Record Breaking Falcon 9 Launch

Telstar 19V
The awesome flames of the Falcon 9 Block 5 carrying Telstar 19V. Credit: Marcus Cote.

On the 22nd of July 2018, at 05:50 UTC a record breaking Block 5 Falcon 9 launched Telstar 19V into subsynchronous transfer orbit. Launching from Cape Canaveral Space Launch Complex 40, F9-59 (launch designation) was the First Block 5 to launch from this pad. The 7,075 kg payload was more than the previous record holder, the 6,910 kg TerreStar 1 orbited by the Ariane 5 in July 2009. Although, the previous record holder launched the satellite to full geosynchronous transfer orbit. This launch was seen as a key test of the newly developed Block 5 launch system. The first stage was recovered on the autonomous drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” off the Florida coast.

Telstar 19V medium
A great view of SLC-40 from across the water while Telstar 19V is being launched. Credit: SpaceX Flickr.

An SSL 1300 series satellite, Telstar 19V is part of the Telstar series. Owned by the Canadian Satellite Company Telsat, it was built by Space Systems Loral (MAXAR). Using Ka and Ku band transponders it is branded as a high throughput communications satellite, designed for high bandwidth applications that the communications industry is currently dealing with. It is collocated with Telesats Telstar 14R satellite at the same position. The companies first high throughput satellite was Telstar 12V, which sits 15 degrees west.

The upgraded engines of the Merlin 1D engines on the Falcon 9 block 5 can produce a total of 775.65 tonnes of thrust at sea level. The second stage produces roughly 100 tonnes of thrust when in space. The first stage with the designation B1047 burned for 2 minutes and 30 seconds before separating to perform reentry and landing burns. The second stage burned for 5 minutes and 38 seconds to reach a parking orbit, stopping T+8 minutes 12 seconds. The stage restated at T+26 minutes 49 seconds for a 50 second burn to put the satellite into a 243 x 17,863 km x 27 degree orbit. The satellite will then raise itself into a geostationary orbit at 63 degrees west to cover the Americas.

Telstar 19V long exposure
A great long exposure of F9-59 launching Telstar 19V from Florida’s Cape Canaveral. Credit: SpaceX.

A total of 26 Falcon 9/Falcon Heavy core and booster stages have now been recovered in 32 attempts. Four of those successful landings have been on “Just Read The Instructions” off the California coast, 10 have been at Cape Canaveral Landing zone 1&2, and 11 on “Of Course I Still Love You off the Florida coast. Twenty unique first stages have been recovered, with fourteen of them flying twice, and eight being expended during their second flight. All of the successfully recovered first stages have been version 1.2.

Telstar 19V medium 2
A Falcon 9 launches from Space Launch Complex 40 with a record breaking satellite aboard. Credit: SpaceX Flickr.

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The Final Block 4 Changes the Florida Sky

Smoke left over by CRS-15
The smoke stream left over by CRS-15 after the launch from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Marcus Cote.

On the 29th of June 2018, at 09:42 UTC the last Block 4 type Falcon 9 rocket launched a cargo mission to the International space station. Launching from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, the Falcon 9 was carrying CRS-15, a resupply for the International Space Station (ISS). This is the 15th mission of up to 20 CRS missions that have been contracted with NASA to resupply the ISS. Initially planned for April 2018, it was eventually pushed to the 29th of June. Previous resupply missions have been conducted by SpaceX and Orbital ATK.

Long Exposure CRS-15
A great long exposure image of the CRS-15 launch. Plenty of other versions of these out there, but this one has the great smoke shapes at the end. Credit: Marcus Cote.

B1045 (the first stage booster) was the seventh and final “Block 4” Falcon 9 v1.2 first stage manufactured by SpaceX. For this reason it is very likely that this was the final Block 4 first stage orbital vehicle. SpaceX has since developed the Block 5 the debuted in May. Together the seven Block 4 Falcon 9’s boosted twelve missions, with most being expended on the second flight. This stage was purposely expended at the end of the mission, the ninth purposeful expenditure in the last twelve launches. This stage was not equipped with landing legs or titanium steering grid fins. It was the 14th flight of a previously flown Falcon 9 first stage, and the eighth to be expended on the second flight.

CRS-15 by Spacex
The night launch of the CRS-15 mission to resupply the ISS with a Dragon capsule. Credit: SpaceX

B1045.2 had previously boosted NASA’s TESS towards orbit on April 18th 2018, I wrote about that launch here. With it returning to the autonomous drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” downrange. For this mission it launched the two stage rocket and powered it for 2 minutes and 51 seconds. With a Dragon 11.2 refurbished spacecraft that was previously used on CRS-9 in July 2016 the main payload for the rocket. The first put the capsule and the second stage into a 227 x 387 km x 51.64 degree orbit. The block 5 second stage burned for about 8 minutes and 31 seconds after liftoff, inserting Dragon into the required orbit. The burn was 36 seconds shorter than previous Block 4 launches as this rocket had higher thrust. Dragon rendezvoused with the ISS on the 2nd of July after an extended coast.

CRS-15 smoke
The great view of the remanence of the CRS-15 launch, taken from the Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral. Credit: Marcus Cote.

This launch left a particularly cool looking smoke cloud afterwards. With many Twitter users posting images of the smoke remnants hundreds of miles away. The night launch also allowed for some great photos by many of the keen photographers that are at every launch, capturing many of the images in this post. To see more of the awesome rocket launches, I have posted about many, and will continue to do so.

CRS-15 launch
The launch of the CRS-15 mission. You can see the flames from the 9 Merlin-1D engines. Credit: SpaceX

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Orbital ATK resupply the ISS

Orbital ATK launch of a Antares 230 Rocket
Orbital ATK launch a cargo resupply mission to the ISS on an Antares Rocket from Wallops. Credit: Orbital ATK Flickr.

On May 21st 2018, Orbital ATK’s Antares launch vehicle orbited the companies Cygnus OA-9 cargo hauling spacecraft. Launched from the little known NASA Wallops Island in Virginia, it took off from pad 0A at 08:44 UTC. OA-9 took 3,250 kg of cargo to the international space station, along with several cubesats that with deployer hardware added roughly 120 kg. This launch was in honour of J.R.Thompson, former Orbital Science CEO, who passed away in 2017.

Antares 230 waitjng
Antares 230 rocket waiting to launch from NASA Wallops Island. Credit: Space Launch Schedule

It was the third flight of the Antares 230 variant, a redesigned vehicle powered by two Energomash RD-181 engines instead of the AJ-26 engines that powered the first five Antares flights. The change was made after one of the AJ-26 turbopumps failed and triggered a destructive explosion above the pad in 2004. Cygnus OA-9 was the sixth enhanced Cygnus with a stretched cargo module, but only the third to fly on Antares, Atlas 5 launched the other three.#

ISS Cargo waiting
The OA-9 Cygnus cargo waiting to me mated with the rest of the rocket at Orbital ATK. Credit: Orbital ATK Flickr.

According to Orbital ATK, Cygnus  OA-9 weighed 6,173 kg at launch, matching OA-8 payload for heaviest launched by an Antares rocket. The RD-181 engines produce a total of 392 tonnes of thrust at liftoff, that powers the 293 tonne rocket into the sky. Built in Ukraine (former Soviet design), the first stage burned for 211 seconds. After first stage shutdown it seperated and coasted “up hill” for 37 seconds before the Orbital ATK Castor 30XL second stage motor ignited to produce 51 tonnes of thrust for 160 seconds. The payload fairing separated 12 seconds before second stage ignition. Cygnus separated into a 198 x 317 km x 51.63 deg orbit about 9 min 6 sec after liftoff.

OA-9 loading cargo
Orbital ATK loading cargo into the Cygnus OA-9 second stage. Credit: Orbital ATK Flickr.

The First Block 5 Launches Bangladesh’s First Satellite

F9-55 launches
An awesome image of the first Block 5 Falcon 9 taking off from LC 39A at KSC. Credit: SpaceX Flickr.

On the 11th of May 2018, at 20:14 UTC the first ever block 5 Falcon 9 rocket launched Bangabandhu 1 into geosynchronous transfer orbit. Launched from Launch Complex 39A at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, the F9-55 (launch designation) was delayed after an automatic abort on May 10th, 1 minute before liftoff. Bangabandhu 1, a Thales Alenia Space Spacebus 4000B2 series satellite is Bangladesh’s first geostationary communications satellite.

The block 5 has been long awaited by SpaceX fans, with many images in the news, and plenty of hints on Twitter. SpaceX has been incrementally improving and upgrading the Falcon 9 v1.2 booster design since it’s first launch in December 2015. Designed to be much easier to refurbish, with potentially 10 reuses in each booster. Previous block designs have only been able to be reused once before being decommissioned.

F9-55 on the pad
The F9-55 on the launchpad ready to fire a satellite into GTO more efficiently that previous versions. Credit: @marcuscotephoto on twitter.

The Block 5 incorporates higher thrust Merlin 1D engines that have turboprop modifications that were requested by NASA. These modifications are to accommodate future potential crew launches. Another big change was mentioned in the livestream, where the pressurisation method in the second stage has been improved. After the AMOS 6 Falcon 9 explosion, the new version allows for faster, later and denser, chilled kerosene fuel loading. It also has new landing legs that can be retracted without being removed like previous Falcon 9’s. There are other changes, but they have been featured in previous designs.

F9-55 launch
The Falcon 9 takes off with Bangladesh’s first geostationary communications satellite on board. Credit: @marcuscotephoto on Twitter

The first stage had designation B1046. It burned for 2 minutes and 31 seconds, before separating ro perform reentry burns. It opened its new landing legs and landed on the autonomous drone ship Of Course I Still Love You, 630km downrange in the ocean. The second stage burned for 5 minutes and 43 seconds to reach parking orbit at T+8 minutes and 19 seconds. It then restarted ar T+27 minutes and 38 seconds for a 59 second long second burn that accelerated the craft to GTO.

F9-55 awesome shot
The Falcon 9 after an aborted launch the day before, with a new paint scheme to denote the block 5. Credit: SpaceX Flickr.

In the 31 attempts, 25 Falcon 9/Falcon Heavy booster have been successfully recovered. Four of the landings have been on “Just Read The Instructions” off the coast of California. 10 on land at Cape Canaveral from LZ1 with another one on  LZ2. 10 have landed on the autonomous drone ship, Of Course I Still Love You off the Florida coast. Nineteen individual first stages have been recovered, eleven have flown twice, with five of those ether expended or lost during their second flights. All the recovered stages have been v1.2 Falcon 9’s.

F9-55 power
The first look at the extra thrust on the Falcon 9 Merlin 1D engines in the new Block 5. Credit: SpaceX Flickr.

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Atlas V Launches InSight

Atlas V on the pad
The Atlas V on the launch pad at vandenberg AFB in California, Credit: ULA flickr.

At 11:05 UTC on May 5th 2018 the forth Atlas launch of the year launched the long awaited InSight mission on a course for mars. Launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base the AV-078 (the launch designation) was an Atlas V in 401 configuration. It was the first interplanetary launch from the west coast of the United States. Liftoff of the Atlas V with a 4m payload fairing was from Space Launch Complex 3 East.

Sam Suns first tweet
An awesome photo of the launch that blew up on twitter, taken from the sky. Credit @BirdsNSpace on Twitter.

The rocket had one main payload, the InSight Mission and two CubeSats. InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) is a robotic lander designed to study the interior of the planet Mars.  I weighed 694 kg at launch, including a 425 kg fueled lander. The lander carries a probe that will be hammered 15m into the Mars surface, a seismometer, a magnetometer (first expected to land on the surface of Mars), a laser reflector, along with other instruments. The lander also has a robotic arm to move payloads around, but there will be another post in the future discussing the instruments in more detail. The two CubeSats on board are known as MarCO-A and MarCO-B, each weighing about 13.5 kg. They will fly by Mars while conducting a data relay experiment with InSight.

Insight Fairing
The 4m payload fairing on top of the Atlas V containing the InSight payload. Credit: ULA Flickr.

The design of InSight was developed from the 2008 Phoenix Mars Lander. The previous lander was launched on Delta 2 rockets compared to the Atlas V, both built and launched by the United Launch Alliance. The Atlas V does have excess capability for the mission (slightly overkill) but this allowed it to be launched from Vandenberg AFB. Previous solar orbit missions (like this one) were launched from the Cape to gain the site’s eastward earth rotational velocity. Vandenberg launches have to fly south or westerly direction across the Pacific Ocean. InSight was originally planned to launch in 2016 but was delayed to 2018 due to the main instrument failing.

Liftoff od Insight
The Atlas V lifts off, unfortunately the fog rolled in so very few great shots were taken by the remote cameras. Credit: ULA Flickr.

AV-078 started on a 158 degree azimuth, aiming towards a 63.4 degree Low Earth Parking Orbit. The LOX/RP-1 fueled RD-180 powered first stage fired for 4 minutes and 4 seconds. The Centaur’s RL10C-1 LOX/LH2 engine then fired for 8 minutes and 48 seconds to reach the parking orbit. It then coasted for 65 minutes and 40 seconds then performing a second, 5 minute and 23 second burn to accelerate into a trans-Mars solar orbit. Insight separated 9 minutes after at about T+1 hour, 33 minutes and 19 seconds. The CubeSats separated shortly after.

Aaron Colier Atlas V launch
An awesome long exposure shot of the launch taken by Aaron Collier. From roughly 85 miles away. Credit @aaroncollier96 on Twitter.

Final Rokot Launches Sentinel 3B

What Sentinel 3B looks like
Artist’s view of what Sentinel 3B looks like when up in space, sadly there are not many images of it for real! Credit: ESA/ATG Medialab

On April 25th, 2018, at 17:57 UTC a Russian Rokot/Briz KM rocket launched from Site 133, pad 3 from Plesetsk Cosmodrome. Aboard was Sentinel 3B, an Earth observing satellite, part of Europe’s Copernicus environmental monitoring network. This marks the final commercial Rokot Launch, and the final Eurokot mission. There are some more Rockot launches planned for the Russian government though, after which it is reportedly that the repurposed missile launch system will be retired.

Sentinel-3B UC exit from MIK go to Launch pad
The Sentinel 3B being transported to the launchpad by the russian train system.

Sentinel 3B is a Thales Alenia Space Prima Bus satellite, designed to measure ocean temperatures, colour, surface height and the thickness of sea ice. While it is over land it can measure the height of rivers and lakes, monitor wildfires, provide maps of land use and monitor vegetation. The satellite has been designed for many uses. Created for the European Space Agency, the satellite will join Sentinel 3A in orbit to symmetrically monitor the Earth. The data will be primarily fed into the Copernicus Environmental Monitoring Service, where the applications can be developed from to use the data.

Sentinel 3B in integration
An image of the Sentinel 3B satellite just before it was sent off to Russia to be put on the Rokot. Credit ESA

The satellite carries many payloads to track the huge amount of data it is recording, these include:

  • OLCI (Ocean and Land Colour Instrument)
  • SLSTR (Sea and Land Surface Temperature Radiometer)
  • SRAL (Synthetic Aperture Radar Altimeter)
  • MWR (Microwave Radiometer)
  • LRR (Laser Retroreflector)
  • GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System)

Thales Alenia Space was the prime contractor, responsible for constructing the spacecraft and the SRAL instrument, as well as contributing to the supply of the SLSTR instrument. Many European companies were involved in supplying the SLSTR instrument, including SELEX Galileo, RAL (Rutherford Appleton Laboratory), Jena-Optronik, Thales Alenia Space, ABSL and ESA-ESTEC. EADS CASA Espacio was contracted to provide the MWR instrument. CNES was contracted to provide the DORIS instrument.

Mediterranean Sea
An image of the Mediterranean Sea taken by Sentinel 3A, the partner of Sentinel 3B, they will don the same job on opposite sides of the Earth. Credit: ESA

The Exoplanet Hunter TESS Launched by Falcon 9

TESS taking off
The Falcon 9 taking off from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral with TESS on board. Credit: SpaceX Flickr.

On April 18th, 2018 at 22:51 UTC a Falcon 9 took off from Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral AFB. Aboard was NASA’s latest research satellite TESS. A mission that cost $337 million, Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS)  is the latest in a line of space based observatories that are set to launch this decade. Launched into an arching elliptical orbit that will take the spacecraft over two thirds of the distance to the moon. The first stage of the Falcon 9 landed on the autonomous drone ship Of Course I Still Love You to be refurbished and reused.

falcon 9 engines
The sheer power of the Falcon 9’s nine Merlin 1D engines produce an awesome inferno. You can clearly see the 45 written on the side as the booster designator. Credit @marcuscotephoto on Twitter.

After a 5 day checkout of the spacecraft, basically a hardware check, the ground controllers will switch on the TESS cameras. TESS is designed to scan around 85% of the sky during the two year mission, with astronomers estimating as many as 20,000 new planets could be found. It plans to build on discoveries made by NASA’s Kepler telescope which was launched in 2009 to find earth like planets. TESS carries four 16.8-megapixel cameras, and will look for dips in light coming from 200,000 preselected nearby stars. The four cameras cover a square in the sky that measures 24 x 24 degrees, wide enough to fit the Orion constellation into a single camera. the cameras together study a set area of sky for 27 days before staring at the next section.

TESS orbit
An illustration of the orbits that TESS will go through to get to the final orbit P/2. Credit: NASA.

The orbit TESS is being launched into is known as P/2, and requires time and finesse to reach. TESS will slingshot by the moon at a distance of around 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers), using gravity to reshape its orbit, increasing the satellite’s orbital perigee, or low point, to the final planned altitude of around 67,000 miles. After the lunar flyby, the high point of the satellite’s elongated orbit will stretch well beyond the moon, and another thruster firing will nudge TESS into its final orbit in mid-June. Science data is planned to start in july, with the first year of the two year campaign aimed at the stars in the southern sky. TESS has been built to have enough fuel to last 20 or 30 years, assuming funding by NASA and the components on board continue to function correctly.

the TESS telescope
The TESS satellite before launch, the four cameras can be seen on the top of the spacecraft; Credit: NASA.

Each of TESS’s cameras have four custom built re-sensitive CCD sensors designed and developed by MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. The sensors are claimed to be the most perfect CCD’s ever flown by a science mission. The lenses used by the cameras are only about 4 inches (10mm) wide, meaning it has a fairly low light collecting power compared to other space telescopes. The James Webb Space Telescope for example launching in 2020 had a 21.3ft (6.5m) primary mirror, although the satellite has cost over $8 billion to make. TESS is a bit like a finder telescope, it will lay a bedrock for future missions such as Webb and ground based observatories to make better readings. It gives a good idea of the best places to look, where the most likely exoplanets are.

launch of TESS
The Falcon 9 launching the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite to an orbit of P/2. Credit: SpaceX Flickr.

TESS works by looking at a star, in this case mainly M-dwarf stars, which are cooler than our sun. They are also known as red dwarfs and make up most of the stars in our galaxy. When a planet goes in front of the star the light received by TESS “dips” and changes slightly in colour. This change in the light it receives can tell scientists alot about the size of a planet, and other things like density and velocity. They expect TESS to find between 500 and 1,000 planets that are between one and three times the size of Earth, and 20,000 planets the size of Neptune or Jupiter. The readings will give a good idea of where to focus on and ‘follow up’ on future missions. Then missions such as JWST can probe and use more complex tools to find information such as atmospheric composition, and whether they could be habitable.

long exposure TESS
A long exposure of the Falcon 9 taking off over the SpaceX hangar at Cape Canaveral. Credit: SpaceX Flickr.

The Falcon 9 used was a v1.2 with designation F9-54. It used a brand new “Block 4” first stage. The booster designated B1045 has a clear 45 written on the side in some of the close up booster images. The fist stage boosted for 2 minutes and 29 seconds, then detaching and slowing itself down. The booster landed downrange on the autonomous drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You”. The first successful drone ship landing since October 2017. A total of 24 Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy booster stages have now been recovered in 30 attempts. Four of which were on “Just Read The Instructions” off the coast of California, ten at Cape Canaveral Landing Zone 1 and 2, and nine on the autonomous drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” off the Florida Coast. 18 first stages have been recovered, 11 of which have flown twice, five have been lost during their second flight. B1045 was the last brand new “Block 4” Falcon 9 booster.

TESS taking off
An awesome photo of a Falcon 9 taking off from across the water, a perfect day for pictures! Credit: SpaceX Flickr.

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Atlas 5 Launches a Trio of Spy Satellites

Atlas 5 taking off
Atlas 5 lifting off from pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base. Credit: @marcuscotephoto on Twitter

At 23.13 UTC on April 14th 2018 the third Atlas 5 launch of the year fired multiple military satellites into a near geosynchronous orbit. Launching from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral, FL,  the AV-079 (the launch designation) was an Atlas V in 551 configuration. The rocket had 5 solid rocket motors, a Centaur second stage powered by a single RL10C-1 LOX/LH2 engine, and a 5m diameter payload fairing. The entire mission lasted approximately 7 hours and is known as Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) 11 mission.

The Atlas 5 AFSPC11
The Atlas V carrying AFSPC11 for the Air Force Space Command. Credit: United Launch Alliance Flickr.
the smoke trail
A smoke trail left by the Atlas V as it launches a trio of spy satellites. Credit: @marcuscotephoto on twitter.

The mission lifted two primary satellites for the Air Force, one stacked on top of the other. On the top was CBAS (Continuous Broadcast Augmenting SATCOM) an abbreviation within an abbreviation, and a military communications satellite. The second satellite was named EAGLE (ESPA Augmented GEO Laboratory Experiment) which is an abbreviation with two abbreviations in it! This satellite is based on an Orbital ATK ESPA bus, it is a research laboratory that can host 6 deployable payloads. It is said that EAGLE likely weighed around 780 kg. There was also a subsatellite named “Mycroft” reported to be on the flight, but not confirmed.

The fury of the Atlas V
The fury of the 5 solid rocket boosters found on this Atlas V. Credit: United Launch Alliance Flickr.

The Solid motors finished their burn and seperated 1 minute and 47 seconds after liftoff. The first stage,  an RD-180 rocket fired for 4 minutes and 33.5 seconds. Centaur then performed 3 burns which were not shown on the livestream. The first burn was meant to last 6 minutes 1 seconds to reach a low earth parking orbit. The second burn began 12 minutes and 6 seconds after the first cutoff, and last 4 minutes and 49 seconds, putting the vehicle into a geosynchronous transfer orbit. After a 5 hour and 6 minute apogee, a third burn of 2 minutes and 36 seconds completed the insertion to the planned orbit. A spacecraft separation extended for another 1 and a half hours to T+6 hours 57 min 24 sec.

Atlas v launchpad
Atlas V rolling to the launchpad at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral AFB. Credit: United Launch Alliance Flickr.

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VA242: Ariane 5 Launch

VA242 launching
VA242 launching with two satellites aboard weighing almost 10 tonnes. Credit: Arianespace Twitter.

At 21:34 UTC on the 5th of april 2018, an Ariane 5 with ECA vehicle number L5102 launched two communications satellites into orbit. The successful flight launched from Kourou in French Guiana from Pad ELA-3. The mission named VA242 placed Japan’s DSN 1/Superbird 8 and Britain’s Hylas 4 into their planned orbit. VA242 was the 64th Ariane 5 ECA success in 66 flights. Both satellites were placed in a 250 x 35,786 km x 3 deg geosynchronous transfer orbits about 34 minutes after takeoff.

Ariane 5 liftoff
Ariane V L5102 lifts off from Kourou in French Guiana on April 5th. Credit: Arianespace twitter.

The Japanese DSN 1/Superbird 8 is designed to provide X-band communications for the Japanese Ministry of Defence. It will also provide Ku and Ka band commercial services for Sky Perfect JSAT Group from 162 degrees East. The satellite is a NEC Corporation DS2000 series, weighing 5,348kg.

Ariane V launch
VA242 lifts off from pad ELA-3 at 21:34 UTC placing a Japanese and British satellite into Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit. Credit: ArianeSpace Twitter.

The British Hylas 4 was built for British-based Avanti Communications, is designed to provide Ka band communication services to Europe and Africa from 33.5 degrees West. Designed by Orbital ATK it is a GEOStar 3 series weighing 4,050 kg.

Birds flying
Birds flying away as VA242 launches from French Guiana. Credit: Arianespace twitter.

VSS Unity: Virgin Galactic Is Back

VSS unity Flight
VSS Unity during its first test flight. Credit: Virgin Galactic.

On Thursday 5th of April 2018, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo conducted its first powered test flight of 2018. With very little in the media from Virgin Galactic recently, this has been a welcome development in the field of space tourism, and the development of space planes. Named the VSS Unity, this space plane is the newest development from the Spaceship Company.

USS Unity engine
USS Unity with an ignited engine rapidly accelerating into the sky. Credit: Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic hasn’t performed a powered test flight since 31st of October 2014 when the VSS Enterprise experienced a catastrophic mid flight failure. The incident in the first of 5 planned SpaceShipTwo aircraft ended with a tragic accident which resulted in the death of one test pilot and serious injury to the other. With the program many years behind schedule, many critics thought this could have been the end for Virgin Galactic. Fortunately, Virgin Galactic have said the fault was not in the hardware, and was a change in safety procedure rather than a design overhaul. Over the last year, Virgin Galactic has made significant progress, leading to this powered test flight.

VSS Unity Gliding
VSS Unity, gliding back to earth after it has burnt all of the fuel, it can see the curvature of the earth. Credit: Virgin Galactic.

An NTSB investigation into the accident concluded that a pilot prematurely deployed the feathering system on the spacecraft. The system is used to increase drag during reentry. Many have criticised Scaled Composites (the manufacturer) and Virgin Galactic for not having fail-safe’s in place to prevent this problem. This is what lead into the review into the safety of the craft. After the loss of the USS Enterprise, and the safety reviews, the USS Unity was not ready until february 2016. This was the first plane to be built in house by The Spaceship Company.

WhiteKnightTwo carrying VSS Unity during the flight test, it will drop the craft at 50,000 ft. Credit: Virgin Galactic.

Up until this point the testing has been more gradual than planned, with captive carry tests, and a total of 6 successful glide tests. There was a dry run rocket test on 4th of August 2017, where water was mounted in place of rocket fuel to simulate the shift in gliding with various centres of gravity, as well as the change of weight as the rocket uses up the fuel. These tests ended positively, with the Chief pilot David Mackay stating “We are really pleased with what we saw today. We collected hundreds of gigabytes of data for us to review, and from the pilots’ point of view, it felt really wonderful.”

Pilots walking
The pilots walking toward the VSS Unity to conduct the first powered test flight. Credit: Virgin Galactic.

The FAA approved a revision to Virgin Galactic’s Commercial Space Transportation Licence in 2017. This allowed Virgin Galactic to launch out of Spaceport America in New Mexico as well as Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Virgin also announced that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would invest $1 billion across the Spaceship Company, Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit.Currently under review, if approved the deal would help finance SpaceShipTwo during 2018.

WhiteKnightTwo taking off
WhiteKnightTwo taking off to conduct the first powered test light of VSS Unity being held underneath it. Credit: Virgin Galactic.

VSS Unity is powered by a hybrid rocket engine called RocketMotorTwo. The engine originally used rubber based hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (HTPB) as the fuel, and nitrous oxide as the oxidiser. In 2014 Virgin Galactic switched to a plastic based thermoplastic polyamide for the fuel to improve performance. Although tested, and not the cause of the crash of VSS Enterprise, Virgin Galactic opted to use HTPB after extensive testing at Mojave.

spaceport America
VSS Unity attached to WhiteKnightTwo flying over Spaceport America. Credit: Virgin Galactic.

The test used WhiteKnightTwo to lift the VSS Unity to an height of 50,000 feet, then release it. Once clear, VSS Unity ignites and ascends rapidly. The burns during the real flights will last just over a minute, but this test used a much shorter burn. This is the incremental approach that Virgin Galactic have opted for. Unlike a normal rocket, the engine thrust will decrease over time, so that the G-forces stay reasonably comfortable, as this is meant to be a pleasure ride. Once the engine cuts off, the craft coasts to the apogee and glides back to the spaceport. The tests can only get the craft to 80 km, which is not officially recognised as space, due to the extra test equipment needed. Virgin Galactic claim to be confident that the craft will reach space in the final version.