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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
On April 2nd, 2018 at 20:30 UTC a Falcon 9 took off from Launch complex 40 at Cape Canaveral AFB. Aboard was a refurbished Dragon capsule with CRS-14, a resupply for the ISS. This was the 14th of up to 20 CRS missions contracted with NASA, with new Crew Dragon variants soon to be used. The capsule safely reached the ISS and was docked 20 minutes earlier than planned. The cost of the mission was reported to be around $2 billion, and comes under a contract between NASA and SpaceX.
The Dragon capsule carried 2,630kg of cargo to the International Space Station, including supplies and research equipment. it has 1070 kg of science equipment, 344 kg of supplies for the crew, 148 kg of vehicle hardware, 49 kg of advanced computer equipment and 99 kg of spacewalking gear. Aboard there are a number of experiments, such as a new satellite designed to test methods of removing space debris. There are also frozen sperm cell samples, a selection of polymers and other materials, all experiments to test what happens to different items when exposed to space and microgravity.
Designated F9-53, the Falcon 9 used booster B1039.2, which previously boosted the CRS-12 mission in August 2017, where it returned to landing zone 1. As is customary, the first stage was left “sooty” from it’s first flight. It powered for 2 minutes and 41 seconds before falling back to earth. For the sixth time in the last 7 Falcon 9 launches, the first stage was purposefully expended, even though it carried landing legs and steering grid fins. As with other expenatures, the rocket went through the re-entry landing sequence, but just didn’t have anything to land on and ended up in the sea. It was the 11th flight of a previously flown Falcon 9 first stage, five of which have been purposefully expended during the second flight, only 3 first stages remain that can be reflown.
The second stage completed its burn at 9 minutes and 11 seconds after takeoff, to insert Dragon into a Low Earth Orbit inclined 51.6 degrees to the equator. The Dragon 10.2 is a refurbished spacecraft capsule that first flew during the CRS-8 mission in April 2016. CRS-14 was the third launch of a previously flown Dragon capsule. This was also the first time that both the Dragon capsule and the Falcon 9 were refurbished versions on the same rocket. The docking process was carried out for around 20 minutes, and at 10:40 UTC Kanai detached the lab’s robotic arm to hook the free-flying Dragon capsule. At around 12:00 UTC Houston and Canada took control of the robotic arm and maneuvered it to the Harmony capsule of the ISS. It will be unpacked in a very slow process over a number of months.
At 14:13 UTC on March 30th 2018, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 from foggy Vandenberg Air Force Base. Although designated F9-52 this was the 51st Falcon 9 launch. Using a v1.2 variant booster, the rocket delivered 10 Iridium NEXT satellites into orbit. This was the fifth of eight planned Iridium NEXT missions.
From Vandenberg AFB Space Launch Complex 4 East, the first stage of the rocket lasted 2 minutes 34 seconds, separating a few seconds after. The second engine fired for 6 minutes 23 seconds. This part of the webcast was purposefully cut short due to a NOAA remote sensing licensing requirements. This is an issue with SpaceX not having the right licence to broadcast images from certain parts of space. This burn placed the rocket in a roughly 180 x 625 km parking orbit. The Thales Alenia Space satellite then deployed an hour after launch, after a second brief 11 second burn. This put the satellites into a 625km x 86.6 deg orbit.
The rocket used another “Fairing 2.0”, which is slightly larger than usual, but equipped with recovery systems. These systems include thrusters, a guidance system, and a parafoil. The ship, named Mr Steven has a large net to capture the halves of the fairing. Again, the ship failed to catch one of the fairings, due to a parachute system issue. In a tweet by Elon Musk, it was reported that the GPS guided parafoil twisted so the fairing impacted the water at high speed. He also said that SpaceX are doing helicopter drop tests to fix the issue.
Five of the six previously used Falcon 9 vehicles have been fully expended, this was the tenth flight of a previously-flown Falcon 9 first stage. Four of these ten have been purposely expended during their second flight. The first stage (B1041.2) was previously flown during the Iridium NEXT 3 launch on October 9th, 2017. It performed the 2 minute 34 second boost, and performed what SpaceX call a “simulated landing” into the ocean. SpaceX appear to be only launching a reused stages for one reflight, with the soon to launch “block 5” likely to be reused multiple times. Currently the company only have 4 first stages that might be flown, with one allocated for the upcoming CRS-14 dragon resupply mission.
At 17:10 UTC on the 9th of March 2018, Arianespace launched its second rocket of the year from Guiana Space Center at Kourou. Designated VS18, the Soyuz rocket launched four O3b Satellites into orbit more than 3 years after the last O3b launch. Controlled by a Russian ground crew from the Soyuz Launch Complex (ELS) near Sinnamary, there was a 33 minute delay to the start because of bad weather. The Soyuz used was a Soyuz 2-1b/Fregat placing the satellite in Medium Earth Orbit (MEO).
A somewhat complex launch, the first ascent lasted 9 minutes and 23 seconds placing the launcher in a sub orbital trajectory. After separation the Fregat performed a 4 minute burn to reach 160 x 205 km x 5.16 deg parking orbit. Coasting for 8 minutes, the Fregat performed its second burn for 8 minutes and 36 seconds to enter a 190 x 7,869 km x 3.88 deg transfer orbit. Then after a coast of 1 hour and 21 minutes to the apogee, the Fregat fired for its third and final time for 5 minutes and 6 seconds, to enter its 7,830 km x 0.04 deg insertion orbit.
After the third burn, the satellites were release two at a time, with opposite satellites released at the same time. The first were released 2 hours into launch, and the second set 22 minutes later after a short firing of the Altitude Control System. The rocket then performed 2 more burns to lower its orbit to 200 km below the O3b release point. This was a disposable orbit, intended so that it will not interfere with working satellites.
The Ka band satellites are the fourth set of O3b to be sent up, making the total constellation 16. Arianespace intend to launch the next set of four in 2019. “The new Ka-band satellites will join the existing O3b constellation to deliver high-speed connectivity to people and businesses in the growing mobility, fixed data and government markets,” Arianespace officials said in a statement. It was reported that the launch was a success, and the Luxembourg based satellite operator SES Networks now have control of the O3b’s.
The second launch of the year, Arianespace delayed the launch from the original March 6th launch date. This was postponed to conduct extra checks, likely inspired by the partial failure of the Ariane V earlier this year. On January 25th the company lost contact with the upper stage of the rocket. The 3 satellites on board did reach orbit despite the anomaly, but Arianespace have been quiet on the condition of them.
At 05:33 UTC on March 6th 2018 SpaceX launched it’s 50th Falcon 9 mission. The version 1.2 Falcon 9, with a brand new “Block 4” variant booster B1044, lifted off from Cape Canaveral Space Launch Complex 40. On board, inside the type 1 fairing was Spain’s Hispasat 30W-6. Weighing in at 6,092kg, being the size of a bus and being launched into geosynchronous transfer orbit, it’s the biggest challenge that the Falcon 9 has come up against.
Falcon 9 flight 50 launches tonight, carrying Hispasat for Spain. At 6 metric tons and almost the size of a city bus, it will be the largest geostationary satellite we’ve ever flown.
The First stage if the Falcon 9 fired for about 2 minutes and 35 seconds before releasing and plummeting back towards the Atlantic ocean. The initial plan was top land the “type 4” first stage on the autonomous drone ship “Of Course I Still Love you” in the Atlantic. Landing legs and titanium steering grid fins were attached and went up with the rocket. There was already speculation, due to the large payload and the orbit attempted, whether the Falcon 9 would have enough fuel left to attempt the reentry and landing procedure. Unfortunately it was not possible to find out whether the F9-51 mission would have made a landing because the autonomous drone ship was kept in port because of high sea conditions. The rocket still went through the entire reentry and landing procedure, as mentioned on the livestream, but ended up in the Atlantic.
almost 9 minutes in, the second stage with the payload achieved a Low Earth Orbit, and “parked” until T+26 min 36s where they first crossed the equator. This second burn lasted 55 seconds to accelerate the ss/Loral-built satellite into a Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit. The Hispasat 30W-6 will fire its four SPT-100 plasma thrusters to gradually raise itself to Geosynchronous Orbit positioned 30 degrees West (clue in the name). Hispasat 30W-6 is designed to provide broadband services in Europe and Northwest Africa.
This is the fourth all-expendable Falcon 9 launch in the past 5 years, and the first time a “type 4” stage has been expended on it’s first flight. Both of the stages of the F9-51 rocket were tested at SpaceX Rocket Test Facility in McGregor, TX during October/November 2017. They have been at Cape Canaveral since January 2018, and were stacked ,loaded with propellant and tested (first stage only) at the Cape at SLC 40 on February 20, 2018. The Launch was initially planned for February 25th, but was shelved by SpaceX to investigate payload fairing pressurisation issues.
At 22:02 UTC on March 1st 2018 the Second Atlas V launch of 2018 fired the 5,192kg GOES-S satellite into orbit. Launching from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral, FL, the AV-077 (the launch designation) was an Atlas V in 541 configuration. GOES-S, an A2100 series satellite built by Lockheed Martin, was separated 3.5 hours into the mission into a 8,215km x 35,286km x 9.52 deg Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO).
The second of a new generation of weather satellites for the United States, GOES-S follows in the footsteps of GOES-East, now renamed to GOES-16. A huge jump in satellite capability, the new set of satellites cover from eastern Japan all the way over to west Africa, as well as parts of the Arctic and Antarctic. They can detect storms faster, see lightning and even have sensors to detect solar storms. The satellites were commissioned by the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS) who manage the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) constellation of environmental satellites. For more images and information follow them on twitter @NOAASatellites.
There are versions of the livestream on Youtube, and a highlight reel on the ULA Youtube page. They are definitely worth a watch if you want more information from the engineers themselves.
At 20:45 UTC on the 6th of February 2018 the long awaited Falcon Heavy soared up into the sky. Watching the livestream, there was something slightly different. Instead of the usual single commentator, they had four. Behind them, hundreds of SpaceX employees cheering all the way through the launch, with bigger cheers at each milestone. It was definitely long anticipated, and I even felt the impact at university. Students were going round making sure people knew that tonight was the night that the Falcon Heavy was launching. The stream didn’t disappoint space lovers, and I highly recommend watching it on the SpaceX Youtube page.
So what actually happened, why was this flight so important? The demo mission was the first firing of the full Falcon Heavy configuration. Although all the rockets had been previously fired and tested at SpaceX’s rocket test facility in McGregor, TX. Consisting of “Block 2” variant side boosters (B1023.2 and B1025.2) and a “Block 3” variant core stage (B1033.1). Both the boosters had been flown before and refurbished in Hawthorne, CA. B1023.2 was flown May 27th, 2016 for Thaicom 8 launch, landing on SpaceX’s autonomous drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You”. B1025.2 flew on July 18th, 2016 for the CRS-9 mission, landing at Landing Zone (now landing zone 1). It is noted that future Falcon Heavies will likely use the “Block 5” variant. Elon Musk Claims that the development of the Falcon Heavy project has cost $500 million to get to this stage.
At 20:45 UTC, the Falcon Heavy lifted off of pad 39A at Kennedy Space Centre. It weighed roughly 1,400 tonnes and was 70m tall. with 2,128 pounds of thrust, the triple barreled rocket lifted off the pad with its 27 Merlin 1D engines (9 on each booster). At the time of writing it is the largest and most powerful operational rocket in use today by a factor of 2. Elon Musk gave the launch a 50-50 chance of success, but it continued through almost all of the milestones. Through Max-Q, release of boosters, and release of the main engine. The second stage performed 3 burns during the 6 hour mission to accelerate the cargo to into a heliocentric orbit. The orbit ranges from earth orbit to beyond mars (0.99 x 1.71AU). The concept of this burn was to demonstrate long coasts between the second and third burns. This ability is needed for some DoD EELV Heavy class missions, a market that SpaceX wants to compete in.
Usually on these types of initial flights they put some sort of simulated weight in the fairing (the bit that holds the payload on top) usually a block of concrete. Elon Musk being Elon saw this as a marketing opportunity, and instead used his personal 2008 cherry red Roadster, weighing in at 1,250kg. In the driver’s seat sat a full scale human mannequin named “Starman”, wearing a SpaceX branded pressure spacesuit. The person who timed the release of the fairing showing the Tesla against the backdrop of the earth, to the music of “Life of Mars” by David Bowie, deserves a medal. Although perfectly timed, it is sometimes incorrectly attributed as “Starman” by Bowie, which would make more sense when you think about it. On the dashboard of the car is the immortal words of “don’t panic”, a tribute to A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, that was a clever addition. There is a livestream of the first 5 hours of Starmans trip, at which time it probably lost signal, or ran out of battery. There has been mixed reviews of this stunt. Some call it art, whereas others call it “space littering”. Some commentators such as Burnie Burns on the Roosterteeth Podcast simply don’t like the use of space for marketing purposes. Scientists at Purdue University called it “the dirtiest man-made object ever to be sent to space” due to its use driving in Los Angeles.
For me personally the most impressive part of the entire video was near to the end. SpaceX have had some famous problems with the landing of their reusable rockets, but during this mission they planned to land all three. The best shot of the entire livestream was the two boosters coming down at the same time, with the Cape in shot. Both boosters opening their landing legs, and coming down to land on Landing Zone 1 and 2. It was a truly epic sight, and from an engineers point of view, very impressive. The second pad was installed for these Falcon Heavy missions, and the boosters worked just as planned. The core was a slightly different story. It attempted to land on the autonomous drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You”. It completed its boost-back and reentry burn, but for the three-engine landing burn, two engines failed to ignite. The core ended up in the Atlantic. Smoothly brushed over, this was not mentioned on the Livestream, and not until a few hours later on Twitter. Even so, the things that did land correctly were impressive.
There has been a huge amount of excitement and skepticism about the Falcon Heavy. Some have heralded it the way Elon Musk wants to get to Mars, others just love the idea that the car will be out there for “billions of years”. Although very impressive, the Falcon heavy is really designed to be a beefier version of the Falcon 9, and will probably do the same job. SpaceX are aiming in the coming years to get more contracts from the Department of Defence, and aim to get more up into space at the same time. The Falcon Heavy is all about making it cheaper for big payloads to get to space. Although it has the capability to get to Mars, and carry people, Musk has said that there are bigger plans in the pipeline for those jobs. As for the car, according to chemist William Carroll, solar and cosmic radiation will break down most of the car within a year, leaving just the aluminium frame and maybe some glass that isn’t shattered by meteorites.
This is a big moment for SpaceX, and the space community, and shows that there are big things coming in the sector. There are big launches aimed from the big companies this year, and new rockets being unveiled in the near future. SpaceX may have just started a new space race. For all the excessive marketing that Elon Musk does, SpaceX have definitely got their marketing message right.