing. Credit: Boeing

Intelsat and SES — along with operators with a smaller share of the U.S. C-band market — will also be reimbursed for their C-band relocation costs, including satellite manufacturing and launch expenses.

As part of the agreement, the satellite operators were incentivized to buy new C-band broadcasting satellites from U.S. manufacturers to operate in the 4.0 to 4.2 gigahertz swath of the C-band spectrum. The lower portion of the band previously allocated to satellite operators — 3.7 to 4.0 megahertz — is being transitioned to 5G services.

Ong said the ground spares SES is set to order soon will be available to launch on short notice to ensure SES can meet the FCC’s deadline to clear the upper part of the C-band spectrum for 5G services.

When it ordered the four new satellites from Boeing and Northrop Grumman in June, SES said each satellite will have 10 primary transponders, plus back-up equipment, to deliver television services to more than 120 million homes and enable other critical data services. At that time, SES said the satellites are scheduled for launch in the third quarter of 2022.

SES said in May that its board of directors approved an investment envelope of $1.6 billion to procure and launch the new C-band satellites, and pay for other equipment and services, such as signal filters on ground antennas, to accommodate the C-band transition to 5G services.

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SpaceX clears big hurdle on next-gen Starship rocket program

Credit: Video frame from live stream by @SpacePadreIsle.

A prototype rocket for a massive reusable vehicle SpaceX is designing to fly people to the moon and Mars took off from a launching stand in South Texas on Tuesday, flew to a height of roughly 500 feet, then made a controlled descent to a nearby landing pad.

The 500-foot (150-meter) “hop” test was the first of a Starship rocket with full-size propellant tanks, and it sets the stage for a series of progressively higher atmospheric demonstration flights with future vehicles. Eventually, SpaceX aims to shoot the Starship into orbit on top of an even taller booster rocket named the “Super Heavy” to deliver to space huge cargo loads, satellites, telescopes, and science probes.

SpaceX’s longer-term roadmap includes an in-orbit refueling capability to make trips to the moon possible. NASA selected SpaceX’s Starship vehicle as one of three contenders — alongside Blue Origin and Dynetics — for a human-rated lunar lander the space agency will fund for crewed moon missions later this decade.

And the Starship is central to the vision of Elon Musk, SpaceX’s billionaire founder, who established the company with a mission of sending people to Mars. Future Starships could cruise to Mars with up to 100 people, Musk says.

“Mars is looking real,” Musk tweeted after Tuesday’s test flight. “Progress is accelerating.”

That mission took a step closer to reality with Tuesday’s test flight, which was intended to test out the Starship’s guidance system, the structural strength of its stainless steel tanks, and a number of other basic functions before attempting launches to higher altitudes.

The Starship test flight Tuesday capped a busy few days for SpaceX. The company’s first human-rated Crew Dragon spaceship returned to Earth Sunday with a smooth splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico, bringing home NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken after a 64-day test flight to the International Space Station.

SpaceX followed that up with an attempt to fly the Starship Monday evening in South Texas, but the company aborted the flight just before takeoff. Another countdown Tuesday afternoon was likewise aborted before SpaceX pressed ahead with a successful flight Tuesday evening.

One of SpaceX’s Raptor engines, fed by methane and liquid oxygen, powered the Starship off its launch platform at 7:57 p.m. EDT (6:57 p.m. CDT; 2357 GMT) Tuesday. The throttleable Raptor engine produces up to 440,000 pounds of thrust at full power, according to SpaceX, and it’s the most powerful methane-fueled rocket engine ever flown.

Live videos of the test streamed on YouTube showed the rocket climb away from the launch stand at SpaceX’s test site at Boca Chica, Texas, located just east of Brownsville on the Gulf of Mexico near the U.S.-Mexico border. After swiveling its Raptor engine to maintain control, the shining silver testbed reached its maximum altitude before commencing its descent, deploying landing legs, and settling on flat ground after laterally covering about the length of a football field in its approximately 45-second flight.

SpaceX has additional Starship vehicles in production at the Boca Chica site, and one of those could attempt a flight up to 65,000 feet, or 20 kilometers. A timetable for that test flight has not been announced by SpaceX or Elon Musk.

The higher-altitude experiments will require SpaceX to install an aerodynamic nose cone on future Starship vehicles, along with fins and other aerosurfaces. Higher flights will also need three Raptor engines, before SpaceX finally goes to a six-engine Starship configuration for orbital missions, which will also require a heat shield for re-entry.

With the nose cone added, the Starship vehicle reach a height of around 164 feet, or 50 meters. The vehicle that flew Tuesday measures around 30 feet (9 meters) in diameter, about one-and-a-half times the diameter of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet.

Combined with the Super Heavy first stage, the entire stack will stand around 394 feet (120 meters) tall. The Super Heavy will be powered by more than 30 Raptor engines, according to SpaceX, making it the most powerful rocket ever built — generating some 16 million pounds of thrust.

An operational Starship could haul more than 100 metric tons, or 220,000 pounds, of cargo to low Earth orbit, SpaceX says.

SpaceX had a rocky road reaching Tuesday’s milestone test flight, but engineers tweaked the Starship’s design and introduced improved manufacturing techniques to address structural deficiencies that led to the loss of four Starship prototypes during ground testing since late last year.

Each explosion during testing proved little more than a minor setback, and SpaceX quickly moved on to the next Starship prototype as part of the company’s fast-paced iterative development process.

Speaking to reporters and space fans last September, Musk suggested the first Starship prototype could perform a high-altitude atmospheric test flight before the end of 2019. That didn’t happen, but the high-altitude flight now appears within reach.

SpaceX says it will eventually replace its current fleet of space vehicles — the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, and the Dragon spaceship — with the Starship. But those vehicles won’t be retired until SpaceX proves out the Starship’s capabilities and reliability.

NASA officials were closely watching the Starship test flight Tuesday, which followed a successful test-firing of the vehicle on the launch stand at Boca Chica last week. Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s science mission directorate, tweeted his congratulations to SpaceX.

While NASA is considering the commercial Starship rocket as a vehicle to ferry astronauts between lunar orbit and the moon’s surface, the agency’s plans for returning humans to the moon in the 2020s relies on the government-owned Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and Orion crew capsule to transport astronauts from the Earth to the vicinity of the moon.

Once in orbit around the moon, the Orion crew capsule would link up with a human-rated lunar lander — possibly a Starship — to fly the astronauts to the moon’s surface, then boost them back into space to rendezvous with Orion for the return trip to Earth.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has said the SLS and Orion vehicles offer the only opportunity to launch astronauts off the Earth toward the moon by 2024, the timetable for a crewed lunar landing set last year by the Trump administration. But that could after 2024 if SpaceX’s Starship, or other vehicles, come online.

NASA has purchased rides for astronauts on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station in low Earth orbit, and SpaceX is under contract to deliver cargo to the planned Gateway mini-space station in lunar orbit — a future staging point for expeditions to the moon’s surface — beginning as soon as 2024.

In April, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said SpaceX’s Starship “could be absolutely game-changing” for space exploration.

“So we don’t want to discount it,” Bridenstine said. “We want to move forward. If they can have success, we want to enjoy that success with them.”

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Safety panel concerned about quality control on Boeing crew capsule

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft that flew on the Orbital Flight Test mission is pictured last November outside the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Alex Polimeni/Spaceflight Now

Members of NASA’s independent panel of aerospace safety advisors raised concerns last week about quality control problems that “seemingly have plagued” Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule program, while urging NASA to closely monitor SpaceX’s plans to reuse Crew Dragon spaceships on astronaut flights to the International Space Station.

An unpiloted test flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft in December ended prematurely after a programming error in the capsule’s mission elapsed timer caused the ship to burn too much fuel shortly after separating from its Atlas 5 rocket.

The unexpected fuel consumption left the Starliner capsule with insufficient propellant to complete its flight to the space station.

The Starliner landed safely in New Mexico two days later, but ground teams identified another software problem in a propulsion controller governing thrusters on the spacecraft’s service module, which jettisons from the Starliner crew module before re-entry into the atmosphere. Mission control uplinked a software patch shortly before re-entry, eliminating a risk that the mis-configured propulsion controller could have caused the jettisoned service module to ram into the crew module after separation.

There were also problems with the Starliner’s communications system during the unpiloted demonstration mission, known as the Orbital Flight Test, or OFT.

An independent review team that investigated the problems during the OFT mission issued 80 recommendations for Boeing and NASA engineers to address software issues, the communications problem, and management oversight shortfalls in oversight that contributed to the problems on last year’s test flight.

Donald McErlean, a seasoned aerospace industry consultant and member of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, said July 23 that Boeing is making progress toward resolving the technical problems. Boeing plans to fly a second, previously-unplanned Starliner Orbital Flight Test to the space station late this year, followed by a Crew Flight Test in the first half of 2021 with a three-person team of astronauts on-board.

“However, despite this progress, which is definite and in fact measurable, the panel continues to be concerned about quality control problems that seemingly have plagued the Boeing commercial crew program,” said McErlean, a former chief engineer for the U.S. Navy’s aviation programs.

Boeing performed a pad abort test of a Starliner crew capsule last November, the month before the Orbital Flight Test. One of the capsule’s three main parachutes did not deploy after an otherwise-successful test of the spacecraft’s abort engines, and Boeing traced that problem to a missing pin in the parachute’s rigging.

“We realize that the CCP (Commercial Crew Program) has been working with the safety and engineering communities to address these issues, but this is still an issue that the panel will continue to watch closely as OFT and later CFT are conducted,” McErlean said.

The panel recommended NASA’s Commercial Crew Program “maintain a balance” between setting and achieving schedule milestones and ensuring managers make appropriate technical decisions, according to McErlean.

Boeing developed the Starliner spacecraft under contract to NASA, which is seeking to end its sole reliance on Russian Soyuz crew capsules to ferry astronauts to and from the space station. NASA awarded Boeing a $4.2 billion contract and SpaceX received a $2.6 billion deal in 2014 to complete development of the Starliner and Crew Dragon spaceships.

The public-private partnerships were designed to end U.S. reliance on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for crew transportation to and from the space station.

While Boeing still has at least two Starliner test flights — one without crew members and one with astronauts — before the capsule is declared operational, SpaceX is nearing the end of the Crew Dragon development program. The human-rated capsule launched with astronauts for the first time May 30 on the Demo-2 mission, and delivered NASA test pilots Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station the next day.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft approaches the International Space Station on May 31 with astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on-board. Credit: NASA

Hurley and Behnken are scheduled to depart the station Aug. 1 and splash down off the Florida coast Aug. 2, completing a mission spanning more than two months. Once the Crew Dragon is back on Earth, SpaceX and NASA engineers plan to formally certify the SpaceX crew capsule for regular crew rotation missions to the space station, beginning with a launch as soon as late September from the Kennedy Space Center carrying four astronauts to the orbiting research complex for a six-month expedition.

The mission scheduled for launch in late September — known as Crew-1 — will be followed by at least five more operational Crew Dragon missions through 2024.

NASA last month said it will allow SpaceX to reuse Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 boosters for NASA astronaut missions. NASA says SpaceX could begin reusing Crew Dragon vehicles and Falcon 9 first stages on crewed launches beginning with the second post-certification mission, or Crew-2.

The Crew-2 launch is scheduled in February 2021. The Crew-1 mission — SpaceX’s first operational astronaut flight — is slated to fly with a brand new Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket.

Each of SpaceX’s operational crew rotation flights to the space station will carry up to four astronauts, including space fliers from NASA and the space station’s international partners.

NASA has assigned astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker to the Crew-1 mission. Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi will join the U.S. astronauts on the Crew Dragon spacecraft.

“You are seeing the beginning of the rotational use of the commercial crew systems in transporting our astronauts to the ISS,” McErlean said.

In the safety panel’s July 23 public meeting, McErlean said SpaceX currently plans to refurbish and reuse the Crew Dragon spacecraft that is flying on the Demo-2 mission on the Crew-2 mission next year. That crew capsule was named Dragon Endeavour by Hurley and Behnken soon after their launch in May.

SpaceX also aims to reuse the Falcon 9 rocket booster assigned to the Crew-1 mission again on the Crew-2 launch next year, McErlean said.

“So in this case, Crew-2 will be fully utilizing the SpaceX reuse philosophy,” McErlean said. “Although reuse has been successful in prior launches, the use of previously-flown hardware for a human spaceflight mission is unique, and it will create some additional work for NASA, who must address the human certification requirements.”

Boeing also plans to reuse Starliner crew capsules on multiple flights. Unlike the Crew Dragon, which splashes down at sea, the Starliner parachutes to an airbag-cushioned touchdown on land.

McErlean, speaking for the safety advisory panel, said NASA must also keep up with SpaceX’s philosophy of “constantly evolving vehicle designs” with an “ongoing formal safety-related process” to ensure the modifications remain within the agency’s human-rating certification requirements.

“With the completion of the Demo-2 mission and appropriate vehicle changes driven by the data gathered during that mission, NASA will have a essentially concluded the required certification process for flying NASA personnel on SpaceX hardware,” McErlean said. “However, it is the panel’s opinion that given the SpaceX approach to hardware upgrades, NASA has to decide by what processes it will continue to monitor vehicle and system changes to ensure that those changes still remain within an appropriately certified safety posture for human spaceflight operations.”

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SpaceX shares video of first double fairing catch

SpaceX’s two fast-maneuvering payload fairing recovery vessels were in the right place at the right time Monday to catch both halves of the nose shroud jettisoned by a Falcon 9 rocket climbing into orbit with South Korea’s Anasis 2 military communications satellite.

The California-based launch company released a pair of videos Tuesday on Twitter, showing views from each of the fairing recovery boats as the vessels steered under the shroud shells descending under parachutes around 40 minutes after the Falcon 9’s liftoff from Cape Canaveral.

The twin recovery ships, named “Ms. Tree” and “Ms. Chief,” were located around 480 miles (775 kilometers) east of Cape Canaveral in the Atlantic Ocean for Monday’s mission.

The Falcon 9 rocket took off from Cape Canaveral at 5:30 p.m. EDT (2130 GMT) Monday with Anasis 2, South Korea’s first dedicated military communications satellite. On the way into orbit, the launcher jettisoned its first stage booster, which descended back to Earth for a pinpoint landing on SpaceX’s drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

Moments later, the Falcon 9’s upper stage ignited and then released the two-piece clamshell-like nose cone that shielded the Anasis 2 satellite from aerodynamic forces and airflow during the first few minutes of the flight. By that time, the rocket was flying at an altitude of about 68 miles, or 110 kilometers, above the densest layers of the atmosphere.

The first stage maneuvered back to Earth using a series of propulsive burns of its main engines, allowing it to target touchdown on the SpaceX landing platform. The booster was making its second launch after its first use helped launch NASA astronauts aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft May 30.

The re-flight of the first stage Monday — 51 days after its May 30 mission — marked the shortest turnaround between flights of a Falcon 9 booster.

The Falcon 9’s fairing shells come back to Earth in a more unguided fashion, using cold gas thrusters to orient themselves for deployment of a steerable parachute, or parafoil, to slow down before reaching the ocean.

The fairing recovery boats are each equipped with a giant net to catch the falling fairing halves. SpaceX has caught one fairing shell on prior missions — and plucked the other half from the ocean — but Monday’s achievement was the first time the company has netted both pieces of the fairing on the same launch.

Catching the fairing with the net helps reduce contamination from sea water, easing refurbishment of the nose cone for reuse on future flights.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket takes off from Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch pad Monday with South Korea’s Anasis 2 satellite. The South Korean flag is seen emblazoned on the Falcon 9’s payload fairing. Credit: SpaceX

The company wants to more regularly reuse the fairing, eyeing it as the next step in reducing launch costs after proving the landing and reuse of Falcon booster stages. The fairing shells flown on Monday’s mission were brand new.

The Falcon 9’s fairing stands about 43 feet (13.1 meters) tall and measures about 17 feet (5.2 meters) in diameter.

SpaceX reused a fairing for the first time on a Falcon 9 launch last November carrying 60 of the company’s own Starlink broadband satellites into orbit. The company has since repeated the feat.

Other launch providers dispose of the fairing, but SpaceX began using a fast-moving boat to steer underneath a fairing following launches from California in early 2018. The efforts chalked up a series of near-misses, prompting engineers to evaluate reusing fairings that fell into the sea.

SpaceX has since added a second fairing recovery vessel to its fleet, and moved the fairing-catching boats to Florida, where the company has a higher launch rate.

The first fairing that SpaceX reused last November was retrieved from the ocean after a Falcon Heavy launch in April 2019.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, told reporters in 2018 that each new fairing costs around $6 million.

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SpaceX delivers South Korea’s first military satellite into on-target orbit

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Monday. Credit: Ken Kremer/SpaceUpClose.com

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket deployed South Korea’s first dedicated military satellite into orbit Monday a half-hour after a fiery launch from Cape Canaveral, helping fulfill an agreement between Lockheed Martin and the South Korean government in exchange for Korea’s purchase of F-35 fighter jets six years ago.

South Korea’s Anasis 2 military communications satellite rocketed away from Cape Canaveral at 5:30 p.m. EDT (2130 GMT) Monday on top of a Falcon 9 launcher. Nine Merlin main engines on the Falcon 9 rocket propelled the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) launcher off the ground, and the Falcon 9 turned east over the Atlantic Ocean, exceeding the speed of sound within about one minute.

Powered by the same first stage booster that launched astronauts May 30 on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, the Falcon 9 thundered into a sunny sky after a 30-minute delay Monday the company attributed to a passing rain shower.

The first stage shut down and separated from the Falcon 9’s second stage about two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, beginning maneuvers to precisely touch down on SpaceX’s floating landing platform around 400 miles (645 kilometers) east of Cape Canaveral. The reusable first stage landed on target aboard the drone ship “Just Read The Instructions,” ready for return to Florida’s Space Coast for another flight.

The booster used on Monday’s launch set a record for the quickest turnaround time between flights of an orbital-class rocket stage at 51 days. The shortest span between launches of the same Falcon 9 booster was previously 62 days, which SpaceX achieved with a Feb. 17 mission.

NASA achieved a 54-day turnaround time between two launches of the space shuttle Atlantis in late 1985, a record never again matched during the 30-year-long shuttle program. The time elapsed between Atlantis’s landing and next launch was 50 days.

SpaceX may eclipse its rocket turnaround time record again in the coming weeks, with more missions on the company’s jam-packed launch schedule, all using reused rocket stages. The next brand new Falcon 9 booster is not expected to fly before late September.

Meanwhile, SpaceX’s second stage engine ignited two times to inject the Anasis 2 spacecraft into an elliptical transfer orbit stretching thousands of miles above above Earth. The satellite will use its on-board engine to circularize its orbit more than 22,000 miles (nearly 36,000 kilometers) over the equator, where it will provide services for the South Korean military.

John Insprucker, a SpaceX engineer and manager who co-hosted the company’s launch webcast Monday, declared it a “totally successful mission.”

The Anasis 2 spacecraft was manufactured by Airbus Defense and Space in Toulouse, France, and is based on Airbus’s Eurostar E3000 satellite design.

Anasis 2 “will provide secured communications over wide coverage,” Airbus said in a statement.

South Korea procured the satellite — formerly known as KMilSatCom 1 — through an “offset” arrangement to offset South Korea’s purchase of F-35 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin. In exchange for South Korea’s purchase of 40 F-35 fighter jets — a deal reportedly valued at more than $6 billion — Lockheed Martin agreed to provide the Anasis 2 satellite to the South Korean military, among other offsets.

Lockheed Martin ultimately subcontracted the satellite manufacturing deal to Airbus, and booked launch services for Anasis 2 with SpaceX.

“Lockheed Martin is honored to deliver on the promise and commitment made to the Republic of Korea government with the successful launch of the Anasis 2 satellite,” Lockheed Martin said in a statement. “This launch and the expected in-orbit handover later this year are the first milestones signifying the completion of an offset project related to the sale of F-35s to the ROKG (Republic of Korea Government) in 2014.”

Before Anasis 2, South Korea’s military has relied on international and civilian-owned satellites for communications. A dual-use satellite named Anasis 1 launched in 2006 to provide commercial and military telecom services.

Further details about the Anasis 2 satellite are shrouded in secrecy at the wishes of the the spacecraft’s owner — the South Korean government. SpaceX did not broadcast live video of the Anasis 2 satellite deploying from the Falcon 9 rocket, citing a request from its customer.

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

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, tweeted later Monday that the company had successfully recovered both halves of the Falcon 9 rocket’s payload fairing using two boats stationed offshore in the Atlantic Ocean.

The twin fairing recovery vessels — named “Ms. Tree” and “Ms. Chief” — were dispatched to positions nearly 500 miles (800 kilometers) east of Cape Canaveral. Both ships are fitted with giant nets to try to catch the fairing halves, which descend under parachutes.

The Falcon 9 released the clamshell-like payload fairing around three-and-a-half minutes after liftoff Monday, once the rocket flew above the dense, lower layers of the atmosphere. The shroud protected the Anasis 2 satellite during the rocket’s initial climb away from Florida.

The successful fairing recovery marked the first time SpaceX achieved a double catch of both fairing halves on the same mission. On previous flights, SpaceX has either caught just one of the fairing shells, or retrieved them after splashing down in the ocean.

Monday’s mission was SpaceX’s 12th launch of the year, but it was the company’s first launch of 2020 dedicated to a customer other than NASA, the U.S. military, or SpaceX’s own Starlink Internet project.

Of SpaceX’s 11 previous missions this year, seven launched clusters of satellites for the company’s own Starlink broadband network. One of those missions carried a rideshare payload of three commercial SkySat Earth-observing satellites for Planet.

Three of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 missions so far in 2020 have been for NASA.

A Falcon 9 flight Jan. 19 launched a Crew Dragon capsule for a high-altitude test of the spaceship’s abort system. A Dragon cargo ship launched March 6 on a Falcon 9 rocket to resupply the International Space Station, and the first Crew Dragon flight with astronauts took off on a Falcon 9 rocket May 30.

SpaceX’s most recent launch before Monday delivered a GPS navigation satellite into orbit for the U.S. Space Force.

The market for large commercial geostationary satellites has experienced a downturn in the last few years, although there are signs that orders to build and launch geostationary communications spacecraft are on the uptick again.

SpaceX has another launch planned for an external foreign customer coming up later this month. Argentina’s SAOCOM 1B radar observation satellite is being prepared for launch at Cape Canaveral on a Falcon 9 rocket as soon as next week.

The launch of SAOCOM 1B was originally scheduled in March, but officials from CONAE — Argentina’s space agency — requested a delay in the launch due to travel and work restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. Using new physical distancing and safety protocols, crews returned to Cape Canaveral from Argentina earlier this month to resume preparations on the SAOCOM 1B satellite.

SpaceX also has several more Falcon 9 launches with Starlink satellites from Florida’s Space Coast in August. In September, SpaceX is gearing up for a launch with the next Crew Dragon spacecraft to carry astronauts to the space station, and another Falcon 9 flight with a GPS navigation satellite for the U.S. military.

Other missions on SpaceX’s manifest later this year — besides regularly-scheduled flights to add satellites to the Starlink Internet network — include Falcon 9 launches with a Dragon cargo craft to deliver supplies to the space station, commercial communications satellites for Turksat and SiriusXM, a joint U.S.-European oceanography satellite, and a rideshare mission carrying dozens of small satellites into polar orbit.

There is also a launch of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket on the company’s schedule in late 2020. After taking off from the Kennedy Space Center, the heavy-lift rocket will deploy classified payloads into geostationary orbit for the U.S. Space Force.

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Falcon 9 launch timeline with Anasis 2

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is set for liftoff from Cape Canaveral on Tuesday, heading due east over the Atlantic Ocean to deliver the South Korean Anasis 2 military communications satellite into orbit around 32 minutes later.

The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) rocket is poised for launch from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida during a launch window Monday opening at 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT) and closing at 8:55 p.m. EDT (0055 GMT).

Perched atop the rocket is the Anasis 2 communications satellite, a spacecraft manufactured by Airbus Defense and Space in Toulouse, France, and owned by the South Korean military.
After deployment from the upper stage of the Falcon 9 rocket in an elliptical transfer orbit, the Anasis 2 spacecraft will use its on-board hydrazine-fueled engine to boost itself into a circular geostationary orbit more than 22,000 miles (nearly 36,000 kilometers) over the equator.

Based on Airbus’s Eurostar E3000 satellite design, Anasis 2 “will provide secured communications over wide coverage,” Airbus said in a statement.

The Falcon 9 first stage booster set to loft the Anasis 2 payload has one previous flight to its credit. It launched May 30 with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on the first test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft with people on-board.

The timeline below outlines the launch sequence for the Falcon 9 flight with Anasis 2.

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 39A.

T+0:01:00: Mach 1

The Falcon 9 rocket reaches Mach 1, the speed of sound.
The Falcon 9 rocket reaches Mach 1, the speed of sound, as the nine Merlin 1D engines provide more than 1.7 million pounds of thrust.

T+0:01:12: 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.

T+0:02:32: MECO

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

T+0:02:36: 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+0:02:43: 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 Anasis 2 spacecraft into a preliminary parking orbit.

T+0:03:34: 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+0:06:46: Stage 1 Entry Burn Complete

A subset of the first stage’s Merlin 1D engines complete an entry burn to slow down for landing. A final landing burn will occur just before touchdown.

T+0:08:06: 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 low-altitude orbit. The upper stage and Anasis 2 begin a coast phase scheduled to last more than 18 minutes before the second stage Merlin vacuum engine reignites.

T+0:08:31: Stage 1 Landing

The Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage booster touches down on SpaceX’s drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

T+0:26:32: 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 Anasis 2 communications satellite into an elliptical transfer orbit.

T+0:27:28: 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 short burn to put the Anasis 2 satellite in the proper elliptical orbit for deployment.

T+0:32:29: Anasis 2 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 Anasis 2 satellite separates from the Falcon 9 rocket into an elliptical transfer orbit, on the way to a perch in geostationary orbit.

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