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Falcon 9 launches GPS satellite in first national security mission with reused booster

WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched a U.S. Space Force GPS 3 satellite June 17. The rocket lifted off at 12:09 p.m. Eastern from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida. 

The Falcon 9 launched the Lockheed Martin-built GPS 3 Space Vehicle 5 — the 5th satellite of the GPS 3 constellation that provides positioning, navigation and timing signals to military and civilian users.

With this launch, the Space Force officially enters the era of reusable rockets. GPS 3 SV-5 was the first National Security Space Launch mission where SpaceX used a previously flown Falcon 9 first stage. The booster — designated B1062 — was recovered Nov. 5 after the launch of GPS 3 SV-4.

The rocket’s first stage separated from the second stage approximately two minutes and 40 seconds after liftoff. About eight minutes and 35 seconds after liftoff, the Falcon 9’s first stage touched down on the “Just Read the Instructions” droneship off the coast of Florida in the Atlantic Ocean.

The booster landing was the third time SpaceX recovered the Falcon 9 first stage in a National Security Space Launch mission and the 88th successful recovery of a first stage by the company. 

The GPS 3 SV-5 satellite will join the constellation of 31 spacecraft that operate in medium Earth orbit at an altitude of 12,550 miles in six orbital planes. Each satellite circles the Earth twice per day.

The June 17 mission was SpaceX’s fourth launch of a military GPS 3 satellite under the National Security Space Launch program. The first was on Dec. 23, 2018, the second one took place on June 30, 2020 and the third on Nov. 5, 2020.

The company is under contract to launch GPS 3 SV-6 next year.

Col. Robert Bongiovi, the director of the Space Force Launch Enterprise, said SpaceX will continue to fly reused boosters in national security missions.  

“We are building on the successful booster recoveries of GPS 3 SV-3 and GPS 2 SV-4 last year and making a historic step with the GPS 3 SV-5 mission using a previously flown vehicle,” he said. “The affordability and flexibility provided with SpaceX’s reused launch vehicles open additional opportunities for future NSSL missions.”

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Upcoming SpaceX mission a reusability milestone for national security launch

WASHINGTON — The upcoming SpaceX launch of a GPS 3 satellite scheduled for June 17 will be the first national security space mission to use a refurbished Falcon 9 booster.  The U.S. Space Force initially ordered an expendable rocket but agreed to the switch with a caveat: the reused booster had to be the one that flew another GPS 3 satellite to orbit last November. 

A Space Force official told reporters June 14 that this requirement is just for this mission as the military gets more comfortable with reusability. In the future SpaceX will be able to bid for national security launch contracts “with no restrictions on reusability,” said Walter Lauderdale, deputy mission director of the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Launch Enterprise. 

This means the Space Force will allow SpaceX to fly future national security missions on Falcon 9 boosters that previously launched commercial or NASA payloads.

“Later this year we’ll work with them on what boosters are available. Not just those flown for national security launch, we’re open to using others,” Lauderdale said during a conference call with reporters.

Lauderdale said it’s taken SMC’s Launch Enterprise several years to get to this point after working with SpaceX and gaining a better understanding of how its fleet operates. 

SpaceX’s first mission under the National Security Space Launch program in December 2018 — GPS 3 SV-01 — flew on an expendable rocket. For the second and third GPS 3 launches in June and November 2020 (GPS 3 SV-03 and SV-04), the Space Force allowed SpaceX to recover the boosters. For the next two GPS 3 missions, GPS 3 SV-05 and SV-06, the company will be able to fly reused boosters and recover them. 

SpaceX received a bulk contract worth $290.5 million to launch GPS 3 SV-04, SV-05 and SV-06. After agreeing to booster recovery and reuse, the price was reduced by $64 million over the three missions, Lauderdale said. 

GPS 3 SV-06 is projected to launch in 2022. 

For the launch of SV-06 SpaceX will be allowed to offer a booster that has flown more than twice, said Lauderdale.

There are still four more GPS 3 launch contracts to be awarded under Phase 2 of the National Security Space Launch program. SpaceX and United Launch Alliance are the two launch providers selected for Phase 2 for a five-year period from 2022 to 2027.  Under the terms of the contract, the Space Force has to give ULA 60 percent of the missions over the five years and SpaceX 40 percent. 

Given SpaceX’s win streak with GPS missions, the company is likely to launch more GPS satellites in the coming years. SpaceX got five of the six GPS 3 launches awarded over the past four years. ULA in 2019 launched a GPS satellite on the final flight of the Delta 4 Medium rocket before it retired the vehicle.

Lauderdale said Phase 2 launch awards don’t set reusability limits. “We have to continue to look beyond two or three, he said. “Phase 2 doesn’t specify a count.” There are no restrictions on reused payload fairings either, he said.  

The next GPS contract up for award is the seventh GPS 3 satellite (SV-07), one of five missions funded in the Space Force’s $1.4 billion budget request for national security launch services for fiscal year 2022, a Space and Missile Systems Center spokesman confirmed. 

The other three — GPS 3 SV-08, SV-09 and SV-10 — “are currently being tracked as future launch service requirements, the spokesman said.

GPS 3 satellites are made by Lockheed Martin. The company in 2008 got a contract to develop and produce 10 satellites, four of which are in orbit. The last four that have not been awarded launches yet will be completed long before they’re expected to fly to orbit. Because of the lag time between delivery of the satellites and their projected launches, these last four will be kept in storage at Lockheed Martin’s facility in Colorado.

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SpaceX sets Falcon 9 fairing reuse mark with Starlink launch

Starlink launch

WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Falcon 9 launched another set of Starlink satellites May 26 on a launch that highlighted an often-overlooked aspect of the company’s reusability efforts.

The Falcon 9 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 2:59 p.m. Eastern. The rocket’s upper stage released its payload of 60 Starlink satellites into orbit 64 minutes later.

The rocket’s first stage landed on a droneship in the Atlantic eight and a half minutes after liftoff. In contrast to some recent Starlink launches, where the Falcon 9 boosters had launched as many as 10 times, this Falcon 9 first stage was on only its second launch, having previously been used to launch the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich ocean science satellite in November 2020.

SpaceX did set a different kind of reuse milestone on this launch. One of two halves of the payload fairing was on its fifth flight, the first time a payload fairing section had flown five times. The fairing half flew on four previous Starlink launches dating back to 2019. The second fairing half was on its third launch, having been used previously on a Starlink launch and the Transporter-1 rideshare mission in January.

The launch was also the 40th Falcon 9 mission to fly at least one reused payload fairing half. The company had quietly made regular use of previously flown payload fairings, which deploy parachutes after separation from the rocket’s upper stage and are recovered in the ocean by boats.

SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said several years ago that the company would attempt to recover and reuse payload fairings because of their expense: about $6 million each. “Imagine if you had $6 million in cash in a pallet flying through the air, and it was going to smash into the ocean. Would you try to recover that? Yes, yes you would,” Musk said in 2017, after the company launched its first reused Falcon 9.

Unlike the booster landings, which the company broadcasts on its launch webcasts, the fairing recoveries take place out of view. SpaceX would occasionally provide video of attempts to catch the descending fairings in large nets strung above ships, but more recently has moved to simply recovering fairings from the water after splashdown.

This launch also marked the 100th consecutive successful Falcon 9 launch, a streak that started after a June 2015 launch failure on a NASA commercial cargo mission. That streak does not include the loss of the Amos-6 satellite when a Falcon 9 exploded during preparations for a static-fire test days before its scheduled launch in September 2016.

The launch brings the total number of Starlink satellites in orbit to 1,664. Viasat filed a motion with the Federal Communications Committee May 21 to stay its approval of a modification of SpaceX’s license that allows the company to increase the number of Starlink satellites it can operate in orbits about 550 kilometers high from 1,584 to 4,408. That would effectively block SpaceX from launching additional satellites until the FCC completed an environmental review of the constellation demanded by Viasat.

The FCC has not yet acted on the motion, and SpaceX did not mention the dispute in its launch webcast, which instead noted that the company has expanded the beta test of the Starlink service to residents of Belgium and the Netherlands.

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SpaceX sets booster reuse milestone on Starlink launch

Falocn 9 first stage landing

WASHINGTON — SpaceX launched a set of Starlink satellites May 9 on a Falcon 9 whose first stage was making its tenth flight, a long-awaited goal in the company’s reusability efforts.

The Falcon 9 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 2:42 a.m. Eastern. The rocket’s upper stage deployed its payload of 60 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit nearly 65 minutes later.

The launch, the third in less than two weeks for SpaceX, brings the total number of Starlink satellites in orbit to more than 1,550. The company is gradually expanding its beta test program for the broadband internet service as the constellation grows. SpaceX noted on the launch webcast that it opened up that beta test program in the last week to people in Austria and France.

The launch itself was noteworthy as it marked the first time a Falcon 9 first stage had flown 10 times. The booster first launched the Demo-1 commercial crew test flight in March 2019. It later launched the Radarsat Constellation Mission, the SXM-7 satellite for SiriusXM and six Starlink missions, most recently March 14, before this launch.

SpaceX had long identified 10 flights as a goal for Falcon 9 reuse in order to justify the significant investment the company made into reusability. In recent months, though, company executives have suggested that the booster can fly more than 10 times.

“There doesn’t seem to be any obvious limit to the reusability of the vehicle,” Elon Musk, chief executive of SpaceX, said at an April 23 NASA press conference after the Crew-2 launch.

The company has been using its own Starlink missions to push the boundaries of booster reuse. That has uncovered issues, such as a February launch where the Starlink payload reached orbit but the booster failed to land. That booster was making its sixth flight, but some engine components, such as “boots” or covers around the engines, were life leaders. One of those covers had a hole that allowed hot gas from the engine exhaust get into other parts of the engine, triggering a shutdown that prevented the stage from landing.

“We do intend to fly the Falcon 9 booster until we see some kind of a failure with the Starlink missions, have that be a life-leader,” Musk said at the briefing, noting at the time that a tenth flight of a booster was upcoming. “We’re learning a lot of about reusability. It’s a hard problem for rockets.”

SpaceX has not disclosed whether it will attempt to use this booster for an eleventh launch, but the successful landing at least preserves that possibility. “This booster gets to live again,” Michael Andrews, the host of the SpaceX launch webcast, said shortly after the landing.

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SpaceX blames failed Falcon 9 booster landing on heat damage

Falcon 9 Starlinnk Feb. 2021

WASHINGTON — A Falcon 9 booster failed to land after its most recent launch Feb. 15 because of “heat damage” it sustained, but a SpaceX official said he was confident that the boosters can be reused 10 or more times.

During a session of the 47th Spaceport Summit Feb. 23, Hans Koenigsmann, senior adviser for build and flight reliability at SpaceX, said the failed landing during an otherwise successful launch of Starlink satellites remains under investigation.

“This has to do with heat damage, but it’s a running investigation,” he said, adding that the company was “close to nailing it down” and correcting the problem. “That’s all I can say at this point in time.”

The failed landing broke a string of two dozen successful landings of Falcon 9 boosters, either on droneships or on land, dating back nearly a year. Video from the booster’s return showed that the engines did not shut down normally after the vehicle’s entry burn. The booster never made it to the droneship, and video from that ship showed a glow in the distance around the time the booster should have landed.

SpaceX hasn’t conducted a Falcon 9 launch since that failed landing. The next launch, of another set of Starlink satellites, is scheduled for no earlier than Feb. 28.

Other customers of the Falcon 9 are keeping tabs on the investigation. At a Feb. 19 briefing, Joel Montalbano, NASA International Space Station program manager, said the agency was in discussions with SpaceX about that investigation to see if it involved any issues that could affect the Crew-2 commercial crew launch scheduled for April 20. “As of today, we’re working with them to better understand what happened, and right now it’s just too early to say if we’re going to have any impacts” on that launch, he said.

Another government official saw no issues with the failed landing from a safety perspective. “This is what we call a successful failure,” said Wayne Monteith, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration, during the Spaceport Summit panel discussion. “It failed within the safety regime and they protected the public and protected public property.”

“For us, even when a system does not meet all mission goals, as long as it fails safely, in many respects that’s progress,” he added. “Each of these flights demonstrates something new and allows industry to move forward.”

The booster that failed was on its sixth launch. SpaceX has flown boosters up to eight times each, and Koenigsmann said the company will launch a booster for a ninth time in a few weeks. SpaceX has set a goal of being able to fly each booster 10 times.

That is not a hard limit, though, Koenigsmann said. “We’re learning a lot about refurbishment and we’re learning where the areas are where we need to pay attention to,” he said, such as the booster’s heat shield and engine components. “We’ve been learning with every single landing.”

He expected SpaceX to soon get a booster to the 10-flight mark, but suggested the company would not automatically retire it. “We will continue to look at that booster and make an assessment whether we can move forward with it,” he said, adding that, in his own opinion, the company would continue launching boosters after 10 flights, perhaps replacing some components that wear out.

“To me this is an engineering problem,” he concluded. “I don’t think the number 10 is a magic number.”

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Falcon 9 reaches new reusability record during Starlink, SkySat launch

WASHINGTON — SpaceX successfully launched a Falcon 9 rocket Aug. 18 on a mission that reused the same first-stage booster for a sixth time, setting a record for Falcon 9 booster reuse.

The Falcon 9 lifted off at 10:31 a.m. Eastern from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, carrying 58 small broadband satellites for SpaceX’s Starlink constellation, and three SkySat optical imaging satellites for Planet. 

Planet’s SkySats separated from the rocket about 13 minutes after liftoff, followed by the Starlink satellites 46 minutes after liftoff. The first-stage booster landed on the drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You,” in the Atlantic Ocean. 

The launch marks the first time SpaceX has flown the same first-stage booster six times. The company first used this particular first stage in September 2018 to launch the Telstar-18 Vantage satellite to geostationary transfer orbit. The booster flew again in January 2019, carrying 10 Iridium NEXT communications satellites to low Earth orbit, and later conducted three separate Starlink launches, with the most recent occurring in June 2020. 

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has described the current Falcon 9 first-stage booster as capable of at least 10 flights, with refurbishment possibly extending the number of flights to 100. The company builds a new upper stage for each launch. 

SpaceX has tested the limits of Falcon 9 reuse through Starlink missions, having launched its own Starlink satellites on the first-ever fourth flight and fifth flight of a rocket booster. The company’s Aug. 18 launch also featured previously flown payload fairing halves that have since been recovered again — one by the boat “Ms. Tree,” and the other via a soft water landing. 

SpaceX has now launched 653 Starlink satellites, including two prototypes. It is not clear, however, how many Starlink satellites launched so far will provide service when SpaceX starts offering internet connections late this year. 

SpaceX told the U.S. Federal Communications Commission June 23 that nine Starlink satellites had “suffered diminished maneuvering capability at an altitude above injection,” and that another five had already been deorbited “either to test the de-orbit process or because the satellite was not performing optimally.”

Musk also tweeted in April that the company was deorbiting its two TinTin prototype satellites. 

SpaceX has submitted paperwork for a constellation of up to 42,000 Starlink satellites, but has described the constellation as “economically viable” at around 1,000 satellites. 

While Starlink will need many more satellites before providing service, the launch completed Planet’s constellation of 21 SkySats. 

The SkySat satellites provide imagery at 50 centimeter resolution, complementing Planet’s larger fleet of Dove cubesats that provide 3-5 meter resolution imagery. 

Mike Safyan, Planet vice president of launch, said SpaceX’s rideshare program was better for Planet than relying on vehicles designed specifically for smallsats. 

“[W]e were able to get these satellites launched much faster compared to a dedicated launch,” he wrote in an Aug. 14 blog post. 

Planet launched its last six SkySats in groups of three on Falcon 9 launches. Splitting the satellites into two groups helps speed their service start by shortening the time needed for orbital plane shifts with onboard propulsion, “all of which results in Planet’s customers benefiting from these enhanced products much sooner,” Safyan 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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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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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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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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