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Elon Musk reveals the heart of SpaceX’s Starship Super Heavy booster

CEO Elon Musk has revealed the first glimpse of the most complex, important, and unproven part of Starship’s record-breaking Super Heavy booster.

Known as the engine section, the aft end of Super Heavy is likely where the fate of early booster prototypes will lie. For the most part, Super Heavy is just a colossal duo of steel propellant tanks that is – to an extent – even simpler than its smaller Starship upper stage, which needs two types of Raptor engines, flaps, a bevy of maneuvering thrusters, and more. However, at the booster’s base, SpaceX must design, fabricate, and assemble a nightmarishly crowded and complex mechanical structure capable of mounting, fueling, and powering anywhere from 29 to 33 Raptor engines.

Simultaneously, that structure and all associated plumbing must withstand the force and pressure of more than 2000 metric tons of cryogenic liquid oxygen and the 7500 tons (16.5 million lbf) of thrust those Raptors can generate. That’s just the bare minimum, though.

Beyond the extraordinary mechanical stress it must withstand, Super Heavy’s thrust section also needs to be able to survive the hellish, violent environment created by almost three dozen powerful rocket engines on one side while the structure is effectively half-submerged in a cryogenic fluid, subjecting the puck and dome to brutal thermal conditions. Last but certainly not least, the exterior of Super Heavy’s thrust structure must be able to survive the mechanical and thermal hell of hypersonic atmospheric reentry with zero cushioning of the blow.

The forces involved are difficult to imagine. At full thrust, Super Heavy Booster 4’s 29 Raptor engines (eventually expanding to 33 on future cores) will likely produce more than 5500 metric tons (12.1 million lbf) of thrust, making it both the largest and most powerful rocket booster ever built or tested. At full thrust, those 29 Raptors will consume more than 17 metric tons (~38,000 lb) of cryogenic liquid methane and oxygen – equivalent to around ten Tesla Model 3s worth of propellant – every single second.

Including smaller secondary runs for each Raptor engine, Super Heavy’s engine section will likely contain miles of plumbing for highly flammable, explosive, and high-pressure liquid and gaseous methane and oxygen. All 29 Raptors also need to be connected to Super Heavy’s power supplies and avionics systems, demanding still more miles of wiring.

Ultimately, Musk says that the next generation of Starship’s Raptor engine – “V2.0” – “is a major improvement in simplification,” presumably making life a bit easier for the engineers that have to design Super Heavy’s hellish engine section plumbing and the technicians that have to fabricate and assemble it. However, there’s just no getting around the fact that a single rocket booster with dozens of engines is going to have an extraordinarily complex thrust section. Only time will tell if SpaceX’s extensive launch vehicle expertise is up to the task.

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SpaceX shifts South Texas focus to Starship’s orbital launch pad

Highlighted by a Wednesday jam-packed with important milestones, SpaceX appears to be shifting its focus in South Texas to the completion of Starship’s first orbital launch pad.

Boca Chica will be the first time in its history that SpaceX has faced the challenge of (or had the opportunity to) build an orbital launch complex from scratch after gaining a great deal of expertise modifying, reactivating, and rebuilding two existing pads in Florida and one in California. SpaceX’s Boca Chica facilities must also support what will be the most powerful rocket ever built (or tested) and a planned flight rate and turnaround capability that drastically exceeds anything the company (or anyone else, really) has attempted.

As a result, the site looks almost nothing like SpaceX’s other launch facilities. On top of the already significant hurdles faced, SpaceX is also attempting to complete its from-scratch facility in record time and work on Starship’s orbital launch site (OLS) really only began in earnest around the start of 2021. That aggressive work schedule has begun to clearly bear fruit in the last few months and arguably reached a bit of a local peak on Wednesday, July 28th.

A Tower Is Born

Kicking off the day after an aborted attempt on Tuesday, SpaceX began what would turn out to be an extremely busy Wednesday around 5am CDT (UTC-5) with the installation of the Starship launch tower’s ninth and final prefabricated section, effectively completing the structure’s skeleton. Unlike all other SpaceX pads, save for Pad 39A’s single-purpose Dragon and Crew Access Arm, Starship’s first orbital launch pad will lean heavily on a massive steel tower.

By all appearances, Starship’s launch tower will host an elevator-like carriage outfitted with several large arms on its exterior and will use those arms to stabilize, stack, fuel, and maybe even catch Starships and Super Heavy boosters. The tower will be integral to routine Starship launch operations, in other words.

With the installation of one last steel segment, that tower grew to a height of ~145m (~440 ft) and isn’t expected to get any taller after a 10m/30ft lightning rod is eventually added. SpaceX’s pad team can now begin the process of finalizing tower construction, ranging from adding cladding on its rectangular exterior and welding all nine steel sections together to filling its four legs with concrete.

Tank and Table

Just a few hours after the start of Tower Section #9 installation, a fleet of SpaceX’s self-propelled modular transporters (SPMTs) left the build site with two major pieces of orbital pad hardware in tow. For the first time in three months, one of those payloads was an OLS propellant storage tank built by SpaceX itself out of parts almost identical to those found on Starship. Since the first two ground support equipment (GSE) tanks were rapidly installed in April, activity on that front has been curiously stagnant.

Since modifications of those tanks began in-situ over the last month or so, the general consensus has been that a fairly minor design flaw or oversight was discovered well after production began, requiring a significant pause to rework and redesign the crucial pad components. In the meantime, work on contractor-built GSE tank shells meant to eventually insulate SpaceX’s thin cryogenic storage tanks continued unabated and one water tank and six shells have already been more or less completed. With any luck, GSE tank #5’s delivery to the OLS means that SpaceX has removed the roadblock(s) and is ready to move into plumbing and tank farm activation.

Simultaneously, a far more significant part known as the Starship ‘launch table’ also left SpaceX’s Boca Chica build site after nearly six months of around-the-clock assembly and outfitting. Designed to secure, fuel, and launch orbital Starships, the launch table has to be able to withstand the ~5000 metric ton (~11 million lb) weight of a fully-fueled Starship, hold Super Heavy in place during static fires and prelaunch ignitions that could produce ~7500 metric tons of thrust, and survive the unspeakable fury of 33 Raptor engines operating simultaneously.

Unlike all other major orbital Starship launch pad parts, the custom launch mount and table’s successful and near-total completion is an absolute necessity for any kind of orbital test flight or full-up Super Heavy static fire. Only part of the tank farm is truly necessary and the vast majority of the tower’s intended tasks can be completed with workarounds if neither are fully ready. Without the launch mount, however, testing much beyond what SpaceX has already accomplished is mostly impossible in the near term.

This table will eventually be installed on a tall, six-legged launch mount. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Raptor Invasion

Finally, while less pressing, SpaceX also accepted delivery of four Raptor engines on top of three more that were delivered to Boca Chica on Tuesday. According to CEO Elon Musk, Starship’s first orbital test flight(s) will happen with a full complement of engines installed, meaning that SpaceX will need to build, qualify, and ship at least 35 new Raptors for a single flight.

SpaceX recently completed assembly of the 100th full-scale Raptor engine at its Hawthorne factory and HQ – an encouraging sign that the engines needed for Starship’s orbital launch debut will be ready for flight sooner than later.

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SpaceX schedules first West Coast Starlink launch after a quiet July

Spaceflight Now reports that SpaceX has scheduled Starlink’s West Coast launch debut no earlier than August 10th, a mission that will also mark the company’s first launch in almost six weeks.

SpaceX completed its latest Falcon 9 launch – and 20th launch of 2021 – on June 30th, successfully deploying dozens of customer small satellites and three Starlink spacecraft as part of its second dedicated Smallsat Program ‘Transporter’ mission. Since then, the United States’ Eastern Range has been eerily quiet – as if in the eye of the storm that is SpaceX’s 2021 launch manifest. While there has been no official word one way or another, it’s been speculated that the range entered a period of routine – if inconvenient – maintenance that can often last weeks and during which no launches are possible.

Scheduled to launch no earlier than July 30th, Boeing’s second attempt at an uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT-2) of its Starliner crew capsule will apparently punctuate the end of that maintenance period and a return to regular operations for SpaceX. In the meantime, Spaceflight Now’s sources suggest that the company has been making the most of its downtime.

In the last two months, SpaceX has shipped two record-breaking Falcon 9 boosters – collectively responsible for 19 orbital-class launches in the last three years – from Florida to its Vandenberg Air/Space Force Base (VAFB), California launch facilities. Drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) wrapped up an 8000 kilometer (~5000 mi) journey from its Florida home to California’s Port of Long Beach, while brand new drone ship A Shortfall of Gravitas (ASOG) arrived at Port Canaveral to take OCISLY’s place after months of assembly.

All are part of an effort to prepare for an even busier second half of 2021. According to Spaceflight Now, H2 will begin no earlier than August 10th for SpaceX with Starlink’s first dedicated polar launch (known as “Starlink 2-1”) and the first Falcon 9 mission out of Vandenberg in nine months. Combined, Falcon 9 boosters B1049 and B1051 and drone ship OCISLY should be more than capable of pushing SpaceX’s SLC-4E pad to its limits, maxing out around one launch per month for the foreseeable future.

Last month, SpaceX FCC filings also revealed plans for a number of new dedicated Starlink launches from its Cape Canaveral LC-40 pad – unexceptional if it weren’t for the fact that details in the documents implied that those upcoming missions will also be targeting polar orbits. In other words, after successfully launching more than 1600 operational Starlink satellites into mid-inclination equatorial orbits, SpaceX now appears to be laser-focused on building out the constellation’s polar ‘shell.’

Comprised of ~1100 satellites, that polar shell will ultimately give Starlink the ability to deliver internet to aircraft and ships virtually anywhere on Earth – two established connectivity markets that are ripe for disruption. To do so, however, most or all polar Starlink satellites will need optical interlinks – lasers that allow spacecraft to route communications in space and serve customers beyond the reach of land-based ground stations. Thus far, excluding two early 2018 prototypes, SpaceX has launched 13 Starlink satellites with prototype laser links.

SpaceX’s first ten space laser Starlink prototypes. (SpaceX)

CEO Elon Musk has stated that Starlink V2 satellites are set to debut in 2022 and will all have optical interlinks. However, the upcoming “Starlink 2-1” mission’s internal name does raise the question of whether it’s referring to the start of a new constellation ‘shell,’ the first batch of V2 satellites, or both. SpaceX job postings have also hinted at “Starlink V1.5” satellites, which could potentially be as simple as existing V1 satellites outfitted with laser links.

Ultimately, only time, SpaceX, or Elon Musk will tell and the company’s first dedicated Starlink launch is scheduled as few as two weeks from now.

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SpaceX is almost ready to start turning Starship’s launch tower into ‘Mechazilla’

After a burst of activity and custom part deliveries, SpaceX appears to be almost ready to start turning Starship’s vast launch tower into what CEO Elon Musk has described as a “Mechazilla.”

Over the last few weeks, a number of new components have begun to quickly take shape, offering the first real glimpse of what SpaceX’s latest (hopeful) innovation might look like and how it could function. Earlier this year, Musk revealed plans to forgo landing legs entirely on earthbound Super Heavy boosters – and, potentially, Starships – by using a giant tower with arms to quite literally catch the rockets out of the air.

Those unintuitive plans have triggered wild speculation as the aerospace fans that follow SpaceX closely attempted to imagine what such a solution might look like – often engaging in a sort of vague back-and-forth with Musk himself as the CEO occasionally replied to fan-made depictions and renders.

Months after the reveal, though, parts of that tower’s rocket-manipulation mechanisms have begun to arrive on a near-constant stream of flatbed trucks and something is being assembled on a concrete pad previously used as a Starship landing zone. Two distinct structures are in work at the LZ: one a large framework assembled out of banana yellow metal tubes and the other a (for now) flatter black structure being assembled out of prefabricated components reminiscent of crane parts and trusses.

Now standing some 135m (~440 ft) tall, SpaceX’s Starship ‘launch tower’ has also been assembled from 9 different segments with what looks like six vertical rails running most of the length of three of its four rectangular legs. Since they were first spotted months ago, it’s long been assumed that those tracks will support some kind of elevator-like carriage meant to cling to the tower’s exterior. That carriage would then be outfitted with at least three (and probably five or more) large arms capable of catching, stabilizing, and fueling Starship.

Over the last week or so, SpaceX has also been hard at work completing the ninth and final section – believed to be the roof – of the launch tower. In the last few days, that four-legged tower section has been outfitted with an interesting appendage that itself was then fitted with several massive sheaves (i.e. pulleys). That hardware will likely become part of a high-power pulley system that will pull the arm carriage up and down the tower, allowing it to grab, lift, and catch Starships and Super Heavy boosters.

By all appearances, SpaceX is preparing to install the launch tower’s last prefabricated section, likely raising the tower to its final ~145m (~475 ft) height. It’s possible that a crane of some kind will be permanently installed on top of the tower but it currently looks like SpaceX intends to rely exclusively on the tower’s arms to install, stack, stabilize, fuel, and (maybe) catch Starship and Super Heavy.

Likely tower arm parts. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
The framework of one of several tower arms. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
Tower section #9. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
(NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

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SpaceX just finished Starship’s 100th Raptor engine

SpaceX says its Hawthorne, California rocket factory and headquarters has completed the assembly of Starship and Super Heavy’s 100th Raptor engine.

SpaceX began developing Raptor behind the scenes as far back as 2012 and 2013, when a small team successfully tested a full-scale Raptor preburner – a small but important subcomponent – at NASA’s Stennis Space Center (SSC) facilities. Three years later, in September 2016, CEO Elon Musk revealed the first integrated static fire of a Raptor prototype – though it would later become clear that that prototype was a subscale engine about the same size as Falcon 9’s Merlin 1D.

After two and a half years of subscale testing that helped SpaceX refine startup and shutdown sequences and the general operation of what quickly became the world’s most thoroughly tested full-flow staged combustion engine, SpaceX graduated to full-scale testing. Designed to produce about twice the thrust (~200 tons/440,000 lbf) of its subscale predecessors, the first full-scale Raptor engine shipped to SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas test facilities and completed its first static fire days later on February 3rd, 2019.

Notably, the very first full-scale Raptor prototype (SN1) not only survived its first test but lived long enough to complete several more, ultimately reaching SpaceX’s minimum thrust target four days after its first static fire. A vibration issue would soon require several months of troubleshooting and iterative build-test-fail cycles but Raptor was ultimately ready to support its first brief Starhopper hop tests in July and August.

Approximately 15 months after Raptor’s first flight, Starship prototype SN8 successfully lifted off with three engines, one of which performed a near-flawless four-minute burn to apogee. Eventually, six months after SN8’s successful ascent but failed landing, Starship SN15 successfully landed, demonstrating Raptor’s ability to reignite mid-flight. Since SN15’s May 2021 success, SpaceX appears to have completed anywhere from 20 to 35+ new Raptors as part of a dramatic acceleration in production to meet the needs of at least two imminent orbital Starship test flights – both of which will need approximately 35 engines each.

Per its label, RB16 – now better known as the 100th Raptor engine overall – is the 16th Raptor Boost engine built by SpaceX. “Boost” refers to the particular variant – in this case, a Raptor engine specifically designed for an outer ring of 20 engines on each Super Heavy booster. Unlike Raptor Center (RC) engines, the outer ring of Raptor Boost engines are fixed in place against the rocket’s skirt and aren’t designed to vector their thrust (i.e. gimbal). According to Musk, all sea level-optimized Raptor engines will ultimately produce approximately 230 tons (~510,000 lbf) of thrust.

Relative to almost any other large-scale engine development program in the last half-century, Raptor’s 29-month 100-engine milestone is an extraordinary achievement. The closest comparable engine is Blue Origin’s BE-4, which is expected to produce up to ~240 tons (~540,000 lbf) of thrust, uses an efficient (albeit slightly less so) combustion cycle, and relies on the same methane and oxygen propellant. Full-scale BE-4 testing began 16 months before Raptor in October 2017 and Blue Origin has reportedly only built and tested nine prototypes in the almost four years since. According to Musk, as of May 2021, SpaceX is now building more than a dozen Raptors – including prototypes and flight engines – every month.

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Op-ed | The Success of Artemis Hinges on NASA’s Commitment to Competition

Clockwise from left: Human Landing System concepts from SpaceX, Dynetics and Blue Origin.

The United States is about to take its next giant leap into space – the return of U.S. astronauts to the moon by 2024, this time to stay.  As the final step in landing astronauts on the moon, the Human Landing System (HLS) will play a significant role in the success of the Artemis program. However, the path forward is as precarious as it is aggressive, and NASA’s decision to rely on a sole company (SpaceX) to land our astronauts on the surface of the moon has made a challenging operation even riskier. Perhaps more importantly, funding a single HLS provider deprives NASA of the benefits of competition among contractors. 

NASA’s decision to award nearly $3 billion to SpaceX in April to produce the HLS has resulted in a rising tide of political and expert opinion calling for NASA to issue a second contract. Not only have both overlooked parties – Dynetics and the National Team led by Blue Origin – protested the award, but the Senate has voted to require that NASA issue a second award in order to restore competition and reduce program risks. A House appropriations subcommittee has also advanced a bill that increased funding for the HLS program, but was silent as to any requirements in regards to spending. 

Competition is the engine of entrepreneurialism. Without it, SpaceX and other companies will lack the impetus to produce a superior product at the best price. In mature industries, a competitive marketplace is maintained through the enforcement of antitrust laws. However, when NASA creates an industry from whole cloth, it is the responsibility of NASA to also create the conditions of a competitive marketplace: by awarding multiple contracts for the product and service. Our capitalist system, defined by healthy competition, is the greatest advantage that the United States has as other countries, including China and Russia, jostle in space for geopolitical supremacy. In a mission as complicated as returning to the moon, the United States needs the most innovative technologies that only a competitive market can produce. 

Kathy Lueders said it best on her first day as the head of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, when she christened her era of leadership with the motto “exploration is a team sport.” NASA’s vision, as she went on to explain in her inaugural statement, is for NASA to create a competitive marketplace where NASA will simply be another customer, shopping for the best deal to put their payload in orbit or on the moon:

We took a risk with industry by encouraging commercial innovation in a new market with the end goal of government becoming a customer of low-Earth orbit services, hopefully one of many.

Her comments show obvious pride (and rightly so) in NASA’s innovative procurement programs in recent years. NASA played a groundbreaking role in funding the development of new reusable rocket technology which transformed the U.S. launch service industry. Programs calling for Commercial Crew Development, Commercial Resupply Services, and Commercial Orbital Transportation Services spawned a legion of launch service providers that operate (or plan to operate) in low Earth orbit, with the most notable being SpaceX, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman. 

How did NASA accomplish this? By awarding multiple contracts after competitive bidding. The bidding process ensures healthy competition during the contest for a contract – but the awarding of multiple contracts ensures that the competition will continue post-award because there will be a multiplayer industry where companies will continue to compete for contracts (whether with NASA or with other customers). 

NASA understands the benefits of competition and has largely moved to the model of awarding contracts to multiple companies. In the call for bids for the HLS project, NASA foreshadowed their intent to give multiple awards; but then, clearly under financial pressure after Congress allocated only 25% of the requested funding for the HLS program, NASA issued a single award to SpaceX. By doing this, NASA eliminated all competition and with it all of the benefits of the marketplace.  

Along with eliminating competition, the decision to issue a single award jeopardizes reliability. Lueders said as much in her inaugural statement: “We took a risk with industry . . .” The risk is that, despite NASA’s funding, the selected companies could fail to reliably deliver the needed products/services at a reasonable price. As Scott Pace, formerly executive secretary of the National Space Council, recently pointed out: “It is very dangerous to go to just one [contractor].” The risks of working with a single contractor are nothing new. In the days of the Apollo program, NASA ensured the reliability of a contractor’s work by being far more “hands on” in how they monitored it. Today’s procurement model mitigates reliability risk in a different way: by issuing multiple awards, and thereby maintaining redundant providers of the product/service. 

It is not too late to correct course. Both unsuccessful bidders still have viable bids.  Even smaller split awards would maintain the competition model. If the reduced size of the awards slows the timeline, then Congress will simply have to increase funding.  At the moment, it appears that Congress may intervene and force NASA’s hand (if the House follows the lead of the Senate). But it would be far better if NASA took the opportunity of its own accord, after considering the actions of the Senate and expert opinion, to issue a second (or even a third) award in order to maintain a competitive field in the industry and enhance overall reliability of our human landing systems. By taking action, NASA would be sending a clear message that it is dedicated to creating a vibrant competitive industry of lunar landing technology that will help ensure that the U.S. maintains its position of leadership in space.

Prof. Mark J. Sundahl is a professor of law and the director of the Global Space Law Center at Cleveland State University. He currently serves on NASA’s Regulatory and Policy Committee and is the principal of Astralex LLC which provides consulting services to a range of industry clients, including a company involved in the HLS bidding process. All opinions are those of the author alone.

 

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SpaceX CEO Elon Musk reveals Starship factory upgrade plans

CEO Elon Musk says that SpaceX is about to begin the construction of “a much larger high bay” adjacent to the existing structure, an 82m (~270 ft) tall building used to complete assembly of Starship and Super Heavy boosters.

According to Musk, the newest addition to SpaceX’s arsenal of Starship production facilities will be located “just north” of an existing high bay, which measures approximately 30m by 25m (100′ x 80′). Most importantly, Boca Chica’s high bay is tall enough for SpaceX to use a bridge crane to stack 50m (165′) Starships and ~70m (~230′) Super Heavy boosters – far more efficient and protected than using wheeled or tracked cranes to assemble rockets out in the open.

High bay construction, September 2020. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Construction of the existing high bay began in May 2020 and was more or less complete by the start of 2021. The structure was truly finished in April 2021 with the installation of a heavy-duty bridge crane, though work continues to this day on what CEO Elon Musk has described as a bar and viewing area to be located at the top of the bay.

Musk’s assertion that the new facility will be “much larger” can be interpreted a number of ways. There’s a distant possibility that SpaceX will build a true NASA-style Vehicle Assembly Building like the colossal VAB used to fully assembled Saturn V and the Space Shuttle at Kennedy Space Center. For Starship, that would require a structure at least ~130m (~430 ft) tall – more than 50% taller than the current ‘high bay’.

Note the large swath of mostly empty space below the two assembly bays.
NASA’s VAB versus SpaceX’s Boca Chica ‘high bay’. (NASA/Reddit)

More likely, Musk means that SpaceX will effectively be building a second similarly tall high bay but with far more usable floor space. The existing structure is large enough to fit four or far different Starship or Super Heavy ‘stacks’ at once, though SpaceX’s current setup appears to allow two or three vehicle sections to be stacked and worked on simultaneously. In his July 25th tweet, Musk implicitly noted that SpaceX does have a significant amount of mostly unused space that could be perfect for another assembly building directly north of the high and mid bays.

Generally speaking, SpaceX has a plot of land around 170m (~560′) by 190m (~620′) that’s currently half-used as a Starship scrapyard and overflow lot, but most of the space is empty. Even if SpaceX only turned half of that land into a sort of vertical Starship assembly line, it would still boost high bay floor space by at least a factor of five or six – and possibly 8-10x. With that much extra space enclosed in a permanent structure, it’s likely that this new facility could mark a new evolution in SpaceX’s ever-changing Starship factory.

Update: Elon Musk says that SpaceX’s second Starship ‘high bay’ will be “a little taller” than the first but have a “much bigger base” and multiple “gantry” (bridge?) cranes that will run the full length of the building.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Falcon Heavy to launch Europa Clipper

Europa Clipper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Court denies Viasat attempt to halt Starlink launches pending legal action

Starlink launch

TAMPA, Fla. — A federal appeals court denied a motion from satellite operator Viasat to stop SpaceX from enlarging its Starlink megaconstellation.

Viasat had requested a stay on a SpaceX license modification that allows it to continue building out the low-Earth-orbit constellation, while legal action seeking to compel a thorough environmental review of the broadband network plays out through the court.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled July 20 that Viasat, which operates broadband satellites in geostationary orbit, “has not satisfied the stringent requirements for a stay pending court review.”

The court also granted a motion to expedite the appeal, setting dates that end with an Oct. 26 deadline for final briefs to clear the way for oral arguments.

Satellite broadcaster Dish Network also objected to SpaceX’s license modification and its case is part of Viasat’s appeal.

Viasat first sought a stay from the Federal Communications Commission on SpaceX’s April 27 license modification, enabling it to continue expanding a constellation estimated to now exceed 1,600 satellites at an altitude of around 550-kilometers.

The company gave the FCC until the end of June 1 to grant the order, before submitting the motion to the same court that will decide whether the regulator was legally obligated to assess Starlink’s environmental impact before modifying its license.

The modification gives SpaceX permission to operate 4,408 satellites at 550-kilometers, instead of just 1,584 in this orbit and 2,825 at altitudes of 1,100 to 1,300-kilometers. 

Decreasing the distance between a satellite and Earth reduces signal lag for latency-critical applications including video calls and gaming. 

However, Viasat said the rapidly expanding megaconstellation poses orbital debris, light pollution and other environmental risks.

SpaceX has continued to deploy Starlink satellites amid the legal action, although the cadence has slowed as it works through launch missions for other customers.

Viasat is also calling on the FCC to review nearly $900 million of rural broadband subsidies that SpaceX won in December for Starlink.

In an application filed June 1, Viasat asked the FCC to review why it was not permitted to bid for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

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